THE DEVIL WENT DOWN TO…GALILEE
A sermon on Luke 4:1-13
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
February 21, 2016 (Revised July 14, 2019)
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
In the history of the music we know as the blues, few figures stand taller than the man known as “The King of the Delta Blues Singers,” Robert Johnson. Although he died in 1938, his influence on popular music is broad and deep and continues to this day. A whole generation of folk and rock ‘n’ roll musicians such as Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Eric Clapton have all recorded his songs. In describing Robert Johnson’s music, Clapton wrote, “I have never found anything more deeply soulful than Robert Johnson. His music remains the most powerful cry in the human voice.”
Of all the country blues musicians of the pre-World War 2 era, Johnson is also the one who has inspired the most study. He is a shadowy, mysterious figure who has been the subject of numerous books, essays, and even a few major motion pictures like Crossroads and the Oscar-nominated O Brother, Where Art Thou. (There is also currently an hour-long Netflix original documentary about Robert Johnson that I would highly recommend…)
But for most people, if they know anything at all about Robert Johnson, they are familiar with the one episode of his life that invites the most speculation. Legend has it that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil at the crossroads in exchange for his extraordinary musical ability.
The story goes something like this: it happened on a cool October night on a road in rural Mississippi during the early 1930’s. Robert Johnson was walking alone down a dirt road with his guitar slung over his shoulder just south of the town of Rosedale. He’d been trying to eke out a living as a traveling musician, playing at juke joints, parties, and on street corners. But the truth of the matter was that he was not very good. People would sometimes shout out to him from the audience, “Put that guitar down, boy. You running us crazy.”
He was dejectedly making his way home that night after yet another unsuccessful performance. A full moon filled the dark sky. There were big trees that stood tall all around that dark and lonesome road. Off to the side of the road, a crazed, poisoned dog laid howling and moaning in the ditch. A man was sitting off to the side of the road on a log at the crossroads. He called out, “You’re late, Robert Johnson.” Robert dropped to his knees and answered, “Maybe not.”
The big, barrel-chested man got up from the log and walked out to the middle of the crossroads where Robert knelt. He said, “Stand up. I know you, Robert Johnson. You wanna throw that guitar over there in that ditch with that hairless dog and never pick it up again. Do you want to be just another guitar player like all the rest… or do you wanna play that guitar like nobody ever played it before? ”
The howling and moaning of the dog in the ditch penetrated Robert’s soul. He began to shudder and to shake with fear like a man with the palsy. Robert finally said, “That dog done gone mad.”
The man gave out with a hearty laugh and answered, “That hound belongs to me. He ain’t mad, he’s got the Blues. I got his soul in my hand.”
The dog let out a low, long, mournful moan—a howling like never heard before in this world. The sound seized Robert Johnson like a Grand Mal. It caused the strings on his guitar to vibrate…and to hum…and to sing with a dark sound, making beautiful and soulful chords. He looked over into the ditch and saw the eyes of the dog glowing on their own with a deep violet otherworldly light. Robert knew that he was staring straight into the eyes of a hound from Hell. His body shuddered from head-to-toe.
The man continued, “That dog ain’t for sale, but the sound can be yours. That’s the sound of the Delta Blues.”
Robert replied, “I gotta have that sound, Devil-Man. That sound is mine. Where do I sign?”
“You ain’t got a pencil, Robert Johnson. Your word is good enough. All you gotta do is keep on walking north. But you better be prepared. There are…consequences.”
“Prepared for what, Devil-Man?”
“You know where you are? You’re standing in the middle of the crossroads—my crossroads. If you take one more step in the direction you’re going, you are going to have the Blues like never known to this world. My left hand will be forever wrapped around your soul, and your music will possess all who hear it. That’s what’s gonna happen. That’s what you better be prepared for. Your soul will belong to me.”
