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Led by the Spirit

Thomas J Parlette

“Led by the Spirit”

Luke 4: 1-13


Theologian Lori Brandt Hale tells a story about her 3 year old son and the first time he heard this passage about the temptation of Jesus. At the church she attends, all the children go to a children’s church time during the service and the adults stay in the regular worship. She writes, “I did not accompany my son to children’s worship that day. The congregational leader who led the children that day is a very dynamic speaker and storyteller, so I was not surprised when my son pulled me aside later that day to ask some questions.

“Hey mom, what do you know about the devil?”

My mind immediately jumped to all the theological possibilities. Should I start with some Augustine? Should I differentiate between conservative and progressive and liberal interpretation. But then I looked at him again and remembered that he was three.”

So I asked, “What do you know about the devil?”

“Well,” he said, “The devil talked to Jesus. And the devil was mean.”

Interesting, I thought. I began to wonder about the relationship between “mean” and “evil.” What is the difference between the two? Was the devil really mean? Perhaps it’s possible to be mean without being evil, but is the opposite true? Is it possible to be evil without really being mean. Or did the beloved children’s leader decide that her young audience could understand “mean” in ways they could not understand evil – and my scholarly musings were not important to her storytelling choices.

My musings were cut short as my son continued his explanation of the passage. Leaning in close to me and dropping his voice to a loud whisper, he said, “If we were at a store, and you and Dad were in one aisle, and I was in another aisle – and there was candy- the devil would say, “Nobody is looking, you should take some.”

And what would you say back to the devil?

“I’d say “Thank you.”

Professor Hale admits that she wasn’t sure what was most startling. That her son could retell the story so well or that he focused so much on the temptation and the Devil.(1)

That’s the tendency with this well-known passage – to focus on the Devil and the temptations. It’s easy to picture the mean old devil trying to win Jesus over to the dark side and Jesus standing up to him with steely-eyed determination.  But as always, we need to be careful with stories we know so well.

The first verse of this passage tells us a lot – “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness…”

So why was Jesus in the wilderness? The devil didn’t lead him there – the Spirit did. God brought Jesus to the wilderness.

Last week, we talked about how mountains are significant places in the Bible. Whenever anyone goes up a mountain, something big is going to happen. God reveals himself on mountains. The wilderness is the same kind of backdrop. Whenever we go to the wilderness, something important happens. God forms disciples in the wilderness. God shapes a people in the wilderness. Moses and Elijah both started their ministries after a time in the wilderness. And it was in the wilderness where God made a nation out of Israel – it took forty years of wandering, but God got it done. The Spirit led Jesus to the wilderness because there were some things Jesus still needed to figure out and come to grips with before his public ministry began. Led by the Spirit, Jesus comes to the wilderness for a time of testing.

The story is told about when the Union Pacific Railroad was being built. An elaborate trestle was constructed across a large canyon in the West. Wanting to test this important bridge, the builder loaded a train with enough cars and equipment to double its normal payload. The train was then driven to the middle of the bridge and left there for an entire day. One of the workers watched all this with great concern, because he wasn’t really that interested in seeing all his hard work destroyed. So he asked the builder, “What are you trying to do, break the bridge?”

“No,” said the builder. “I’m trying to prove that the bridge won’t break.”(2)

That’s what is going on here. Jesus is proving to himself that he will be able to do what is expected of him. He is proving that he won’t break when he follows through with God’s will.

William Barclay, the famous bible scholar once explained it this way: “What we call temptation is not meant to make us sin; it is meant to enable us to conquer sin. It is not meant to make us bad, it is meant to make us good. It is not meant to weaken us, it is meant to make us emerge stronger and finer and purer from the ordeal. Temptation is not the penalty of being a human being, temptation is the glory of being human. It is the test which comes to a person whom God wishes to use.”(3)

In other words, the temptations Jesus faced weren’t designed to see if he would sin, but to prove that he wouldn’t. In this wilderness testing, Jesus proves that he can conquer temptation.

In your bulletin you may have noticed a drawing of this scene from the artist Rembrandt. In the drawing, you can see the devil with his skull like head walking with Jesus along a path in the wilderness. It’s actually a rather friendly looking scene. The devil is just a step or so behind Jesus, with one wing almost draped over his shoulder. They are leaning in close, deep in conversation. The scene is less a confrontation showing the steely resolve of Jesus standing up to the devil and more a reasoned exploration of how the Son of God should use the power he has been given.  Notice that the devil does not dispute the fact that Jesus is the Son of God – in fact, he clearly accepts it. Each one of the temptations begins with “If you are God’s son…” and some have suggested that a better translation might be, “Since you are God’s son…” What the devil does is offer up some alternatives for Jesus to consider. Since you are God’s son – and you are clearly hungry after so long with no food – make bread for yourself. Since you are God’s son, and you wish to bring peace to this world, and you would be a better ruler than Rome – worship me, and I will give you all the Kingdoms of the world. Since you are the Son of God – prove it to everyone by jumping from the temple, for it says in the scriptures that God will send angels to protect you. Do it – and everyone will believe in you just like that. These are things that the devil whispers to Jesus as they walk down that path in the wilderness.

But as you can see in the drawing, Jesus just holds up his hand, he waves away the devil’s suggestions. He will not be swayed by the temptation to use his power in a way that contradicts God’s will – even if it seems like a good idea like feeding people or ruling with compassion instead of might, or instant celebrity and notoriety. God has other plans, and Jesus will not be tempted to do it the easy way. We will continue to be led by the Holy Spirit, here in the wilderness and throughout his ministry, all the way to the cross.

It’s interesting that when Jesus responds to the devils temptations, all of his responses come from Deuteronomy 6-8. Those chapters tell the story of Israel’s time in the wilderness and how they gave in to the temptations of hunger and worshipping idols instead of the one true God. During their wilderness time of testing, Israel failed at every turn. But now, Jesus is going to get it right. He is going to make the right choices so that he will remain faithful to God. Last week we spoke of the transfiguration as the beginning of a new and final exodus. This week, we see Jesus in the wilderness, facing temptation and testing just like Israel did, but Jesus will not be swayed. He does not give in to temptation. He is led by the spirit to make the right choice for the right reason.

T.S. Eliot’s verse drama Murder in the Cathedral chronicles the assassination of Archbishop Thomas a Becket by King Henry II’s knights. The archbishop faces four tempters. The first urges him to consider his own safety and “leave well alone” lest his “goose be cooked and eaten to the bone.” The second tempter tells him that if he aligns himself with the king, he will receive the benefits of wealth and political power. Tempter three advises him to forge an alliance with the local barons to resist the king and “fight for liberty.” And finally, the prospect of martyrdom rears his head as the fourth tempter declares,

“You hold the keys of heaven and hell.

Power to bind and loose: bind, Thomas, bind

King and Bishop under your heel.”

And to these temptations Thomas replies:

“Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:

Temptation shall not come in this kind again.

The last temptation is the greatest treason:

To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”(4)

When Jesus is led into the wilderness by the spirit for this time of testing, he shows by the choices he makes that he will do the right thing for the right reason. That is the goal for us in this Lenten season. To examine ourselves, to allow ourselves to be led into the wilderness and tested. To examine the choices we make and make sure that we are doing the right thing for the right reason – to obey God and allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit.

May God be praised. Amen.


1.    Lori Brandt Hale, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, p. 44, 46, 48.

2.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXII, No. 1, p.47.

3.    Ibid… p.47.

4.    Malinda Elizabeth Berry, The Christian Century, February 3rd, 2016, p. 21.