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The Comfortable Words: An Invitation to Rest

During Lent, these essays are going to examine a key portion of our Anglican liturgy: the Comfortable Words. These are four Scripture passages arranged in a specific order and meant to be read by the priest right after the confession of sin.

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who compiled the Book of Common Prayer, organized the Comfortable Words as he did because he wanted people to understand that Christ is the good shepherd, alluring back his lost sheep by the power of his self-sacrificing love.

This month, we’ll focus on the first Comfortable Word, found in Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (ESV).

Gentle Invitation

Included in this is a gentle invitation to weary humans because human misery comes from the captivity and destructive power of sin. We all carry this curse, although the particular sins and exhaustions may take different forms. And that’s why the invitation from Jesus is to all.

We feel weary and burdened by the guilt of sins that we commit. But that’s not the only burden we carry. We’re also weary because of the sins done against us and the effects of sin in the world around us: sickness, suffering, and death.

This first Comfortable Word acknowledges the depth of human longing for good news and our need for rest. We suffer from spiritual fatigue, the most readily apparent fruit of human sinfulness, but there is good news. God favors the weak, not the spiritually proud or arrogant, but the broken. Jesus embraces the meek and the broken, the humble ones who feel swamped with heavy burdens.

Martin Luther captured this in these words:

God receives none but those who are forsaken, restores health to none but those who are sick, gives sight to none but the blind and life to none but the dead. … He has mercy on none but the wretched and gives grace to none but those who are in disgrace.

This message of the gospel is for all because we are all weary and heavy-laden. It’s no small thing that Jesus spent so much time with tax collectors, lepers, outcasts, and other “sinners,” which is how they are referred to in the Gospels, just a catch-all phrase. In fact, he got the reputation of being a glutton and a drunkard because he hung out with people who would have been considered the spiritual losers of his day.

And this same message is all over the Bible: “A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:17b, NRSV). “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). “‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble’” (James 4:6b).

There’s an incredible moment at the beginning of Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Capital of the World.” A father comes to Madrid searching for his estranged son, Paco, but turns up empty. In an act of desperation, the bereft man places a short ad in the city paper, and it says, “Paco, meet me at Hotel Montana, 12 noon, Tuesday. All will be well, and all is forgiven, Papa.”

When the man arrives at the hotel at the appointed time, he can’t believe his eyes. A crowd of 800 young men, all named Paco, await his arrival, all anxious for restoration and reconciliation with their father. This image captures the hope and desire of the broken-hearted and crushed in spirit, who need to hear from God, “All will be well, and all is forgiven. Come and rest.”

Present and Future Gift

One way God gives us rest in this life is in the forgiveness of our sin. As Romans 8:1 tells us, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Another way God gives us rest is that he cares about the sins done to us. As others harm and mistreat us, God offers us healing and hope that one day, all will be well. Being his people establishes our identity and worth. In Zechariah 2:8, there’s a promise that says, “Truly, one who touches you touches the apple of my eye.”

“Touching” here refers to the harmful touching or plundering of God’s people, and this passage says that is tantamount to injuring God. “The apple of my eye” is a remarkable expression, describing something precious, easily injured, and vulnerable. To strike a blow at God’s people is to strike at God, wounding him in a most sensitive area.

We will be marked by one of three things in life: what we have done, which feels like guilt and condemnation; what’s been done to us, which is usually expressed in shame; or what Christ has done for us in his ministry of reconciliation, which brings to us forgiveness, hope, and rest.

And that is why this first Comfortable Word is so important. Whether we are weary from sin we’ve done or sin done to us, we will have eternal rest when God wipes every tear from our eyes. One day there will be no more mourning, death, crying, pain, weariness, or even burdens — but that is the rest to come.

There is also rest now. We are invited to cast all our anxieties and cares on God because he cares for us (1 Pet. 5:7). The peace of God that passes all understanding keeps our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God (Phil. 4:7). And sometimes God takes some of the future rest, of eternal life in heaven with him, when everything is made right, and breaks into the right-now experience of our exhaustion by the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus invites us to himself. He’s not pointing us back to ourselves with advice on weariness management or techniques for rest maximization. Of course there are great techniques and advice for dealing with weariness in the here and now. Jesus is not opposed to those, but he’s addressing the deeper exhaustion we all experience. In that moment, it’s all about him and who he is, what he has done and his disposition toward us. He wants us to come to him.

To all of us who are burdened, exhausted by our sin or its effects, the first gift of the Comfortable Words is that God acknowledges our misery. We do not have to hide our longing and need for good news. Even better, God loves to respond and provide the rest we need.

Let us come to Jesus, and he will give us rest.


Note: Some of the material for this post was influenced by “Divine Allurement: Cranmer’s Comfortable Words” by Ashley Null (The Latimer Trust, 2014).

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