The Trial in the Wilderness
September 13th, 1964 @ 8:15 AM
2 Corinthians 11:26-27
THE TRIAL IN THE WILDERNESS
Dr. W. A. Criswell
2 Corinthians 11:26-27
9-13-64 8:15 a.m.
On the radio you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the early morning message entitled The Trial in the Wilderness. Tonight I will speak on The Savage Meets the Savior, which was the sermon announced for this morning hour. It will be a presentation of the power of the gospel of Christ to transfer naked, savage, Stone Age, murderous men into humble, sweet disciples of Christ. The saga of that story is as God-filled and as miraculous as if it had been added to the twenty-eight chapters in the Book of Acts. Then, of course, Wednesday night we shall look at it. To me this is the most powerful, and dynamic, and meaningful demonstration of the power of the Gospel of Christ to be seen in the world today, and is comparable to the marvelous, miraculous transformation of the Roman Empire in the days of the apostles and the first primitive Christians.
That is why I made this journey into the Amazon jungle. I had read in the paper, I had followed it in magazines and in books, I had listened to missionaries who had returned to speak of it here in America, but I wanted to see it for myself and to experience it in my own heart. Religion sometimes in the United States becomes a matter of habit and routine and respectability. It is nice to be a Christian, and nice people go to church on Sunday. But does the power of the preaching of the gospel of the Son of God transform lives? Is it able to take a man, all of whose life has been one of murder, whose hands have been dipped in human blood since the days of his youth, since the time he was able to carry a spear or to shoot a poison arrow, is the gospel able to transform that man out of a life of darkness, and murder, and blood, into that of a sweet, humble, loving disciple of Jesus? Why man, I have spoken in services presided over by Christian savages who just recently had killed and murdered; most amazing thing, I say, to me of anything to be witnessed in the world today, and I speak of that tonight. We shall look at it on these Wednesdays. Now The Trial in the Wilderness; in the eleventh chapter of the second Corinthian letter, Paul, beginning at verse 26, uses an appellation that I have taken as the caption of the sermon. In his missionary journeys, he speaks, verse 26, 2 Corinthians 11:
In journeyings often, in perils of waters . . . in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea…In weariness and painfulness, in hunger and thirst, in fastings, in cold and nakedness.
[2 Corinthians 11:26-27]
And that phrase, “in perils in the wilderness” [2 Corinthians 11:26], the wilderness to me is an awesome thing; the jungle to me is a terrifying thing. In the thirteenth chapter of the Book of Acts, when Paul and Barnabas, accompanied by John Mark, are on their first missionary journey, when they came to Pamphylia—Pamphylia—and faced the interior of Phrygia, John Mark turned back, he went home to Jerusalem [Acts 13:13]. It was too frightsome and terrible for him. I have flown over that country, Asia Minor, and I could understand well why young John Mark turned back.
The jungle is an awesome and terrible thing to meet. For one thing, its vast and illimitable extent: the Orinoco and the Amazon jungles start at the Caribbean, on the northern part of South America, and continue clear down to Argentina—about six thousand miles. That jungle begins at the base of the Andes on the eastern side and continues for three thousand miles to the mouth of the Orinoco and the mouth of the Amazon rivers. It is a vast, impenetrable, untrackable territory, twice as large as the United States. When you are in Quito, you are nearer New York City than you are to Buenos Aires. There’s not a road in it, there’s not a railroad, there’s not a trail that you can see; it is vast and an empty infinitude.
The jungle is awesome to me. It is impenetrable. Those great trees rise up and up and up, and are solidly matted. Then underneath those trees is a jungle growth reaching 20, 30, 40, 50 feet high out of plants that look like banana plants and bamboo plants. Then underneath that is an undergrowth; plants, vegetation that like damp, moist, shaded ground. To sink into that jungle is to sink out of sight. It will take a man an entire day to hack his way thirty or forty yards. Flying over it from Villavicencio after coming over the Alps in Colombia down to the River Ararira, then for three hours from the Ararira River to the Putumayo where Cameron Townsend disembarked at Puerto Asis, and then four hours longer to the Napo River to the jungle base of Limoncocha, the pilot was a JARS pilot; “Jungle Aviation and Radio Service.” His name is Forrest Dander. As we flew over those vast, vast, vast illimitable tracts of darkness and jungle, he said for a plane to go down would be to be lost forever; it couldn’t be found. It sinks in the jungle. He said every other week there is a Peruvian or an Ecuadorian army plane that goes down. He said just yesterday a United States plane of the geodetic service, making a survey from the air of those South American lands, a geodetic service plane went down. Two men were lost. But he said to me, “We have never had a plane to go down. We’ve never lost a pilot.”
