His eulogy for Abraham Lincoln was front-page news. In his spare time, in between crafting a few sermons a week, he wrote the words for “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” His name is Phillips Brooks, and a sermon that he preached in the 19th-century can comfort us during this strange and difficult time.
The Consolations of God, one of Brooks’s best-loved homilies, is based on a single verse from the Book of Job: “Are the consolations of God small with thee?” (15:11) Many people read the Book of Job as if it’s a form of theodicy, a branch of theology that centers on this question: if our world is so messed up, can we really say that God is good?
The problem with this interpretation, as Brooks identifies, is that it misses this point: God is the the subject of the Bible, beginning, well, at the beginning of the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning, God . . .” In other words, God, in the Bible, addresses us in saga, psalm, history, prophecy, Gospel, epistle and apocalypse, a scary word which simply means unveiling. We’re in the hot seat, not God.
But perhaps the hot seat isn’t so hot, as one of the questions that God asks us in Scripture is “are the consolations of God small with thee?” Are you paying sufficient attention to the ways that God is reaching out to comfort you? This is a good question for us to ponder right now, as we face the reality of a pandemic.
Brooks highlights four primary ways that that God consoles us: being, sympathy, truth, and power. Let’s start with being, the sheer fact of God’s existence.
Brooks points out that the most important people in our lives are seldom valued for all the stuff they do. Rather, we appreciate people for who they are, their character: “It is the lives, like the stars, which simply pour down on us the calm light of their bright and faithful being, up to which we look and out of which we gather the deepest calm and courage.” So, if it’s like that with people, just imagine, Brooks maintains, the importance of God’s being and presence.
Perhaps this is why God, after so many chapters of silence, answers Job’s questions with another question: “Job, where were you when the morning stars sang together?” Job can only answer: “I wasn’t there until you created the universe and me, God. My existence, your existence is pure gift.”
We can take comfort in the very being of God, a God who not only exists but who creates a world of meaning, purpose and music (the morning stars sang together!). After the creation of the world, God called it not just good, but very good. But if that were all, Brooks continues, we would neglect that fact that God not only exists, but that God loves us and is sympathetic to our cause.
The God we meet in the Bible, according to Brooks, creates the morning stars that sing together and knows every single hair on our heads: “Read into the heart of the Book of Life until you are thoroughly possessed with its idea—the idea which gives it its whole consistency and shape, the idea without which it would all drop to pieces—that there is not one life which the Life Giver ever loses out of His sight.” You matter. I matter. Every single human being on earth is deeply loved by God because they are made in God’s image.
The God who addresses us in the Book of Life isn’t an Aristotelian Unmoved Mover, but a passionate being who rejoices when we rejoice and weeps when we weep. This thought can console us as we move together through this crisis.
Furthermore, Brooks declares, God comforts us by revealing the truth to us through education, spirituality, and immortality: “You are a child of God whom He is training. You have a soul which is your true value. You are to live forever. Know these truths. By them triumph over sorrow that He cannot take away, and be consoled.” There is a balm in Gilead made of the healing ingredients of lifelong learning and knowledge, prayer and nurture of the soul, and the promise of eternal life. In a world filled with misinformation, it’s reassuring to hear that God reveals the truth to us about what matters most in this life.
Brooks, towards the end of the sermon, looks back and concludes that the first three points he’s made about God’s consolations are passive in nature. He ends by emphasizing how God acts with power to make us and the world new: “God comes and takes that soul, and positively, strongly lifts it up and away into the new life. He forgives the man for his sin, and He gives him the new heart.” For Brooks, we can’t come to this new heart through joy alone. God doesn’t cause human suffering, but God will use it to renew us and draw us closer to God and each other.
If I were to add one additional point to Brooks’s masterful sermon, it would be this: God is all about community and sharing in one another’s joys and burdens. God’s own “self”—the Holy Trinity—is communal. During this bizarre time of social distancing and disconnection, so many people have shared with me that they’ve never felt more connected to God and each other.
We have a long road ahead of us, but we never walk that road alone. If Holy Week teaches us anything, it’s that we are on this pilgrimage of faith and life with Jesus and each other. The consolations of God, the comfort that we can share with each other, are never a small thing, Job discovers. They are what matter most in a time like this.