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JESUS' TEMPTATIONS by Rev. Chris Glaser
February 21, 2010, First Sunday in Lent
Virginia Highland Church
Atlanta, Georgia
Text: Luke 4:1-13

We’ve talked a lot about various “lost gospels” during our religious education hour—Thomas, Judas, and most recently, that of Mary Magdalene. This week I got an e-mail from the Holy Spirit, telling me where to find the lost Gospel of Jesus in my very own computer. What I discovered was longer than what I will read today—even Jesus was in need of editing! But I will post the full reading on the website [additional material bracketed to indicate what I didn’t read].

A reading from the lost Gospel of Jesus:

When my toes felt the first tingling sensations of the cold water of the Jordan, my wild-eyed cousin John looked up in that half-crazed way of his and rasped, “What are you doing here?” Later his incredulous response would be interpreted to mean I had no need of baptism, that somehow I had escaped the human condition of sin, or worse, the human condition of the ordinary life, a life that did not and would not transcend itself. [But I knew his heart and he knew mine. Our kinship ran deeper than blood. I took off my robe and underclothes and tossed them in a ball of fabric to the shore. Naked, I approached John in the deepest part of the river, only a few feet deep. Others witnessed a palpable energy between us, a passion that the Greeks deified in Eros, as we came together in this nexus of heaven, earth, water, and fire. He was aflame in fire from heaven; I was aflame in fire from earth—my earth, my body, the fires we assign to hell. I needed to be washed clean of spilled blood and seed and sweat and tears—all those things which give natural life its meaning and drive—to be borne from above, from the celestial mystery that instills awe and wonder and fear as it expands our awareness beyond our puny lives and histories, from the source of all and of all that takes a breath, that first inspiration.]

I did not approach John to be made holy, to be set apart, but to be brought down, to be humbled, to join in the struggle of soul for the sublime, the ecstasy that takes us out of ourselves and into ourselves at the same time, out of the mundane, out of the everyday, into the sacred and the eternal. I did not approach John to be made pure or clean, but to be immersed in waters from which life arose, to be initiated into a vision that no longer made such distinctions between the holy and the everyday.

[If the river had been a still, reflective pool, I would have seen a haggard self. The Greeks deified everything human, thus Narcissus is our self-absorption, the greatest sin of the human era. But that god, all the Greek and Roman gods, including Eros, are inside us. They are the reflecting pool in which we see ourselves writ large. This happened to me. Humans deified me so that they no longer had to transcend their ordinary lives, including their sins. They could not achieve what I did because I was God and had an advantage. And as some Gnostics would claim that God and human beings could only touch one another through a series of divine emanations that only accentuated the distance and walls between them, so Christians came to view saints and the law and priests and the church as intermediaries between them and Yahweh. Distance had to be established. I am living proof that there is no distance between God and humanity, between spirit and flesh. I am One, so you may be One.

I’m getting ahead of my story, which is true of all those who have written about my life. The gospel writers were way ahead of my story, for none were my contemporaries, but relied on oral and written traditions of others. They plotted my life line freely, putting some events ahead of others to suit their prejudice or vision.]

As I said, I must have looked gaunt, even ghostly, at the Jordan. My appearance came from a forty day fast in the wilderness which, in truth, preceded my baptism. My people had had to endure a wilderness for forty years before they came to the Jordan; so did I. I am a Jew, not a Christian. [During those days in the wilderness, I looked back on my life, a life unknown to the gospel writers, the birth narratives notwithstanding. You know how with even “common” children—as if there were such a thing—stories of their emerging personalities as infants and children get told and retold to the point of a sort of mythology about their uniqueness—so it was with me, only much, much later, among members of my spiritual family. Faith transforms a tiny mustard seed into a very large bush.] Prior to my baptism, the only story about me with a seed of truth was that of my visit to the temple. I say a “seed of truth,” because the actual story is one of adolescent doubts about faith, about God, about our “chosen” quality as a people, in which I questioned and challenged the religious authorities. But the seed of faith is doubt, which we must sow generously to find what we truly believe. That’s why I loved Thomas so much. His doubts led to greater faith. [But I never told him “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed,” because one needs to see something, if only a vision or a dream. Nightmares about God are better than no dreams at all. The blind man saw long before I put clay on his eyes. Again, I get ahead of myself.]

