“Beauty For Ashes” December 17, 2023
“Beauty For Ashes”
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11/ Psalm 126
Luke 1:39-56 / John 1:6-28, 19-28
“ For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Almighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.” To me, these words from the 9th chapter of Isaiah almost serve as a Clarion call to what is to be and to what we can expect from the coming of the Messiah into this world. “He will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Almighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.” We have since learned to call our Emmanuel or God in the flesh, many other names over the centuries, but these prophetic words of Isaiah still hold true, and for most of us this comes as no surprise.
So, for this day, the third Sunday of Advent as we grow closer and closer to the celebration of the coming of Christ, I would like to focus on the calling that we have both as individuals and as the church to bring the light of Christ out into the world. Our gospel readings today supply two great examples of the faithful who sought to bring the light of Christ to a world that was desperately in need .
The first, of course, was Mary the mother of God. We can only imagine the confusion and fear that would have accompanied this young woman as she trekked across the desert to announce to her cousin the good news of her pregnancy, even though her family and friends did not consider this to be good news at all. We can only imagine. It is important to remember, however, that Mary didn’t make this trip for a casual visit. She came bearing the the light, the life affirming light. of the Messiah.
Also, from the gospel of John, we are introduced once again, to “a man sent from God, whose name was John the Baptist. He came as a witness, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.” Jn 6:1
Now, no matter what your personal opinion may be of John the Baptist, and he was kind of a weird dude, there is no question that his influence and his example was monumental in preparing the population to be receptive to the gospel that Jesus would preach to them. It was huge. But the point that I wish to stress today is that the work of John the baptizer was not a singular event. For hundreds of years, there have been voices calling in the wilderness leading us to the light of Jesus Christ. From the voices of Mother Teresa to Father Rivera; from Saint Francis to the preachers and theologians of today, we have heard a thousand variations of the same proclamation: “ For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Almighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”
These are the churches that start up a food bank program even though their finances can scarcely support it. These are the individuals who can’t wait to talk with total strangers about their faith and the light it has cast into their lives. And these are the groups who take it upon themselves to show up at hospitals and bedsides and at times of distress and trouble. There are plenty of voices encouraging us that the dark times in our lives are never permanent. These are the voices that speak with joy of the light that Christ has brought to the world.
You know, I don’t often quote long passages from others but this little gem from my favorite Lutheran, Delmer Chilton, was just too good to pass up.
“ Most people have heard of Habitat for Humanity. Few remember that it grew out of an amazing interracial community in Americus, Ga. called Koinonia Farm. Many people have heard of the Cotton-Patch version of the gospels, but few can remember the name of the author/translator. “There was a man sent from God whose name was Clarence Jordan.” He created the cotton-patch gospels, started Koinonia Farm, and gave the go-ahead for Habitat for Humanity.
Clarence Jordan was an academic with a Ph.D. in New Testament Greek and a passion for social justice. When people gave Jordan too much credit for being an educated man who led uneducated people to enlightenment in the area of racial harmony, Jordan would say “That’s not so, we learned that from each other.” Then he would tell this story:
Back in the 1950’s Jordan was invited to preach in a Missionary Baptist Church in rural Georgia. As he settled into his seat on the platform near the pulpit, he was startled to look out and see that white and black people were sitting in church together all over the sanctuary. After the service was over, Jordan said to the pastor, an old uneducated country preacher, “How did this church get this way?” The preacher said, “What way?” Jordan said, “White and black people in church together.” The preacher looked at him and said, “Well ain’t that the way the Bible says we’re supposed to be?”
Jordan was dumbfounded. He had preached integration to well-heeled and well-educated congregations all over the south, to no avail. He had to know this man’s secret, he had to know what he had done.
Jordan said, “You know what I’m talking about. You know this is unusual, almost unheard of. How did you do it.?”
The old preacher took a deep breath and said, “Well. about ten years ago this church was about to die. They couldn’t get a preacher. They asked me. I said I would if I could have a free hand to preach the straight Gospel. They said fine. So the first Sunday I preached on Galatians 3:28. No male, no female, no Jew, no Greek, no slave, no free, all one in Christ. And I said if you’re a true Christian you don’t pay no attention to skin color. Well, a lot of folks didn’t like that and quit coming. I preached this church down to about 20 people, then it started to turn around. People who believed the gospel, believed we really are all one in Christ, started to join and it went from there. We didn’t let nobody join that wasn’t a true Christian. If they still thought there was any difference between white folks and black folks, they couldn’t be a member.”
Dr. Jordan was given a ride by a member of the church who was a professor at a nearby college. Jordan asked the man, “Why do you go to that church? Why do you listen to that preacher? He can’t complete one sentence without making a gross grammatical error. Why do you go?” The professor smiled and said, “I go because that man shows me Christ, and Christ is the light I need in order to see my way through the world.”
What is needed to change the world is not more learning but more light, more of the light of Christ shining into all the dark corners of our lives. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
The Baptizer knew about the world’s need for light. And he knew that Jesus was that light. John the Baptizer also knew his own role, his own purpose in God’s plan. He was sent from God to be a witness, a giver of testimony, a confessor of Christ. The old country preacher in south Georgia knew the world needed light, and he knew who he was too – he knew what his role was; he knew God had sent him to that church to point to Christ, no matter the cost.”
So as we hear the stories of Mary and her cousin, Elizabeth along with the graphic descriptions of John the Baptist which, we do every year at this time, let’s be glad that they are the stories of our faith . These are our stories. . But let’s also be glad that these stories don’t stop at the end of the page. They go on- they continue on in the lives and the actions of the many faithful followers of Christ in our world and in our midst. The influence of Christ, the power of Christ, and the comfort of the love of Christ goes on. This is the story we wish to tell as the church. We are called to tell the story of a Messiah the changes lives: that has changed our lives.
In our reading from Isaiah today, the prophet begins by announcing. “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the suffering and afflicted.” It may be somewhat of a loose interpretation but these words, to me, give to us a fair understanding of what Jesus is all about. “He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted, to announce liberty to captives, and to open the eyes of the blind.” He goes on to say. “He has sent me to tell those who mourn that the time of God’s favor to them has come. . To all who mourn in Israel he will give: beauty for ashes; joy instead of mourning; praise instead of heaviness.”
“He will give beauty for ashes.” I’ve always wondered what that meant, . Come to find out that when Isaiah writes the words “beauty for ashes,” he uses Hebrew language that cannot be translated into English. The Hebrew word for beauty used here refers to a headdress, turban, or tiara. God is stating that he is going to wipe out the ashes upon your head and replace it with a beautiful headdress. Well OK, I can go for that even though it is no longer a tradition to cover ourselves with ashes when we are in mourning.
At the same time, it caused me to remember a praise song by the same name- Beauty For Ashes- so let me close with some of the lyrics of this song; they speak for me as loudly has some of the great prophecies of ancient writings.
No longer ashamed, no longer afraid
You have washed me white as snow
No longer bound, now I am crowned
Once in darkness now I know
And You give me beauty for ashes
And You pull me close to Your heart
You have turned my mourning to dancing
That’s what You do, that’s who You are
That’s what you do, that’s who you are. Welcome to the season of light and may the light of Christ shine from us all as a beacon: a beacon of hope. A beacon of joy, a beacon of peace, and a beacon of love.
Amen and Shalom