Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. —2 Corinthians 1:3-4
Making the real Jesus non-ignorable in our city and far beyond – that’s our mission. God’s strategy for making the real Jesus real to people today is us as a community, all of us together, not just one stand-out over here and another over there, but all of us together. Some of us are gifted in explaining the gospel intellectually, for example. That is very important. But here is something we all can do, to make the real Jesus real to people today. We can build a gospel culture, a relational environment saturated with grace, where no repentant sinner has anything to fear. The gospel as doctrine is true, and the gospel as a culture is beautiful. And it’s beauty that wins hearts. If all we have is truth, without the beauty of human relationships, we will make Jesus ugly. But if we have gospel truth as our content, and gospel beauty as our culture, Jesus will be seen in us as beautiful. But it takes every one of us. No one can think, “I’m a spectator.” Every one of us is a contributor.
In our passage the Bible tells us how beautiful God really is, and what we’re doing as a church flows out of who God is. Verse 3 describes him as “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort.” Few people believe that. It’s why so few relationships are beautiful. The best we can hope for in most relationships is something tolerable, but not beautiful. Where does beauty come from? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,” to change our experience of God and the cultures we create. Before we came into Christ, God was our condemner, and rightly so. But in his great love God sent his only Son to experience our hell at his cross, where all the wrath of God against our crimes was spent and satisfied. The cross means that God is now our comforter. He comforts us, so that we can build and spread a culture of comfort and reassurance and peace to others. Immanuel Church is where sinners and sufferers can come in and experience God in a new way – as “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort” because of the cross of Jesus. And that is a new relational environment that can’t be ignored.
Have you ever noticed, among all the “one another” commands in the New Testament, what the Bible never tells us to do to one another? Here are some “one anothers” I can’t find anywhere in the Bible: “embarrass one another, corner one another, pressure one another, interrupt one another, run one another’s lives, point out one another’s failings,” and so forth. That is not Christianity. That is a false religion, no matter how much Jesus-talk it uses. We are here to build a gospel culture together that embodies imperfectly but honestly who Jesus really is. God is giving it to us. We are receiving it with the empty hands of faith. We are cherishing this gift. We are defending this gift. We are enjoying this gift. We only want more and more people to come and enjoy it with us, for the glory of Jesus.
Our passage for today sets the tone of our gospel culture here at Immanuel Church. Let’s enjoy this together:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort…
2 Corinthians 1:3
Paul’s heart is filled with a spirit of praise to God. Do you see that? The word “Blessed” is a burst of praise from the deepest heart of the apostle. What’s striking about that is that Paul suffered. He suffered greatly. But he wasn’t feeling sorry for himself. Something else was happening deep within that filled his heart with gratitude and worship and praise. What was it? Paul looked by faith beyond the pain into who God really is.
Who is God? We see two things about God here. First, he is “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Do you remember what the risen Jesus said to his disciples? They had so let him down, when everything was on the line. But his parting words to them were not a scolding but this: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17). In spite of their cowardice and failure, his God and Father was now their God and Father. We who have failed so badly, all we can do now is cling to the cross – Jesus wants us to know, we are so included that the intimacy Jesus had with God by nature we now share by grace. We have been brought home to God through Jesus. Where Jesus is, God is. Where Jesus is, joy is. Where Jesus is not, there’s nothing for us. There is nothing at all for us outside the One who by his cross gave us God back.
What else do we see here about who God is? Two, he is “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort.” God’s very character is mercy, reaching out to comfort us in all our need. This is who God is right down to his core being. We provoked him to wrath. But we didn’t have to prod him into loving us. The Bible says, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). And this word “mercies” here is an emotional word. The Bible is not speaking first and foremost about what God does – “comfort” is what God does. The Bible is speaking first and foremost about what God feels – “mercies.” Not even singular “mercy” but plural “mercies,” mercies of all kinds for all needs. He is also “the God of all comfort.” All comfort. All 31 flavors. All his comforts for all our needs. All true comfort comes from God, and from God alone. The Bible is talking about God’s felt comfort entering into our experience when we are weak and lonely and frightened and brokenhearted and at our end. We know from verse 4 that this is not comfort as a theory but comfort as an experience, a help, a resource. Obviously, “comfort” is the key word in the passage. My New Testament lexicon defines this word as “comfort, encourage, cheer up.” This is how God wants us to experience him. He is the Father of mercies and God of all comfort sitting day after day on the porch, scanning the horizon for that prodigal son, and then, while that son is still a long way off, he runs to him, he willingly loses his dignity as an older man out of sheer exuberance over his returning child. This is who God is – our God and Father through Jesus our Lord.
Some of us had terrible fathers. This morning can be a new beginning in your life, because God really is the Father of mercies and God of all comfort. If that’s who your heavenly Father is, it matters less who your earthly father was. Whatever we suffer in this life, from our enemies or even from our families, it only makes our heavenly Father the more blessed in our praises. If others have hearts of cruelty toward us, God has a heart of mercy and comfort toward us.
But we don’t always feel loved by God, do we? Sometimes we feel angry at him. What’s happening inside us when we feel that way? What we’re doing is projecting our own anger onto him, making him out to be angry at us. We make it his fault, to justify ourselves. That is sin. But the gospel reveals God as the Father of mercies and God of all comfort because of the sacrifice of Jesus for angry sinners. Some of us are angry at God this morning. It’s hard to admit that. But some of us are. It’s why God seems more like a theory than a living Presence near and dear. But here is what’s happening inside us when we turn against God. We change the subject in our minds to what we deserve, and how much better God should treat us, and if he really loved us he’d do thus and so. It’s legalism. If we’re angry at God, or even just disappointed with God, and not filled with a spirit of praise, it’s because we’ve lost touch with the gospel. Here’s our sin, and we need to renounce it this morning and turn back to God. Our sin is, we think we have a bargain with God. We think our good behavior obligates him to make our lives keep going in a way that’s fair and reasonable and compassionate. But where did we ever get the idea that our good behavior can leverage God? Don’t we see the arrogance of that? What makes us think we can stand over God and judge him, when he doesn’t come through on our expectations? The only way God relates to us is mercy. Are we willing to be reduced to mercy, with no bargaining power left? The reality is, we are being treated with mercy. If we’re not in hell, we’re being treated with mercy.
