So, Jesus is leaving the desert and he is tempted by the devil. The devil knows that he’s famished after his fasting and says ‘If you are the son of God why don’t you turn this stone into bread?’ Jesus says ‘No, I don’t want bread, I want a Macdonalds’ – waves his hands and promptly turns the devil into a big mac with cheese. Jesus fed, devil gone, jobs a goodun!
No, instead he quotes scripture. ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’. Which on the face of it sounds like some of the most pretentious and self-righteous grandstanding I’ve ever heard. – perhaps except perhaps for some of the things that came out of my mouth as a Jehovah’s witness.
But, I hasten to add, growing up JW I was taught some very strange lessons. For example:
Don’t ask questions for which you do not already know the answer. If it’s not in one of the Watchtower and Bible Tract society publications then it’s a mystery yet to be revealed and I should have faith. So if something didn’t make sense, or was a contradiction, then I was at fault somehow for asking the wrong questions.
Of course, that meant that I had to live with the paradox that God was both omnipotent, and restricted. God couldn’t just forgive – God needed a blood sacrifice. So God couldn’t ‘save’ humanity without Jesus dying on the cross.
And God couldn’t forgive a person unless the person was repentant. Jesus did a bit to save us, but unless you believed the right things, and did the right things, then you were doomed. It was like God couldn’t save you when you were messed up, only once you’d sorted yourself out – which sounded a bit like telling someone who’s ill that you’ll give them some medicine once they’re well. Salvation, it seemed, was up to us, not God.
But God couldn’t lie – and the bible is the word of God. Even though there are two different creation stories, two different sets of ten commandments, four different gospels, and so many contradictions I couldn’t count them. Yet, I was taught that the bible is a reliable history book, the ultimate rulebook, God’s instruction book, and a good cookbook.Although I do have to say if you ever make bread to the recipe Ezekial gives it is delicious.
I was taught that the world was evil, scary, and the only good people were all JW’s. People who seemed good were not really good, and I knew that because they weren’t JW’s and therefore doomed to destruction. I was in the truth. I knew the truth and everybody else was ignorant. Talk about a superiority complex.
The Society was God’s hands working in the world. Jehovah was father, the society was mother. Of course sometimes the way things were interpreted changed, but that was because God’s plan was unfolding and God would reveal each part, as necessary, to the society, who would then tell me.
I BELIEVED all of this, without question. It had been fed to me all of my life, since the moment I was born. My parents, my grandparents, my uncles, my aunts, my friends.
I wouldn’t stand up for the national anthem because I believed that it was idolatry. I wouldn’t have a blood transfusion because I believed that God would damn me for it. There wasn’t any heaven or hell, but there was the end of the and world and whether you’d be saved or not. And I believed, without a shadow of a doubt, that I wasn’t going to be saved. I was the queer, the puff; gay, homosexual, pervert, an abomination.
I was a mistake, and there was nothing I could do about it. Even if I never did anything with another man, I thought about doing it, and apparently, that was just as bad. God hated homosexuals, so if God had made me, then God had made me to hate me. My place in life was to be hated – and I believed that. Talk about messed up.
And how could I even begin to question what I was being taught? The people around me lapped it up. It fed them, nurtured them. It affirmed them as God’s people, called them worthy, loved, and good. For me it wasn’t food, it was the inescapable weight that I carried each and every day. What fed them, weighed me down. What affirmed them, condemned me.
Perhaps my one saving grace was that I’d watched my father, and I’d learned how to live two lives. He was one person when with other Jehovah’s witnesses, and another at home. Not in a bad way, he worked hard to be a good father, just in an obvious way. So I knew it could be done, had to be done.
But living two lives is horrible – neither of them has any real depth, neither of them is you, you become the actor in two really bad b movies.
Thank God for Jesus. It was Jesus that saved me. And it wasn’t until much later I began to understand that Jesus and I probably had a lot in common growing up. We both lived in Newcastle, both liked show tunes, both studied hard – now the last one may be true.
