Once a month now, since this past October, we have been “reading the Bible again for the first time,” and we have so far covered what some call the Old Testament, though others give it a better name and call it the Hebrew Bible. Today, for the first time, we cross over and enter into the territory of the New Testament, or, better yet, the Christian Bible.
When you cross over, the first thing that meets your eye is the word “gospel.” The Christian scriptures part of the Bible begins with four “gospels.”
But what is a “gospel”?
As we have already seen in previous sermons in this series, “reading the Bible again for the first time” requires that we question the assumptions we might be bringing to the book which may very well lead to misunderstandings and misreadings.
A very common assumption that people bring to the Christian gospels is that a “gospel” is a historically accurate biography which seeks to recount the facts and nothing but the facts—which is what we today naturally expect when reading or watching a biography of Abraham Lincoln, Malcolm X, or Maya Angelou.
The better the biography, the more exact the historical truth.
But the Bible gospels are not like this at all. They are not biographies! How could that even be, when only memories about Jesus survived, preserved through oral traditions only? 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 convey a different kind of truth, namely, that Jesus’ presence was uniquely loving and powerful—so lovingly powerful that people experienced his presence among them even after his horrific death by crucifixion.
To evoke Jesus’ love and power—to give people a visceral sense of that: that’s the central purpose of the Gospels. This is why the Gospel writers do not hesitate to incorporate well-known cultural legends into the story of Jesus their Lord. One of these is that of the “virgin birth,” which is a legend about God directly implanting His seed into a virgin, who then gives birth to a divine child. Anyone living 2000 years ago hearing that Jesus had a “virgin birth” would have recognized the significance of this: that Jesus was someone to pay attention to. After all, the only kinds of folks 2000+ years ago who were described as having virgin births were Egyptian Pharaohs and Roman Caesars. The Gospel writers were essentially saying to their hearers: This Jesus I am telling you about: he is as great as a Pharaoh or a Caesar—even greater than that!
Gospels are not about historical truth so much as getting people’s attention, giving them a sense of Jesus’ presence and power, and inspiring them to become followers of his Way.
That’s what I want to talk about today: the Way of Jesus. As much of it as we can get to in our time together this morning. And our focus story, recounted in three of the four Gospels, smacks of the legendary…..
The story meets up with Jesus just before his world-transforming ministry begins. Call it his internship. He goes to intern with the greatest Jewish teacher of the time, John the Baptist; and as was John’s way, he immersed Jesus in the Jordan River or baptized him, just like his name says. But this would be no ordinary baptism. When Jesus came up from out of the water, the Gospel writers say 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.”
Wow. Every intern would love to complete their internship with such a proclamation from on high!
But then this happens. The same Holy Spirit that anointed Jesus–the same Holy Spirit that came down like a gentle dove—mercilessly takes him out of civilization and into the wilds of a nearby desert. There, he is to be tested by the Devil, to see just how much he’s really grown spiritually.
It’s … legendary. A pattern of legend that transcends space and time. For not only Jesus faced this. Thousands of miles away, and almost 600 years earlier, this is exactly what happened to the Buddha right after the moment of his awakening. Or so the story is told.
There is a powerful implication here, that may very well be a law of spiritual evolution: that to be claimed as God’s child—or to achieve enlightenment—is to make yourself uniquely vulnerable to being tested and tempted by what is worst. Because: spiritual clarity and spiritual enlightenment unleash POWER of all kinds: power of vision, power of endurance, power of hope, power of creativity, power of 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, now, what are you going to do with all that power?
An entire world wants to co-opt that power and distort it to serve ungodly ends.
There is a reason why religion has been described as a great example of the “best/worst effect”: for, historically, it has been the agent of both the highest good, as well as that of the lowest and most egregious.
But back to the story. The Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the Devil, and….
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, straight from the Gospels to your ears. The Jesus Way is that you’re confirmed as a child of God—you get a taste of what that means—and it takes you straight away to the desert, where the Devil and temptation await.
Now: Look at that first temptation. The Devil comes to Jesus and says, Use your power to turn these stones into bread. Now just think about the context for this. Jesus has just fasted for forty days, but for a spiritual purpose: to keep him focused on higher values of heart and soul like hope and peace. That’s what the religious discipline of fasting is for.
