Pastor Tony's Sermon September 10, 2017

Joel 1: 8-10, 18-20, & Psalm 18: 6, 16-19   9-10-17 Wilderness Sunday ACUCC             Rev. Tony Clark

Joel 1:8-10, 18-20The Message (MSG)

Weep like a young virgin dressed in black, mourning the loss of her fiancé. Without grain and grapes, worship has been brought to a standstill in the Sanctuary of God. The priests are at a loss. God’s ministers don’t know what to do. The fields are sterile. The very ground grieves. The wheat fields are lifeless, vineyards dried up, olive oil gone. Food is just a memory at our tables, as are joy and singing from God’s Sanctuary. The seeds in the field are dead, barns deserted, grain silos abandoned. Who needs them? The crops have failed. The farm animals groan—oh, how they groan! The cattle mill around. There’s nothing for them to eat. Not even the sheep find anything. God! I pray, I cry out to you! The fields are burning up, the country is a dust bowl, forest and prairie fires rage unchecked. Wild animals, dying of thirst, look to you for a drink. Springs and streams are dried up. The whole country is burning up, and fire has devoured the pastures of the wilderness.

Psalm 18:6, 16-19 The Message (MSG)

A hostile world! I call to God,
    I cry to God to help me.
From his palace he hears my call;
    my cry brings me right into his presence—
    a private audience!

But me he caught—reached all the way
    from sky to sea; he pulled me out
Of that ocean of hate, that enemy chaos,
    the void in which I was drowning.
They hit me when I was down,
    but God stuck by me.
He stood me up on a wide-open field;
    I stood there saved—surprised to be loved!


The Prophet Joel wrote about a specific event, a plague of locusts that destroyed everything, some 400 years before Jesus was born. It was an unprecedented plague of locusts (of Biblical proportions!), that Joel saw as the coming of the Day of the Lord when Israel would be either judged or blessed by God.

I witnessed a “plague of locusts,” once, in Cincinnati, where my sister lives, about a dozen years ago. Everywhere you looked there were locusts—on trees, on the sidewalk, on the screens of the house. You couldn’t take a step without crunching them underfoot. They would fly into you as you walked, thunking on your glasses, or donking off your forehead, or banging into your back. And the noise! Good Lord, the noise was interminable, loud, buzzing, whining, pulsing; even in the midst of urban loudness, the locusts drowned out all other sound. Joel described this kind of attack, and said that all plant life was destroyed, the locusts sounded like an army of chariots, warriors ready for battle, making the earth shake as they arrived. Even the wilderness was destroyed, he mourned, and the wild animals cried out.

When Natural disasters hit, like the hurricanes in Texas and Florida, and the earthquake in Mexico, there is something very human to look to God for the cause, and to look to ourselves as sinners who must be blamed for God’s wrath.

Joel’s writing called the people to return to God, ask for God’s help, and let the spirit fill them. Joel told the people that God will repay them for their losses, and, in the words we hear every year at Pentecost, God will pour out the spirit upon them. (read Joel 2: 25-29). 

Today is Wilderness Sunday, in the Season of Creation. Wilderness is a mythic place, wild, full of danger, and also full of insight. In journey stories and fairy tales, the wilderness is a place of magic and mystery, where witches enchant you, trolls trap you, wolves and bears eat you, and unicorns or mystical hunters appear to save you. In Native American life, the wilderness is a place of vision quests and finding your animal totem—the spirit guide through this material world. In the Bible, the wilderness is the desert beyond the oasis of a city.

What would drive someone out into the wilderness where beasts and hunger, extreme weather and nature, and other unknown dangers await?

Wilderness is often a symbol in our stories of between-ness--between one time and another, between one place and another, between one mindset and another. For the Israelites, the desert wilderness was between the waters of the Red Sea and the Jordan River, the space and time between Egypt and the Promised Land, between the known and unknown, between oppression and freedom. It was a place of hunger and thirst, of grumbling and longing for what was behind them. And it was also a place to learn to trust God, who provided water and manna and guided them by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night. The wilderness is where God gave them laws and covenants to hold them in community.

The Prophet Elijah also fled to the wilderness to escape the death-threats of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Elijah’s wilderness, where he experienced the fear and might of the nature—hunger, a windstorm, an earthquake, and wildfire, was between the death threats and his call to anoint God’s servants. Out there, in that desolate, barren between place, an angel provided food and in the stillness after the storms, Elijah met God.

Jesus also headed to the wilderness in a between time. After he was baptized in the Jordan, he immediately went out to the wilderness for forty days (there is that pesky number 40 again!), where he faced the full temptation of the wilderness. Jesus denied the temptations, was helped by angels to return and fulfill his call.

