“I think we’re off the trail.” Those were the worried words of a member of my hiking group last year when we spent a week hiking around and in the Santa Fe National Forest in New Mexico. We explored desert hills, arroyos, and canyons around Abiquiu, drove up into the mountains to spend hours in forests and meadows, and even climbed to a seldom visited ancient pueblo perched on the top of a mesa. For this city girl, this was quite a wilderness adventure. I have hundreds of pictures of the sometimes literally breathtaking scenery. But as I have reflected on that time, what I found especially fascinating is that I was not the one declaring anxiously declaring, “I think we’re off the trail.”
Although I would to love say and I may even come across as bold and courageous, I am on the contrary, ever vigilant to any possible danger, and if it isn’t real, I can conjure up countless tragic scenarios—getting lost, dying of exposure, being mauled by a bear, falling off a cliff. However, this trip was different, and I think it was because we had a guide. He was a retired forester who had been living, hiking, and leading groups–well for probably longer than I’ve been alive. He could recall the days when painter Georgia O’Keefe lived there in her house at Ghost Ranch. He even has a quarry named after him where he and a group of hikers discovered ancient dinosaur fossils. So even when we had left the trail behind, I wasn’t riddled with anxiety. For that time in the wilderness, I had a guide—a guide I actually trusted.
Now of course, some people might look down, might dismiss that week of hiking as not a real or true wilderness experience. As if to be in the wilderness you must go out on your own, with just your wits and maybe a water bottle. But isn’t that just another symptom of our cult of the individual. What do we value—people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. We idolize heroes. Even if it’s a team thing like football—who’s the most important player, who does everyone talk about Manning, Newton, Rodgers. Winning and losing—it’s all on their shoulders. We idolize individuality.
But you know, Jesus didn’t even do it all on his own. Even being tempted out in the desert wilderness, Jesus was not alone. Now that might be a shock to you, becuase I always pictured Jesus and so much artwork telling this story shows Jesus all by himself. In fact, the translation we us says that Jesus “was led” in the wilderness. As if the Holy Spirit drove him to the edge of the desert dropped him off, and said “see you in 40”. When in fact, the Greek more accurately is translated as “was leading” him in the wilderness. It’s a mere difference—for all you grammar geeks between the imperfect and the aorist. “Was led” implies a once and done event, and “was leading” implies more of an ongoing past experience. A mere difference in verb tenses may not seem like such a big deal, but it could be.
In one of reading it—Jesus was led in the wilderness—we can imagine him out in the desert all alone facing his hunger, his questions, his boredom, his doubts, his temptations all by himself—as if God had simply tossed him out to the spiritual wolves so to speak to see what he is made of. Temptation as a test—to see if he would pass or fail. That’s one way of reading this story, and for some it works. Jesus all by himself faces down that dirty old devil and returns a hero. As I said, that’s one way.
There’s another way, a way that I think Fred has well guided us to today with his liturgy, and that is even in the wilderness of the desert hungry, cold, questioning, maybe even feeling lost and physically weak, Jesus still had the Holy Spirit with him, he had a guide, he was not abandoned and alone. So, with the Holy Spirit Jesus could refuse the temptation to a much needed meal, inspired by the Spirit Jesus knew the emptiness of power and privilege. And because he trusted God as his guide, there was no need to test it by jumping from a cliff. Jesus could counter all the temptations the devil could conjure up because the Spirit never left him.
For the gospel writer Luke, the Holy Spirit doesn’t just come and go, she isn’t an occasional character to move the plot along. No, the Spirit is inspiring—inspiriting creation, the world, the people us and those around us. Maybe if we look for the Spirit, look to see signs of the spirit, we can feel like we are not in this on our own, we can begin to look to the Spirit as a guide to trust.
To tell you the truth, I kinda like this way of hearing the gospel story this week. Because, as you might have picked up from the beginning of the story—I am not the most trusting, not the most content of souls. And if I don’t pay attention to the guides around me, these weeks of Lent can turn into a wilderness of weakness, of giving into the biggest temptation of all—beating myself up for not sticking to this or that discipline and giving in or giving up.
Of course I don’t know what all the guides of the Spirit could possibly be, but . Sometimes it’s words from the bible, and as we heard in our gospel story, but remember sometimes those bible words can get twisted. A spirit guide can be person, but remember no one is perfect—I think we can look for someone who is authentic, shows wisdom (most of the time), a person who doesn’t just talk about love, but tries to stick to that walk that trail regularly. Just as I don’t know what temptations you face and I don’t know what wilderness looks like for you, I can’t even begin to imagine how the Holy Spirit could be leading you.
So, I guess, if hero Jesus facing down the devils temptations works for you, great. But my prayer is that if in some strange way, some way what I have said today has guided you, inspired you to feel, to believe, to imagine that even in temptation, even in wilderness, even suffering, when you hunger, when your faith is questioned and in doubt, when you are tempted and feel like you are out in the wilderness, if you remember, “hey I’m not alone.” If the spirit was leading Jesus, the Spirit can be, is with me, guides are all around—well—those are inspired words, and we are inspirited people. Amen.