Consolation in the Fire

Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle. Now our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and God, even our Father, which hath loved us, and hath given us everlasting consolation and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts, and stablish you in every good word and work. (2 Thessalonians 2:15-17)

In this final session, we will consider the nature of the everlasting consolation and good hope with which the Holy Spirit comforts our hearts and establishes us in every good word and work. I want us to consider four eternal truths that are found in these verses. The first truth is this: everlasting consolation and good hope do not come to us because of any good word or work that we produce. Quite the opposite, consolation and hope are the free gift of grace. The only relationship that grace has to good works is that grace is the fountain from which obedience should freely flow.  St. Paul is very clear about this order of events in our theme passage, just as he is in his other epistles, perhaps most famously in Ephesians 2:8 and 9:

For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.

We find a version of the same idea in this portion of a prayer from the Family Morning Prayer service:

We humbly beseech thee to have compassion on our infirmities, and to give us the constant assistance of thy Holy Spirit; that we may be effectually restrained from sin, and incited to our duty. Imprint upon our hearts such a dread of thy judgments, and such a grateful sense of thy goodness to us, as may make us both afraid and ashamed to offend thee.

Repentance and good works arise from a grateful heart as the result of the gift of grace. This, in fact, is the main offense of the Gospel, for there is nothing that we prideful humans can do to make God accept us. We are left with nothing to brag about. Nothing, that is, except Jesus.

The second eternal truth is that God’s grace is given freely to us because He loves us with an everlasting and sacrificial love. Let’s read it again:

Now our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and God, even our Father, which hath loved us, and hath given us everlasting consolation and good hope through grace comfort your hearts….

The amazing part of amazing grace is that the very One who suffered the most by our sin is the One who comforts us when we are suffering, and both His suffering and His comfort flow from a heart of perfect love. How lovely it is to know that the gracious call of God on our lives is powered by love! When I was a child, my parents assigned me several chores to do around the house and then would have me to do other jobs as they arose such as cleaning up my little brother’s messes. I remember very clearly on one of those days while I had scrubbed the bathrooms and dusted the furniture and vacuumed the floors, a foolish thought ran through my head, “Mom and Dad only had children so they would have someone to clean their house for them!” It was a selfish and irrational thought because if they had never had me, there would not have been so many chores to do, and if they didn’t have the expense of feeding and clothing me, they could have afforded to hire a cleaning service. I couldn’t see that their motivation for having children was love, as well as a desire to advance the Kingdom of God, and their insistence that I take part in the duties of caring for the family was a way to teach me how to love others.

The third eternal truth is this: as followers of Christ, we will need everlasting consolation and good hope because we have been told to expect trouble in this life. In John 16:33 Jesus told his disciples:

These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.

To the world, the concept of suffering is another offense of the gospel. The cross of Christ is a stumbling block because it makes no sense in the world’s method of accounting. How could death on a cross accomplish anything useful? Doesn’t right make might? But we know that the cross was the scene of victory. Yet sometimes even Christians stumble over the idea that we should count it all joy when we suffer. How could a loving God call us into a life of service and pain and expect us to be happy about it? It doesn’t make any sense! But Jesus tells us we must take up our cross and follow Him. We don’t mind hearing Him say, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” But we forget that the rest He offers is not rest from our Kingdom labor; no, the rest that he offers is relief from the heavy burden of our sins. We must lay down own selfish desires and align ourselves with His purpose. And we must do so every single day. St. Paul’s command that we present ourselves as a living sacrifice is not the most convincing argument for coming to Jesus, but it is certainly truth in advertising.

As Christians in America, we have not yet reached the point of being persecuted on a large scale for our faith. But that certainly doesn’t mean that we will have no problems or troubles in this life. On the contrary, the presence of sin in this world assures us of suffering and grief. But the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives assures us of comfort and hope that we can never have any other way.