My life began as a citizen of God’s kingdom in the nightmares of the desert, what John of the Cross would later call the “dark night of the soul.” The prophet Samuel described a period of Israel’s history when visions were sparse and visionaries few, but this describes all eras of human history. Times which seem particularly sterile simply suggest that fewer people are paying attention. I hungered for vision. My vision was impaired by the smallness of my life. I was a Nazarene, far from the temple at Jerusalem, brought into my father’s trade as a carpenter, expected to care for my mother and father in old age, the eldest child intended to serve as a model for my brothers and sister as well as to have a family of my own. I was poor and poorly educated, reared in a corner of a tiny country, albeit with a proud history and culture, subjugated time and again by foreign powers. I had little comprehension of the empire that ruled us, except to witness Roman soldiers compelling us to carry their armor up to a mile, Roman currency, the payment of taxes, the pervasive image of the god-man emperor, and the collusion of a few of my fellow Jews with the powers that be, ranging from tax collectors to religious and political leaders. Though schooled in the origins of my faith, its present trappings, from its codifications to its hierarchy, paralleled all earthly kingdoms, and seemed bent on limiting rather than uplifting my spirit. [The sacrifices I witnessed when, on holy occasions, we made pilgrimage to the temple of Jerusalem, gave me nightmares: blood was not just “spilled” as it said in my scriptures, it spat everywhere, the heart of the creature pumping the blood wildly upon the crowd of men gathered to atone for our sins. I could not fathom a god that required this. I intentionally say “a god that” rather than “a god who,” because a god that required sacrifice of an innocent creature was a thing, not a person. Sacrifice was almost a mechanical device such as I would use to achieve some end of carpentry. “Do this, and you will live,” our priests were telling us. It seemed material rather than spiritual, manipulative rather than inspirational, magical rather than mystical. “Do this, and you will live” was intended to be applied to the law of loving restraint, not to the mechanics of scapegoating. I was thirsty for something more. Not just water to sate a parched tongue, but water to restore my soul, as the Psalmist said of God as shepherd. Water that would give life in its abundance.]

I considered myself poor, yet when I looked around I saw greater poverty still, as well as great inequities. Worse than poverty, I witnessed exclusion, due to human illness or human weakness or human conditions. People were forced out of our neighborhoods because of disease, or excommunicated because of sin, as if the rest of us knew no sin, or exiled because of difference, as if we weren’t all queer in one way or another. If these knew of Yahweh as a good, benevolent shepherd, they did not know it from their circumstances. My heart ached for them, my heart could burst its blood on them to make them whole—not as sacrifice but as compassion. I wanted to somehow give myself up to them: feed them, give them something to drink, break bread with them, wash their tired feet, lead them into God’s fold, lost sheep denied their shepherd. [Yes, youthful idealism, before experience tames the human spirit. In its earnest passion, it is not unlike other forms of lust. To be one at all costs, regardless of who the Beloved is, a multitude or an individual.]

I went out into the wilderness to die, to rid myself of my trivial life. My people had been, the story goes, slaves in Egypt. Except for the rare case, slaves can never be absolutely free; and it takes generations to breed slavery out of a people. Once a human spirit is confined, it finds difficulty trusting its wings. Despite the wonders that had brought them there, the plagues visited on Egypt, the division of the waters of the Reed Sea, my people began to think nostalgically and sentimentally of “the good ol’ days” when they did not have to worry about where they were going because they were going nowhere. I had no idea where I was going either. A generation died in the forty years of wandering after the nightmare of Mount Sinai, that terrible encounter that tempted them to worship a more docile golden calf, a god of fertility rather than fecundity. As the enslaved generation died, giving rise to a less limited generation, so I wanted my earlier self to die. I wanted to be born anew in a terrible encounter with the glory of God, the awesome presence that made Moses’ face glow in so frightening a way that his fellow Hebrews made him wear a veil.

I am familiar with the wilderness areas of my land. Throughout my youth I ventured there on forays to be alone, to discover my body as well as my spirit, to envelope myself in the gentle stillness and the harsh sun [, often naked or lightly clad. My first spiritual experiences and my first sexual experiences were with the wilderness: my wildness trying to match its wildness. I did not sin, in my thinking, for I thought of the wilderness as a fertile womb, after all, Yahweh could raise up children from these very stones. It was all about giving myself over to something greater than myself. My voice too. Sometimes it was silent, but sometimes my cries spilled over the boulders and rocks that populate the desert floor with sighs too deep for words, unintelligible gibberish that nonetheless articulated feelings deep inside, wherein I gave myself over to Spirit to pray more deeply, with greater anguish and greater ecstasy, than I could possibly manage on my own. I could not want deeply enough; the Spirit, though, could strike my stony heart and produce a flow, a flash flood in the wilderness of tears or laughter.