In these ancient and modern stories wilderness is symbolic of trial, denial, temptation and seduction. It is also symbolic of transformation, trust and provision, of blessing and believing. Wilderness and the wildness of nature are physical experiences that allow us to enter into a spiritual state of need and fulfillment. In the Bible, and the Middle East, the wilderness is the desert; in European stories, like “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Hansel and Gretel”, the wilderness is a deep dark wood. In the US, we have desert, forest, mountain and grassland wilderness.

I have been to the wilderness. I have camped in woods and deserts; I have hiked in barren grasslands of the East Bay Hills, the prairies of Wisconsin, and the rolling hills of Wales. I have met wandering herds of cattle and sheep, and I have fallen asleep to the haunting sounds of owls and loons and wolves crying in the night, and been awakened by weird wild rustling animal noises around me. I have known the fear of deep darkness, of eyes glowing from the fire glaring from the edge of a campsite. Although I have never met a bear, nor a wildcat, nor a rattle snake, all of those have been near enough to freak me out while camping. Once, my sister and I missed a turn off on an overnight camping trip and ended up a bit lost, a bit scared, and doubled what we had planned on walking, arriving home later than we expected, with blisters and sore backs, and sunburn.

I have also known provision and blessing while in the wilderness. Beautiful vistas, cool babbling streams, a flock of quail startled into flight by my movement, gentle deer munching on grass as I pass. I have known the beauty of storms, clouds so thick they look like you could climb right up to heaven, and lightning that terrifies and thunder that shakes the ground, yet also lights up the sky in thrilling colors. I have tasted the natural root beer flavor of wild sassafras in southern Ohio and Missouri, and ripe sweet blackberries here in California, and even blueberries in the wilds of northern Minnesota. I have skied and hiked in winter in the northern woods, which is its own wilderness experience of trial, travail, and triumphant beauty.

We need these wilderness spaces, yet we have been trying to control them, tame them, make them do our bidding. We cut rainforests, with their eerily beautiful howler monkeys screaming overhead, so we can farm cattle. We cut northern forests, with their wolf cries and lunatic loons, for the timber. We irrigate deserts, with their poisonous rattle snakes and scorpions, to make them more like the grasslands and woodlands of a different region. We change, shift, plow under, or cut down our wilderness, removing the scary things of the wilderness, and in doing that we also sterilize any chance of meeting the holy through those moments of crisis.  In taming the wilderness, we miss the blessing of the spiritual world that lives there. Yet, nature will break through, calling us to heed her might.

The fear of death, destruction and temptation are symbolized in our fairy tales and Bible stories by witches and trolls and Satan, metaphors for the trials and travails, the temptations of being in a place beyond our comfort zone. Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel are warnings to stay out of the wilderness; yet they, like the Biblical stories of the wilderness are stories of transformation. Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood, like the Israelites in the desert, Elijah and Jesus in the wilderness, faced terrible terror and temptations, seduction that draws on their innocence, yet through it they are empowered and transformed into self-actualized, strong adults. In that transformation they find salvation, either from an outsider like a hunter or wood cutter or from within themselves. The same with the Native American vision quests, where they are set out to fend for themselves, and are guided by their animal totem to salvation.

The Israelites fled a desperate situation in Egypt, went into the wilderness to an even more desperate situation, where they were transformed to a people who could see God’s blessing even in the littlest of things—manna, a flock of quail, water from a spring at just the right time. Elijah fled from one place to a place of even more danger, where he was transformed by God to face his fears and return to society. Jesus, too, went to the wilderness, where he faced hunger and seduction, and trusted God to provide.

There are millions of people fleeing from desperate situations these days—natural disasters, political instability, personal persecution, and all of them face a between time, a wilderness wandering time, between destruction and the promises of God. Wandering in the wilderness, a refugee between death and hope, oppression and freedom, between nature and spirit, is not a pleasant place to be. And so many of our brothers and sisters are living there, in the barren between-ness of wilderness.

In these times, as we pray with our brothers and sisters in Texas, Florida, the Caribbean, and Mexico, refugees from Syria and Palestine, who must feel like the Israelites, Elijah, and Joel, that God has abandoned them, I can only pray these words from Psalm 18:6, 16-19 The Message (MSG)

A hostile world! I call to God, I cry to God to help me. From his palace he hears my call;my cry brings me right into his presence—a private audience!

But me he caught—reached all the way from sky to sea; he pulled me out
Of that ocean of hate, that enemy chaos, the void in which I was drowning.
They hit me when I was down, but God stuck by me.
He stood me up on a wide-open field; I stood there saved—surprised to be loved!

May all our brothers and sisters, refugees from unsafe places know themselves to be saved and even if they are surprised, know they are loved by God.