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Joined: 2007/5/22
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 Garlands for ashes - Baxter


“A garland instead of ashes” – Isaiah 61:3.

I can never forget my first visit to the Hawaiian islands. We arrived at the magic hour when an enchanting , starry night was shyly retiring before the peering eyes of new morning. Amid the rosy flush of dawn a scene of almost fairyland picturesqueness lay before us. As our good ship, Aorangi, glided smoothly into the pretty little harbour of Honolulu, the romantic melody of a Hawaiian folk-song floated to us across the scintillating water, played by a flamboyant early-morning band. Lining the waterfront were Hawaiians in bright costumes of florid colours, welcoming us, and gently waving garlands of exotic flowers. Word had somehow gone before that we were on board, and to our surprise seven Christian gentlemen were at the wharf to greet us, each of them carrying a garland, or “lei” (as the Hawaiians call it). Then a mortifying experience befell me. According to custom, each of the seven gentlemen put his “lei” round my wife’s neck, and kissed her! – leaving me a disappointed spectator, with not a lady to do the same for me!

Besides the happy humour of that cheerful landing, however, there was something else which fixed the occasion indelibly in my memory. As I saw my dear one, looking so beautiful with those seven floral garlands gracefully adorning her, my mind went back to Isaiah 61: 1-3 and its wonderful fore-picture of Jesus: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, because Jehovah hath anointed Me to preach good tidings to the meek. He hath sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives…to comfort all that mourn; to give unto them a garland instead of ashes; the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.”

Yes, Jesus came as our Saviour, to give “a garland instead of ashes”. The King James version renders it “beauty for ashes”, but strictly the Hebrew word is “a garland”. Oh, the ashes of this sin-cursed earth! Ashes are the symbol of sorrow, sadness, grief, bereavement, failure, despair. The garland is a lovely fragrant symbol of joy, gladness, blessing, success, reward. Our gracious Saviour, the Son of God, comes to replace the ashes of earthly sin and sorrow and bitterness with heaven-bestowed garlands of salvation and consolation and blessing. He came to give the garland of hope for the ashes of fear; the garland of love for the ashes of hate; the garland of new promise for the ashes of regret; the garland of divine friendship for the ashes of human loneliness; the garland of joy in God for the ashes of sorrow in sin; the garland of inward healing for the ashes of soul-sickness; the garland of moral victory for the ashes of defeat; the garland of spiritual liberty for the ashes of bondage; the garland of heart’s ease for the ashes of unrest; the garland of godly contentment for the ashes of worldly envy; the garland of a worthwhile life for the ashes of godless pleasure.

Like a fuddling miasma, the idea overhangs the minds of many people, that Christianity drapes human life with sombreness. They mistake churchianity for Christianity. They equate “Jesus” merely with “religion”. It is a deplorable misunderstanding. Jesus came to bedeck human life with garlands – not with funeral wreaths! Let us continually seek to dispel the delusion which beclouds many minds. May they see in you and me that radiant joy which only Jesus gives!


“A garland instead of ashes” – Isaiah 61:3.

To continue our pleasant little reminiscence of before, when I saw my dear wife adorned with those seven garlands, or “leis”, at Honolulu, I thought especially of seven garlands which our Lord Jesus enrings around those who receive Him as Saviour and Sovereign. Let me mention two of them here, in this present meditation.

First, He gives the garland of imputed righteousness for the ashes of guilt. The word, “guilt”, is a legal term. The Bible teaches that as sinners we are “guilty” before God. Besides having inherited a sinful nature as members of Adam’s fallen race, we have committed sins of our own – sins too many to count and too deadly to assess. We have to admit, as did Joseph’s brothers, “We are truly guilty.” Guilt brings condemnation. We are “under condemnation”, says God’s Word. But this tragic plight of ours is counter-matched by the Gospel doctrine of “justification”, or imputed righteousness. The Romans epistle teaches that when Jesus voluntarily became our Sinbearer on the Cross, our guilt was imputed, or reckoned, to Him, and that now His righteousness may be imputed, or reckoned, to us. Because of this, Romans 5:1 assures us, “Therefore, being justified (reckoned righteous before God) by faith (which accepts Jesus as Saviour) we have peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Oh, it is a blessed, soul-saving thing to have this new standing of “justification”, before God, and to wear the garland of Christ’s imputed righteousness instead of the ashes of our soul-condemning guilt!

