A sermon preached by Pastor Robert Schaefer
First & Spring Creek Lutheran Churches
First Sunday in Lent – March 5, 2006
Text: Mark 1:12-13
Friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
What a difference one word can make!
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all have some version of the story we find in our gospel reading today – all three of them tell us that Jesus went out into the desert for forty days to be tempted by the devil, and that God’s angels came to help him after the battle was won. But there’s an important detail – just a single word – that I want us to pay attention to this morning: Matthew and Luke tell us that Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. But Mark, the writer of today’s lesson, puts a slightly different spin on it – Jesus was, in fact, driven by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. In between led and driven there’s a world of difference.
For most of us, being led has a safe, encouraging feel to it. Maybe you have, for example, some memories of walking around the park or the zoo with your parents, one or both of them taking you by your hand and leading you from one wonderful exhibit to the next. Or perhaps there’s been some time in your life when someone’s said, “But it’s a surprise, so you’ll have to close your eyes…” and then led you into a party planned behind your back by all your favorite people. It could be that you once upon a time played “Follow the Leader” – or maybe you played it not so long ago. The fact is, it’s pretty good to be led when the person doing the leading is trustworthy.
On the other hand, few of us like to be driven. In fact, that’s not even a word we associate with humans all that often. Animals are driven, by hired hands with noisemakers and dogs and electric prodders. Cattle drives are familiar to us. The drive to round up the herd of bison down at Custer State Park draws tourists fascinated by the running of the big animals. One might drive sheep, or pigs, or quite a few other creatures, but the moment we start applying that word to human beings, all sorts of unpleasant images come to mind. Nazi Germany. POWs marched at gunpoint. American Japanese internment camps. The Trail of Tears. It’s hardly possible, it seems, to talk about driving another human being without thinking of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
And yet, Mark tells us that Jesus was driven, not led, by God’s Holy Spirit that day that he went out into the desert.
Now, aside from the very different emotional wallop each of these words has on us, there are real differences in how leading and driving happen. Think about what it’s like to be led – there’s someone you trust, going on before you. The one in the lead is blazing the trail. If the ground is unsure, the leader tests it first and finds the best way. If the path is difficult, the leader turns around and hollers encouragement. If those in back get too far behind, the leader pauses until everyone’s caught up. And that’s how we usually imagine God’s Spirit at work in our lives – going on ahead to show us the way. Calling out encouraging words to us when it’s tough going. Giving us help when we’re not sure we can make it to where we’re headed. We remember God leading Israel in the desert; we remember the star leading the Magi to Jesus the King; we sing songs that go “lead on O king eternal!” and “take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home,” and we discover we’re willing to follow where the Spirit leads us – that it’s good to be led by him.
Being driven is just the opposite. There’s no one up front to break the trail – instead, the ones in charge pull up the rear. Rather than words of encouragement, it takes tools of pain, like bullwhips and pokers, to drive a herd. Trust doesn’t matter – the emotion that must be generated is fear. We don’t have any comforting hymns or Bible stories about being driven, I’m afraid. The thought of those methods being the Holy Spirit’s tools of choice leaves us cold.
But there is a very important point that needs to made right about now about leading and driving – although the look and feel very different, their purpose is the same: to get everyone where they belong. Whether it’s a teacher leading a line of second graders to lunch or a sheepdog gathering in the flock at night, leading and driving are both about getting everyone safely from point A to point B. Sometimes that requires driving the group hard; other times it’s best to have an upbeat leader – but the goal is always the same.
That’s why these verses about Jesus and the Spirit are so important. You see, God’s goal in sending his Spirit to us is always to get us safely where he wants us to be. Sometimes that means the Spirit will call our names from just around the bend, waiting for us to hear and respond. But other times need may be more urgent, and the Spirit will poke and prod us to move us along. Here Jesus serves as an example for us – God’s Son was also Mary’s son, a completely human man no different from you or me. His body had the same weaknesses our own do; his emotions were wired the same as yours and mine. And so we find that our Lord himself was both prodded and guided as he went down the path God had set for him. If it was that way for our Lord, we can be sure that it is also that way for us.
Sometimes, friends, God will be very gentle with you and give you sweet encouragements. You’ll hear him calling through the Spirit, and you’ll be glad to follow. He’ll blaze a trail for you, and you’ll reach for his hand. But there will be other times when the situation’s different, when you discover the Spirit is not so much before you as behind you, shoving and prodding to get you moving. These times, when it would be so easy to assume that God has turned angry and nasty, you must remember that whether we are being led or being driven, God is doing everything in his power to get us safely from where we are now to where he longs for us to be – with him. Let Jesus be your example, and allow the Spirit to work in your life however he chooses. Whether your are led there or driven there, your final destination is worth whatever hardships the road may offer. Amen.