Comfort

Scripture: Psalm 23:4b – “Your rod and your staff they comfort me”

(With reference to Matthew 9:1-8)

 

Title: Comfort

Structure:

  • Introduction – comfort
  • The shepherd’s rod & staff
  • Jesus comforts the paralysed man – Matthew 9:1-8
  • Conclusion – The Comforter

 

Introduction:

On the wall here are some pictures

  • Some chocolate
  • A teddy bear
  • A sofa piled high with pillows
  • And a couple giving each other a hug
  • Looking at these pictures what seven letter word comes to mind?
  • Let people respond
  • That’s right: Comfort

 

These are the sorts of images we might ordinarily associate with comfort

  • Chocolate is comfort food
  • Pillows provide for comfortable rest
  • A hug communicates emotional comfort and security as does a teddy bear

 

Although we (today) might equate comfort with physical ease, luxury or even self-indulgence it didn’t always mean this

 

To comfort someone generally implies that the person receiving the comfort is in a state of pain or affliction [1]

  • Comfort causes us to feel less worried or upset [2]
  • Comfort eases our grief or trouble
  • And it gives strength and hope – it cheers up in other words

 

The word ‘comfort’ derives from two Latin words

  • Com – meaning with
  • And fortis meaning strong
  • So to comfort someone is to be with them in a way that fortifies them with courage – making them stronger & safer

 

Chocolate and pillows have their place but they don’t provide real comfort – because in the long run they don’t actually give strength or security

 

Other images which are closer to the original meaning of comfort might include

  • A life jacket – because this is a vestment of security; it makes you safer on the water
  • A walking frame – because this fortifies people, giving them strength & confidence to stand
  • A speed camera – because they actually make the roads safer
  • We can still keep the hug because physical closeness helps us to feel less alone and more secure
  • In the right context each of these things comforts us in the sense that they provide strength, courage and relief from anxiety

 

Okay, one more illustration to help us grasp the meaning of comfort

  • On the wall here is a picture of some cake batter being poured into a tin
  • Without the cake tin the batter would run out everywhere and the cake would have no strength to hold its shape
  • The tin comforts the cake in the sense that it gives strength to the cake – at least while the cake is baking in the oven
  • Once the cake is cooked you can take it out of the tin and it will hold together by itself
  • But until then the tin provides the comforting framework or the healthy boundaries needed for the cake’s strength

 

Today we continue our series on Psalm 23

  • The message of Psalm 23 as a whole is: the Lord is my security.
  • God looks after me like a shepherd looks after a sheep.

 

So far we have covered the first three & half verses…

 

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures,

He leads me beside still waters

He restores my soul

He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil

 

 

Today we finish verse 4, the centre of the psalm…

 

For you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me

 

This is primarily about the Lord’s comfort in the valley of darkness

  • Not comfort in the sense of ease & luxury – not chocolate & pillows
  • But comfort in the sense of strength, courage & security
  • Real comfort which makes us safer, relieving our anxiety & fear

 

The shepherd’s rod & staff:

So what does David mean by your rod and your staff?

  • How are these a comfort (or a strength) to him?
  • How do they provide security and relieve his anxiety?

 

Well, the rod and staff are two quite different tools of the shepherd’s trade

 

Kenneth Bailey observes that sheep have a special problem – they have no defences [3]

  • Cats have claws, dogs can bite, horses can kick, bears can crush, deer can run, but sheep have no ability to protect themselves
  • Without the shepherd, the sheep are completely vulnerable
  • The shepherd is their only security

 

 

The shepherd’s rod is one of his tools for protecting the sheep

  • It looks something like this…
  • [Show the rod]
  • I collected a couple of examples while walking on the beach up the Kapiti Coast
  • These are the closest I could find resembling a rod
  • As you can see a rod is relatively short and has a lumpy bit on the end – like a mace or a club
  • The rod is essentially a weapon
  • The shepherd uses his rod to protect his flock from predators – wolves and wild dogs and so forth
  • If a wolf threatens the flock the shepherd hits the wolf across the head
  • Good night wolf