The fourth eternal truth is that what you see is not all there is. We live in a materialistic society, so let that sink in: What you see is not all there is. In 2 Kings we read that Elisha’s prophecies had been causing trouble for the king of Syria because Elisha would warn the Israelite army where the Syrian army was stationed. Eventually the Syrian king though he had a spy in his army, so he demanded to know who had betrayed him. One of his servants told him that his nemesis was not a spy but a prophet. So the Syrian king demanded to know where Elisha was staying so he could give him some trouble for a change. When he found out that Elisha was in the city of Dothan, he sent a large, heavily armed army, complete with horses and chariots, and during the night they surrounded the city.

The next morning Elisha’s servant got up early, went outside, and was terrified to see this massive army ready to strike. He immediately thought that this was the end. He saw no way to escape. So he ran inside and told Elisha that they were doomed. Elisha’s answer made no sense to the servant: Don’t be afraid. Those who are with us outnumber the army that you saw. The scriptures don’t record a response from the servant, but he must have looked very skeptical because Elisha prayed for God to open the servant’s eyes.

So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha. (2 Kings 6:17)

The Syrian army had no idea of the danger they were in. They couldn’t see God’s army poised and ready to attack if so commanded. When the Syrians started advancing toward Elisha, the prophet prayed and asked God to strike with blindness. Already blind spiritually, this entire army was now totally blind. So the man that they had come to capture was able to lead them to the Israelite king, and they were captured without any bloodshed.

Now I had heard that story many times, but I don’t remember hearing anything past this point, but the rest of the story is important to us. When the king of Israel saw that Elisha had led the Syrian army straight to him, he wanted to kill them. But Elisha said absolutely not! It is sinful to mistreat prisoners of war. Elisha told the king to give the prisoners food and water and then to send them back to their king. Having seen God’s army, Elisha was not afraid of the Syrians.

So he prepared for them a great feast, and when they had eaten and drunk, he sent them away, and they went to their master. And the Syrians did not come again on raids into the land of Israel. (2 Kings 6:23)

This mighty army was beaten not by swords but by kindness—more evidence that God’s almighty power is declared chiefly in showing mercy (from the Collect for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity). To show the love of Christ to our enemies is the greatest power that the Church can wield in the spiritual warfare we face. When we understand how protected and loved we are, we will have no fear, and we can face persecution knowing that God is in control.

We find a similar story in Daniel 3. The book of Daniel is an account of the faithfulness of God’s people while in captivity in Babylon. On this occasion King Nebuchadnezzar had made a golden idol and demanded that everyone bow down to it. At the appointed time to dedicate the idol, a huge crowd gathered, including “princes, governors, captains, judges, treasurers, counsellors, sheriffs, and all the rulers of the provinces” (Daniel 3:2-3). Nebuchadnezzar was poised to put on a great show for all his admirers. The command went out that when the people heard the music play, they must fall down and worship the golden idol. Anyone who refused would be tossed into a fiery furnace.

So the music rang out loud and clear, and almost everyone bowed down and worshiped the idol. But someone in the crowd began to complain that there were three men who had remained standing. These men were Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, Jews whom the king had placed in leadership positions because of the wisdom they had shown after being taken into captivity. The king was furious. He called for the three offenders and asked them if it was true that they had disobeyed him.

They didn’t try to deny that they had disobeyed the command to bow down to the idol. They even told him that they didn’t owe him a response! They told the king to throw them into the furnace if he had to. But if you do, they said,

our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But no matter what happens we will not serve your gods, nor worship the golden image which you set up. (Daniel 3:17)

Nebuchadnezzar had never been so angry in all of his life. He had honored and trusted these young men with delegated power, and they showed their gratitude by making him look foolish in front of the entire country! If nothing else, he had to make an example of them. He commanded that the furnace be heated up to seven times its usual temperature. I’m not even sure that was possible; it sounds more like “king talk” than a scientific calculation. Nevertheless, the furnace was much hotter than usual. It was so hot, in fact, that the men who were sent to throw Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into the fire were killed by the flames.

