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Sunday, December 15, 2019 | 4:00 p.m.

The Blooming Desert: Joyful Hope

Nanette Sawyer
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Isaiah 35:1–10
Matthew 11:1–15


What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?

Jesus questioned the crowds who were following him. Did you go out to see a reed shaken by the wind? In the time of John the Baptist, King Herod used the reed as a symbol of his kingship. It appeared on the coins that Herod had made (and around the edges it said, this belongs to Herod).

Was Jesus making a reference to Herod when he went on to ask his followers, did you go to look for palaces and people wearing soft robes? Apparently Herod and others had their lush homes along the Jordan River Valley where John also hung out. If you collaborated with the Romans to keep the Jews in subservience to the Empire you might be able to have a large home or even a palace (Ronald Allen, “Commentary on Matthew 11:2–11,” Working Preacher, 11 December 2016, www.workingpreacher.org).

Were the people going to look at those, to look at the perks and signs of power you can get when you collaborate with the group in power to keep others in their subservient place?

Was this reed, this symbol of the kingship of King Herod, shaken by John the Baptist and his message? Herod had thrown John in jail because John had the courage to criticize Herod’s behavior. Herod had divorced his wife and married his brother’s wife, Herodias. John spoke against it and was thrown in jail for his boldness.

Maybe John was the wind that shook that reed of Herod’s kingship. He questioned Herod’s righteousness.

Or maybe it was the opposite. Maybe John was the reed. Maybe Herod was the wind that shook John up, throwing him into prison.

John had been solid. He had baptized Jesus; he had proclaimed Jesus as the one to follow; he had said he wasn’t worthy to untie the sandal on Jesus’ foot. Jesus was the one.

And now John’s in prison, and he’s asking, are you the one, Jesus?

Some commentators have said that the reed shaken by the wind is a symbol of John’s wavering—like a tree blowing in the wind, leaning this way and that way, not steady, not clear. Not strong. Maybe John was the reed.

Jesus said, the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence since the time of John the Baptist and up until now. The violent take the kingdom by force (Matthew 11:12). That was true when John was thrown into prison and later killed, and it was true when Matthew’s Gospel was written, years after Jesus’ resurrection. The kingdom of heaven suffered violence then and now, Jesus said.

In that context, John had doubts. And like John we can have doubts when we see the violence around us or feel it directed at us. Suffering can make us wonder if God is really with us. We lose a job, we run out of money, we wonder how we will pay the rent. We lose a loved one due to a broken relationship or because of death. The grief and the loneliness sets in. We end up in jail or we end up imprisoned in an addiction that felt like freedom in the beginning but became a new kind of incarceration.

We see the violence in our world that tears at the fabric of God’s kingdom, God’s realm of justice and peace. We see children in cages and mass incarceration of adults that has reeled out of control.

Where is God? Were we mistaken to testify that God is a God of justice and love? John asked, are you the one we are to follow, or are we to wait for another? It’s easy to understand the doubt.

Jesus’s answer to John wasn’t a yes-or-no answer. Jesus described the scandalous work he was involved in. I heal, he basically said. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

“And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me,” he goes on to say. Why would someone take offense at people being made well? This word offense can also be translated as scandal, or stumbling block. You may remember a scripture that describes Jesus as a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:23).

That phrase “stumbling block” is the same Greek word. Jesus is a scandal, a stumbling block, an offense—because he is changing the system. He is healing the broken and bringing in the people who are abandoned and left on the outskirts of society. He is eating with people that society tells him he should not eat with. He’s loving people that society tells him it’s not OK to love. It’s an offense to the way things are and the way things should be, as some people say.

Biblical scholar and preacher D. Mark Davis has suggested that maybe the medical miracles that Jesus did, the healings, could be better described as acts of resistance. Davis wrote, “Since illness or disability or even premature death were often described as acts of punishment by God, maybe by curing them in the name of God, Jesus is redescribing them” (D. Mark Davis, “JTB: Faithful Inquirer,” Left Behind and Loving It, 4 December 2016, leftbehandandlovingit.blogspot.com).

In curing all these people in the name of God, Jesus shows that they are not being punished by God. Instead, they are the beloved of God. Through all his healing work, Jesus seems to be saying, these people are suffering not because of the wrath of God at all, but for other reasons. According to Davis, “If . . . illness and wellness are matters of communal health, rather than simply medical issues, the scandal/stumbling block would be the implied criticism of the conditions that have allowed such things to exist.”

The scandal, the offense, is that Jesus is resisting “the way things are,” the injustices that make people ill, that prevent them from getting the help and care they need, the things that isolate them from communities that can thrive together.

Rather than simply calling these healing miracles, maybe we can call them acts of resistance and proclamation of God’s love and justice (D. Mark Davis, “JTB: Faithful Inquirer”).

Jesus says to the messengers from John, go back and tell John that. Tell him what is happening. Tell him about the healings and the resistance to exclusion and isolation.

