Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: The Gospels

Story: A Few Copper Coins

Let’s begin this morning by getting clear about one thing: what a gospel is. We’re reading the Bible again for the first time, and in part this means we need to uncover hidden assumptions we might bring to the scriptures.

One of these is most likely the idea that a gospel is essentially a historically accurate biography. Just like the ones we might read today about Queen Elizabeth, or Abraham Lincoln, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The better the biography, the more exact the historical truth.

But the Bible gospels are not like this at all. How could that even be, when only memories about Jesus survived, preserved through oral traditions? Nothing at all had been written down, and back then there was definitely no photography, audio, or video! Exact historical truth could never have been the point. Rather, the writers were trying to express a different kind of truth, namely, Jesus’ power in their lives, how they experienced his presence among them which continued after his death by crucifixion. To describe and evoke THAT. This is why the writers of both Matthew and Luke, for example, import well-known cultural legends into the story of their Lord, like that of the “virgin birth”: the God directly implanting his seed into a virgin, who gives birth to a divine child. Egyptian Pharoahs and Roman Caesars were regularly described in similar ways, as well as others. My point is that the writers of Matthew and Luke employ this legend also in order to make their readers go, WOW! This is not just another shmoe I’m reading about. I better pay attention!

Gospels are about getting people’s attention, giving them a sense of Jesus’ presence and power, inspiring them to become followers of his Way. And that’s what I want to talk about today: the Way of Jesus. Not all of it—just some key aspects. As much of it as I can get to in our time together this morning…

Let’s start with a story from the Gospel of Matthew, although it also appears in Luke’s gospel and well as in Mark’s….

Jesus has just gone to learn from the greatest Jewish teacher of the time, John the Baptist, and John immerses him in the Jordan River or baptizes him, just like the name says, and when Jesus comes up out of the water, Matthew says that the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove, and a Word was said out of Heaven: “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.”

And then this same Holy Spirit that anointed Jesus, this same Holy Spirit that came down like a dove, next thing it does is push him out into the desert to be tempted by the Devil. Thanks a lot, right? I mean, what’s going on here?

What’s fascinating is that we find this very same temptation motif in Eastern religions too, as in the story of the Buddha who encounters the Evil One immediately after he experiences enlightenment. In other words, temptation is not so much about a particular religion or race as it is about what it means to be everywhere and all times human. Have an experience of God or enlightenment, have an experience of clarity that makes you feel utterly certain and pure, and the tempter comes.

Why is that? Short answer is that enlightenment and clarity unleash power of all kinds: leadership, vision, creativity, commitment, passion. A Holy Spirit comes down upon you, you realize that yes, you are a child of God and Godpower is yours to command, but what are you gonna do with all that? Use it, or abuse it? Are you gonna be good, or are you gonna be bad, or ugly? Temptation to abuse power is an intrinsic part of spirituality and an intrinsic part of politics. Christian and Buddhist and every other faith, including Unitarian Universalist. Democrat and Republican and Independent.

Count on it.

So. The Holy Spirit has led Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the Devil. Here’s the rest of the story:

After spending forty days and nights without food, Jesus was hungry. Then the Devil came to him and said, “If you are God’s Son, order these stones to turn into bread.”

But Jesus answered, “The scripture says, ‘People cannot live on bread alone, but need every word that God speaks.’”

Then the Devil took Jesus to Jerusalem, the Holy City, set him on the highest point of the Temple, and said to him, “If you are God’s Son, throw yourself down, for the scripture says, ‘God will give orders to his angels about you; they will hold you up with their hands so that not even your feet will be hurt on the stones.’”

Jesus answered, “But the scripture also says, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

Then the Devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in all their greatness. “All this I will give you,” the Devil said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

Then Jesus answered, “Go away, Satan! The scripture says, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”

Then the Devil left Jesus, and angels came and helped him.

That’s the story. The Jesus Way is that you get a taste of God, you’re confirmed as a child of God, and it takes you straight to the desert, straight to the Devil and temptation. Now did it all happen literally as the Gospel of Matthew says it did? Did Jesus really have an experience of a flesh and blood Devil?

Remember, the Gospels aren’t so much meant to transmit the facts of what actually happened as to evoke through metaphor and symbol what the Jesus Way meant to them. And you better believe that temptation is a reality for us all, no matter what your religion. A tempter comes even to the Buddha, at the moment of his enlightenment… A tempter comes to you and me too, when we are feeling especially pure, and righteous, and good… Maybe we don’t call it the Devil. Don’t have to believe in the Devil, to have this experience…

Look at that first temptation. Satan comes to Jesus and says, Use your power to turn these stones into bread.  Now just think about the context for this. Jesus is in the middle of a fast, he’s not eating, but it’s intentional, he’s using it to help him maintain a spiritual focus while he’s out there in the desert, keep him focused on higher values of heart and soul like hope and peace. That’s what the discipline of fasting is for.

