Seward United Methodist Church
Friday, September 21, 2018

Wilderness

King David Series- 6

 

Psalm 57, 1st Samuel 23:7-14 and 24:1-11

David is on the run. Saul is determined to kill him, and the only place of refuge for David is to go out into the wilderness, the wild, uninhabited, often inhospitable parts of the Judean countryside.

The chapter opens with David in the Forest of Hereth, which was near one of his hideouts, the Cave of Adullam. This was in the Shephelah region of Judea, the foothills of the Judean highlands. David hears that the Philistines are raiding the nearby city of Keilah.

Now we mention the Philistines a lot, especially if we’re talking about this period of Old Testament history. But do we really know who they were? The Philistines were not part of the population of the land of Canaan at the time Israel first entered the Promised Land. They came into Canaan later. They were part of a larger group of people called the Sea Peoples. They were from the area around the Aegean Sea. They lived in Crete and Greece and what is today Turkey, as well as the islands of the Aegean. They were, essentially, Greeks before there were Greeks. Greece as a distinct nation won’t appear for several more centuries.

They were advanced shipbuilders, and around the year 1200 BC, they began to spread out across the Mediterranean Sea, founding outposts in Carthage and Tarshish and Phoenicia, Israel’s neighbor to the north. They tried to conquer Egypt, but failed. And when they did, some of them settled in the neighboring coastal plains of Canaan, the region that is today called Gaza. History repeats itself.

And from there they became a perennial thorn in the side of Israel. You see, they were more advanced. They had iron weapons. They had chariots. But chariots are only good in flat country, so for the most part, they only bothered the Israelites that lived in the lowlands, like Keilah.

David rescues Keilah, and in return, the people of Keilah were willing to hand him over to Saul. So David runs away, again. He moves on to Ziph, about five miles southeast of Hebron.

Once you go east of the cities in the Judean Highlands, like Jerusalem and Bethlehem and Hebron, you are in the Judean Wilderness, also called Jeshimmon. From west to east, as you travel across Judea, you start out on the Coastal Plain, then you go

into the Shephelah, the foothills. Then you ascend to the Judean Highlands. East of the Judean Highlands is the Wilderness, and the wilderness drops off into the Dead Sea.

The Judean Wilderness is a harsh land. It only receives about 5-10 inches of rain per year. And it is highly eroded. It’s full of steep cliffs and ravines. It’s riddled with caves. And one of the more distinctive features are mesas, plateaus that have eroded away on the sides, leaving sheer drops all around a flat mountaintop. It’s a harsh, but also strangely beautiful landscape. And a good place to hide, especially on top of those mesas, the most famous of which is Masada, which eventually became a Roman fortress and entered the pages of history when a group of Jewish rebels captured it and from that place held off the Romans for several of years. Many Bible scholars think that David might have been hiding on the same mesa that eventually became Masada. Here it is called the Great Rock or The Rock of Escape.

In Ziph, David is once again betrayed to Saul, and he goes further south, to Maon, about 8 miles south of Hebron, which is in the vicinity of Masada.

All told, David spends at least 10 and maybe as many as 15 years of his life on the run from Saul, and most of that time was spent in the wilderness. He called it home for years on end. He went there as a fugitive, but he discovered it to be a place that deeply shaped his spiritual life. Many of David’s Psalms were written during these wilderness years, and they shaped his understanding of God profoundly.

The Bible contains several great stories of godly people going into the wilderness. The first is the story of the Israelites and their forty years in the wilderness of Sinai. David’s years of hiding are the second story. The third is Elijah, fleeing again to the wilderness of Sinai from the wrath of Jezebel. And the fourth, of course, is Jesus, tempted for 40 days in the Judean Wilderness.

In each of these stories, wilderness becomes a place of temptation and testing. But it also becomes a place of profound learning.

We need wilderness. We need natural places, empty of human “improvements” and full of God. We need places that are valued simply for what they are, rather than what we can use them for. John Muir, the great naturalist who helped to establish Yosemite National Park, said, “Wilderness is a necessity. There must be places for human beings to satisfy their souls.”

