Message Manuscript for “Coal in Your Stocking?” Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11
Delivered to Church for the Highlands
Third Sunday of Advent, December 17, 2017
[Audio of this sermon is here]
Have you ever been told that all you would get for Christmas is coal in your stocking? Better yet, have you ever actually gotten coal in your stocking? According to Wikipedia, threatening to put coal in a person’s stocking is an old tradition in Western culture that parents would use with a child who has been naughty rather than nice. Santa would put coal in their stocking rather than a toy. It’s a “you get what you deserve” approach to Christmas.
What we’ve heard this morning from Isaiah is just the opposite of that approach. God wanted Israel to know that they could rejoice in knowing that there would be no coal involved. God was giving them a beautiful gift, not a punishment. As Isaiah puts it, they would receive “a garland instead of ashes.” A garland was a cherished gift, a trophy awarded for being a winner or a victor in battle. It was a highly sought after ornament of beauty. Ashes, however, were unwanted as they signified loss and mourning. A garland was for victory and joy.
God wanted Israel to see themselves and their circumstances in a whole new way, a difficult task for them as their eyes were confronted with the reality of loss. They had been freed from captivity in Babylon and were back home in Israel. They were home, but it was one in ruins, devastating and depressing to behold. They wondered how they would ever rebuild their homes, lives, businesses, families, and Temple. No doubt they had trouble seeing anything beyond the rubble. So God sends Isaiah to change their outlook by casting a new vision of restoration, helping them to see not what once was but what could be. In particular, they were to see beauty, not ashes.
You can’t watch TV these days without having to scroll past a plethora of home fixer up shows. There’s Fixer Upper, Flip Flop Texas, Flip Flop Fort Worth, Texas Flip and Move, Flip That House, Flip This House, This Old House, Rehab Addict, Renovation Realities, Bath Crashers, Property Brothers, House Doctor, If Walls Could Talk, Louisiana Flip and Flop, Straight Plan for the Gay Man, and Extreme Makeover just to name a few. It’s amazing how popular such an unpleasant and expensive restoration can be. Maybe the reason we watch these shows is that we like watching other people in pain, going through the misery of restoration. Or, maybe its that we genuinely love the before and after of something old and dilapidated getting renewed and repurposed. Maybe, in some way, watching these shows gives us hope for our own homes—and our own lives.
Like Israel returning from exile to a city in ruins, so we are in need of restoration. What restoration requires is a vision. We must have a vision of what is to be. We aren’t to spend our time staring at the rubble and debris of what once was; we are, instead, to see how God wants to put all those pieces back together to make something new. This is God’s restoration show and its called “Beauty for Ashes.” It, however, isn’t something we sit back and watch from the comfort of our couches; it is a reality show that requires our full participation, our sweat equity. God gives us the vision and invites us to see it and work on bringing it to be.
So, where are we in that work? Are we catching God’s vision for what and who we are to be? The universal church is in decline, experiencing attrition in membership, attendance, and influence. Religious pollsters have discovered that people are rejecting the church no so much out of anger but for irrelevance. What they see of church in the news, in politics, and in the lives of people who attend church is often hypocrisy, self-centeredness, and fundamentalism. Many churches around the world, and especially in the U.S, are in denial of this, thinking all that is needed is more fervor, bigger and better buildings, hipper music, and more Christian channels and Christian movies. Some churches that have tried all these and found them wanting have decided to circle the wagons to fight for preservation. Wouldn’t the church of today be more effective if it caught God’s vision for restoration; seeing beauty instead of ashes?
What about us, as individuals? Are we more focused on the destruction of our lives than on the beauty of what God can bring from it? Think about what could happen in your life if you allowed God’s vision of restoration to capture your eye’s focus? What could happen if you join God’s work of forgiveness, liberation, and healing in your life? Imagine what you will become as you lift your eyes from the ashes of the past to see the beauty of what God is making you to be. Imagine how you can rejoice now, surrounded by the ashes, yet dancing on them wildly as you see that God is doing a new thing.