And in a larger sense, what Jesus is doing suggests something about what the purpose of life should be. To keep an ethical and spiritual focus no matter what. In the language of the Gospel: Use all that Holy Spirit power to balance out our competing needs of flesh and spirit and make sure that the spirit triumphs. Make sure that we don’t give up the focus on God and give in to a grumbling stomach, hand our lives over to the demands and imperatives of stomach values and needs.

Any grumbling stomachs out there right now? Satan wants Jesus to serve stomach values and needs. That’s what he’s tempting him to do.

What are stomach values and needs? Well, serve the stomach, and your creed is materialism. Media culture with all its advertisements trains us to serve the stomach, inflames our sense of entitlement….  We hold back from taking positive risks in life because we’re afraid of having to go hungry for a time, while things settle…

That’s serving the stomach… The creed is MATERIALISM, and it’s also Selfishness. It’s the grumbling in my stomach and not yours that counts. Or my stomach is so full that I can’t imagine anyone else being hungry… Or I just don’t care… Who cares about all those people out there lacking adequate health coverage, when I’ve got mine? Who cares about the homeless, the undocumented, the sick, the elderly, when I’ve got mine?

The creed is MATERIALISM, SELFISHNESS, and also lack of imagination and LITERALISM. A hungry stomach is impatient with ambiguity or mystery. Feed me, Seymour! Fill me up with the spiritual version of McDonalds. Fill me up with “truthiness.”

Forget about taking the time and effort to get to the real truth, to read all that you need to read, to think hard and carefully, just swallow it uncritically, swallow swallow swallow!

Are you getting the picture? Satan says, use your power, Jesus, use your power, Christian and Buddhist and Unitarian Universalist, turn these stones into bread…. and we all know how Jesus responded. Jesus said, “people cannot live on bread alone, but need every word that God speaks.” In other words, keep the focus spiritual! Be like the poor woman in the story from earlier. Give from your heart, give the amount that makes you feel good, and for that poor woman, she gave her two precious pennies which was everything she had…  That’s how much it meant to her… She gave her everything… That’s the whole purpose of life. Don’t serve the stomach. Don’t succumb to materialism, selfishness, lack of imagination, literalism. Don’t go there. That’s the Jesus Way.

It’s all about power. How we’re gonna use it. Is it gonna be good, or is it gonna be bad or ugly? Which takes us to the next temptation. Satan takes Jesus to the Holy City, sets him on the highest point of the Temple, says, “Throw yourself down. Scripture says, after all, that angels will catch you.”

Now isn’t that interesting…. Satan quoting scripture… He quotes from the Hebrew Bible, the book of Psalms. Have you ever had scripture quoted at you? In support of a view you felt was narrow, ignorant, or just plain cruel? Are you painfully aware, as I am, that in America right now there are millions of children being taught by their legalistic and literalistic Christian parents and pastors to revere a God of wrath that will condemn countless souls to hell, to regard people different from themselves as the enemy, to seek to restrict their rights? Marriage rights, reproductive rights, all sorts of rights! Christianity can’t get any uglier than this. I am painfully aware of it this morning. It’s powerful to quote scripture, and it can be a power used not to give life, but to manipulate and destroy.

But when scripture is quoted at him, what does Jesus do? Well, he doesn’t just take it lying down. He knows, first of all, that Satan misinterprets the scripture, reads it literally when it’s best understood metaphorically. Satan also misapplies it. The Psalmist speaks to the Jews from 600 or so years before Jesus was even born, Jews who had seen their kingdom destroyed by a foreign power and living in exile in Babylonia. The words are words of comfort for their ears. Of course, it doesn’t stop those words from comforting people of all ages who have experienced one kind of exile or another, but let’s be clear on one thing. The writer didn’t have Jesus in mind when he was writing!

And so, in view of all this misinterpretation and misapplication, Jesus quotes a scripture right back and uses his power as a power to give life. We’re trying to develop this power among us right now, through this year-long sermon series: how to use scripture to give life. All those millions of children who are being taught to use scripture to destroy… Unless we Unitarian Universalists can speak the Bible language they will not listen to us and neither will their parents, and I can’t think of a greater way of being irrelevant in this world. So we’ve got to get on the Jesus Way. The Jesus Way is learning how to quote scripture not to destroy, but to give life.

