Consolation

II Corinthians 1:1-11
August 30, 2020
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

There is a popular children’s book that is titled Alexander’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.  Well, we can all sympathize with Alexander this year because 2020 is turning into our national Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year.  Every day we have to take a deep breath before clicking on our news app or turning on the morning news program because the bad news is unrelenting and the volume of our national discord is increasing.  We are exhausted by the complexity of the nation’s problems; heartbroken by the social injustice, the violence, and the deaths; so so weary of the name calling and angry rhetoric; and tired to the bone of trying to navigate this pandemic.  Maybe long ago, when Covid-19 first threatened, we were able to rally a little “can-do” determination and we took heart in people’s creative ways of coping with the shut-down, but when the pandemic was joined by the unrest of racial injustice and then wildfires and then hurricanes our stiff upper lip drooped and even the heart-warming human interest stories can no longer drown out the world’s rancor and fear.  It’s been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year, and we need a collective hug.

The apostle Paul may have been talking to the Corinthians in the scripture I read today, but it feels like he’s talking to us.  

“Blessed be… the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.”  Paul reminds us that in the midst of our suffering, we can take comfort in God because our God is a God of consolation.  Actually, to say that Paul “reminds us” is a bit of an understatement.  Paul drives home that conviction over and over again: “Blessed be… the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.”  

And he doesn’t stop there — in the next two verses, Paul uses the word consolation 5 more times.  At this point, an English teacher would hand Paul a thesaurus, but he’s not writing literature; he’s writing a letter to people who are hurting and arguing with each other and in despair and who are finding it difficult to have a reason to hope.  He knows that they don’t need pretty prose; they need to believe that there is consolation to be had, that there is comfort for their pain. The Corinthians needed what we need today.

And so Paul assures them, “I myself have known great affliction, and I can tell you that I have also known the great consolation of God.  Do not doubt it: your God is a God who consoles.”

Paul never says exactly what affliction he experienced, but whatever the affliction was, it left him and his fellow workers “so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself,” he says.  Had Paul been mocked and driven out of town for his commitment to Christ?  Had Paul been imprisoned for his preaching?  Or was his affliction a physical ailment that drove him to his bed?  Had he endured storms at sea, been in the eye of a hurricane?  Had he been deserted by people he thought were his friends?  Any one of those things could have been the affliction he was talking about because Paul experienced every one of those things.  We may think of 2020 as our Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year, but what we are going through this year, Paul went through over and over and over again during his decades of his ministry.  For Paul, suffering was not the exception but the rule.  He wasn’t going to hold back the truth from the Corinthians: “If you follow Christ,” he said, “the sufferings of Christ will be abundant for you.”  

The comedian George Carlin once said, “Americans have trouble facing the truth so they invent a kind of a soft language to protect themselves from it.  Sometime during my life,” he said, “toilet paper became bathroom tissue. . . . False teeth became dental appliances… the dump became the landfill….Partly cloudy became partly sunny. Motels became motor lodges. House trailers became mobile homes….[and] Constipation became occasional irregularity. . . .”  

Carlin is right that Americans don’t do well facing the truth of life’s difficulties, but the Bible is starkly honest about the troubles we face and the suffering that comes with being human.  We suffer because we are fragile mortal creatures whose bodies will break down and succumb to illness and eventually death.  And we suffer because we love other fragile mortal creatures whose bodies will break down and succumb to illness and eventually death.  Suffering is part of the lot of being human and the Bible is filled with the laments and tears of people like us whose mortality weighs heavy upon their hearts.  But more than that, Paul warns, as Christians serious about following Christ, we will suffer even greater things because we will also constantly be at odds with a world whose ways are not God’s ways but are the ways of self-interest, fear, judgment, and cruelty, and so our hearts will constantly break over and over and over again on behalf of the suffering of others.  How much easier life would be if we could dig a moat around our hearts and pull up the drawbridge to keep out the pain of the world but we have given our lives to a man who refused to walk away from the cross but instead opened his arms to the heartbreak of all people.  As Christians dedicated to following that man, we can’t walk away from the devastation of Covid-19 even if our families are untouched.  We can’t look away from racial injustice even if we ourselves have never encountered prejudice because of who we are.  We can’t ignore the economic hurt of our neighbors even if our bank accounts have not faltered.  We can’t shrug our shoulders at the devastation of the hurricane and other environmental disasters, even if our homes are safe.  Our commitment to Christ calls us to open our hearts to the hurts of the world.  Being human is frankly hard enough in hard times, but being Christian — willingly opening ourselves to the pain of so many — can threaten to bring us to our knees.

And Paul says, it is on our knees that we will discover the strength we need to bear the hurts of the world, for it is on our knees in prayer that we will know the consolation of God that will enable us to rise every day to meet the task before us.

“Blessed be… the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.”

I know that there are many of you who will say to me, “But I pray all of the time and yet my grief isn’t healed.  I pray every morning and yet still feel unsettled, hurting, angry, or anxious.  Where is this consolation that Paul promises?”

The consolation that God offers isn’t valium.  It doesn’t numb us to our grief or erase our heartache.  We think of comfort as a feeling — like what we experience when we hunker down in a comfy recliner with our feet up — but the consolation God offers isn’t a feeling but is a promise that God will open a path that can lead us out of our affliction to a new way living.  God’s consolation is the assurance that God will help us to stand every day for as many days as it takes until we can stand once again on our own.  God’s consolation is the promise that this way of compassion which God has shown us through Christ really has the power to drive out cruelty and hate if we will just stick with it and persevere in love no matter the odds.  God’s consolation is that, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” and God will help us to throw our full weight against the bigotry of the day to bend that moral arc even closer to the time when all people can live in peace.  God’s consolation is the promise that when we hitch our lives to the gospel, our lives can take on eternal significance and every kindness we manage to show in spite of our despair, every forgiveness we can share in spite of our hurts, every step we can walk toward healing in spite of our pain, every love we can bestow in spite of the brutality of the world will make a profound difference and ennoble our souls.

In his poem “Prometheus Unbound,” Percy Shelley wrote, 

“To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy power which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates

Life may change, but it may fly not;
Hope may vanish, but can die not;
Truth be veiled, but still it burneth;
Love repulsed -but it returneth.”

In this Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year, which threatens to drive us to our knees, may we realize that it is only on our knees that we can find the strength to endure.  In prayer, may we discover the consolation of God who opens a way out of our affliction and promises that when we persevere and trust Christ and love and bear and hope, our hope itself will create the thing we contemplate.