“Their plane is missing.” It was the end of June in 1989, and I was reveling in the joy and excitement of having just graduated from the Curtis Institute the month before. Earlier that day I had played an organ concert at Wanamaker’s (now Macy’s) and a guest at the organ console asked me if I knew the whereabouts of Keith Chapman and his wife Sally. Keith was the head organist at Wanamaker’s and my musical mentor, and he had not shown up for an event he was to play for in town.  Concerned, I called their house when I got home and reached one of their daughters. She told me they had been flying from California to Kansas and their plane went missing somewhere over Colorado. It was later that evening that I learned that their plane had crashed, and they did not survive.

The devastation I felt at that time still reverberates in me even as I write this article. One of the vivid memories I have of that evening was the presence of my younger brother. He simply walked silently with me around the block of our neighborhood as my tears flowed steadily. I realize in retrospect how wise beyond his years my brother’s silence was!  

Many of us have felt the helplessness of trying to comfort the afflicted. We rightly recognize our words can simply add to the problem. The Bible gives a poignant illustration of this in the life of Job. He had lost everything, and his “friends” showed up to mourn with him. They remained silent for an entire week, but sadly broke that silence and merely added to his torment with their ignorant and pious assessment of his situation.

Bringing comfort is difficult. For true comfort to take place, both negative and positive things need to happen. The negative is the removal of pain. The positive is bringing strength and hope. Comfort occurs when a solution has happened or is in progress. People become more “comfortable” when their problems are lessened, their strength returns, and their hope re-kindled. These are things which mere words often cannot accomplish.

And yet the Word of God dares to offer us words of comfort! The words from Isaiah 40 made famous as the opening words to Handel’s Messiah proclaim, “Comfort ye, my people, says your God”! God had seen the affliction of his people, exiled from their land and held in bondage. The chapter goes on to say, “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” Notice the negative and positive elements: warfare is ended, iniquity pardoned, and receiving double. God speaks what he accomplishes and accomplishes what he speaks.

The carol “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” describes the Christmas message as “tidings of comfort and joy.” It is the good news of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. Christ himself claimed to be the one who can offer comfort. In what are sometimes called “the comfortable words of Scripture,” Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) How could he say this? He can say it because he is the solution to our greatest problem. Our greatest problem is expressed succinctly by the Apostle Paul, “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” (Romans 5:12) And when the time came in Jesus’ life to address this, our greatest need, he too became silent: “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:7). The result? Revelation 21 gives a summary: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God (the positive). He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away (the negative).” (Revelation 21:3-4) Jesus, Immanuel, God with us, says what he will accomplish and accomplishes what he says.

Do you wish to impart a message of comfort to someone you love this Christmas? Our Lessons and Carols services are intended to do just that!

Learn more at tenth.org/joy or with the cards available in the main entrances of the church. 

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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Colin Howland. © 2024 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org