 

The rod is a comfort to the sheep because it makes them more secure – it saves them from the wolf

  • David is less anxious knowing that the Lord (his Shepherd) is present with a rod to protect him

 

The shepherd also uses the rod for counting the sheep

  • When the flock return to the village in the evening the shepherd holds the rod over the sheep to account for each one
  • If a sheep or lamb is missing then the shepherd goes out to look for it
  • Knowing that the Lord counts his sheep with the rod also gives David comfort – he is less afraid of being forgotten or abandoned
  • So that’s the rod – it is never used against the sheep

 

Here we have a couple of examples of a shepherd’s staff

  • As you can see the staff is longer & thinner than the rod
  • Some are straight, like this one
  • And others have a curved bit (or a crook) on the end, like this one
  • If the sheep is about to fall down a bank or into a stream the staff with crook gives the shepherd extra reach to grab hold of the sheep and pull it back to safety
  • The shepherd uses the staff to gently guide the sheep back onto the path

 

In the wild Middle East where there are no fences and flocks roam in open country, the shepherd’s staff is like the proverbial fence at the top of the cliff preventing the sheep from going over the edge

 

So while the rod protects the sheep from predators, the staff protects the sheep from itself

  • David is comforted by the Lord’s staff because it keeps him on track – it stops him from going over the edge
  • In this sense the staff is a bit like the cake tin I showed you earlier
  • Like a cake tin the staff provides a framework (a healthy boundary) for holding us together while we are still growing into maturity

 

In some ways, children are like cake batter

  • They are comforted and strengthened and less anxious when they grow up with fair rules and consistent boundaries
  • We don’t need to be hard on our children
  • They don’t need us to hit them with the rod
  • But they do need us to guide them with the staff – to be firm and fair

 

The Lord’s staff, his tool for keeping us on track, is the moral law – the 10 commandments for example

  • There is something quite comforting about the staff of rules and tradition
  • Without the staff of rules and healthy boundaries (like uncooked cake batter) we won’t have the strength to hold together and keep our shape

 

In the Bible the staff is also a symbol of power, authority and journey

  • Moses, for example, used his staff to part the Red Sea and perform other miracles as he guided the people of Israel on a 40 year journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land

 

I mentioned last week that pagan gods are fixed in one location – in so called sacred places like temples or shrines

  • But Yahweh (the living God) is not fixed
  • Yahweh (the Lord) is free to move wherever he wants
  • That the Lord carries a staff (in David’s imagination) is a sign that God is with David wherever he goes
  • Knowing that God is with you (in close proximity to you) is a comfort – it gives strength and confidence and security in the darkest valley

 

For you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me

  • The Lord has the tools and the skills to take care of us
  • His presence gives strength & courage in dark and difficult places

 

Jesus comforts a paralysed man (Matthew 9:1-8)

The film Dolphin Tale was inspired by the true story of a dolphin called ‘Winter’ who lost his tale and had to learn to swim again with the help of a prosthetic tale

  • The doctor who made the prosthetic tale was working in a veteran’s hospital making prosthetic limbs and braces for returned soldiers
  • One soldier in particular, Kyle, was having a hard time adjusting to his disability
  • Kyle used to be a champion swimmer – but after his injury he had to give up that dream
  • When the doctor (played by Morgan Freeman) comforted Kyle, he didn’t do it with words of sympathy (with chocolates & pillows)
  • Instead the doctor comforts Kyle with words of strength

 

  • When Kyle says he is broken the doctor takes a glass and drops it on the ground so that it breaks and says, ‘the glass is broken – you’re not broken
  • Kyle still has options
  • There are a million other things he can still do, even with a gammy leg
  • Kyle is focusing on what he has lost so the doctor reminds him of what he still has – telling Kyle to go home to his family
  • In the long run, Morgan Freeman’s words have the effect of strengthening Kyle, so in that sense they provide more real comfort than sympathy

 

 

How then did Jesus, the good shepherd, comfort people?