But in reality, although I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, I think it’s pretty safe to assume that when he was growing up very few people understood how different he was. To the average first century Jew Jesus was simply a man with ideas above his station. He was the son of a carpenter, not a priest. In a worst case scenario he may even have been seen as someone who had been conceived out of wedlock, mamzer, a voiceless one.
And if that is the case then Jesus wouldn’t have been thought of as a ‘Good Jew’. He wouldn’t have been allowed to allowed to marry a Jewish girl of reputable parentage, or be allowed to worship in the temple with the other Jewish men.
He would be allowed to walk on the outskirts of the temple, sit in the portico of Solomon, and he would be allowed to worship in the court of Gentiles, but If he was marked in this way I very much doubt that he was allowed any further. You can imagine, if the court of gentiles was the only place given to him to worship in, and they’d turned it into a market, It would give further reason to get so angry that he’d overturn the tables of the money changers and yell at everyone to get out. Putting a marketplace there was a way of telling him that God didn’t want him, that he wasn’t good enough. I can relate.
Jesus may well have lived his early life believing he was worth less than those around him. If he was seen this way then he would have felt like an outsider, which I believe explains why his ministry was often to the marginalised and rejected in society. He knew what it was to be marginalised and outcast.
Scripture doesn’t tell us what prompted Jesus to be baptised, only that the event changed his life. Mark’s Gospel doesn’t even mention any of Jesus life prior to being baptised; as if it’s not important.
But imagine what it would have been like to have lived your whole life believing you were worth less than others, for whatever reason, only to meet God in your baptism and be told by God “You are my Son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”
No wonder he went off into the ‘wilderness’ to wrestle with it! Here was God was telling him that he was God’s own son, worthy and loved. God was pleased with him.
I think maybe that Jesus realised that the teachings he’d accepted all his life were not the ‘bread of life’ for him, the will of God, but simply a dead weight. The teachings, words given to him as the ‘bread of life’, were just stones that he’d carried around.
And there must have been a temptation to turn those stones into bread; to go home, forget about this experience, and make something of his life. Maybe marry, have a family. Go to the synagogue, follow the law. Feed on the same bread everyone else fed on, trust it above his own experience. It wasn’t what he believed that was at fault, it was him. God couldn’t be talking to him.
How could God be pleased with someone who hadn’t done anything special? He wasn’t anybody. If he’s been somebody before his baptism do you not think that at least one of the four Gospel writers would have mentioned it?
I think he came to a watershed moment, and he realised that he had a choice. Believe the God who met him in his baptism, or continue to believe what he’d always been taught. He chose to believe the word of God, as he heard it, and trusted in it.
So when he said ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’ he was saying that culture and religion are not the be all and end all. Only God is, and he was going to trust God above everything else.
Remember when Jesus was talking with the Samarian woman at the well? The disciples came and asked him if he wanted something to eat. In John 4:31-34 we read ….the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to complete their work.
In the desert Jesus had been emptied. Not so he could be filled with some religion, but so that moment by moment he could be filled by God. It’s a radical concept. Not to live a life for God, but to live a life with God. Not to make bread, but to be bread. Not, I have the bread of life, but I am the bread of life! Wow – how scary is that!
Instead of relying on religious rules and commandments – listening for God in every situation, it would mean trusting God, and trusting himself. It’s why early Christians called themselves ‘followers of the Way’.
But living this way is really scary. It’s difficult enough to risk it in a group, a church; Imagine what it was like to be on your own, the firstborn? How does he know that God will care for him? How does he know that God will keep him safe? How does he know that this isn’t just a huge mistake? There are tests, and answers ahead, but they’re yet to come in our Lenten journey.
For now we believe the Good news that Jesus taught – that are children of the living God, and that God loves us, and approves of us, is pleased with us. Our Identity is grounded in God, not in human teachings. In love instead of fear. In Grace instead of judgment. We thought we’d lost everything that was worth anything in the desert, only to find that we have found a treasure beyond compare.