The Devil, on the other hand, wants to shift that focus, bring it way down, bring it down to the level of the “stomach.” Traditionally, stomach values and needs are of the instant-gratification and self-centered “what’s-in-it-for-me” type.
The Devil wants Jesus to serve stomach values and needs. That’s what he’s tempting him to do.
Let’s just spend one more moment on this, to say more about stomach values and needs. Serve the stomach, and your creed is MATERIALISM. Materialism essentially says: your worth as a person and your security in life are proportional to how much money you have, or how famous you are, or how wrinkle-free your face is. Materialism is when you have more than enough but the very thought of giving feels like a threat to your well-being. Materialism is when you are poor and the only way you know how to generate self-esteem is to go after markers of wealth like a nice watch or a nice car.
MATERIALISM is also selfishness. It’s the grumbling in my stomach that counts and not yours. Or, my stomach is so full that I can’t imagine anyone else being hungry. So why should I care about all those people out there lacking adequate health coverage, when I’ve got mine? Why shoudl I care about the homeless, the undocumented, the sick, the elderly, when I’ve got mine?
To serve the stomach is to serve MATERIALISM, which (1) makes any person’s value dependent on external things, which (2) is self-centered, and which (3) is intellectually lazy. 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. Would someone just hand me the truth on a silver platter?
Are you getting the fuller picture? The Devil says, Jesus, use your power—Christian, Buddhist, Unitarian Universalist, use your power: turn these stones into bread. But we 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! Don’t serve the stomach. Don’t succumb to materialism in all its forms. Don’t go there.
That’s the Jesus Way.
It’s about power. How we will use it. Creatively, or destructively.
Which takes us to the next temptation, the one where the Devil takes Jesus to the Holy City and plants him upon the highest point of the Temple and says, “Throw yourself down. Scripture says, after all, that angels will catch you.”
Now isn’t that interesting? The Devil 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 and to seek to restrict their rights?
Christianity can’t get any uglier than this. I am painfully aware of it this morning. It is powerful to quote scripture, but 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 the Devil misinterprets scripture regularly to serve his agenda. He also misapplies it. That scripture he quoted to Jesus? The writer of that scripture was speaking to the Jews of his time, which was 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 of the Psalmist, saying “Throw yourself down and the angels will catch you” are words of comfort for THEIR ears, not for the ears of Jesus! 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 of that psalm didn’t have Jesus in mind when he was writing!
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 join with all others who speak the Bible language responsibly and intelligently, we are simply irrelevant on the American religious scene. We are irrelevant to the healing of the suffering of millions.
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!” So far, Jesus has resisted the Devil’s 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.
The Devil 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.” Now remember, Jesus is in the Desert. He has not yet formally begun his ministry, and his vision is so big it feels overwhelming. 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?
The Devil 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, who say that they know all about love and hope and truth but then they go right ahead and hate and condemn and lie. They are all pious talk! Talking so much they aren’t listening. And they are not going to listen to you! So—bow down to me, worship me, and I give you power to control these people—these sheep without a shepherd—and 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 the temptation Christians have succumbed to again and again ever since it became the official religion of Rome more than 1600 years ago, meaning that Rome’s might became Christianity’s to use. Ever since then, Christians have used their power to:
- Control salvation—only through Christianity, never through any other religion;
- Control 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;
- Control the state—the Religious Right comes to mind in its lockstep devotion to Trump and Trumpism … how conservative evangelical congregations have been pushing the big lie that the 2020 election was stolen … how the Jan. 6 Insurrection was laced with the rhetoric of Christian nationalism;
- Control 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 and transgender folx….
So much power used over the ages to control! It brings to mind a contemporary version of the Lord’s Prayer. Now let’s be sure you remember the traditional version, just for the sake of comparison. Say the traditional version 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. It comes from singer-songwriter Susan Werner and appears on her album The Gospel Truth. I think 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 from singer-songwriter Susan Werner. 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 becomes a control freak, you give away your power to give birth to anything fresh and new. Control is essentially sterile. You can’t surge forward to explore or try something new. There’s no possibility for freedom at all! Instead, you become a slave.
That’s exactly why the Devil 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 he would have lost control of his own!
But the Jesus Way is to exit the whole control drama. Get out of that control space altogether. Move into a space of trust instead: Trust in God, trust in the universe, trust that people are going to hear what you have to say. To 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 meet them where they were and 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.
It is good news, indeed.