The Pacific Crest Trail is considered an extreme challenge for even the most seasoned, well-conditioned hiker. Unlike its east coast sister the Appalachian Trail, you can walk the PCT for days without seeing a soul.
Starting at the US-Mexico border, the trail stretches north all the way to Canada. The lowest point along the way is 140 feet. The highest elevation is over 13,000 feet. Hikers contend with desert heat and the subfreezing chill of snowy mountain tops; with lush, rainy forests and dusty stretches with no water for miles.
When she was 26 years old, Cheryl Strayed
walked 1100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail all alone. Her trek started in the Mojave Desert and ended at the border between Oregon and Washington.
Cheryl began her trek
with no prior hiking experience. Despite her fleeting good intentions, she had done no physical conditioning to get ready for the rigors of Rocky Mountain terrain.
The first time she actually packed her backpack and strapped it on was the very day she got on the trail. That’s when she discovered that she could barely lift it off the ground.
Her first steps in those new hiking boots came the same day. Those new boots rubbed terrible blisters on her untrained feet, and she learned only well into the hike that they were a size too small.
Along the way, she encountered rattlesnakes and bears. Pushed through daily exhaustion, tedium, boredom, and loneliness. Endured gnawing hunger and debilitating dehydration. Lost her way and her hiking boots and most of her toenails. And she found herself.
Or more precisely, the trials of the wilderness molded her.
Four years before starting out on the PCT, Cheryl’s mother Bobbi died of lung cancer at the age of 45. Cheryl’s life disintegrated. Once an aspiring writer and happily married, she drifted from one dead end job to another. She numbed her pain with infidelity and drugs. Her marriage crumbled.
As the miles—and the hours of solitude—went by, Cheryl came to terms with her old wounds, her old regrets, and her painful memories. In the process, a wounded, aimless wanderer gave way to a confident determined hiker. The woman who would become a writer, a wife, and a mother gradually emerged.
The wilderness is the place of trial. Trials stimulate spiritual growth. Challenges can integrate what may seem stray bits and pieces of our lives into a new, dynamic whole.
Adversity sharpens our focus and brings clarity to our sense of purpose. Persevering through suffering, uncertainty, and weariness can shape us more nearly into the image of God.
The Spirit drove Jesus into the desert immediately following his baptism. Mary and Joseph’s boy was becoming the Son of Man. The young carpenter was becoming the world’s healer. The brightest Yeshiva student was fulfilling all the law and the prophets.
It’s not that Jesus was not already the Son of God. Indeed, he was God incarnate from the moment Gabriel brought Mary the news that she would bear God’s own son. But now Jesus was going to fully inhabit a very new way of being on this planet.
Everything he had ever done, all that he had every learned, every influence that had shaped him over the years was now going to come together in an earthly ministry that would culminate in his death, resurrection, and ascension.
We read in Mark, Matthew, and Luke that Satan tempted Jesus in the desert. Matthew and Luke tell us about the verbal sparring between Jesus and Satan. Mark leaves it to our imagination. And strictly speaking, Mark’s account may do us the biggest favor by being so spare.
You see, the word “temptation” throws us off track here. As we use it most frequently today, “temptation” refers to a desire to do something that we know we shouldn’t do. Usually the word “temptation” implies not only our desire but some force—like Satan—luring us toward something that we should avoid.
The Greek word in the text can also mean “trial.” Jesus endured trials in the wilderness.
He struggled with hunger and thirst and sore feet and boredom. He wrestled with the idea that a nobody carpenter in the boondocks of the greatest empire on earth was about to make all things new. The eventual terrible, painful cost of his mission must surely have pressed in on him with increasingly oppressive weight.
Jesus’ temptation was not to do something evil. His struggle was simply to take the next step. That one next step. Fatigued. Famished. Parched. Alone. Just sitting down seemed the easy path. Going back to Nazareth. Picking that hammer back up. Build a couple of nice tables and a night stand.
The desert was simply the beginning of a long series of next steps.
Call those fishermen.
Teach them the same lesson. Again. Maybe it will sink in this time.
Stand up to those religious authorities today.
Heal this leper.
Wash the feet of that disciple. The very one who will betray him.
Pray in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Forgive from the cross.
Take one step. Just this next step.
The risen Christ emerged from the empty tomb. He emerged from all those single steps. God raised him from the dead, raised from all his trials, through each of those thousands of steps, to new and eternal life.
Somewhere along the line we 21st century Westerners came to believe that smooth sailing and comfort were life’s default setting. We came to see suffering, struggle, disappointment, sickness, and death as unfair intrusions in our pursuit of pleasure and success.
No wonder we have so much trouble enduring the imperfections and letdowns of this world. No wonder we struggle to forgive other people for letting us down or disagreeing with us. No wonder we grow angry and resentful when things don’t go our way. No wonder we have so little tolerance for people who differ with us about things that matter to us.
We are held captive by the illusion that life is good only when things are going the way we think they should. The good life is the successful life, the no-worries life, so this illusion goes. We can feel like losers when we are struggling to make ends meet or to pass a class or to mend a fractured relationship. We suppose that we should have it all together.
But that is not the case. Jesus himself endured trials. Every day. And Jesus was growing spiritually through those trials. God gives birth to new life precisely through struggle and adversity.
Life is not a test that we must pass. God is not watching to see how well we do in order to decide whether or not to accept us.
Instead, life is a process of growth. For the most part, we grow through trials. In Christ, God accompanies us through these trials. He never expects us to endure them alone. On the contrary, he created us precisely to depend upon him.
He asks only that we do not give up, that we take that one next harrowing step.
It may be a step of forgiveness, or compassion, or tolerance. A step of patience, or mercy, or justice.
God raises us to new life one trial at a time.
This sermon was preached at St. Matthias Episcopal Church in Shreveport, Louisiana.