The jungle is awesome and terrible to me; it is in large part a vast swamp. When you come to the base of the Andes, from there for three thousand miles to the mouth of the Amazon, the elevation drops only five hundred feet. I took a pencil and figured that out. That is a drop of less than one tenth of an inch a mile. Consequently, any little swag with a drop in the river flow of only one tenth of an inch or less a mile, any little drop in the elevation becomes immediately a swamp. The rainfall is from about one hundred seven to one hundred fifteen inches a year. Last year Dallas had seventeen inches rainfall. The forest drips every morning; the heavy dew and the oppressive humidity. The life that infests the jungle is awesome to me—the insects, the bloodsucking gnat, the mosquitoes, the flies, the bugs—they are by the billions and the billions. The snakes, the reptiles, the crocodiles; it is an awesome thing to me! It is filled with disease; malaria, yellow fever, diseases I never heard of. And nobody lives in it who isn’t infested with parasites. And the savage that inhabits it! In Limoncocha, on the banks of the Napo River, the Wycliffe director said, “Just across the river, just to be across the river is to jeopardize your life. To stay there is to die.”
Flying over Alta Territory, beginning at the Napo River and going down to the Cuiari River, flying over it, right along the Napo River I saw a beautiful little lake, and I said to Roy Gleason—the pilot—I said, “That’s one of the prettiest little lakes I ever saw.” He said, “Yes. About a week or so before, a Quechua Indian who lives on the other side of the Napo, a Quechua Indian with his little family was fishing there at that pretty little lake, and the Aucas came and speared them all.” Filled with savage Indians! The Latin would never think of going to the jungle. The only missionary there would be a Wycliffe missionary. To the Latin, to all of those people of Latin America, the jungle is a terrifying experience.
Cameron Townsend, who heads Wycliffe Institute of Linguistics—in 1943 and 1944, the University of Oklahoma, with which Wycliffe is identified, was taken over by the United States Navy during the war. And they transferred the Institute of Linguistics to Bacone College, our great Baptist Indian college in Muskogee, and for two summers I had three hundred of those missionaries in our First Baptist Church. They all attended our church. You can imagine the impression they made upon me and upon the congregation; three hundred of those missionaries attending that church; that was my introduction to the Wycliffe Institute of Linguistics. They go only to tribes whose language has never been reduced to writing, and they listen. They make an alphabet, out of the alphabet, they create, they make a vocabulary, and in the vocabulary, they translate the Word of God, and they teach the people the Word of the Lord.
Cameron Townsend, my dear and precious friend, had two places especially he wanted me to visit. He wanted me to see the Aucas, the most savage of all of those Indian tribes, who had killed five white missionaries at one time. He wanted me to visit them. Then he had one other. He wanted me to visit Tariri, the chief of the Shapras who live in northern Peru. The chief was a headhunter and a head shrinker and had become a marvelous Christian. And he wanted me to visit Tariri. So from Yarinacocha, the jungle base on the Ucayali River in Peru next to the Brazilian border, it was planned early the next morning for the pilot, Floyd Lyon—in the February issue this year of National Geographic Magazine, Floyd Lyon of Shallow Water, Texas, near Lubbock, Floyd Lyon was the pilot in that National Geographic survey—it was arranged for Floyd Lyon, the cousin of Glen Shute, one of our deacons who is a pilot on Braniff, it was arranged for him to take me over the jungle; a four hour trip to visit Tariri, the chief of the headhunting Shapras.