I would breathe deeply the dry air of the desert, sometimes frigid, sometimes burning, depending on the season, and the cold or the heat would penetrate my breast and flow through my limbs to my hands and feet. I felt the connection between the feelings inside and those that inhabited my skin. And when the desert breathed, I experienced the sensation on my skin as a caress that warmed or chilled my heart. The breath, whether mine or that of the desert, was Yahweh’s invisible form, blowing where it will, the breath of Eden and the breath of God’s kingdom.]

On my walks I would feel God’s presence, even know God’s presence, yet I never saw God until my forty day fast before my baptism. The Tempter was not a devil, but Yahweh, the same who tested Eve with forbidden fruit, Abraham with the required sacrifice of his own son Isaac, Job with unrelenting tragedy, and Elijah with a wind and an earthquake and a fire. These were not tests in the sense of failing or passing, for no one is capable of either failing or passing God. These were tests intended to shape their souls, to help them “know themselves” as the Greeks would say, or better, that God may know them. For it is as we are known by God that we have life.

I wanted to be known by God. I wanted to come to life. I didn’t engage in my fast in the wilderness to better know God, for no one can know God and live. I went naked into the wilderness to be known by God, for him to see me as I truly am, to have me, to take me. As I penetrated the depths of the wilderness, I shed my relationships, my identities, my occupation, my manipulative human ways. [Moses shed his privileged relationship in Pharaoh’s court to understand his people’s suffering. He entered the wilderness to shed his identity as a murderer. He became a shepherd. Only then did he see the burning bush. Yet when he played the game of knowing God by asking God’s name, Yahweh proved evasive and turned around and gave him his new identity as liberator.]

I did not want to ask God’s name. I wanted God to give me my name. I did not need to know God’s identity. I needed to know mine. I did not need to know God’s role, I wanted to know my calling. I had to let go of my very human desires for magic and perfection and “secret” knowledge. I had to stand under the truths that whatever power I had was God’s, whatever achievements I accomplished were God’s, whatever knowledge I acquired was God’s—and all three were partial, particular, and passing.

I only brought water into the wilderness. On the tenth day of fasting, I began to see visions. God first appeared to me in the form of my mother. Initially I thought it really was my mother: I ran to her arms and felt her embrace, so real, so strong, so reassuring. We sat down on the hot earth together. Her smile was that of an angel’s. We spoke of little things back home. I asked after my brothers and sister, and she told me their latest news. I began to get a little bored.

“I’m worried about you,” she finally said. “You look gaunt and pale. Why don’t you take one of these loaves I just baked?” I thanked her, and said no. I knew I needed something greater than bread to fill the void I felt in my life, to heal the wound I carried. I was hoping in the wilderness to hear God speaking to me, and here I was, speaking to my mother. She responded, “Well, then, bless it, and give it to me.” To my horror, as I reached for the loaf, I realized it was nothing but a stone rounded by the rains and flash floods of the desert, but now warmed by the blistering sun. “Bless it, and then I can eat it,” she insisted, “I’m very hungry.” I yearned to help her, yet this was some kind of trick. If it became bread in my hands, I surely would be tempted to take a part of it. “Woman, what have I to do with you,” I said, mystified about the true identity of this woman seated on the ground before me. “I’m your mother!” she insisted. I don’t know where the words came from, but I found myself saying, “My mother is one who does God’s will.” She looked hurt, so I asked after my ailing father. “Let the dead bury the dead,” she touched me gently with her hand just as her whole image waved into light in the air before me, like a vanishing mirage.

I was stunned. Though the temptation was real, I knew this to be a benevolent presence before me. Of course, benevolence can be the most seductive. Why Eve could be persuaded by a snake I could never understand; Adam’s temptation by Eve made more sense. But then, in her innocence, Eve had no ability to discern malicious intent from benevolent intent. Even so, they can be one in the same. The hardest choices are not between good and evil, but between or among several goods. Yet it was the gentle touch at the end of my encounter that made me believe this was God, not a so-called fallen angel. It was the kind of touch only a mother can give, the reassurance that you’ve done well, that you’ve been good and faithful. Yet was I being good and faithful to God, or good and faithful to myself, recognizing and focusing on my deepest needs, which were spiritual in nature, not physical? “Lead me not into temptation,” I prayed.

On the twentieth day of fasting, a huge storm of dust rose on the horizon, as if stirred by thousands of Roman chariots and their horses. Out of the dust came a single man, adorned in the leather and metal of Roman soldiers; I took him to be Caesar himself, the Emperor of the Roman Empire, a sight I never could have imagined. Even before he spoke, I could readily feel in his demeanor a charisma, a presence, a persuasive charm, and leadership abilities—all as he strode toward me eyes fixed on mine as if I were the only person in the world, making me feel honored and valued as he smiled generously, a twinkle in his eye. “You’re just the kind of man I’m looking for,” he said seductively, “you have the gift to command legions. I could make you king over Palestine and someday you could be emperor of the world. The world needs a political solution: one world, governed by one culture that has proven itself superior in every way. You could end poverty, hunger, ignorance, disease—all the things you say that will make you rich. You’d have the whole world at your feet. People would worship you just as they do me. You’d be like a son to me. All you have to do is sign this oath of allegiance to the empire and to me.”

