Sunday’s sermon: Wilderness Walking and Comfort Calling

John Muir Trail Yosemite

Text used – Isaiah 40:1-11




  • “Wherever we go in the mountains, or indeed in any of God’s wild fields, we find more than we seek.” – John Muir[1] → Once upon a time, there was a man named John. John was born in a small coastal town in Scotland, but when he was 11 years old, his family emigrated to America and settled in one of the wildest, wooliest places on earth: Wisconsin. Portage, to be exact. Being a dutiful son, when he got older, John went to college and began a career in mechanical invention. It was the 1860, and John was riding the powerful, unstoppable wave of the Industrial Revolution … but John got a little too caught up in that wave. Four years after graduating from college and beginning his career, John was involved in an industrial accident that nearly cost him his eye. Instead of returning to such a perilous career, John Muir devoted himself to nature.
    • Walked from the Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico (wrote a book about it published posthumously: A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf)
    • Traveled extensively in parts of the southwest (Utah and Nevada) and along the west coast of the U.S. (California, Oregon, Washington, even Alaska) → first to propose theory that the incredible natural Yosemite formations were made by glacial erosion (widely accepted today)
    • 1876: embarked on what would be his most important contribution: advocating for forest conservation
      • Published myriad of articles in magazines
      • Differed from his contemporaries who wanted to establish protected land but also utilize the resources of that land → Muir’s approach: lands should be preserved in their entirety and off-limits to development/resource harvesting of any/all kinds
      • Co-founded the Sierra Club along with Professor Henry Senger (Berkley, CA), an organization dedicated to environmental advocacy and protection to this day
      • Influential in the establishment of a number of national parks including Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park (California), Mount Rainier National Park (Washington), and Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona)
      • Photography (bulletin cover photo): recognized the impact visual images can have on people’s opinions and decisions → allowed him to share his profound wilderness experiences with a wider audience
    • “Wherever we go in the mountains, or indeed in any of God’s wild fields, we find more than we seek..” It’s easy to see how John Muir earned the nicknames “John of the Mountains” and “Father of the National Parks.” Clearly, for him, the wilderness was something to be treasured, something to be preserved and protected, something special and sacred. But for so many, “the wilderness” is something intimidating – something vast and unknown where all sorts of scary things could be hiding. Or “the wilderness” is something remote and detached from their day-to-day lives – something “out there,” something reserved for the once-in-a-lifetime family summer road trip to Yellowstone a la Clark and Ellen Griswold. Or “the wilderness” is only a commodity – wasted space to be mined and drained and developed and dominated. And yet, another of John Muir’s quotes resonates: “And into the woods I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.”
      • Advent = season of preparation and reflection → season meant to mirror the contemplation, self-examination, and even repentance of Lent
        • Notice the liturgical color for both = purple → purple = color of royalty and also of repentance
      • Advent = surely a season of spiritual wilderness wandering → something we usually shy away from/try to avoid … But maybe – just maybe – wilderness wandering isn’t such a bad thing after all.
  • Scripture presents an interesting relationship with wilderness wandering
    • Now, if the idea of wilderness wandering makes you nervous or uncomfortable, you are far from alone. → certainly have a history of negative wilderness wandering in the Bible
      • Hagar and Ishmael = forced to wander in the wilderness after Sarah’s jealously compels Abraham to expel them from his home[2]
      • People of Israel = forced to wander in the wilderness for 40 yrs. when they refused to trust God after being liberated from Egypt[3]
      • Jesus’ encounters with Satan in the wilderness following his baptism in the Jordan River[4]
    • And while the wilderness of the Bible definitely looked different than the wilderness that John Muir dedicated his life to, it was just as wild, just as unpredictable, just as simultaneously full of delight and danger, possibility and peril. → more positive wilderness wandering experiences in Scripture
      • Moses wandering in the desert with sheep and encountering God in a burning bush[5]
      • Elijah encountering God on Mount Horeb in the utter silence that followed the wind storm, the earthquake, and the fire[6]
      • And, of course, we have another John of the Wilderness – John the Baptist. – Lk’s gospel: God’s word came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. John went throughout the region of the Jordan River, calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. This is just as it was written in the scroll of the words of Isaiah the prophet, A voice crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight. Every valley will be filled, and every mountain and hill will be leveled. The crooked will be made straight and the rough places made smooth. All humanity will see God’s salvation.”[7] → Sound familiar? That’s our text for today – a text that speaks of wilderness wandering not in a scary sense, not wilderness wandering as a punishment or a consequence, not as something to be feared or dreaded, but as a blessing … as a comfort … as a calling. Wilderness wandering with a purpose.
