For Wilderness Sunday
Year A, Proper 20
The notes and reflections on this page are part of a request from
David Rhoads, Professor of New Testament, Lutheran School of Theology
at Chicago, for MEESC members to offer ecological sermon notes for
the alternative lectionary lessons for Creation Season Sundays in
2005 for use by pastors. This is the third of the selected Sundays,
September 18, 2005, which corresponds in the Lectionary used
by the Episcopal Church as Proper 20.
In the "alternative lectionary lessons" of the Revised
Common Lectionary, the readings are from the following:
105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians
1:21-30; and Matthew
1:21-30; and Matthew
Bible excerpt for today (Isaiah 42:11)
Let the wilderness lift up its voice
Wilderness: A 'human' concept apparently a necessary
a necessary human concept a place we can go to connect and
In the Gospels, Jesus is often going off to a 'lonely place' where
human influence - presence - is not.
For a moment now, let your mind visualize your wilderness, that
place where you can go and catch your breath, get grounded, renew.
When Jesus went to these places, he did so to pray. I find that
that is the reason that I want to go there as well, and others,
who have shared with me - they also reflect kindred thoughts and
I have come to understand that this communing with the wild places
is as important as any nutrient, any other 'necessary' component
of life that we require for good health.
But, who knows, perhaps this is my own path, so, may I ask you
to engage in an inquiry?
Have you ever been in a place where human activity is not ever
present and felt something, a comforting, letting go sort of a sense.
Possibly a feeling comes when you look out on Earth where your view
is unencumbered, vast. Maybe it's that smell after a rain or when
passing a field of new mown hay. Perhaps it's the song of a Redwing
in the cattails, or wind blowing through the Firs. Hey, maybe it's
the moon in the firmament of heaven, or the sun warming your body.
Your wilderness may be different than these, your backyard, at
the neighborhood park, walking down the lane, yet the sense of connection,
and renewal, is present; it is this sense that I speak of.
This - communing with nature this place that becomes present
in my life, fascinates me at first it happened infrequently,
boom there it was and gone again. I have paid attention to
this process for a while now and I have come to understand that
it is the wilderness, this human concept of a place apart, that
that brings on this transcendent experience.
So that's why Jesus was going to these places, when Jesus went
there, when I go there, I hear God much better.
Oh yes, the inquiry! I am wondering if your experiences are anything
It seems that we seldom share these events, perhaps this will clarify
a bit more:
I came to understand a predictable way of moving into a place of
serenity by being in the wilderness. I need to confess here that
this part began to happened to me when I was very young; I have
been blessed to have these experience places near me, as our ancestors
before us did, for a long time, and a family background that appreciated
going to them.
The second step though, an awareness of 'Gods Presence' - that
was not evident for quite a while. For sure I felt 'different' -
and - AND, there is a whole lot within our human experience, writing,
music, wilderness parks, you name it, that makes a Big Deal about
the wilderness, talking about it, experiencing it, being it. So
what is the 'big deal' - and - is there a relationship between my
feelings about being in a 'place apart' and the 'big deal', woven
into the human experience?
Well, here we are at the crux of this inquiry:
I have come to understand the reason that wilderness is fascinating
is because it is essential to me, that is if I want to be
in relationship with God. That is why Jesus went into the wilderness,
which is why the Christ has left this teaching for us, so that we
may be with God - in God's realm.
Again, until we share with each other on these matters, we will
not understand each other, what is your experience, your opinion,
on this matter?
What I would like to do here on short notice [don't we homileticians
often have to "make do" on short notice?] is share with
you some methodological considerations. First, the projected sermon
for this Sunday in the proposed new 1-month "Creation Season"
will be a topical sermon on the biblical motif (or theme) of "wilderness."
For me that means starting with an exhaustive concordance such as
I mentioned in the notes for last Sunday. What I want to do is get
an overview of how the different strata of biblical literature conceive
of the wilderness. What is repeated? What is contrasted? Does one
stratum of the Bible see wilderness differently than another?
While looking through 4 columns of occurrences of the word "wilderness"
I have in mind already a bare outline of what is in the Bible. For
instance, there were the 40 years in the wilderness (or desert).
So within the Pentateuch the book of Exodus presents the wilderness
as a forbidding water-less place of inhospitality toward life, a
place where the community fears death and looks back with longing
to the days of its safety even at the cost of enslavement in Egypt.
It was into the desert wilderness that the scapegoat was sent, for
there it would die and with that death all the sins of the people
that the goat had symbolically carried away were also put to death.
But secondly, that forbidding wilderness experience was also one
in which God provisioned the people with "manna" (Ex.
16:31, etc.), split rocks open so that a spring of water could flow
forth , and created new beginnings after sins were dispatched on
the back of the scapegoat.