So early the next morning, about 6:00 to 6:15, we got in the little one engine plane with pontoons. The pontoons are fastened to the landing gear, because the little planes always follow the rivers; anything happens, they can come down on the river. The river systems are the only ways of communication in that vast and intractable forest. So early in the morning, about 6:15, we got in the little plane and started up the Ucayali River. After about one hundred fifty miles up the Ucayali, we had to turn to make what they call “a crossover.” The two rivers that form the Amazon are the Ucayali, coming toward the north and bending eastward from Bolivia and Peru, and then the Maranon, which comes from Peru and Ecuador, and the two join together. And where they join, it is named thereafter the Amazon. We had to cross over from the Ucayali to the Maranon basin to a river named Huallaga, and then we were going to follow Huallaga up to chief Tariri. The only dangerous part in following a course with a little single engine pontoon plane is in the crossover. Anything happens over the river system, you can immediately come down on the bosom of the river, but in the crossover, there is not anything except to fall into that impenetrable jungle.
Exactly halfway over the crossover—a distance of about one hundred miles—exactly halfway flying at an elevation of about six thousand five hundred fifty feet, suddenly, suddenly the engine burst, exploded! Later, when the pilot took the cowling off—a Helio Courier engine has three cylinders on one side and three on the other, lying horizontal—when he looked at it, the piston block on this side and the block on that side had burst wide open. You could put your fingers in the cracks. They do not know yet what has happened, but the engine burst.
Floyd Lyon, the pilot, frantically began to work with the instruments. Some of them, flying so much I was able to identify: the magnetos, three of them, the propeller pitch which works by a plunger, the accelerator which works by a plunger, other instruments, frantically working with them. The engine was gone; nothing responded. He picked up his little radio and he called “Yarinacocha! Yarinacocha! We are coming down in the jungle; Yarina! Yarina!” And he couldn’t get the base at Yarina, but a mission’s base picked it up and relayed it to Yarina. And Yarina asked, “Where are you? Where are you?”
He did his best to describe where we were coming down. “We are coming down in the jungle! Our engine has failed. We are coming down in the jungle!” Then, as the plane fell, he said, “Look! Thank God, there is a village, there is a village!” The only village in the whole area was right there; there’s not another in the whole area, that one. And as we continued to fall, he said, “Look! Look, there’s creek! There’s a creek, there’s a creek.”
When the engine failed, he began to call Yarinacocha, “We are coming down in the jungle.” I fastened my shoulder strap—you are fastened in by two heavy straps; one across your shoulder and the other a seatbelt—I fastened the seatbelt as tight as I could. I took the shoulder strap, which was far more difficult, and worked through to fasten the shoulder strap as tight as I could.
The plane doesn’t plummet straight down; it comes at an angle, and I thought he was going to try to land in the little clearing in the village. And being a pontoon plane, I thought, when it crashed, it would turn over and over and over again. And I asked the Lord that I not be maimed, blinded, my back broken, paralyzed the rest of my life.
So I tightened myself as fast in the plane as I could. Coming down, you think lots of things; these that you love—family, little Chris, the church; you, praying for you; then commend myself to God: “Lord, it’s in Your hands. This is Your hour and Your time.” And then I just waited for the moment to come. My heart beat fiercely, but I was surprised at how calm I was, and how the trust in God is able to bring rest and peace in my soul. He had time—it frightened me because we were so high; I learned it was the height that saves us. Being so high, over a mile high, he had time to maneuver the plane one time. The village was over here, and he was coming down the only way he could. He was coming down into the village like that, and at the last second, at the last moment, he veered the plane just enough to come down into the little creek.
It’s very rocky and filled with overarching trees and rocks. There was a man on the little rock ledge pulling a canoe across. He hit the canoe; he missed the man, for which I am so grateful. And the plane, right at the edge of that little rocky ledge, the pontoons hit the water, and it skimmed over the bottom of the little creek, over the rocks, over the logs, over the debris, each one of which helped stop its momentum. Then it hit a little sandbar where there wasn’t any water and stopped, just like you run into a wall. And Floyd turned to me, the pilot, and said, “Praise God! We are saved, we are saved!” And I said, “Let’s tell Him.” And with many tears, we bowed our heads and thanked God. The missionary said that there was only one chance in a thousand that such a thing could ever be.
The villagers had heard the noise of the explosion and had watched the plane come down. In just a moment the creek was filled with those villagers. It’s a little Peruvian village. Why it is there I could not understand. The only access to it is when the Ucayali River rises and the swamp rises and the little creek that drains into the swamp, and you can come up in a canoe. They said, had it not been for an ability to come down in a prepared place in that little village, that I would have been there from three weeks at a minimum to six, four, three months at a maximum. I’d have been down there still, and for a long time to come, had it not been for that little village.