The light of the moon filled the pitch-black delta night. Robert looked the big man squarely in the eye and said, “Step back, Devil-Man. I’m going to Rosedale. I am the Blues…”
What happened afterward was uncanny. From his very next performance, Robert Johnson’s newfound—and totally unexpected—mastery of the guitar far surpassed the skills of any of his peers or mentors. All who heard him play and sing were amazed and entranced by his music. Thus, for the rest of his life, he was respected as a guitarist and singer—that is, until he died under mysterious circumstances at the age of 27 at a roadhouse just outside of Banks, Mississippi. There are some that say he was poisoned by the jealous husband of a woman that he was paying too much attention to. But others believe that the Devil had come to collect his due…
At the beginning of Luke 4, our Lord is led out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. In some ways, this was a pattern that our Lord followed throughout his ministry. Jesus often went out to be by himself in order to connect with God and spend time in prayer, especially before he had big decisions to make. For example, Luke 5:16 tells us that it was Jesus’ practice to escape the crowds that pursued him and that “he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.” In that instance, Jesus was about to finish choosing those who would be his disciples. This time around, Luke tells us that he was out there in the desert for forty days, fasting the whole time. This was at the very beginning of the earthly ministry on which he was about to embark. I’m sure that he was spending his time praying, seeking God’s will, seeking wisdom and guidance and courage for the challenges that lay ahead. And then who should show up during those forty days but the Devil himself…
Luke is sparse on the details of the encounter between Jesus and the Devil. The legend of Robert Johnson meeting the Devil at the crossroads is eerie in the telling. It is a dark and foreboding story—full of Mississippi Delta voodoo. There’s nothing like that here in the gospels—no mention of what form the Devil may have taken, no mention of the time of day or night that the Devil chose to present the temptations, and no mention of whatever else may have been going on at the same time. Instead, Luke just gives us a straightforward, “just-the facts, ma’am” set of exchanges between Jesus and the Devil. The truth of the matter is that the Devil is always more subtle when he comes to us. When we are tempted to sin, it is seldom that simple and cut-and-dried, is it? I know it’s not with me. In reality, I doubt it was actually all that simple with Jesus either…
The temptations by which the Devil chose to tempt our Lord concerned three areas: his physical needs, the lure of power, and the lure of trying to misuse God for one’s own ends. It seems that the Devil’s strategy was to try to sidetrack Jesus by appealing to his human nature and to the weaknesses of his flesh. Our Lord, though, is having none of it. He escapes the Devil’s temptations each time. He does this by relying on the Scriptures and answering the Devil’s suggestions with them.
In considering this passage this morning, it seems to me that all three of the temptations that the Devil brought before Jesus center around this one thought—the Devil was trying to get Jesus to take the easy way—the path of least resistance.
In the first instance, it surely would have been easy for our Lord to turn the stones into bread. After all, Jesus would turn a boy’s lunch of five loaves and two fishes into a banquet for more than 5,000 later on in his ministry. No problem at all. And besides that, what’s the harm in it? After all, Jesus had not eaten for forty days. His time in the wilderness was drawing to a close anyway and he would soon be amongst his people again. When he returned, there would be bread enough to satisfy his hunger—but why wait until then? Why not just go ahead and eat NOW? What’s wrong with that?…
In the second temptation, the Devil offered Jesus authority over the entire world. Jesus knew that, as God’s only Son and the Savior of the world, he is destined to rule over the earth in the fullness of time. Philippians 2:10 tells us that “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” But here, the Devil was offering him a shortcut. If he took the Devil up on his offer, then Jesus would not have to go through the agony of the cross, the terror of being utterly abandoned by God the Father, and facing all the horrors that Hell could throw at him. He is going to rule over the earth one day anyhow—so why not? The Devil is just offering him a way that would take less time…and cost him much less…
In the third temptation, the Devil takes Jesus to the highest point of the Temple in Jerusalem in the hope that he would throw himself off. It was a height of 450 feet from the pinnacle of the Temple down to the floor of the Kidron Valley directly below. It would be quite a fall…
Remember—at this point in his life, our Lord is right on the cusp of beginning his earthly ministry. No one much knows about who he is, aside from some of John the Baptist’s followers out by the Jordan River. If Jesus were to toss himself off the roof of the Temple, and if God were to respond by sending his angels to rescue him just in the nick of time, wouldn’t that be a splashy way to start off his ministry? This would prove to everyone in Jerusalem—the priests, the Pharisees, the scribes, the teachers of the law, all the movers and shakers in Jerusalem, EVERYBODY—that he was indeed the Son of God in a way that no one could dispute. If he were to jump, Jesus would quickly become the talk of the entire city! Everyone would see and know who he was right from the start. Wouldn’t that be a great way to begin his preaching and healing ministry?! Isn’t that what he really wanted?…
No. Once again, the Devil was offering him the easy way. And Jesus refused. He refused because it was not the right way.
