Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | September 21, 2014

2014.09.21 “Season of Creation: Wilderness” – Mark 4: 1 – 2

Central United Methodist Church
Season of Creation: Wilderness
Pastor David L. Haley
Mark 4: 1 – 2
September 21st, 2014


Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.         “                                                                                – Mark 4: 1 – 2, the New Revised Standard Version


As I was preparing today’s sermon, I was reminded of something that happened to me long ago. The car I learned to drive in was a 1955 Chevy Impala. After I got my driver’s license – about 1967 – I was out driving one day in western KY (where I grew up) when I made an alarming discovery: the car wouldn’t shift into reverse. Which meant I could only go forward. I was out in the country at the time, so there were no parking lots to turn around in, only small country roads. With rising anxiety, as I tried to find a place to turn around (only going forward), I kept working myself onto even smaller gravel and dirt roads, into the woods, until I could go no farther. What happened? You won’t believe it, but when I raised the hood, motors were so simple at that time that even though I knew almost no mechanics, I figured out how to switch the linkage so I could get the car in reverse, and back out of the dead end I had gotten myself into. Otherwise, there was going to be some “explaining” to do to my father, that is, if I ever saw him again.

Today, as we talk about wilderness, perhaps you have had a similar experience – hopefully not in a 1955 Chevy – but in encountering wilderness. Perhaps you were on a driving vacation, and you drove out of the city, through the suburbs, out into the cornfields of Illinois and Iowa, across the great plains into the west. Maybe you drove out to the Rockies, maybe out into the deserts of the Southwest.  The houses and the restaurants and the gas stations got further in between, the shoulders on the road got smaller, the elevations higher. Maybe you even began to feel a sense of rising anxiety: “What if” I run out of gas, my car breaks down, I run off the road; what if I can’t find a place to eat or a bathroom with walls and a ceiling, what if?” Having left the mixed blessings of civilization behind, whether we intended to or not, we began to encounter wilderness, the untamed earth as God made it.

For others of us who enter the wilderness, the feeling may be the complete opposite: we feel like we’re home. We are drawn to wilderness, like a moth to a flame. The grandeur, the beauty, even the challenge, evokes something primal in us, the spirits of ancient ancestors.  Indigenous people – like the Aborigines of Australia or Native Americans here, have long known this: “We are the land and the land is us; a kindred part of God’s creation.”

So far in this Season of Creation, we have discussed Forests and Land. Today, we think together about wilderness as an important part of God’s creation. As on previous Sundays, we can hardly begin but to acknowledge how little we know and how alienated we have become from wilderness.  But let this series on Creation begin to be a way of reconnecting, and fulfilling the original command God gave us, to tend and to care for all the Earth as God’s creation, including wilderness.

To appreciate wilderness, I suggest we begin by looking in two places: the world around us, and then the Biblical witness to the importance of wilderness.  We’ll end with a story about a man who – perhaps more than anybody else in America – brought the two perspectives together, seeing wilderness not only as a creation, but a revelation of God, which can profoundly affect us.

When it comes to wilderness, the attitude we most often assume – born of experience – is that of humility and awe. Originally, this series began in Australia, and this Sunday is known as Wilderness/Outback Sunday. Most of Australia is Outback, their name for Wilderness, where, as sometime once said, the Aborigines have lived in harmony with the land for 40,000 years without a single oil spill. Anybody here ever been to Ayers Rock, Uluru – the Aboriginal name for it? Neither have I (yet), but I understand it inspires humility and awe.

Think of the wilderness areas in our own country. (I am at a disadvantage here, having seen so little of America’s west and southwest, except from 35,000 feet.)  If you have experienced any of it, it is humbling and awesome just to think of it: standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon; or at the top of the Rocky Mountains, with one foot on either side of the continental divide; the beautiful deserts of the southwest, like Zion National Park; or the Badlands of South Dakota, where for some reason we helped ourselves to  the sacred land of the Lakota Sioux, to carve the images of our favorite presidents.

Beyond our own country, we all know we could I go on for awhile discussing the earth’s wilderness areas; from the Himalayas to Africa and Asia’s deserts and savannahs and tropical forests, to the polar icecaps of the Arctic and Antarctic.

Really, if we are humbled and awed by wilderness in all its forms, the truth is because we are spectators, even usurpers in the middle of it. When you consider how much of the known universe is uninhabitable, it would have to be something on the order of 99.9%, which does not seem to me to be a good argument for intelligent design. We humans like to think (an from an anthropocentric point of view, seeing ourselves as the crowning point of creation, but considering how briefly we have lived (and I’m talking as a species, not even our individual lives), how small and fragile the margin for life is, and how inhospitable to life most of the universe is, we should really be in awe and thanksgiving to God that we live at all! Relatively speaking, in terms of size and space, if we were to ask which God loves more, life or wilderness, I think it might have to be wilderness, because – either by accident or design – God has made so much of wilderness, and so little of us.

There was a movie that made this point pretty well – you probably haven’t seen it, because it’s over 20 years old now – it was a 1991 movie directed by Lawrence Kasdan, “Grand Canyon.” Starring Kevin Kline and Steve Martin and Danny Glover and set in Los Angeles, the movie is about six people from different backgrounds whose lives intertwine. As they get to know each other and talk about their troubles, at one point the Danny Glover character shares what he learned from the wilderness, specifically the Grand Canyon. He says:

“You ever been to the Grand Canyon? Its pretty, but that’s not the thing of it. You can sit on the edge of that big ol’ thing and those rocks… the cliffs and rocks are so old… it took so long for that thing to get like that… and it ain’t done either! It happens right there while your watching it. It’s happening right now as we are sitting here in this ugly town. When you sit on the edge of that thing, you realize what a joke we people really are… what big heads we have thinking that what we do is gonna matter all that much… thinking that our time here means didly to those rocks. Just a split second we have been here, the whole lot of us. That’s a piece of time so small to even get a name. Those rocks are laughing at me right now, me and my worries… Yeah, its real humorous, that Grand Canyon. It’s laughing at me right now. You know what I felt like? I felt like a gnat that lands on . . . a cow chewing his cud on the side of the road that you drive by doing 70 mph.”