The people were kind and gracious beyond compare. They carried me out. Floyd waded out. They carried me out on the back of one of the men, and then I sat on the bank. I had some hard candy that I was taking to Tariri, and I sat on the bank with that hard candy, as a paymaster. And anybody that carried any little thing out of the plane onto the bank, I gave them a piece of hard candy.
When Floyd and I ate lunch, I opened a can of peaches, canned peaches, and I thought of the little kids around, so I took the can and gave it to one of the little boys. And in a few moments, he had all of the others lined up, and they had their tongues stuck out, and he would wipe his finger inside the can and touch each tongue just like that.
As I sat on the bank with Floyd, he was so disconsolate and dejected looking at that little plane down in the creek. He said to me, he said, “This is the first time a plane has ever come down, and this is the first time a pilot has ever come down.” He said, “Glen Shute will be ashamed of me, and he will never speak to me again.” I said, “Floyd, don’t you think it. That deacon will be proud of you and love you doubly forever.”
Or could I say it like this? Up there in the little village, everybody helps. With machete knives they were cutting down the herbs and the grass, and with pots and pans they were filling the containers with dirt to fill up the rough places. And they were cutting down the rough places so the little plane from Yarinacocha could land and rescue us. While Floyd was out there directing that operation, preparing the center of the village, I was seated on a beach watching, and a big husky Indian came by and sat down by me, and he started talking to me. I couldn’t understand a word he said, so he mimicked it. He put his hands in his ears like that; he had heard the explosion of the plane, and then he followed it down like that, and he just relived every syllable of it. And there was an old woman sitting on my right hand, a very, very old woman, and she began talking to me, and I couldn’t understand. So she stood up and pointed to Floyd Lyon and said, “Bravo! Bravo!” I understood that! I stood up and I said, “Yes, bravo. Bravo!”
Floyd Lyon has one of the sweetest little families I ever saw; they are devout Baptist people. Her name is Millie, she has three little children. As I sat on the bank with Floyd, I said, “How are you supported?” He said, “By faith.” I said, “Do you have enough to live on?” He said, “Sometimes. Some months we don’t meet necessities, but we are trusting in God.” I said, “You don’t have a home?”
“And you want to build one?”
“Yes, but we never have enough money and never will, I suppose.”
This coming Wednesday night, we are going to have an offering, and we are going to give that boy, by the grace of God, a worthy gift; a pilot to whom I owe so very much.
While we were waiting and that little area in the village prepared the best they could, some of the children came in the little hut where I was and cried, “Plane, plane, plane!” and pointed up at the sky. “He’s coming! He’s coming!” I went outside and couldn’t see a thing. When I asked the pilot about that, he said, “Well, remember their ears are far more sensitive than yours, and they heard it a long time before it could be seen.”
So when the plane came into view, Floyd said, “They found us. They have found us!” And the plane circled and circle and circled; I thought it would never come down, but they were trying to find the best angle at which to land in the village. They circled and circled, and finally the little plane lowered and made the most beautiful landing in the heart of that village that you ever saw.
And after other things had been cared for, the pilot Floyd and I got in the plane with the other pilot, Leo Lance. He was reared in the First Baptist Church of Fredrick, Oklahoma and is also a JAARS pilot. They pulled the plane back as far as they could to have every inch of ground, and Leo Lance said, “Now let’s pray.” So the three of us bowed our heads and Leo prayed.
And this is his prayer. He said, “Dear God, give us a safe takeoff, and give me wisdom to know what to do.” When he gunned the motor, the plane swerved violently to the right. The soft ground and the dampness of the earth had made it slick, and the plane swerved violently. This time when they pulled it back they put the tail end in the jungle to give every inch of space possible, and the pilot gunned that motor for all the power it was worth! And it seemed to me that God reached down and picked it up. In just a little ways, it was airborne. We were returning to Yarinacocha. And on the way back, there was a rainbow that followed us all the way, all the way. I have a picture of that rainbow; the most beautiful promised and bow of the covenant of God’s presence [Genesis 9:13-17], I ever saw.
