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The Holy Spirit isn’t safe!

6 months ago

In this week’s Blog for Lent Kevin Roberts explores the role of the Holy Spirit in leading Jesus into the wilderness immediately after His baptism, and asks what this tells us about the character and longings of the Holy Spirit, as the Spirit works in us and in the church and world today.

If I dare admit this, I have never been one for giving up things during Lent. I’m sure that it has real value to some people and I don’t want to disparage it, especially when the giving up creates more time for prayer, but I have always felt that Lent is more about what God is asking us to take-on in our lives rather than what He is asking us to let go of. 

Of course the two can go together. Taking a hold of something new for God will generally involve letting go of something that is already in our hands. But the driving question for me is what He is putting into my hands. What He is doing in me. What He is calling me to be and to do in His service. Even, where is He asking me to go for Him? 

Led by the Holy Spirit

I’m fascinated by the fact that the Holy Spirit is so involved in getting Jesus into the wilderness for 40 days at the start of His public ministry and immediately after the coming of the Spirit on Him as His baptism. Each of the three synoptic gospels tells us that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness. 

Luke tells us that Jesus was “full of the Spirit” and was “led by the Spirit” into the wilderness where He was tempted by the devil.[i]

Matthew tells us that He was “led by the Spirit” in order to be tempted or tested by the devil; that the tempting and the testing was the reason he was led into an inhospitable landscape for 40 days not just a description of what happened to Him there.[ii]

And then Mark, who gives us the shortest account[iii], tells us that Jesus wasn’t just “led” into the wilderness, but was propelled there by the Spirit. The Greek verb that Mark uses is ekballein, which has the sense of being driven out into the wilderness. It is the same word that is used in the gospels when Jesus drives out demons, and drives out the money-changers from the temple. It is the root word for ballistics. In Mark’s account this isn’t the gentle leading of the Spirit. This is the firm, even violent, force of the Spirit, pushing Jesus out of Jerusalem into 40 days doing battle with Satan, without food, pushed, we can only imagine by the temptations that came to Him, to His physical and mental limit. 

Re-running Eden and Exodus

For Jesus there were particular and unique reasons why He had to be thrust into the wilderness at the start of His public ministry. 

He had to do what Adam and Eve had failed to do in the face of the devil’s temptations, and face them down and emerge the Victor. He also had to do what the people of Israel failed to do in 40 years of wilderness journey, which was to remain faithful from start to finish, and emerge as Luke points out, as full of the Holy Spirit at the end of the journey as He was at its outset.[iv] Jesus was re-capitulating Eden and re-running the Exodus, and getting it right this time around, in the power of the Holy Spirit. 

And what He did in miniature, if you like, in the Judean desert, He would go on to do on a broader, longer landscape during the course of His ministry, even to Gethsemene and Calvary, facing down the enemy and remaining utterly faithful from the beginning to the end of the journey. In the divine purpose it was somehow important that He achieved this under the intense pressure of 40 days in the wilderness, at the very start of His public ministry, as both preparation for, and illustration of, all that was ahead. 

The Holy Spirit isn’t safe!

This is the unique reason that the Spirit propelled Jesus out of Jerusalem and into the Judean wilderness. But there are huge lessons here for us as we live lives under the constant assault of the enemy; how do we face him down? And as we look to be faithful all the days of our lives, however long the journey; how can we persevere, sometimes in very inhospitable landscapes? 

But can I offer you this one thought. That, in Mr Beaver’s immortal words to Susan and Lucy in CS Lewis’ ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’, the Holy Spirit “isn’t safe”[v]. Of course Aslan in the story is Jesus, who is good, but not safe. But the same can be applied equally to the Spirit.

The Spirit is the paraclete who comes alongside to comfort and to counsel. The Spirit comes, as Jesus had just experienced hours before being propelled into the wilderness, with the gentleness of a dove. But in a sense woe betide us if we confine the Spirit’s actions to the comforting and the gentle, and domesticate the Spirit as anything other than unsafe! If we reduce the Spirit to warm and fuzzy feelings, and forget that the Spirit is a force ten ruach desert wind disturbing everything, and not just a gentle breeze on a summer’s day, then we are not engaging with the same Spirit who, ekballein, drove Jesus into the wilderness, and kept Him in a situation about as uncongenial as anything life can throw at us.

Thrown into costly adventure

This is the Holy Spirit we need to welcome into our lives and our churches. A good Holy Spirit, but never a safe Holy Spirit. A Holy Spirit who in the words of the chorus is “indescribable, uncontainable, all-powerful, un-tameable, amazing God”[vi]. Who is as likely to throw us into demanding adventure with Him, that will cost us everything, than to come as a warm soothing presence while we play our soaking music. He is God for goodness sake, who as someone has said “we can’t even pretend to be in control of, who will always outfox us and surprise us, who is always beyond our grasp”[vii].

And here’s the point, who will propel us outwards, again and again, into discipleship journeys, and missional journeys, that are unexpected and unpredictable and un-boundaried. Where we are shaped by life in places that ask everything of us. And where not only angels minister to us, as Mark tells us angels attended Jesus in the desert[viii], but where the Spirit is a daily sustaining and ever-surprising reality. This is the Spirit who we need and cry out for!

Don’t settle for less!

Let me give Bishop John Taylor the final word from his classic book about the Holy Spirit, ‘The Go-Between God’[ix]:

“few are they who after their first awakening, dare trust the Spirit to carry them by way of the wilderness and the dark night into a widening freedom and availability until Christ himself is formed in them; but there are many who will either settle for religion without miracle, or try to live by a regular recurrence of the moment of their conversion. And all these drab infidelities are committed not because too little power is available to us, but because the power so far exceeds the petty scale we want to live by.

He has made us little lower than gods, while our highest ambition is to be a little above the Joneses. We are looking for a sensible, ‘family-sized’ God, dispensing pep-pills or tranquilizers as required, with a Holy Spirit who is a baby’s comforter; no wonder the Lord of terrible aspect is too much for us! There can be no recovery of vital belief in the Holy Spirit and, consequently, no true theology of mission, unless we are prepared to have dealings with the great deeps of elemental energy”

What is the Holy Spirit asking you to take-on this Lent?

Where is the Holy Spirit driving you out to?


[i] Luke 4:1-13

[ii] Matthew 4:1-11

[iii] Mark 1:12,13

[iv] Luke 4:14

[v] CS Lewis ‘ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ in the Chronicles of Narnia

[vi] Chris Tomlin in song ‘Indescribable’

[vii] William Countryman in ‘Calling on the Spirit in Unsettled Times’ 

[viii] Mark 1:13

[ix] John V Taylor ‘The Go-Between God. The Holy Spirit and the Christian Mission’


The Ven Kevin Roberts

Director and ReSource Minister

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"Michael’s combination of theological insight, pastoral sensitivity and sense of humour enabled us to see the challenges that Jacob faced in a new light. There was an underlying sense that the Spirit was at work amongst us as we explored the themes together. Even more refreshing was the way in which the Spirit gave us new insights in our discussions. This was a truly encouraging, if brief, retreat and we returned to our parishes with fresh enthusiasm to keep on going in the power of the Spirit."
Geoff Mumford, New Ainsty Deanery, Diocese of York



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