I blushed with delight that he could recognize my worth in a way none of my peers had ever done. This is what I wanted to hear—but, I realized—I wanted to hear it from God. I would rather be God’s beloved son than the emperor’s, even though the latter would have its immediate and tangible rewards. The emperor saw resistance on my face, and simply said, “Think about it. Mull it over.” I said, “Thank you, but I have to turn you down. I think my calling lies elsewhere.” At that, the Emperor gently took my hand and placed a token in my palm. “This will signify you have the protection of the Emperor, should you choose to use it,” he said, not unkindly. “Let me know if you change your mind.” With that, he turned on his heels and entered the cloud of dust from whence he came. After some hours, the dust settled, indicating the soldiers that accompanied him had returned to wherever they came from. I looked at the coin. It looked like the coin of the realm, but it was actually a small medallion with an image of Caesar on one side and on the other side, in Latin of course, a vow of protection to the bearer. Though I had turned down his offer to command, it was tempting to hold on to the safety of his protection. Safety is as tempting as power, as tempting as survival. In the distance I saw a mirage, not uncommon in the wilderness. It looked like shimmering water, and I wondered if I could skip the coin across its surface. When I did so, it flashed like a falling star, and I realized I had just been saved from yet another temptation. I almost laughed in joy. “You fooled me again,” I said to the sky.

Following that second encounter, I spent much time recalling fragments from the Torah that I had memorized growing up. I recollected my first visit to the temple at Jerusalem, all the questions I had of the priests and scribes. On the thirtieth day of my fasting and solitude, a third visitation. First a place, and then the person. I found myself in what I thought to be the Holy of Holies, the center of the temple visited by the high priest once per year, where the Ark of the Covenant held the Law of Moses written on stone. There was the high priest with his back to me, facing a high altar. His golden robes flowed well behind his slender frame; he might as well have been a king. He carried a staff, shaped like a shepherd’s staff, but taller and prouder, covered with jewels and gold. I had never seen the high priest or any priest carry such a staff. He turned, as if he heard my wonder, and I notice red and purple silk robes draped under the golden robe. A high hat crowned his head. I did not think the high priest dressed in this fashion. He gestured to our magnificent surroundings, a room of enormous height, built of finest stone, appointed with stained glass and sculptures and paintings and gilt-work, the like of which I had never seen, and certainly never in the temple, which banned such graven images and creature likenesses. “All of this will be yours, if you prove yourself worthy,” he said.

“I am not worthy,” I said, thinking all the while of Isaiah’s vision of the Lord in the temple, and his response, “I am a man of unclean lips.” I said, “I am not worthy, nor can I prove myself. God alone must prove me. God alone can make me worthy. I can’t test God’s patience with pride.” I considered the accumulated wealth represented in this room, and all the good it could do for the poor, but if I thought I could prove myself worthy and inherit all of this, I would then consider it mine, that I had earned it, and the poor undeserving and myself patronizing.

The hard marble floor turned to gentle sand beneath my feet. The icy cold grey chill of stone turned to burning hot blue of sky. The overwhelming incense of the altar transmuted into the delicate aroma of some hidden desert flower. The gloriously robed priest became a pillar of stone that reminded me of the lot of Lot’s wife. “Thy kingdom come,” I prayed. During the days that followed, I recited from memory as much from the Prophets as I could remember, especially Isaiah. “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; sending me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor...” I could not remember the next line about God’s vengeance for the life of me, and decided it wasn’t worth remembering.

And so, on the final day, I found my way to the Jordan and was baptized by John. The water was cool and refreshing on my burned flesh. As I came out of the water, I had a clear sense of what I was to do, a vision of a kingdom breaking into our world through my ministry and the ministry of others like me. Though later writers would say I heard God say, “You are my beloved child,” I did not. But I knew it to be true—and not just for me, but for all of us. I wish I could say that my only temptations came in that wilderness, but that would not be true. In every encounter, I was tempted with self-preservation, power, and pride. But my meditation in the wilderness had served as a refining fire, strengthening my resolve to proclaim in word and deed, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”

Copyright © 2008 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit circulation with attribution of author, occasion, date and venue. Other rights reserved.

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