Talitha Arnold: And the Desert Shall Bloom

The rose bush really had no business being there. The ground was too hard with too many rocks. The rest of the yard could barely sustain grass, much less a three-foot high rose bush. Trash from the street collected against the fence and the children found bottles of various brands in the yard on a regular basis. The backyard of the Bristol Street house was no rose garden, not by any stretch of the imagination. That lone bush with the red roses really had no business being there.

My friend Joan had planted it when she and her family first moved from the housing projects across Bristol Street to the small frame house with the tiny backyard. She and her husband had lived in the inner city for 8 years by that time. With a third child, they needed more space than they’d had in the apartment – as well as some degree of privacy. Of course, people kept coming by at all hours even at that house. That came with the territory, or at least with their ministry.

Joan and her husband had helped develop a group ministry in the inner city after they both graduated from seminary and both of them were ordained. They had moved into the projects, lived on a subsistence salary (like most of their neighbors) and raised their family in one of the poorest areas of one of the poorest cities on the East Coast. Because of their work and their commitment to the people, they opened their house, like they had the apartment, to the neighborhood.

People came by at all hours of the day and night. Some were organizers and neighborhood leaders who came for meetings to discuss everything from rent control to rat control. Some were parents who needed another parent to talk with. Some were street people, needing food or a place to stay or simply someone to listen.

The work – and the life – were hard. Most of their neighbors lived so close to the edge – the edge of homelessness, the edge of total poverty, sometimes the edge of addiction. There were times when the needs were so great and the resources so small, when the poverty and racism seemed overwhelming. There were times when Joan felt close to the edge too, just a step away from despair.

I think that’s why she planted the rosebush. It really made no sense in that bit of a backyard. It was a hassle to water in the summer, and it always looked half dead in winter. But every spring, when it first tuned warm, Joan would go out and dig around the bush. She pruned it, fertilized it, worked the soil. And every year, it was filled with bright red roses.

Whenever life – or ministry – got to be too much, Joan would go out to the backyard. She’d sit in the dirt by her little rosebush, that had no business being there. It bloomed all summer long.

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,” sings the prophet in today’s lesson. “The desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus, it shall blossom abundantly.”

Most Biblical scholars agree that this 35th Chapter of Isaiah has no business being where it is either. The chapters all around it are harsh and desolate, filled with images of death and despair. Isaiah must tell the people that they have been unfaithful to God, grossly unfaithful. And he must also tell them the consequences of that faithlessness. A foreign nation will overrun them and take them away in captivity. They will be exiles and slaves, “gathered like persons in a pit, shut up in prison.”

Not only the people but even the land will suffer. Once Israel had been the vineyard of the Lord and Judah a pleasant planting. But now, says Isaiah, the hedge is torn down and the vineyard devoured. It is a wasteland, overgrown with briers and thorns (5:5-6). Like the people on the long march to exile, the “earth will stagger like a drunkard, it will fall and not rise again.” (24:20)

Those are the words of Isaiah, or at least what is known as “First Isaiah,” chapters 1 through 39. Words of destruction and desolation, words that describe deserts and wastelands, dried-up hopes and wasted lives. Such words echo through these first 39 chapters.

Everywhere except in chapter 35. This chapter uses different words like joy and rejoicing, strength and courage, streams and springs in the desert. Chapter 35 sings of promise and of life. Such joyous words seem out of place in the world of First Isaiah – as out of place perhaps, as a rosebush blooming on Bristol Street.

Today is the Third Sunday of Advent, the Joyous Sunday it’s sometimes called, which is why Isaiah 35 is one of the readings for the day. I don’t know about you but often by this time in these weeks before Christmas, I’ve about had my fill of joy. One more happy carol, one more smiling Santa, one more “Fa-la-la-la-la” and I’ll tilt into Scroogedom.

That’s why this passage is important for this day, two weeks before Christmas. The world around us will try to tell us where to find joy and how to celebrate and rejoice in these days. Isaiah 35 also tells of joy and rejoicing, but it is a particular kind of joy with some particular characteristics.

The chapter sings of the joy God gives – which is usually where we would least expect it. Not department stores or malls, but in more out-of-the-way places. In a backyard on Bristol Street. In a manger filled with straw. In a chapter found in First Isaiah.

Page after page of Isaiah is filled with sorrow and sadness. The prophet takes us deeper and deeper into the despair of the people and the desolation of the land. Chapter 34 tells of God’s rage against the nations, God has “doomed them, given them over to slaughter… All their host shall wither like a leaf withering on a vine or fruit withering on a fig tree.” (34:2-4) “The streams of Edom shall turn to pitch and her soil to sulfur… from generation to generation, it shall lie in waste.” (34:9-10)

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, comes a new word, a new vision of land that comes back to life – “like the crocus, it shall blossom abundantly” – a new vision of people who come back home. God will strengthen hands made weak by years of captivity. God will make firm knees feeble from walking. God will give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and courage to those who fear. There is no context for such a vision. Nothing that precedes this chapter gives a clue as to what is in store. Sometimes joy – God’s joy – comes like that.

There’s also no reason for this chapter. The people have not changed. There is no account of mass confession or mass repentance. No return to faith before the return from exile. There are simply the promises of a safe journey on a highway where “even fools” will not be led astray.

Everlasting joy will be on the heads of the people, but there is no rational reason for such gladness. The people have done nothing to deserve it. Chapter 35 is all God’s doing. Joy – the joy that God gives – is like that. That’s a good thing to remember, especially in this season. I doubt we’d have a whole lot to celebrate come Christmas if the joy God offered in Bethlehem was dependent on our deserving it.

Blossoms in the desert, streams in the dry land. Blind eyes that are opened and lonely people led home. That’s the vision of the 35th chapter of the Book of Isaiah. Joy that comes as a complete surprise. Joy that comes where it has no business being. Joy that comes not from our deserving, but from all God’s doing. Joy is like that.

“These are for you,” Mr. Lacy said as he handed my mother the flowers. “Shirley thought you might like them.” He stood on the porch, my mother too flustered to invite him in. That was probably good since the screen door kept him from seeing the tears that welled up in her eyes as she wiped her hands on her apron. (We were cleaning the carpet.)

I don’t remember the specific reason for the flowers. I don’t think there was one, other than it was the summer when my brother was in the hospital for a long time and my other brother was starting college, and my mother was wondering where the money was going to come from on her teacher’s salary. But there was no special reason for the flowers. I do remember it was the only time I ever saw Mr. Lacy, who lived across the street, come to our house. I also remember it was the only time I saw someone give my mother flowers.

Mr. Lacy went back home after he’d done his errand. My mother wiped her eyes. (She wasn’t one to cry much.) “Well,” she said, “that was certainly a surprise. I wonder where they should go?” She dug around under the sink for a vase, filled it with water and put the flowers on the coffee table in the living room. I remember they stayed there for a long time that summer.

“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…

They shall obtain joy and gladness,

and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.