Beauty Instead of Ashes
We no longer need to sit in a pile of ashes for Christ has replaced them with beauty.
Old Testament Reading- Isaiah 61:1-3
New Testament Reading- John 10:7-11
By Henry J. Rafferty CP -May 15, 2022
What a beautiful week of weather we've had, I mean you really can't get much better. It has been warm but not humid, no rain, but coming off so many weeks with a tremendous amount of moisture, everything is well watered anyway. Everything is popping out with new green, the grass is growing, the leaves are coming out and expanding, the birds are singing, and the flowers are exploding across our little part of the earth. These are the days that we live for, but unfortunately, every day is not like these, some are dark days indeed for some.
Like our eyes adjust to darkness, so too do we adjust to darkness in our lives, in fact, we’ve become quite good at it, or so we think. God has made us out of some tough stuff to be able to live in this, sometimes, harsh world. We are built with resilience, as God has given all of His creation different gifts to cope in this world. We humans are funny beings, we can become accustomed to living in the dark so much that we are afraid to move out of it. I should explain that this darkness I am referring to is not lack of physical light, like living in a cave, but emotional darkness, like living in a war zone. Now, a war zone would be an extreme example, like the people in Ukraine that are truly living amongst the horrors of war, but this darkness, to which I am referring can be as simple as living with addiction, a bad work environment, or a bad family life. These are common examples, but it could also be more personal yet, like allowing yourself to hate others who are different than you, or to persecute, even with thoughts, those who do not see the world the way you do.
1st Peter 5:1-11 tells us this,
“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.
In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings. And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.”
Peter is reminding the people in charge of the Church, not to fall prey to the darkness within them, to not seek power to lord over others, to remain respectful of those who are older than them, giving them due respect, and to remain humble before God and their neighbors. He tells them to cast their worries on God, not to drink them away. Their true enemy, the devil, is just waiting for the opportunity to get his foot in the door of their lives, and if any type of darkness resides in their hearts, Satan will use it as a weapon against themselves and others. How true this statement is for them then and for us still to this very day. Think about how Satan uses our anxieties and fears against us. During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, through fear, he turned people against each other. Many became self-righteous, what I called Covid Cops, customers that loved to walk around stores telling anyone that even had a mask that was not over their nose how awful of a person they really were and how they cared nothing about anyone else, or the other side of the coin, the people who felt it necessary to lick products on store shelves, so as to show their rebellion about how they didn’t agree with the rules of the day. I don’t see God in either of these examples, both are selfish and ignorant, but in different ways, but do you think Satan cared which side of the coin they were on? I don’t, he just loved taking advantage of what was really in their hearts, fear. One feared the virus and the other feared a cage, both would have been better suited by praying to God for patience and compassion and a speedy end to the pandemic, but they never thought about that part. The darkness of our lives begins to become almost a comfort to us. The fear of change is still a very powerful fear and even those with the best of intentions can fall prey to just how powerfully Satan prods us along the path of his making.
Take Adam and Eve’s son Cain for example. Both Abel and Cain brought offerings to God, but only Abel’s was accepted. We are not told why God disapproved of Cain’s offering, but we could assume that it was less than what God thought Cain could have given. God even warns Cain in Genesis 4:6-7, “Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” God is telling Cain to be careful with what his heart desires, if he desires good, good will be accepted, but if he desires what is not right, then Satan, the prowling lion is waiting at his door. We know what happens next, Cain does not heed God’s words and he kills his own brother because of envy.
