Beauty for Ashes
The British, Anglican pastor and evangelist, John Stuart Holden ministered around the turn into the twentieth century. In one of his messages, he shared about how an old Scottish mansion close to his summer cottage had a room whose wall were decorated with sketches by distinguished artists. The first sketch was prompted by a disaster. One day a pitcher of soda water was accidentally spilled on a freshly painted wall, leaving an ugly stain. On one occasion, the noted artist, Lord Edwin Landseer, was a guest in the house. And while the family went for a walk among the heather on the moors of Yorkshire, he stayed behind. With a few masterful strokes of a piece of charcoal, Landseer transformed the ugly spot into a beautiful waterfall, bordered by trees and wildlife. The wall was to become one of his most beautiful depictions of Highland life.
In his book, the prophets says, “[God] has sent me to tell those who mourn that the time of the LORD’s favor has come, and with it, the day of God’s anger against their enemies. To all who mourn in Israel, he will give a crown of beauty for ashes, a joyous blessing instead of mourning, festive praise instead of despair. In their righteousness, they will be like great oaks that the LORD has planted for his own glory” (Isa 61:2–3, NLT).
In other words, God will take destruction and desolation and make something delightful out of it—beauty for ashes. That promise is what we find in Joel today.
I’m going to read our passage in a moment. But as I do, pay attention to the very first word: “Then.” It’s an important word. It tells us that what I say today, hinges on what I said last week. Restoration hinges on repentance.
Think about that … repentance is always accompanied by self-awareness and a degree of sorrow over our sin. Such awareness leads to a change of mind, and then to a change of will, and then a relational movement of the one’s heart towards God. And God says, “When you move like that, I’m going to bring beauty from ashes.”
The Beauty of a Promise
Let’s consider the passage: Joel 2:18ff, ESV.
Then the Lord became jealous for his land
and had pity on his people.
The Lord answered and said to his people,
“Behold, I am sending to you
grain, wine, and oil,
and you will be satisfied;
and I will no more make you
a reproach among the nations.
“I will remove the northerner far from you,
and drive him into a parched and desolate land,
his vanguard into the eastern sea,
and his rear guard into the western sea;
the stench and foul smell of him will rise,
for he has done great things.
((I hear the Lord saying, “I’m going to life the sanctions; and the things that sustain life: grain, wine, oil, I’ll give back. I’ll fill you bellies. I’ll give you security and remove the stress of your enemy, in fact, I’ll judge the enemy. I’ll give you life. What a promise!
A taste of prosperity. A taste of security.
Now, I want to make something clear. Christianity in America is often plagued by an errant thought: The closer I move to God, the wealthier I’ll get—materially. But that idea isn’t in the Bible. Joel has said: “If you turn to God, he will satisfy you.” For he cares for the birds, he care for us; in fact, the Bible says that he values us more (Matt 6:26). Yet being satisfied, having the hunger pangs subside, doesn’t mean being stuffed. ))
Let’s read on…
“Fear not, O land;
be glad and rejoice,
for the Lord has done great things!
Fear not, you beasts of the field,
for the pastures of the wilderness are green;
the tree bears its fruit;
the fig tree and vine give their full yield.
“Be glad, O children of Zion,
and rejoice in the Lord your God,
for he has given the early rain for your vindication;
he has poured down for you abundant rain,
the early and the latter rain, as before.
“The threshing floors shall be full of grain;
the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.
((This is a bit more of what I just read. Here’s the reversal of the earlier judgment, which also effected the earth and animals.))
The Beauty of Restoration
I will restore to you the years
that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
my great army, which I sent among you.
“You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.
You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
and that I am the Lord your God and there is none else.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.
Verse 25 is one of my favorite verses—pure hope. It’s always given me perspective on two fronts:
01. God brought the devastation and desolation. Sometimes the Lord does say, “No.” Sometimes he says, “I want your attention.” And that’s okay for him to say, for he’s our Father God not our Sugar Daddy. And… in the previous messages in this series we’ve seen there was a holy purpose for the hardship. And… here God actually claims it: “It wasn’t an oopsie. I was doing something; I had something to say to you.”
And that leads to the second fact…
02. God makes the lost years meaningful. In other words, the devastation and loss wasn’t meaningless. It had its good and holy effect, it paid it’s dividends. How, so? Well, it was the means by which we arrived this place with greater self-awareness, greater intimacy with God. The years seemed to have gone up in smoke, but God used the blocking out of the sun for his good purposes. I think this is Paul’s message in Romans: “For those who love God all things work together for good” (Rom 8:28).