That’s what wilderness – in its grandeur and awe does to us; it puts our life into perspective.

Nowhere it is more clear, however, what wilderness does for us, than in the Biblical witness to wilderness, and especially to see the role wilderness has played in the history and formation of God’s people, including Jesus.

Of course a big reason for this is the geography where the story of the Bible plays out, in the Middle East. No wonder the garden in which the story begins is a paradise, because so much of the terrain of the Middle East is just the opposite: a barren desert, a wilderness, a desert.

I found that out for myself last summer, as we drove by car from Galilee along the Jordan River. As I drove, I started doing what I talked abut at the beginning of this sermon, watching the car’s gauges, because it was remote, and I didn’t want any surprises.  I mean it was red soil and rocks and mountains with nothing growing on them, wilderness.  Some promised land.

And yet it is exactly this wilderness which plays a major role in the the Biblical story, both in the Old Testament and the New. Carol Ochs, who teaches at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City, goes so far as to say that wilderness is “the single most informative experience in the creation of the Jewish people.” Ulrich Mauser, Professor of Biblical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, says that without wilderness the development of religion in the Old Testament would be ‘unintelligible’. (quoted by Alec Gilmore, Biblical Wilderness and the Wild Places of the Earth, which may be found at:           

In both the Old Testament and the New Testament, the wilderness was the place of formation and transformation of God’s people.  In the OT, it was the children of Israel, through their forty years of wandering in the wilderness on the way from Egypt to the Promised Land. In the New Testament, after his baptism, Jesus heads out into the wilderness for forty days of testing before beginning his mission.  He knows that the wilderness is the furnace of transformation.

While we moderns and city-dwellers talk about “the wilderness experience” metaphorically, today is a reminder that wilderness is not an imaginary place, but a real place, a place which can more profoundly affect upon us than we can even imagine.

In our country, one upon whom the wilderness had a profound effect, and one to whom we owe our gratitude that America’s wilderness treasures are still available to us, is a Scots-American most of us do not even know, John Muir. May I share just part of John Muir’s amazing story, illustrative of the effect wilderness had upon him, and thanks to him, us?

John_Muir_Cane John Muir was born in Dunbar, Scotland (a country we’ve heard a lot about this week), on April 21, 1838. His father was a quite strict Presbyterian minister, believing in beatings and Bible memorization, such that by age 11, Muir had learned to recite “by heart and sore flesh” all of the New Testament and 3/4 of the Old Testament.

In 1849, the Muir family emigrated here to the U.S., to Portage, Wisconsin. Since his strict father would not let him read and study in the day, John would get up and do so in the middle of the night. At age 22, he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, though he never graduated.

In 1866, he went to Indianapolis to work in a factory, and proved to be quite inventive with machinery, possibly another Edison. But in 1867, an accident changed his life: a tool slipped and penetrated his right eye. Afterwards, he was confined to a dark room for six weeks, worrying whether he would ever regain his sight. When he did regain it, he saw the world – and his life – in a new light.  He would later write, “This affliction has driven me to the sweet fields. God has to nearly kill us sometimes, to teach us lessons.” In September of 1867, he took a walk of about 1,000 miles, from Indiana to Florida, going, as he said, by the “wildest, leafiest, and least trodden way I could find.”

Eventually, he went to San Fransciso, where he asked for the way out of town. “Where do you want to go?” the man asked. “Aye,” said Muir, “Anywhere wild.” He left immediately for Yosemite, where he was overwhelmed by the landscape, climbing mountains and hiking in the wilderness. Muir felt a spiritual connection to nature; believing that humanity is just one part of an interconnected natural world, not its master, and that God is revealed through nature.  Over the years he became a frequent resident and expert on Yosemite, and entertained the likes of such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, and in 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt, who accompanied Muir on a four day trip into Yosemite. President Roosevelt later recalled it as, “the grandest day of my life.”

After many battles to preserve the wilderness, some of which he won and some of which he lost, Muir died on Christmas Eve, 1914, at the age of 76. During his lifetime he published over 300 articles and 12 books, and co-founded the Sierra Club. He petitioned congress for the National Park Bill that passed in 1890, setting aside the area that would become Yosemite and Sequoqia National Parks. Two years after his death, in 1916, largely due to Muir’s influence, Congress created the National Park System to preserve America’s natural treasures for later generations. As a dreamer, a naturalist and activiist, John Muir changed the way we see our mountains, forests, seashores, and deserts, our wilderness.  Not as a resource to be harvested, but a treasure to be preserved, for all generations.  (There is an excellent two-part biography of John Muir, produced by the National Park Service, and  available on YouTube.  Part 1 may be found here:                      

muir_top_mountainJohn Muir said:  “In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world – the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off, and wounds heal ere we are aware.“ -John Muir, John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir (1938), p. 317.

May our encounters with wilderness be frequent and significant.  As John Muir put it, “Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.” Through our encounter with wilderness – according to the Bible, the most transformative part of God’s creation – may our wounds be healed: the wounds of the earth, as well as our own.  Amen.


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