“The spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
for his has anointed me […]
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 splendour.“ Isaiah 61, vv 1 (part), 2 and 3
What stunning imagery. What transformation into hope and fresh purpose!
Isaiah is the key prophet of the old testament. He often draws imagery from nature, which easily crosses cultures and speaks to us directly today.
Back when I was at school, I did the first term of art ‘A’ level, and my one painting was an entirely unsubtle comparison between the raised branches of a fruit tree, and someone standing before it with raised arms. In hindsight it probably looked like tree-worship, but I was definitely aiming at something joyful and celebratory, trying to capture the wonderful display of something splendid in the reaching branches of a fruitful tree, and its similarity to the optimistic celebration of a girl with her arms raised high into the air. I’m curious now what led me to paint that, deep down, because it wasn’t a natural stance, a fact which was very evident when my friend Rosie sportingly modelled for it.
Now, looking back, the pose is very familiar: it’s how what people naturally do in moments of celebration and joy. It’s what people in many churches (and football stadia) do when we are free to express perhaps euphoria at the majesty of God, at his sovereignty, his goodness; to try to express something superlative. My painting looks to me now much more like a regular experience in worship: maybe it was prophetic art.
These words are some of the most beautiful in the Bible. I once asked a Christian friend at university what they really wanted in life. ‘Consolation’ came the answer. I believe now that God wants much more for us than just consolation: Jesus said he came to bring life, and life to the full. I think he is more ambitious for us than we are: not content with us knowing that God is technically worthy of praise, he loves it when we know it fully, practically, bodily.
God really does replace despair with joy that turns to praise. I’ve known people whose entire demeanour altered when they were rescued from despair. One friend who changed his career, almost overnight stopped carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.
When one is in ‘sackcloth and ashes’, mourning and in despair, it’s hard to imagine such radical transformation to be possible. It’s true that it’s rarely instantaneous. But God does transform us. When I look back on my life I can truly say I wouldn’t turn the clock back for anything. God’s presence is so often experienced as peace or joy. We have so much to praise Jesus for in the present, and the remarkable truth is that we have reasonable expectation of so much more.