Now, I know that we’d just as soon rip the pages out of some chapters of our life stories. But since we can’t, we figure amnesia is the best option. “We must forgive ourselves and forget,” we say, shoving the pages in a bottom drawer under a stack of paid bills where no one will look. But in doing that we hide from ourselves, hating ourselves, rejecting ourselves, pretending the short and condensed version is better—and perhaps even defending ourselves for so long we forget our real story. Ya know, that silly game of hide-and-seek is exhausting.
When we carry on like that, when we think those chapters of our life are wasted, or meaningless, or need to be deleted from our story, we guillotine the gospel, cutting out the very pages that brought us life.
I think the Lord often is saying to us: “What does it take to be pliable, to trust that the chapters of your days are being written as part of a larger story and that it is a good story?”
There’s an interesting parable that the New Zealand poet James Baxter wrote that I think helps to illustrate what I’ve been talking about.
There once was a man who decided life was too hard for him to bear. He did not commit suicide. Instead he bought a large corrugated iron tank, and furnished it simply with the necessities of life—a bed to sleep on, books to read, food to eat, electric light and heating, and even a large crucifix hung on the wall to remind him of God and help him to pray. There he lived a blameless life without interruption from the world. But there was one great hardship.
Morning and evening, without fail, volleys of bullets would rip through the walls of his tank. He learned to lie on the floor to avoid being shot. Nevertheless, he did at times sustain wounds, and the iron walls were pierced with many holes that let in the wind and the daylight in good weather and water when the weather was bad. He plugged up the holes. He cursed the unknown marksman. But the police, when he appealed to them, were unhelpful, and there was little he could do about it on his own.
By degrees he began to use the bullet holes for a positive purpose. He would gaze out through one hole or another, and watch the people passing, the children flying kites, the lovers making love, the clouds in the sky, the wind in the trees, and the birds that came to feed on heads of grass. He would forget himself in observing these things.
The day came when the tank rusted and finally fell to pieces. He walked out of it with little regret. There was a man with a gun standing outside.
“I suppose you will kill me now,” said the man who had come out of the tank. “But before you do it, I would like to know one thing. Why have you been persecuting me? Why are you my enemy, when I have never done you any harm?”
The other man laid the gun down and smiled at him. “I am not your enemy,” he said. And the man who had come out of the tank saw that there were scars on the other man’s hands and feet, and these scars were shining like the sun.
The beginning and end of our lives, as well as bumps and bruises in between, have one meeting point—Jesus. Before we ever knew him, he chose and redeemed us (Eph 1:4–5). In other words, Jesus isn’t a means to an end; he is the end. He is the very goal of our lives. He’s bringing us to himself… our past is redeemed; our present is sanctified; and our future is secured. Apart from Jesus the chapters in our life are disconnected.
Restoration comes after repentance. It’s a promise and it’s beautiful. It’s beautiful because of what God is showing us, which we find in verse 27: “Then you will know that I am in Israel, that I am the Lord your God, and that there is no other.”
The beauty of restoration isn’t that we go back to where we were before the locusts. The passage lays on us the metaphor of a bumper crop. It’s saying that we arrive in a better place, a place of knowing that even changes the way you see that locust-experience: “That was horrible. I don’t want to go through that again. Yet God was good. I praise God for it, because it brought me here. What seemed bad and intended for harm, God meant for good (Gen 50:20).”
It’s a very real possibility that you could end up saying something crazy like that and with every fiber of your being actually mean it. And if that happened you’d come to understand that this spiritual place you’ve arrive at is actually God’s own bumper crop. You are his harvest! He destroyed the fields; he laid the ground fallow; he sowed the seed in your soul; he reaped the harvest for his glory … and your utter enjoyment of him through deep worship.
I think this bumper crop is what the final verses of the chapter point at…
“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.
“And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls.
I don’t have time today to unpack all of this. But I’ll tell you this: There is certainly a looking forward from Joel’s day to the “last days,” the days in which God would send his Holy Spirit and establish his church. In the Old Testament days, the Holy Spirit was poured out on specific people for specific tasks like kings and prophets. Joel looks ahead to when all people would be eligible to receive God’s Spirit. Then, like a stone skipping across a pond the passage hops forward from the last days to the last day.
But as I close here is what I want to leave you with…
Place your attention on verse 28: “I will pour out my Spirit.” I think it would be right to re-state that verse like this: “Come, turn to me and call upon my name, and see if I will not bring a beautiful harvest, see if I will not show you the unsearchable riches of my Son. Then, you shall know what grace has done and prophesy, declaring my goodness and glory. Then, your spirit shall dance to the rhythm of my Spirit.”
That’s beauty for ashes. That’s the promise of God. And… that’s not too bad.