The season of Lent is all about repentance as we come to terms with our own sin and solemnly await the crucifixion of Christ. Still, our repentance is intermingled with the celebration of a God who takes our worst and redeems it for His glory.
During the 40 days leading to Easter, Christians are encouraged to deny themselves to become more faithful to God, but this can be a difficult journey for most of us. We can look to the people of Israel for some encouragement — or at least camaraderie in the ashes.
In Isaiah 61, the people are under judgment in exile in Babylon. But in the midst of their suffering, God reveals His plan to redeem the people through His Suffering Servant, pointing toward Jesus.
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound … to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.” Isaiah 61:1-3
The Lord’s Servant redeems Israel so that they may become oak trees — grand, fruitful, and strong, with long twisting branches reaching to meet anyone who sees them.
Most days though I feel more like the pine tree seedling growing on my windowsill. He’s an awkward little sprout with funky hair. He offers no shade and would crumble into the dirt if you poked him too hard.
What makes the Isaiah oak so different from my pine tree toddler?
That oak is planted near a water source, which allows her to grow strong and healthy, bearing fruit for food and providing rest in her branches (Psalm 1:3). She stays green even in the scorching heat because, no matter her outward circumstances, her roots grow hungry toward the life-giving stream (Jeremiah 17:8).
Oaks of righteousness don’t flourish out of self-assurance or nice weather. They rely on the refreshing water source of God’s grace and truth. They are planted, fed, and pruned by the Lord. He is the source of their beauty.
This oak isn’t growing of her own willpower, and she can’t pride herself in her beauty.
“They may be called oaks of righteousness… That he may be glorified.”
Another translation: “That he may display his beauty.”
When I read this, my unfinished story gets a stunning bow placed on top. I also feel the conviction that I made the “Beauty from Ashes” narrative all about me when it was always all about God.
I am not the beauty in the story of my life. The wonderful people of my church are not the beauty in the Twin Cities. God does His redeeming work because He is beautiful. He sent His son as the suffering servant to display the beauty of His love, grace, and forgiveness.
We are simply the trees He planted.
It doesn’t matter if the sun tries to scorch our leaves or our life circumstances feel too much to bear; we are planted by a life-giving river that nourishes our roots.
“For as the earth brings forth its sprouts, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all nations.” Isaiah 61:11