Third, the difference between wilderness as a place of death and
wilderness as a place of new beginning was made not by the people's
inner states of mind, but by what God did for or to the people.
Compare, for instance, Hosea 2:3 and 9:10. Notice also the contrast
between the wilderness as ":deserted and forsaken" (Isa.
27:10) as a "desolation" (Isa. 64:10) and, on the other
hand, the dry land being made glad and waters pouring forth there
(Isa. 35:1-6) as God "makes a way in the wilderness and rivers
in the desert" (Isa. 43:19).
Wilderness is there at the beginning of the New Testament as John
the Baptist is "a voice crying in the wilderness," and
as Jesus is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted
by the power of evil and there withstand the threefold test. It
strikes me that the wilderness was for Jesus on more than one occasion
a place of spiritual retreat, sorting out one's priorities, responding
to the Spirit's leading. No wonder that later Jesus gave a parable
about the one lost sheep that the shepherd found even though doing
so meant temporarily leaving 99 sheep in the wilderness (Luke 15:4).
Very important in the symbolism of the Fourth Gospel is the serpent
being lifted up in the wilderness (John 3:14 just before the famous
3:16). The last book in the biblical canon claims to have been based
on visionary experiences on Patmos, a small 10-mile by 5-mile (Rev.
1:9-20).wilderness rocky island in the Aegean sea.
Doubtless there are other findings to be made with the help of
a concordance. But I move on to consult commentaries on any of the
texts we've found. For instance, I would check out commentaries
on the Fourth Gospel to get help with John 3:14 (C.H. Dodd, Edwyn
Hoskyns, C. K. Barrett, Raymond E. Brown being among authors of
We proceed "on short notice" to see if there are any
book-length or other synthetic treatments of "wilderness"
in biblical perspectives. There is a book by Walter Brueggemann
on the Land, but I'm in a rural area away from libraries and I do
not possess that one by him. Perhaps you could find a copy. Having
retired more than a decade ago, I lack resources to acquire some
of the best recent works such as the Interpreter's Dictionary of
the Bible, but if you have it, go there.
I do find the article by D. F. Morgan on "Desert" in
the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. I (Eerdmans,
1979), and it is quite useful in short space, but I lack the last
volume that ought to include "wilderness." "The wilderness
is at once the place of murmuring and of testing, as well as an
integral part of a salvation pattern (exodus-wandering-Sinai-promised
land) found, in whole or in part, throughout the history of Israel
(cf., e.g., Hosea, Ezekiel, Deutero-Isaiah)." (Ibid., p. 927)
Next I like to inquire what the "effects" of this biblical
theme have been. For instance, there comes to mind the poem by T.
S. Eliot, "The Waste Land." Written in 1922, it is about
us and our "civilization." Here we read of "voices
singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells," also:
"Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road,"
Also of mountains where there is "not even silence" and
"not even solitude."
But also here a question arises:
"Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
(T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land and Other Poems (N.Y.: Harcourt
Brace Harvest Book, 1930 reprint 1962)).
Another "effect" of the wilderness theme has been the
desert fathers and mothers in Christian history. A fine introduction
is offered by Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes:
Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (Oxford University
Press, 1998). Lane not only introduces these people and their "apophatic
tradition" of speaking only about the inadequacy of all efforts
to describe God. He also writes out of his personal experiences
of "purgation, illumination, and union" with God, these
being "a classic pattern in the history of Christian spirituality"
(p. 6). The wilderness of both desert and mountain on one hand,
and the "spiritual dryness" of being "burned out"
on the other hand interpret each other, and are "mutually illuminative
horizons of meaning" (p. 7).
Wilderness, then, is a "place" that tests us, a place
of desolation and of "not having." When we are deprived
of all other supports and find our feet suspended, as it were, in
thin air, then we become attuned to the presence of the "ineffable,"
the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who "spoke out
of the whirlwind" to Job, the God whose presence before Moses
burned within the bush that was not consumed thereby.
It remains to write the sermon, drawing on all these pieces without
taking one's workshop into the pulpit, but being inspired by these
discoveries and communicating the latter as best we can.
a founding member of MEESC and Itinerant Preacher for the Environment,
resides in Fergus Falls, MN. He originally wrote these notes in 2005.
G. Gibbs, PhD, a retired theologian, attends Trinity Episcopal
Church, Park Rapids, MN. He originally wrote these notes in 2005.
John, Bert, and we welcome your comments. Please address your comments
or additional reflections to John
Gibbs , Bert
Whitcombe, or any MEESC
member, or mail them to:
c/o C. Morello
4451 Lakeside Drive
Eveleth, MN 55734-4400 USA
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