Second, Jesus brings us the garland of a heavenly Father’s forgiveness for the ashes of helpless remorse. What is more wonderful than to find that God our Creator is not only the heavenly Judge who now “justifies” us in Christ, but the heavenly Father who compassionately forgives us for Jesus’ sake? His forgiveness is ours when we become “reconciled to God by the death of His Son” (Rom. 5:10). There could be no such forgiveness apart from the Cross, for the principles of divine righteousness are involved in the way God deals with sin. Even God must needs find a morally consistent way of exercising forgiveness. The Cross of Christ dealt with that aspect of the human sin-problem once for all. After that Cross, none of the myriad onlooking intelligences in the universe could ever allege that God forgives human sinners at the expense of those moral principles which condition the safety of the universe. Through that Cross there comes to us a full, free, forever forgiveness. Jesus shows us the compassionateness of that forgiveness in the parable of the prodigal son. When the prodigal dragged himself home, covered with the ashes of remorse, he little expected what transpired. The father “had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him”. Oh, it was such a glad, magnanimous, overflowing forgiveness! And Jesus offers to every other penitent heart this garland of forgiveness for the ashes of helpless remorse.
Oh, wonderful heart of the Father above,
For homecoming prodigals, pardoning love!
A full reinstatement as son of the King!
A garland of gladness, a robe and a ring!
Oh, come, ragged prodigal, hasten today;
Forgiveness awaits you; why longer delay?


“A garland instead of ashes” – Isaiah 61:3.

Jesus offers us the garland of new spiritual life for the ashes of spiritual death. Do you know that song about “England’s green and pleasant land”? I have roamed far around the world, but I know of no lovelier scene than the countryside of “England’s green and pleasant land” on a smiling, sunny day in Spring. Oh, those homey hills, and fresh-budded hedgerows, and dear old winding lanes, and tidy fields all carpeted with rich green! Those of us who were brought up among them can never forget them. They cast a continual spell over one’s memory. And every year that lovely miracle of transformation is repeated. Every year Spring comes and enrings the countryside with her garland of new life after the cold, grey ashes of wintry death. And what a silent, eloquent, exquisite parable it always is, of the new spiritual life which regenerates those who receive the Saviour! Jesus garlands us not only with imputed righteousness and a heavenly Father’s forgiveness, but with new spiritual springtide in resurrection-union with Himself. By His Spirit He indwells us, and renews us, and transforms us. Did He not say, in John 10:10, “I am come that they might have life (corresponding to Spring) and that they might have it more abundantly” (corresponding to summer)? Yes, Jesus brings the garland of new spiritual life after the dull, mournful ashes of deadness towards God; the new life of spiritual Spring, the full life of spiritual Summer; then, in the golden yet-to-be, the endless glory-harvest of heaven!

But again, Jesus offers us the garland of joy and peace instead of the ashes of sin and unrest. Not only does He gladden us by an assurance of peace toward God, through His Cross which puts away our sin; but if we really commit ourselves to Him, He gently garlands our hearts with a tranquilizing sense of peace from God. The peace of heaven quietly possesses us, and we know that because we are completely His, all is well fundamentally for time and eternity. Friend, is your life like an agitated sea which cannot rest? Is it disturbed by fear, anxiety, temper, wrong desire, passion, envy? Well, we are not exaggerating: Jesus offers you true joy and peace. In John 14:27 and 15:11 He actually speaks of His own peace and joy indwelling us; and thousands have proved how really He fulfils His word.