  • How did Jesus inspire strength & courage?
  • Well, in Matthew chapter 9 we are given an example…

 

Jesus got into the boat and went back across the lake to his own town where some people brought to him a paralyzed man, lying on a bed. When Jesus saw how much faith they had, he said to the paralyzed man, “Courage, my son! [Take heart] Your sins are forgiven.”

 

Then some teachers of the Law said to themselves, “This man is speaking blasphemy!”

 

Jesus perceived what they were thinking, and so he said, “Why are you thinking such evil things? Is it easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? I will prove to you, then, that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralyzed man, “Get up, pick up your bed, and go home!”

 

The man got up and went home. When the people saw it, they were filled with awe, and praised God for giving such authority to people.

 

May the Spirit of Jesus illuminate God’s word for us

 

Being paralysed the man in this story was basically defenceless, like a sheep

  • Not being able to move he was vulnerable, powerless

 

Fortunately this guy had friends to help him

  • The friends comforted the paralysed man by carrying him to Jesus
  • Their comfort wasn’t in the form of sympathetic words
  • Their comfort was in the form of practical action
  • Another version of this story in the gospels tells how the friends made a hole in the roof of the house where Jesus was and lowered the man down
  • The friends’ faith in Jesus (collectively) gave emotional strength and spiritual courage to the paralysed man

 

When Jesus sees their faith he speaks words of comfort to the man

  • “Courage my son. [Take heart]. Your sins are forgiven.”
  • Jesus’ words fortify the man’s inner being
  • We don’t know why the man was paralysed
  • It probably wasn’t because of any sin he had committed – otherwise we would all be in wheelchairs
  • But the social reality was such that most people listening to Jesus at that time would have assumed the paralysis was a punishment for sin
  • And it appears the man himself had bought into this lie
  • It appears the man believed he deserved to be paralysed

By saying, “Your sins are forgiven”, Jesus removes the man’s fear

  • Think about that for a moment
  • Forgiveness is a form of comfort – one of the most powerful forms of comfort in fact, because forgiveness takes away the fear of punishment
  • We can equate forgiveness to the shepherd’s rod because sin, guilt & shame are the enemies of the human soul
  • And forgiveness is the weapon by which Jesus, the good shepherd, protects us from sin, guilt & shame
  • Jesus’ rod of forgiveness comforts the paralysed man
  • The rod of forgiveness gives the man courage & permission to stand and walk without fear of punishment

 

Many people of Jesus’ day would have thought the Lord’s rod was some kind of weapon or military force to smash the Roman oppressors

  • But that’s not what Jesus came to do
  • Christ didn’t come to smash people
  • He came to smash sin and its consequences
  • And to guide people in the right path – the path of abundant life

 

By saying to the man, “Your sins are forgiven”, Jesus is making a startling claim – that he has divine authority to forgive sins

  • The scribes (the teachers of the law) are discomforted by Jesus’ claim
  • They begin to get off track thinking Jesus has committed blasphemy
  • So Jesus neutralises their fears and brings back onto the right path by healing the man
  • The miracle Jesus performs is like the shepherd’s staff – it is a symbol of Jesus’ God given authority – his right to forgive and to guide

Jesus wields the rod of forgiveness & the staff of healing with his tongue

  • It was by words spoken with power that Jesus, the good shepherd, brought real tangible comfort to people

 

 

Conclusion:

There is another way that Jesus comforts people and that is with the Holy Spirit

 

On the night before he died Jesus spoke words of comfort to his disciples…

 

The Comforter, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you… Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

 

The Comforter, the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, comes alongside us with strength and courage and truth to guide us, even through the darkest valley

 

Let us pray…

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comfort

[2] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/comfort

[3] Kenneth Bailey, ‘The Good Shepherd’, page 49

Advertisements