We become more aware, more alive in the wilderness. We find its silence and solitude to be beautiful. More than just beautiful, we find them to be sacred, holy.

Wilderness calls us to both simplicity and trust. When we go into the wilderness, we lose the clutter in our lives. We begin to see things as they really are, and what we discover is that so many of the things we fill our lives up with really aren’t that important! An author that I read earlier this year said that going into the wilderness is like scraping the barnacles off the hull of a ship. We don’t realize how much extra weight, how many burdens, we are carrying, until we go into the wilderness and let them go.

We feel more alive in the wilderness. We become more aware. We see things that we don’t normally see. And not just in the world around us, but in ourselves. Life becomes clearer. We feel more authentically ourselves. We begin to open up. I’ve seen that many times. I’ve seen people in the wilderness open up about the burdens and the troubles of their lives in ways that they just don’t in the “civilized” world.

But we also feel small and vulnerable in the wilderness. We are not in control. If it starts to rain, we can’t go inside. And we certainly can’t make it stop raining! And that’s good! It teaches us to trust in God, and what we find is that God is trustworthy!

David was forced into the wilderness by Saul. But what he found is that the wilderness was not full of Saul, full of threat, but full of God, full of refuge. His temptation in the wilderness was to run away from God just as he was running away from Saul. But David didn’t give in to that temptation. He was drawn closer to God in the wilderness. His life was filled up with God out there.

He found God to be a refuge. That word refuge appears 37 times in the Psalms that David wrote. Initially, it referred to a literal, physical place, the Rock of Escape. But eventually, it became a spiritual reality for David. God became his refuge.

Wilderness also teaches us to see the beauty and the sacredness in all things.

Chapter 24 tells us one of the stories of David’s time in the wilderness: His encounter with Saul in the cave of En Gedi. David was hiding in that cave, with his men, when a truly tempting opportunity came his way. Saul came into the cave, alone, and proceeded to remove his weapons so as to relieve himself. He went in there to have a bowel movement.

The story has all the potential to be brutal and ugly and nasty. Saul is alone and unarmed. And David can kill him at will, as his men thought he should. What an ugly story: The king, stabbed in the back, while pooping in a cave!

But by this time, David has learned to see the beauty and the sacred worth in all things, and even in all people. Even in Saul, the paranoid tyrant who is trying to murder David, he can see sacred worth. It is unthinkable to David to do such a thing. Cheap revenge is unbecoming of one who is filled with God’s Holy Spirit. A thousand years later, Paul would remind us that we are all temples of God’s Holy Spirit. Therefore, it should be unthinkable to use our bodies for anything crude or ugly or nasty or wicked.

I don’t need to tell you what I think of the wilderness, do I? When I was a teenager, I went for the first time on the Algonquin Canoe Trip, and I found the wilderness to be full of God. It called me to a life of trust. It has helped me to see the beauty in all things and to strive for a life of simplicity. I certainly haven’t arrived yet in any of those ways, but I’m on my way, by God’s grace.

But I know that many people do not see value in wilderness. A lot of people have the attitude that we didn’t develop all this wonderful wealth and technology so that we could go sleep on the ground and be cold and wet and uncomfortable.

But if you don’t go to the wilderness, you miss out on the lessons of the wilderness. And eventually we will all be plunged into wilderness of one sort or another. There are also “circumstantial wildernesses,” experiences in our lives that feel dangerous and make us feel like we have no control. Experiences like the death of a loved one, divorce, the loss of a job, imprisonment, severe illness or injury; those things are “wildernesses” of a different sort. We feel small and vulnerable then, too.

But God is still a refuge. And we can learn in those experiences the value of simplicity, how little is really necessary for our survival. And believe it or not, we can also find beauty and holiness in those “wilderness” experiences.

I think it is better to learn the lessons of the wilderness by choice, rather than by chance. And I can tell you that over the years, those folks who have come with me to Algonquin, to experience the wilderness by choice, have by and large found themselves much better equipped to handle difficulty in the “circumstantial wildernesses” of life. If you can learn to trust God, to see how little you really need, to find the goodness and beauty in one situation, then you can also do those things in other situations as well.

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