When finally we returned to Yarinacocha, the jungle base, all of the missionaries were there to receive us. They were standing along the little runway cut out in the jungle. And Floyd, the pilot, got out after doing one or two things to help with the little plane. Why, Millie his wife was there and the three children and a baby in her arms, and Floyd was right there at my window where I was seated in the plane, and she came with the baby in her arms and kissed him. I lifted my camera up to take a picture of it, but I lowered my camera and bowed my head—there are just some things I thought that are too sacred to snap with a camera.
They had a little thanksgiving service and a little praise service to God and said to me, “God must have some purpose for you.” Now, I’ve been asked since I’ve returned, “You say that God took care of you. If God took care of you, why did God let it happen in the first place?” Especially children have asked that several times. This is God’s answer: one of the missionaries who was kind to me—we shared a room together—one of the missionaries in a devotional, read this passage from the second Corinthian letter, verses 8 through 11. And being translators, they work so much with other translations, and he read this out of the Phillips Translation of the New Testament. And this is God’s answer to why God allows things to happen. Listen to Cal Gifford, the missionary, as he read in our devotion this passage to me. And he said, “Preacher, I want to read this to you.”
We would like you our brothers to know something of what we went through in Asia. At that time we were completely overwhelmed. The burden was more than we could bear. In fact we told ourselves that this was the end.
Yet we believe now that we had this experience of coming to the end of our tether that we might learn to trust not in ourselves but in God who can raise the dead.
It was God who preserved us from imminent death, and it is He who still preserves us.
Further, we trust Him to keep us safe in the future, and here you can join in and help by praying for us so that the good that is done to us in answer to many prayers will mean eventually that many will thank God for our preservation.
[2 Corinthians 1:8-11]
These things that come to us, the trial in the wilderness [2 Corinthians 11:26], the deep waters through which all of us inevitably must pass, they teach us to lean upon God, to commit our lives unto Him.
Sometimes through the valley…
Sometimes on the mountain…
God leads His dear children along.
Some through the fire…
Some through the flood…
Some through great sorrows…
But all through the blood.
[From “God Leads Us Along,” George A Young]
This is the reason why sometimes God allows a providence to overwhelm us, that we might bow our heads and remember our lives are in His hands; to trust in Him and not ourselves. And in that spirit of thanksgiving to the Lord who loves us and keeps us, could we humbly bow in thanksgiving and in prayer?
Our Lord, who looks upon His children from heaven, there is no one of us but shall know the peril in the wilderness. The trial will come; sometimes in an open grave, sometimes in a terminal illness, sometimes in a grief of separation and death, sometimes in a disappointment indescribable. All of us shall know the trial in the wilderness. But, O God:
When the storms of life are raging,
Stand by me.
When the world is tossing me
Like a ship upon the sea,
Thou who rulest wind and waters,
Stand by me.
In the midst of tribulation,
Stand by me;
When the hosts of hell assail,
And my strength begins to fail,
Thou who never lost a battle,
Stand by me.
In the midst of faults and failures,
Stand by me;
When I do the best I can,
And my friends misunderstand,
Thou who knowest all about me,
Stand by me.
When I am growing old and feeble,
Stand by me;
When my life becomes a burden,
And I am nearing chilly Jordan,
O Thou “Lily of the Valley,”
Stand by me.
[“Stand By Me,” Charles A. Tindley,1905]
Lord, that we might learn to lean upon Thee, to trust in Thee, to commit our lives to Thee, whether in the trials of the pilgrimage, whether at the edge of the sullen, dark stream that separates between us and the world to come, Lord, may we walk and live with our hand in Thine. May the Lord go with us through the valley of the shadow and learning to trust, to believe, to look unto Thee, find that peace that passeth all understanding, and that holy and sacred rest God gives only to those who place their faith in Thee. Lord, bless our people, our staff, our church, our leaders, our preachers. The ministry of this pulpit, O Lord, we lift up to Thee in thanksgiving that God in His grace hath given us opportunity to stand here again, to name Thy name, to preach Thy Word. O blessed Lord, in our greatest year, in the spirit of thanksgiving, in the love and grace of Jesus and in His precious name, amen.
Now while we sing our hymn of appeal, on the first note of the first stanza, somebody you, to give his heart to Jesus; a family you, put your life in the church; as the Spirit of our Lord shall make appeal, shall open the door, shall lead in the way, come and stand by me. While all of us stand and sing our hymn together.