Art: “The Painted Desert, Arizona (Matthew 4:1-11)”  by Elaine Ellis Thomas, used by permission of artist

Written by Elaine Ellis Thomas, Rector of All Saints Episcopal Parish, Hoboken, NJ

The Painted Desert of Arizona
“The Painted Desert, Arizona (Matthew 4:1-11),” 
by Elaine Ellis Thomas, used by permission of artist

Reflection on Matthew 4:1-11 and Isaiah 35

The desert shall rejoice

and blossom as a rose:

     it shall blossom abundantly

     and rejoice with praise and singing.

One wonders what was going through Jesus’s mind when, rising out of the waters of baptism and hearing himself named beloved, he is rudely cast into the wilderness by some unseen and irresistible force. It is doubtful that there was anything inviting or beautiful as far as the eye could see. Nothing but sand and rock and a baking sun. Where was this rejoicing desert of which Isaiah spoke?

The desert shall rejoice

and blossom as a rose,

     for the ears of the deaf shall hear

     and the blind, their eyes be opened.

Who are these deaf and blind whose ears and eyes are healed? In the desert, there is no sound but the beating of one’s own heart, the blood pounding the ears, the occasional eagle’s cry as she circles her prey. There is nothing to see as the relentless sun turns everything to a washed-out ochre. And what’s that? It sounds like a voice, a terse whispering, inviting, tempting utterance, tricking the mind to see bread where there are only rocks. 

The desert shall rejoice

and blossom as a rose,

     for the tongue of the mute shall sing

     and the lame will dance with gladness.

After weeks of wandering, there is no voice for singing, no leg strength for dancing. How easy it would be to lie down and give up. But the voice is relentless. The visions of earthly realms displayed seamlessly across the landscape and the enticement to claim it all with its riches and comfort. To leave this god-forsaken wilderness and soak in a cool spring.

The desert shall rejoice

and blossom as a rose,

     for the ground will become a pool

     and the dry land springs of water.

Forty days. Wandering in a dry and weary land where there is no water. Of course the psalmist thirsted by streams of water, longing for God to turn and save. Where, oh where is that One who called Jesus beloved? Would God in heaven leave him there to die? There is only one offering life in this moment. All it would take is to bow down.

The desert shall rejoice

and blossom as a rose,

     as the ransomed return to God

     and come singing back to Zion.

Perhaps there is a way out of this wilderness. Keep walking. Keep moving. Banish the tempter who promises what is not his to give. Through Sinai the people found a home. From the long years in Babylon, a highway opened to Judea. The people – his people – made their way through the wilderness, longing for the holy city. 

The desert shall rejoice

and blossom as a rose,

     unto Zion we come with joy,

     for our God has come to save us.

An angel told his father to call him Jesus, God’s salvation. This wandering in the desert, resisting the wiles of the adversary, every step planting the seeds for the desert to blossom, for the streams of living water that will fill the dry riverbeds, inviting us to Zion, singing, for our God has indeed come to save us. 

Find previous “Picturing God” entries here:

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