And that brings us to the main point of today’s sermon: There are no shortcuts in the life of the Spirit.
Let us be clear on this: The gospel of Jesus Christ is so simple that even a child can understand it. It is the message of how God loves us so much that Jesus came to bring us salvation by his life, his death on the cross, and his resurrection from the dead. And it is all through God’s amazing grace that this is possible. There is nothing that we can do to earn it. We could never do enough good deeds to deserve God’s favor and love. That is the heart of the gospel message—a profound truth that is simple enough for practically anyone to understand.
But that is not all there is to it. Once we decide to follow Jesus, it is the beginning of a new life. The decision to follow Christ is not our final spiritual destination or goal. It is just the start of a life-long endeavor. As followers of Jesus, we are called to work in cooperation with God so that we can be changed by God’s Holy Spirit from the inside out. We are to become more Christ-like in the way we think, the way we talk, and the way we act and in the way we treat others. As the Apostle Paul puts it in Romans 12:2, we are to be “transformed by the renewing of our minds.” And there is no quick or easy way to do that…
The old-timers had a name for it which we do not hear in church very much anymore. It is the fifty-cent seminary word “sanctification.” It’s a big word, but all it means is the process by which we grow more like Jesus every day. As we live in the grace of God through Jesus, we become more like him in all the areas of our lives.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? But the truth is…it isn’t. Spirituality is often a messy business. It is not a “one-size-fits-all” proposition. There are no “Five Easy Steps to the Life of Prayer.”Or anything like that. I have no doubt that the people who write such books are genuine and sincere in their intentions. Just scan the “Christian Living” section of any bookstore or any online bookseller, and you will find lots of books with titles just like that one. The problem is that spirituality just doesn’t work that way. Sometimes in our spiritual growth, it is two steps forward and one step back…or vice versa. And it is a life-long journey with the Spirit. We can be tempted to cut corners—to try to seek an easy way to grow spiritually. But let’s not kid ourselves—there is no easy way. There are no quick fixes…
Maybe your spirit resonates with the Apostle Paul in Romans 7. I know it does with me. In that passage, he describes the war that is going on inside of himself. On the one hand, he says that he desires to do what God wants him to do and to become who God wants him to be. But on the other hand, there is another part inside of him that is bent to sin and to putting his own selfish desires first. He writes that these two opposing aspects of who he is struggle and fight within for control. For Paul, and for us, it is a never-ending struggle…
In 1 Corinthians 9, the spiritual life is compared to an athletic event—a long distance footrace. It says that all the runners compete for the prize, but that only those who train and do not cut corners will be the ones who have success. Just like training for any athletic endeavor, those who will succeed will be the one who are fully dedicated—the ones who will take their training seriously, the ones who will not take the easy way, the ones who do the right things necessary in order to win. The same thing is true of the life in the Spirit.
Let us pause to take stock of our lives this morning—of where we are spiritually. And that is a good thing to do as we consider the life of Jesus and his teaching. Here are a few questions I would like for you to mull over this morning as the sermon draws to a close:
- How is my relationship to Jesus?
- Am I closer to him today than I was at this time last year? If not, why not?
- Have I been guilty of trying to cut corners spiritually?
- What can I do to draw closer to God?
Let us pray—
In the prayer that you taught us to pray, we say “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” O Lord, we would also pray that you would deliver us from a half-hearted discipleship that seeks to do things the easy way rather than your way. Help us to recognize where we spiritually cut corners. Give us a fresh vision and a new heart to follow you more closely in the days ahead.
And to God alone be the glory! Amen.
 Quoted in the booklet accompanying the box set Robert Johnson—The Complete Recordings Columbia Records C2K 466222, p. 23.
 Adapted from the legend as related by bluesman Henry Goodman found at www.vagablogging.net/robert-johnson-sold-his-soul-to-the-devil-in-rosedale-mississippi.html (Accessed February 8, 2016)
 www.exploringbiblelands.com/2013/08/08/the-pinnacle-of-the-temple (Accessed February 19, 2016)