    • Today’s text: Comfort, comfort my people! says your God. Speak compassionately to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her compulsory service has ended, that her penalty has been paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins! A voice is crying out: “Clear the Lord’s way in the desert! Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God! Every valley will be raised up, and every mountain and hill will be flattened. Uneven ground will become level, and rough terrain a valley plain. The Lord’s glory will appear, and all humanity will see it together.”[8] → Today’s text is actually a call to go out and wander in the wilderness. It’s a call to find those wild places, those rough places, those places that pull you so far outside your comfort zone you can’t even see the borders of that comfort zone anymore. Because that’s our “wilderness wandering” today, isn’t it, friends?
      • Wilderness wandering today = intentional time in uncomfortable spaces
        • Situations that tug at our growing edges
        • Places that look nothing like our norm
        • Relationships that challenge us to more clearly understand both ourselves and the other person
        • IMPORTANT NOTE: not dangerous places – not places/situations/relationships that put your physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual health in jeopardy
        • But at the same time, wilderness wandering isn’t supposed to be easy and carefree. It’s not supposed to be something taken lightly. It’s not the kind of experience from which you emerge exactly the same as you were when you went in. Wilderness wandering is supposed to both challenge and change us.
          • Implied in the Heb.: “Clear the Lord’s way in the desert!” → “clear” (translated “prepare” in many texts) = expectation of work and effort attached to it but also expectation of a change of course
            • = “turn away/turn around/turn aside”
            • = “concern yourself with”
            • = “clear up/clear away”
            • = “pay attention”
            • When you swirl all these ideas together – all of these layers of meaning – into one word, you’re left with an intentional experience that changes both the world around you and the world within you. You’re left with wilderness wandering.
          • Documentary on Amazon Prime: “All Who Dare”[9]
            • Eagle Rock School outside Estes Park, CO – school that combines standard learning with wilderness experiences → from their website: “Eagle Rock School serves adolescents who are not thriving in their current situations, for whom few positive options exist, and who are interested in taking control of their lives and learning.”[10]
            • Documentary follows one “patrol” (group of 9 new students) as they embark on their very first course/experience at Eagle Rock: a 24-day wilderness excursion meant to test them and encourage them and help them build relationships with each other and confidence in themselves
            • These students all choose to come to Eagle Rock. They recognize that the situations they’re living in at home – whatever those situations may be – aren’t the best for them, and so they apply to Eagle Rock hoping for a change. Not just a simple change. Not just a slow and easy, comfortable, nearly-undetectable change. They apply hoping for a drastic change – a change in their circumstances, a change in their outlook, a change in themselves.
  • You see, friends, that’s what wilderness wandering is all about – recognizing the need for something different, something new, something out-of-the-ordinary. And taking that first step – that first step into the wilderness, that first step into the unknown. Because you know what? That’s where God is.
    • No matter whether it was a positive wilderness experience like John the Baptist’s or a more distressing wilderness experience like Hagar and Ishmael’s, God was there in the wilderness
      • God found Hagar and Ishmael and provided for them
      • God wandered along with the people of Israel throughout those 40 yrs., protecting and leading and teaching them
      • God stayed with Jesus in the wilderness as he rebuffed Satan’s temptations
      • Moses encountered God and a whole new calling in that burning bush
      • Elijah heard the voice of God calling him to leave the safety of the cave and find his successor, Elisha
      • And of course, John the Baptist not only heard God’s call in the wilderness and found his place there but also called others to God in the wilderness, baptizing hundred in the Jordan River before Jesus himself would find John in the wilderness for the very same thing.
    • Today’s text: A voice was saying: “Call out!” And another said, “What should I call out?” … Go up on a high mountain, messenger Zion! Raise your voice and shout, messenger Jerusalem! Raise it; don’t be afraid; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” Here is the Lord God, coming with strength, with a triumphant arm, bringing his reward with him and his payment before him. Like a shepherd, God will tend the flock; he will gather lambs in his arms and lift them onto his lap. He will gently guide the nursing ewes.[11]
      • Calling is clear – a call to call
        • To share the good news
        • To share our faith → what it is for us, what it means to us, what it’s been for us
        • To share our own wilderness wanderings
      • Comfort is clear as well → even in the midst of the difficulty and unfamiliarity and challenge of wilderness wanderings, God is with us, guiding and protecting like a shepherd caring tenderly and steadfastly for even the smallest, most vulnerable lambs in the flock
  • So be reassured, friends. We cannot avoid wilderness wanderings in our lives, and to be honest, we shouldn’t avoid them. Because in the wilderness, we find both a calling and a comfort.
    • Line from Lord of the Rings: “Not all who wander are lost …” → And to that I say, “Thanks be to God.” Now with all the love I can muster, I say, “Let’s get lost.” Amen.

[1] “John Muir: Scottish-born American Naturalist” from Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Accessed Dec. 7, 2019.

[2] Gen 16:1-16; 21:8-21.

[3] Num 13-14.

[4] Lk 4:1-12.

[5] Ex 3.

[6] 1 Kgs 19.

[7] Lk 3:2b-6.

[8] Is 40:1-5a.

[9] Kiera Faye, director. “All Who Dare,” released by Jakfoto Films, © 2017.



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