HISTORY. The life of Jesus is shown to have taken place at a time when the Roman Empire was at the height of its power. We meet John the Baptist and learn how Jesus, once he has resisted Satan’s temptations, attracts disciples
Rome ruled the world. The Caesar of this age, (A1)
Tiberius, for fourteen years had held
all power within his grasp: and he it was
deputed Pontius Pilate to the post
of Governor of Judaea – a thankless task –
the place renamed a dozen times before
and since: always disputed: always dire.
He had three local tetrarch underlings
Kings Herod, Philip and Lysanias –
their jobs to tax, and keep the Roman peace.
But we must focus on the Hebrew race. (A2)
For Jews, their history can best be fixed
by naming the High Priest who held the power
when a particular event took place.
The story that we are about to tell
briefly unrolls during the High Priesthoods
of Annas and of Caiaphas – those two.
All this identifies the politics, (A3)
(the)precise parameters of history
that pinpoint that tremendous day, when John,
son of Zechariah, of Aaron’s clan,
began proclaiming from the wilderness
a message of repentance, and a call
for an acknowledgement of wicked ways
which had to be redressed. A renewal,
a re-formation and a change of heart
could best be symbolised by ritual.
John himself would bathe you in the Jordan.
Cleansed of your past misdeeds you could prepare
for the coming of a promised Saviour
who stood already waiting close at hand.
Isaiah, that great prophet, had foretold
that someone shouting from the wilderness
would herald the arrival of the Lord.
A warning voice would be heard first: that of
a messenger to straighten moral paths
and sweep away the dross of villainy
in preparation for the King of Kings.
John dressed in camels’ hair and wore a belt
around his waist. Wild honey from the bees
and desert locusts did for sustenance
as he began baptising those who came
confessing their past sins and wanting to
amend their lives and make a better start.
They came not only from the countryside
but from Jerusalem itself, in crowds,
amongst them Pharisees and Sadducees
rushed to the Jordan, keen to be baptised.
‘You spawn of vipers! What has brought you here?
Do you assume because of Abraham
that nothing else is needed from you all?
Do all your hopes rest on your ancestry?
No real repentance and no change of heart?
Then let me make it clear to you, beware!
Take care, for God is able to create
children of Abraham from lifeless stones.
An axe is lying ready to cut down
the worthless trees that do not bear good fruit.
This was John’s message to such visitors.
But others asked him, ‘What then shall we do?
‘Whoever has two coats, make do with one
and give the other to the man without’.
The same with food –it’s share and share alike.
The tax collectors were instructed to
take only money that was rightly theirs.
Soldiers were told they must accept their pay
not throw their weight about by making threats
in order to have people grease their palms
to supplement the statutory rate.
The crowd who listened to him often thought
The Baptist might turn out to be, in truth,
their long-awaited one, their rescuer,
the hero who would rid them of their trials.
But John proclaimed that he was nothing but
a pale reflection of the one to come
who would baptise with Spirit and with Fire.
‘I am not worthy to untie the thongs
that bind his sandals. His all-powerful hands
will wield a winnowing fork to clear the chaff
and sift the wheat to fill his granaries’.
The chaff he’ll burn in fire unquenchable.’
Jesus, among the rest from Galilee (A4)
came to the Jordan’s shore to be baptised.
He looked a Jew, like any other Jew
and in accordance with the Law he wore
a linen tunic and a woollen cloak.
He was no member of the Sanhedrin,
nor yet a priest or Levite. Just plain Jew.
His Aramaic name was Joshua.
His accent showed he was from Galilee.
But John immediately recognised
the man it was who came to be baptised.
‘Oh, surely I must be baptised by you!’
said John. ‘What are you doing here with me?’
‘It is quite right and proper at this time,’
said Jesus. His insistence was enough.
John did for him what he had done before
when time and time again, transgressors came
to have their sins forgiven. But this time,
just as the Lord stepped out on to the shore,
the Holy Spirit , like a pure white dove
broke through the clouds and settled on him there.
And then was heard a voice from Heaven that said,
‘You are my son, my cherished one, with whom
I am well pleased.’
Then Jesus left the Jordan, and his steps, (A5)
sure-guided by the Spirit’s beckoning,
took him directly to the wilderness
to fast and pray and seek the Father’s will.
He must, at once, confront his enemy.
The Tempter sat in wait, prepared his snares,
practised his disguises, set out his wares,
tried any subtle trick that might entice,
and watched for forty days and forty nights
till Jesus, faint from hunger, lay prostrate.
Satan appeared, and pointing to the rocks
lying at random on the desert sand –
light brown, squared-off and much resembling
said, ‘If you are indeed the Son of God,
command these stones to turn into real bread.’