Often, I talk about darkness in this world, because it’s true, and you would have to be a fool or blind to not see it, and I am not going to be one of these modern-day soothsayers that stands at the pulpit and preaches through rose-colored glasses. With that being said, I will not show you the darkness without giving you hope through God for the promise of a better way. I believe that we must name the darkness and recognize it for what it is, if we want to get to the other side of it. As I said before, we can become accustomed to living in the dark so much that we shun the light. I have known people in my life that became so far removed from God that they literally loved the darkness. Almost like a vampire, they lived for the night. Life had let them down and their reaction was to do what made them feel good, drugs. They self-medicated, without even consciously knowing it, and soon, like any addiction, they couldn’t get enough to make them feel good anymore. They were up all night long, using and on the hunt for drugs. They stole, they sold themselves, they lied, they would probably have even killed if necessary for their next fix. The dark, for dark deeds and dark thoughts, and come morning, in the light of day, they would find the darkest room to pass out and give some rest to their poisoned bodies and minds, shunning the light because of what it revealed to them. They didn’t like to look at themselves in the mirror anymore. They couldn’t stand their own images because the part of them that was the real them was repulsed by what they had become. As I said before, they had become accustomed to the darkness and fearful of what change might bring them. They felt lost, like there was no more love for them, at least not the kind of love that we know to be real love, selfless love. They were stuck and depression had taken them down the rest of the way, now utterly repulsive to even themselves. They had nothing left, or so they thought.
One night after one too many hits, they laid almost lifeless in a city park and were picked up by the local police who took them to a hospital. The doctor on duty decided that they had seen these people one to many times lately and had them admitted to a mental health facility where they could dry up safely and get the kind of care they needed. After three months they were admitted to a half-way house for more care and therapy that would last another six months. During this time period they were introduced to a twelve-step program, which although they rejected it at first, they began to embrace it with time. Through this program they were introduced to a god of their own understanding. In time, when the poison had left their bodies and their brains began to function once more, they remembered attending church with neighbors when they were young. As they read the words of Scripture, they began to feel the presence of something or someone that they had never remembered experiencing before. Reading in the Gospel of John 10:7-11 they heard Jesus say these words,
“Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
That was it, those were the words of life that really rang true in their lives. The god of their own understanding had now become the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Jesus became the One true Son of God.
They ran to their room and in the full light of day looked at themselves in the mirror for the first time in years. They were shocked at what they saw, but hopeful for the first time in a long time, maybe the first time ever. Hopeful for what Jesus had just told them, that He had come to give them abundant life and they He had died for that to take place. They went outside and it happened to be spring, May in fact, and they wondered if they had ever seen a more perfect day. The sun was shining bright and warm, with just a few puffy white clouds in a sea of blue. The birds were singing and flying summersaults in the air. Lilacs were blooming near the corner of the building and their sweet fragrance filled the air in every direction. As they walked around the corner there was a park filled with flowering trees, dogwoods, crabapples, and magnolias were in varying degrees of flowering and were wonderful to behold. They couldn’t ever remember seeing life in this light before. All the beauty of creation right here in this little park, and all seemingly for their benefit. This was a great day, a new day, the first day of the rest of their lives.
As I think of the story of these people, I am reminded of Isaiah 61:1-3 as the prophet describes the Messiah,
“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.”
"You don’t have to be an addict to experience this same thing. Aren’t we all brokenhearted, captives of some vice, prisoners living in some form of darkness, and those living with grief? We all are in need of the saving power of Jesus Christ." ~ Pastor Henry Rafferty
Messiah had truly come to these troubled people who were poor, brokenhearted, captive to addiction and living in the darkness, some of which was of their own making, but Jesus will truly give comfort to them and crown them with beauty instead of ashes. No more will they live in despair but live to praise God for all that He has done in their lives, for they were truly lost, yet found and saved by Jesus Christ.
You don’t have to be an addict to experience this same thing. Aren’t we all
brokenhearted, captives of some vice, prisoners living in some form of darkness, and those living with grief? We all are in need of the saving power of Jesus Christ. He has come for you. The spring trees are blooming just for you, the sun is shining in the bluest sky for your benefit. This is the hope that God gives us through the blood of Jesus Christ. We no longer need to sit in a pile of ashes for Christ has replaced them with beauty. Whenever you look on anything beautiful, remember that God has made it for you as a reminder of His precious love. Thanks be to Almighty God. Amen.