Now everyone say with me, “Drat! Foiled again!” Jesus has resisted temptation 100%. And once again notice how it’s all about power. Power to focus one’s life purpose on the spirit … or the stomach. Power to quote scripture to give life … or to destroy. And now, with the last temptation, power to relate to other people through love … or control.

Satan takes Jesus to the mountain, shows him all the kingdoms of the world and says, “Do you want them? Bow down to me, worship me, and I’ll give them to you.” Remember, Jesus is in the Desert. He has not yet formally begun his ministry, his vision is so big it feels overwhelming and … will anyone out there listen? Will anyone allow themselves to understand? This was the Buddha’s worry too—the fear that almost killed his ministry before it began. Will anyone stop long enough to pay attention?

Satan gets right down to the point. Puts his finger right on it. Says to Jesus, “I know you’re right, but what about the people, the people of this world, like sheep without a shepherd, who say that they know all about love and hope and truth—and then they go right ahead and hate and condemn and lie. All talk. Talking so much they aren’t listening. And they are not gonna listen to you! So—bow down to me, worship me, and I give you power to control the world, make them listen, make them obey.

See how big this temptation is? When you know you’re right, and others are wrong? So why not just cut to the chase and control them? This has been a temptation Christians have succumbed to again and again ever since it became the official religion of Rome more than 1600 years ago back with power to control at its fingertips.

  • Controlling salvation—only through Christianity, never through any other religion
  • Controlling truth—only through the Church or the Bible, enforced by one kind of Inquisition or another—forget about reason or science, and no disagreements allowed
  • Controlling the state—certain current politicians that shall remain nameless (!) come to mind these days … just the latest version of the Religious Right hijacking the Republican Party and pushing the moderates out….
  • Controlling the people of God—saying that only Republicans are people of faith, only straight males can be priests and ministers, not women … saying that God hates gays

So much power used over the ages to control! Forcing people into faith, breaking down their minds and wills, scaring them to death.

Brings to mind a contemporary version of the Lord’s Prayer. Now let’s be sure you remember the old version, just for the sake of comparison… say it with me if you remember:

Our Father who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors;
and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever.

But now listen to this contemporary version that puts its finger on the issue of control and speaks truth to power. Comes from singer-songwriter Susan Werner and appears on her album The Gospel Truth. Jesus would have loved it:

Thy kingdom come to every nation
Thy will be done in everything we do
Lord, lead us not into temptation
And deliver us
from those who think they’re You
Lord send us forth to be of service
To build the schools and dig the wells
And deliver us from the creepy preachers
With their narrow minds and very wide lapels
Lord give us strength to bring compassion
to every corner of the world
And please allow for women in the Catholic priesthood
And remind the pope that he coulda been a girl
Lord deliver us from politicians
Who drop Your name in every speech
As if they’re Your best friend from high school
As if they practice what they preach….

That’s the prayer…. Too many Christians are not on the Jesus Way! But not only Christians can learn from this Way… We all need to learn from it. We all need to know that when a person become a control freak you give away your power to give birth to anything fresh and new. Control is essentially conservative. Sterile. You can’t surge forward to explore or try something new. No possibility for freedom at all! Instead, you become a slave. That’s exactly why Satan says to Jesus, I’ll give you control over everyone on this earth if you bow down and worship me. That’s right—Jesus would have gained control over every other soul but would have lost control of his own!

But the Jesus Way is to get out of the whole control drama. Get out of that whole space altogether… Be in a space of trust instead… Trust in God, trust in the universe (use whatever language works in naming what is larger than you are) and trust in it. Jesus: trust that people are going to hear what you have to say… Allow for the fresh and the new to burst forth into life. That’s why Jesus could turn the other cheek. That’s how Jesus healed so many. He gave up trying to control others so he could serve them. So he could live a Way of life that amazes us to this day no matter what our opinions about Christianity might be, good, bad, or ugly.

Do you know why he’s called Jesus Christ? Christ is a title, like the Buddha. It’s not a personal name. It’s about an experience he had, a source of hope for Christian and non-Christian alike because you and I can have this experience, too, today, right now, of dying to all the things within that make us susceptible to the temptations of the stomach, of manipulativeness, of control. Die to all that, and you and I are reborn, born again, into the kind of person Life wants us to become. Your best self, the love and wisdom that is yours, the ministry only you can do, the person this world is waiting for and desperately needs. That’s the Jesus Way gospel. That’s the good news.