COMFORT AND AFFLICTION

“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands: “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false. I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet this is to your credit: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.”” (Revelation 2:1-7)

Comfort and Affliction

We are nearing the time in the Episcopal Church when we sing Christmas hymns.  Though you have been undoubtedly hearing them in many other venues, our church tries to observe Advent before we observe Christmas.  I know it can be challenging to start singing Christmas hymns when everyone else is about to stop singing them!  One of those Christmas hymns, God Rest You Merry Gentlemen, has a familiar refrain:  “O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy; O tidings of comfort and joy!"

In the revelation of Jesus Christ that John received through an angel (Revelation 1:1), the second and third chapters deal with messages for the seven churches that are in Asia.  The first message - to the church in Ephesus - is quoted above.  Notice that while a message of “comfort and joy” is quite appropriate to celebrate our Savior’s birth, the churches in Asia - who were awaiting our Lord’s Second Coming (Second Advent) - received what we might call messages of comfort and challenge.  

The first part of the message to the church in Ephesus, for example, was an appreciation - referencing the work, toil, patient endurance, lack of toleration for evildoers, and the community’s “bearing up” for the sake of Christ.  The second part of the message begins “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love that you had at first.” (Revelation 2:4) This was a reference to the community’s initial love for Christ.  They are challenged to repent - to turn around, to come back to their deep love of Christ - or face removal of their lampstand.  One thinks of Jesus’ reference in the Sermon on the Mount to the disciples being the light of the world, and letting their light shine before others in such a way that those others would give glory to the Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)

I heard it said one time that the job of the preacher is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.  I confess that I am more comfortable preaching a message of comfort!  But there are times when we need to hear the challenging and even afflicting word of God - when we are indifferent to injustice, for example.  This raises two other questions:

First, how open are we to hearing feedback, whether it is positive or admonishing?  Second, how good are we at giving feedback in a loving manner - both in sharing our appreciations and in sharing our feedback that is more challenging to our brother or sister?  Both of these spiritual practices - giving and receiving feedback - are visible in the life and teachings of Jesus.

In the prophetic tradition, it was the poor, the oppressed, the widows, the orphans, and the foreigners - the weak and the marginalized - who tended to hear “good news” preached to them.  And it was the powerful, the favored, the wealthy, and the  most outwardly religious people who were most often called to repent.

And, as we see in the Revelation to John, sometimes people of faith heard both appreciation and admonition - at the same time.

As we work our way through Advent and move toward Christmas, what sort of word do you hear God speaking to you today?  A comforting word?  A challenging word?  Both?

Today, perhaps we can rejoice together in the fact that God loves us enough to both comfort and challenge us... depending on what is most needed for our ongoing transformation as disciples of Jesus.