And then Jesus turns to the crowds to teach them about John and about the work. The violent take the kingdom by force, he says. And so he implies that you, the crowds, the listeners, may be shaken by those winds, too.

Preacher David Lose reminds us that the Christian life is not “one seamless march forward from success to success, or even from less faith to more.” The Christian life is a real life, with all the ups and downs and traumas that happen to human beings.

Speaking of Matthew’s Gospel, Lose goes on to say that, “Jesus . . . came and comes as Emmanuel, God with us, the one who does not eliminate all our troubles but accompanies us through them; the one who holds onto us when the world feels like it’s falling apart; the one who enters into our suffering and struggle and so reminds us that we are not alone; and the one who promises to bring us through all things even and ultimately through death to new life.” (David Lose, “Advent 3A: John’s Blue Christmas,” In the Meantime, 6 December 2016, www.davidlose.net).

When we join our hearts with Christ’s heart and join our wills with God’s will for justice, it makes us stronger sometimes, but it always makes us less alone.

We are called to participate with God in Christ in the work of loving and healing the world. But it’s not just all up to us. I believe that God is at work too.

A beautiful image that I have of this comes to mind in reflecting on our Isaiah reading from today. This portion of Isaiah that we heard, and that Lois danced to, is written about the time when the people, who have been living in exile, will be redeemed and brought back into their homeland. It describes in beautiful poetic language what this will be like.

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing” (Isaiah 35:1–2).

This blooming of the desert is something that God does. We do not do it. It’s a sign of God moving through all creation, through us, and through all of nature.

We don’t often think of the desert blooming, but there are always periods of blooming. They may be few and far between. But sometimes, there is not just minor blooming. There’s also something called a super bloom, when so many flowers bloom in the desert that you can see it from space in satellite photos.

What causes these super blooms? Harsh, undesirable conditions. Wilderness conditions, if you will.

Preaching professor Casey Thornburgh Sigmon described it this way:

What are the elements that lead up to a rare super bloom? Prolonged dormancy of course. Many wildflower seeds must remain asleep through many seasons and decide to wake up at roughly the same time after a long hibernation. The bloom is also helped by a long rainy season, followed by unusually cold winter to lock the moisture in. Harsh, undesirable conditions over many years seem to pave the way for the stunning explosion of a super bloom. (Casey Thornburgh Sigmon, “Commentary on Isaiah 35:1–10,” Working Preacher, 15 December 2019, www.workingpreacher.org)

And a biologist with the National Park Service in the Santa Monica Mountains said that fire is also a contributing factor. When things are destroyed by fire, life comes back. The heat and smoke from the fires can cause the seeds to germinate.

According to this biologist, “Typically following a fire, blankets of the lupine, phacelia, poppy, popcorn-flower, lily, snapdragon, and sunflower groups of plants as well as carpets of morning glory and wild cucumber can appear” (Kashmira Gander, “Super Bloom 2019,” Newsweek, 18 February 2019).

I saw the satellite photographs of the super bloom in 2017 and some incredible on-the-ground photographs of this year’s super bloom. The satellite photos showed the gray, black, and white desert landscape with large splotches of purple and splashes of orange.

The on-the-ground photos are close-ups showing purple, red, orange, yellow, and blue flowers. Professor Thornburgh Sigmon described it as looking like a Van Gogh painting. The splashes of abundant color draw people from miles around to see and photograph the beauty.

In Isaiah, the description of the desert blooming goes on to say:

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. . . . The redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 35:5–7, 9b–10)

The grass will become reeds. The people will be healed. And joy and gladness will flourish. This is a description of hope.

In Matthew, chapter 12, Jesus is described as a fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah:

Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. . . . He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until he brings justice to victory. And in his name the Gentiles will hope. (Matthew 12:18, 20–21)

Scripture says that this servant, this one we call Jesus, will not break a bruised reed. And if John the Baptist was a bruised reed, I think we might be bruised reeds too. With John we question Jesus, and we question God, are you the one we are to follow?

And I come around to this: I have got to believe in the blossoming of hearts, a blossoming that could be seen from space. I have got to believe in the illumination of minds by the power of the Holy Spirit and in the awakening of conscience that causes us to take a risk like John the Baptist did, like Jesus did, standing up to evil.

Jesus said that John the Baptist has come and is Elijah. John is the prophet signaling the turning around of society. That turning is not finished. We might be in a dry spell. We might be experiencing harsh conditions. There might even be a forest fire threatening our livelihood. But the seeds are being heated up in the ground, and some are starting to germinate. The turning, the healing, the transformation of our world is not finished, but it is begun.

Let us follow Jesus on the way. And let us pray that we will know Emmanuel when we see him in our days. Let us look everywhere around us for blossoms popping out of hardship, love blooming in the midst of fear, the water of life soothing the dry and brittle days of difficulty in life.

Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God-with-us and God-among-us, calls us to carry on, even if our ways are scandalous because they heal. We’re not in charge of the blooming of the desert, but we can prepare the way. May we do so, and may we find joy in the doing. Amen.