And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell down bound into the midst of the burning fiery furnace. (Daniel 3:23)

Then Nebuchadnezzar the king got the shock of his life. He could see into the furnace, and he asked his counsellors:

“Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?” They answered and said to the king, “True, O king.” He answered and said, “But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.” (Daniel 3:24-25)

My favorite part of this story is not that the fire had no power over the bodies of those men. The hair of their heads was not singed, their cloaks were not harmed, and no smell of fire had come upon them. My favorite part of the story is that the only thing that was burned up was the ropes that had bound their hands. In the midst of the fire that was intended to destroy them, they received the freedom and comfort that only the Son of God can provide.

Each of us has had times in our lives when we were walking through the fire and needed an extra measure of everlasting consolation and good hope. The day I found myself in such need was January 31, 2008, at approximately 10:55 in the morning. I was living in Houston while attending seminary, and I worked as a technical writer. My desk been moved to a temporary building while our department was being renovated, and I was walking to the main building to attend an 11:00 meeting when my cell phone rang. I learned that my 29-year-old son James, who had been taking care of my home in Memphis, had been found dead that morning. And here I was, 500 miles away from home. I sank to the ground and sat weeping on the cold concrete sidewalk as I dialed my pastor, seminary professor, and friend, Dr. Curtis Crenshaw, to give him the terrible news. At some point the security guard noticed me and came to find out what was wrong. All I could say was, “My son is dead.” He took me to my manager, who immediately began to follow the company’s safety protocol for such events, which was to prevent me from driving myself home and to ensure that I would not be left alone. She asked another employee to drive my car, and they took me to the Crenshaws’ house.

I asked if Ruth could take me home to pack and then drive me to the airport. Dr. Crenshaw said, “Ruth and I are going to drive you back to Memphis.” I told him that I didn’t want them to go to so much trouble for me. Then he said, “You don’t understand. Ruth and I are already packed, and we are going to Memphis for James’s funeral. If you want to fly instead, we will be happy to take you to the airport. But you are welcome to ride with us.” So my dear friends drove me from Houston to Memphis, straight to my daughter’s house. At the time when I was at my lowest, God had ensured that I would never be alone for a single moment. Throughout those terrible days following the death of my son, the everlasting consolation of the Holy Spirit sustained me, and the church provided comfort and hope.

Over the years, I’ve met other women who have been through some of the trials that I have had to face. Some of them had gone down the road of suffering before me and were able to comfort me. Some of them were going through losses at the time, and I was able to comfort them. Either way, the presence of the church in my life has demonstrated St. Paul’s message of the fellowship of suffering from 2 Corinthians 1:

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. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort. (2 Corinthians 1:3-7)

It is the solemn duty and great delight of God’s Church to be a source of comfort and hope to those who are broken. When St. Paul wrote his letters to the Thessalonian Church, he wrote as one who had only begun to suffer for the sake of the gospel. In 2 Corinthians 11:25-27, he lists the various trials he had endured throughout his ministry, any of which might have killed him.

Five times he was beaten with 39 lashes.

Three times he was beaten with rods.

He was stoned.

He was shipwrecked three times, and though he doesn’t mention it in this verse, in one of those incidents he survived a snakebite and was able to use the event as an opportunity to preach the power of Christ.

He summarizes his missionary journeys by saying that he had been

… in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. (2 Corinthians 11:26-27)

If that wasn’t enough, he was constantly concerned about the churches he planted that were also being persecuted. Like a good spiritual father, he was anxious for his children’s well-being.

Now tell me, if that list of perils was a job description, how quickly would you fill out the application? But in spite of all these troubles, St. Paul tirelessly continued his work to build God’s Church. Even while he was in prison, he was writing letters to the various churches to encourage them in the faith and to comfort their hearts as they suffered for the sake of Christ.

In closing, I would ask you to consider this: as people who have received everlasting consolation and good hope through grace, what is our duty and our delight? It is to live a life of joyful obedience to our Lord who suffered for us. It is to comfort others with the comfort that we have received. It is to live a life of committed service, in fulfillment of the Great Commission. As you return to your homes and churches, I charge you consider what more you can do to serve as Christ’s representatives in your community, to the glory of God and for the advancement of His Kingdom.

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