“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,
To the church of God in Corinth, together with all his holy people throughout Achaia:
2 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 5 For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. 6 If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. 7 And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.
8 We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. 10 He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, 11 as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favour granted us in answer to the prayers of many.”

Many years ago I heard of a Church Army Captain who was nervously climbing the steps of the pulpit to deliver one of his first sermons. It was to be around the theme of God’s help in the midst of suffering – and he wanted to grab people’s attention straight away. He’d rehearsed his opening line : HAS THE BOTTOM EVERY FALLEN OUT OF YOUR WORLD?! Unfortunately, in his nervousness he got two key words the wrong way round!

But in these days it can certainly feel as though the ground is falling away under our feet, our security and certainties are being threatened, we don’t feel in control (we aren’t). It can be easy to succumb to a rising tide of fear … fear over health, fear for family, fear over finances, fear of the future … perhaps of death.

Some of us may hear the repeated cry of Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army “Don’t panic, don’t panic!” but recognise that at times it can be hard to quell that rising sick feeling in our stomach.

Today I want to simply bring out the encouragement and hope from God’s word, the passage I have just read …words that Paul wrote out of the real experience of his own suffering and hardship. Where do we turn? To whom did he go?

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles…”

There are a number of key repeated words in this passage – one of them is the Greek word ‘thlipsis’, the word for troubles. The root of this word means ‘pressure’ – physical pressure from a heavy weight on the body – but also mental and spiritual pressure. It is a word for our times – and what we are facing as a nation and as individuals will mean real pressure – different pressure – and they won’t be short-lived.

Pressure is not all negative – for instance it is needed to strengthen and test metal. Hudson Taylor, the 19th century missionary to China, spoke of a time when a mob set fire to his house during the night. He, his wife and their children almost lost their lives, but he protested that “it doesn’t matter how great the pressure is, what really matters is where the pressure lies – whether it comes between you and God or whether it presses you nearer his heart.” How do we react when pressure comes?

What does Paul do? (we come to our second key word…) He praised because he knows that whatever pressure comes on him and whatever sufferings he has to endure, the comfort of God outmatches it. That is his genuine testimony … and yours … and mine as Christians. In the depths, in our pain, we have known the loving faithfulness of our God. When my father died last year, in the midst of grief I was proving the God of all comfort … which flows from the Father of compassion.

This word ‘comfort’, it’s not a weak word, a sentimental word, a ‘there, there everything will be alright…’ The word is ‘paraklesis’ … the same root as ‘paraklete’ … the description Jesus gives of the Holy Spirit (in chapters 13-16 of John’s Gospel). The comforter! God coming alongside. God being alongside … not necessarily the altering of the pressure or trouble … but the real, gracious, presence of the Lord … always alongside. The same God of Psalm 23 “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death (in these days…) you are with me.” This is not a comfort that the world can give – it is in your relationship with the living God – He is its source and transmitter. It brings a peace that the world cannot give. And it’s not stingy … it is a comfort through Christ that overflows … not a small quantity, not even carefully measured out but full and running over. More than enough. And there’s more Paul has to say about this comfort … Because even death is not the end in Christ. He is the one who has conquered death. And in Christ, nothing can separate us from his love. And Paul, in effect, reminds himself and tells his readers he has delivered … he will deliver. On him we have set our hope. Where is your hope? As a new song declares “Waymaker, Promise Keeper, Miracle Worker, Light in the Darkness … My God that is who you are” This is our God.

We have one final encouragement here. On the eve of Joseph Scriven’s intended wedding day, his bride to be was tragically drowned. Later he emigrated from Ireland to Canada. Once again he became engaged to be married only to lose his second fiancé after a brief but fatal illness. In spite of loneliness, poverty and his own precarious health he spent the rest of his life helping the physically handicapped, as well as writing hymns, in the midst of his own troubles he penned the words to his mother when she was going through a very distressing time : “What a friend we have in Jesus all our sins and griefs to bear; what a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer; have we trials and temptations, is there trouble anywhere, we should never be discouraged; take it to the Lord in prayer”.

This encouragement to pray. Paul thanks them for praying. He asks them to pray … he says you help us as you pray, it makes a difference, you are our co-workers in prayer … literally meaning “assisting someone else in their work”. We can all pray. In these days when our movements are restricted nothing can restrict prayer. And especially to take that thought of “assisting someone in their work…”

Might we daily pray for all our health workers, our national leaders, those providing and delivering food, those seeking to support those both in and out of work … alongside those who need to know God alongside them in grief, in sickness, in isolation, in fear.

And as God’s people in these times of TROUBLE may be channels of COMFORT and bearers of HOPE. Amen.

© St. Georges Church, Bamford St, Glascote, Tamworth, Staffordshire, B77 2AT. Tel: 01827 62612