Jesus also brings us the garland of victory and holiness for the ashes of defeat. There cannot be unclouded joy in any life without mastery over sin and self. We have money, position, entertainment, and many other gratifications, but if there is defeat there is wretchedness. Oh, how many of us know what it is to sit down amid the ashes of defeat, and weep our eyes out at the abjectness of our slavery! These blurting tongues of ours which seem beyond all power to bridle them! These unruly thoughts of evil which seem incurably innate in our nature! These oft-repeated collapses before temptation! We have cried out with Paul, “Oh, wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me?” Thank God, many of us have learned to say with the disciples of old, “Lord, even the demons are subject unto us through Thy name” (Luke 10:17). “Who is he that overcometh the world?” Alexander? Caesar? No; you do not overcome the “world”, in a moral sense, by swinging a sword or firing a gun. “Who is he that overcometh? … He that believeth [relies on] Jesus, the Son of God” (1 Jn. 5:5).


“A garland instead of ashes” – Isaiah 61:3.

Recently, at a luncheon group of businessmen, I heard a big, impressive man give his testimony. He had been in prison for larceny, violence, and other felonies, but mostly for drunkenness. He had been an alcoholic. No prison or other institution could cure him. He had been in such a state that even in prison he was kept in solitary separation. Then, one day, a group of Gospel singers visited that prison. He heard a woman testify that Jesus had saved her from alcoholism. There and then he flung himself down and accepted Jesus as his Saviour. In all the years since, he has never touched the cursed drink. His health is restored. His face is radiant. His testimony is vibrant with victory. The only marks of the old wretchedness are the disfigurements where several times he tried to commit suicide. He now goes round telling other drink-slaves the way of victory through Christ. As he gave his testimony, I could see, with my inner eyes, a lovely garland around him – that garland which Jesus gives to those who really trust Him, the garland of victory for the ashes of defeat and shame.

But further, Jesus gives the garland of resurrection for the ashes of the grave. Most of us have stood at the opened grave and heard the funeral dirge. “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes”, over the body of a loved one. The eyes and lips which smiled their love to us are gone beyond recall. The arms which embraced us no longer move. Oh, bleak, heartless grave, if thou art the final word, what stark futility is all human life and love! But, O grave, thou art not a final blank. Jesus has risen, “bringing life and immortality to light”. Boast not thyself against us, O grave, for even these thou shalt not long retain! As for thee, O death, Jesus has transformed thee into sleep. “The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible.” In that transfiguring climax, Jesus shall change the ashes of our graves into the fadeless garland of immortality!

Yet again, Jesus gives the garland of heaven for the ashes of earth. Many of us, as we reach our later years, sing with new pathos Henry F. Lyte’s words, “Change and decay in all around I see.” Old friends and old times are gone. What changes! How transitory everything is! Worst of all, amid the unresting flux is unhalting decay. Fairest flowers wilt and wither. Greenest foliage turns sear and yellow. In the end, the worm and the canker win. Youth and maturity decline into grey age. The bouquet of the wedding day becomes the melancholy wreath on a coffin lid. To live only for this world leaves nothing but ashes in the end. But for the redeemed in Christ it is the very opposite. To be “absent from the body” is to be “present with the Lord”. Instead of spent fires and pathetic ashes there is the unfading garland of eternal glory in the land where the roses never fade, and the sun never sets, and the night never comes, and sickness never invades, and death never divides; the land where, instead of moth and rust and corruption and decay, there are “fountains of living waters” which never run dry, and sinless raptures which never have an end! Oh, this wonderful Jesus – Friend of sinners, Saviour of Souls! “The wages of sin is death,” but the garlands which Jesus bestows are forgiveness, and righteousness, and new life, and victory, and holiness, and immortality, and heavenly glory!

J. Sidlow Baxter


 2007/10/30 5:25Profile

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