But we complicate it further. We think, “But Lord, look at that person over there. Look what you’ve done for them. They have it so good. Why do I have it so bad?” We compare. And it’s true, that person does have it so good. But we all have it better than we deserve. And when we try to pressure God into improving his performance as our God, his presence withdraws. We stop feeling loved, and we start feeling left out and angry. But we are the ones who are grieving and offending him.
Is there anyone here today who needs to repent of the sin of anger toward our blessed God? Let’s all humble ourselves and accept who God really is and surrender to him today. If we’re fighting God, we’re fighting perfect Love himself. But if we will wave the white flag of surrender and let God tell our stories his own way, then, with Paul, we can suffer and still rejoice, because the one running our lives is the Father of mercies and God of all comfort. Because of the cross, he will never be anything to us but the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort. If we’re going to know God at all, this is the only way he will ever allow us to know him, because this is in fact who God is. Do we need to do some personal business with God today?
Bill and Vonette Bright came to their own defining moment with God in 1951. They went on to found Campus Crusade for Christ. But they were frustrated with each other, each one with expectations contrary to the other. So they decided to give it all to God. They gave everything in their lives to the control of Christ. They put themselves and their home and car and business, all that they owned or ever would own, entirely under the Lordship of Christ. They actually wrote it down on a piece of paper and signed it. They signed themselves away – not to bind their Lord to themselves but to bind themselves to him as his slaves. That’s when they started feeling that their future was brightening up. Later Bill wrote, “Apart from my salvation, this was to be the most important decision of my life. That day I became a slave of our Lord Jesus Christ, and for the first time in my life I was actually free. We chose that day to put aside our own little dreams, our own aspirations, and our own puny little plans, and embrace his magnificent plans. That day was the beginning of a whole new era, a whole new lifestyle.” Bill became convinced that Campus Crusade for Christ would never have happened “had I not first surrendered my life totally to the lordship of Christ. I was no longer my own; I had been bought with a price – the blood of my beloved Savior.” Bill and Vonette entered into an exciting adventure, filled with praises to God for his mercies and comfort. Isn’t it time you made up your mind and handed yourself over to Christ as his slave? It’s his slaves who have something worth giving to others:
. . . who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. —2 Corinthians 1:4
This verse is not primarily about comforting others. This verse is primarily about each one of us being comforted directly and personally by God himself: “. . . with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” You can’t get that by osmosis. You get that by direct contact with God. Then you have something worth giving. The most important contribution you can make to our gospel culture here at Immanuel Church is to get your own heart comforted in God. That comes first.
I want you to see as well that the comfort God gives outperforms all the beatings we take in this world. The Father of mercies and God of all comfort comforts us “in all our affliction.” This word “affliction” means pressure and stress, taking us to the limits of what we can bear. But that’s where God is. An easy life is an empty life. A demanding life, with God, is a full life.
It is this experience of suffering, sweetened with the comforts of God, that qualifies us to build a gospel culture, where more people can come and find out who God really is. Do you see the word “able” in verse 4? “. . . so that we may be able to comfort”? People who haven’t experienced the nearness of God in their suffering don’t get it. They aren’t able to help others. They’re no good at it. My mom was an accomplished pianist as a young person. She told me one time that she went to her piano lesson, played the assigned piece, and played it well. When she’d finished, her teacher said, “That was good, but not beautiful. You haven’t suffered enough yet.” The musical score was there before her. She could play the notes correctly at a technical level. But she was not yet able to play it beautifully. There are people who know the Bible, but their hearts have not been deeply wounded by life and deeply comforted by God. They are not able to comfort sufferers. But when they lose their plan for their lives, and all they have left is God, and he proves faithful, then God can use them.
When life is hard to bear, we are tempted in many ways. We are tempted to escapism, we are tempted to settle for bare existence, we are tempted to medicate our pain with the false comforts we can control – drugs, porn, credit cards, food, fantasy, TV. We are tempted in these ways because we are afraid, afraid of the demands of life. We’re thinking like fugitives, not like children of the Father of mercies. But it is the weak to whom God comes with real comfort. I am not talking about a technique. I’m talking about a miracle: “God comforts us . . . we ourselves are comforted by God.” Authentic Christianity is thoroughly miraculous. It is God visiting our hearts with a love we can’t explain even to ourselves. The only explanation is that God loves us and wants us to know it. Our part is to believe the gospel and open up and welcome him and thank him and praise him – and then we can love others, the way God loves us.
Building a gospel culture for our city starts deep inside every one of us. It starts when we give up on ourselves and our plans and our pride and we say to God, “I have nothing, nothing but need. But through Christ you are my Father of mercies and my God of all comfort. I believe it. I have no right to deny it. I am yours now, to serve you in the lives of other people.” That’s where a gospel culture comes from. Not from one another, but from God himself. Let’s all bow before him and say to him, “Father in heaven, visit us in all your mercy and comfort, we pray.” Will we, every one, say that to him this morning? God will be faithful to be our Father of mercies and our God of all comfort. That is a gospel culture. It can’t be ignored.