The Lord replied that Scripture made it clear
mankind should always seek its sustenance
not from mere bread but from the sacred words
that emanated from the mouth of God.
At which Beelzebub transported him
to that great building in Jerusalem,
the very temple there, and placed him high
above its many towering pinnacles.
Then he himself began to quote a text.
‘For He will give His angels this strict rule
to succour and support you lest you fall,
and falling, strike your foot against a stone.’
If Son of God you are, well, here’s the proof!
Jump down from off this turret and we’ll see.
Down there, there’s stones a-plenty! Try Him out!
Jesus replied, ‘There is another text.
You’ll know that it’s from Deuteronomy.
‘You must not seek to test the Lord your God’.’
The Devil took him to a mountain top
and made one last attempt to break him down,
showing the Lord the wonders of the world
how rich it was, how splendid, and how fine
its courts, its kingdoms and its treasure trove.
‘Just one bow of the head would be enough,
for me and all I stand for, and behold
not one of these would I keep as my own.
You should have every one of them, yourself.’
Then Jesus said to Satan, ‘Get you gone,
for it is written, you should worship God
and only Him ….exclusively. Now go!
So Satan left, and angels did indeed
come and bring solace to the Son of Man.’
It’s thought sometime in March, the weather warm,
Jesus returned refreshed from Satan’s trials
and crossed once more the ford where John baptised.
The prophet saw him and exclaimed to two
of his disciples, ‘Do you see that man
amongst the crowd? He is the very man
on whom I saw the Holy Ghost descend.’
The name of one was Andrew, who at once
sought out his brother Simon and asked him
to come and meet the man whom he’d been told
was the Messiah. Therefore Simon went.
‘Simon’, said Jesus, as he’d looked at him,
‘Some day you’ll be called Peter. It means ‘Rock’.
Now Philip was with Andrew on the day
they first met Jesus. Both were there when John
described the Lord as being ‘ (the) Lamb of God
who’d take away the sin of all the world’.
He had a friend, Nathanial, whom he wished
to introduce to Jesus. ‘Him from Nazareth!’
Nathaniel said, ‘What good thing ever came
from Nazareth?(‘Well, come and see!’ said Philip.
When Jesus saw Nathaniel, he said,
‘So! Here is one of Jacob’s truest sons
in whom there is no guile and no deceit.’
‘How can you be so sure? We’ve never met!’
That was the cool response. ‘ But I saw you,’
said Jesus, ‘ long before your friend called you,
when you were sheltering out of the sun
and out of public sight, beneath a tree –
a screening, broad-leaved fig tree, was it not?
‘Surely, rabbi, you are the Son of God’
the long-awaited King of Israel!’
Why was Nathaniel so amazed by this?
Why his conviction so spontaneous?
In part it was the nature of the man,
but overwhelmingly it was because
a fig tree was a place for centuries
where Hebrew mystics sat to say their prayers
to contemplate and seek the face of God…
alone entirely but for Him they sought!
If Jesus was aware of this….then what?
Nathaniel gasped, amazed at what he’d heard.
But Jesus said, ‘You will see greater things.
As Jacob and as Daniel in their dreams
had visions, you Nathaniel will see
ascending and descending on the Son of Man
angels from Heaven – and that I promise you.’
The story takes us now to Galilee.
One Sabbath in Capernaum, the Lord (A7)
was speaking in a synagogue. His way
of teaching was unlike the method used
by academics or by fussy scribes.
He did not have recourse to commentaries
or suppositions posed by learned men
but talked as one who ‘knew’ and needed none
to back up what he said. He spoke with grace
and with authority. His listeners
paid full attention to his every word.
Then suddenly, an unexpected noise!
The meeting was disrupted by a shout
which shocked and horrified the gathering.
An evil spirit who had taken hold
of someone there – a bestial, foul-mouthed thing
began to yell his wild discomfiture.
‘Whatever do you want with us? Clear off
you sod : ‘cos I know who you are! Jesus
the Carpenter! Jesus of Nazareth!
I know you! You’re the Holy One of God!
Have you come here just to destroy us lot?’
All Jesus did was tell it to be quiet
and leave the body that it so distressed.
There were convulsions but the devil left –
and left them all amazed. By words alone
at his command, the unclean spirit left!
Who was this man? And who gave him this power?
His name was soon on everybody’s lips.
Both men and women followed him about.
All were agog to see what he’d do next.
There was one time, as he walked by the lake
(the Lake of Galilee it’s sometimes called)
when Jesus, penned in by the surging crowds
took temporary refuge in a fishing boat
the property of Simon, whom he’d met.
He used the prow in which to stand and teach.
He spoke to Simon when the crowds had gone
suggesting that he put out from the shore
and lower nets to catch some fish. ‘We have,’
said Simon, ‘(speaking professionally, no doubt),
‘been fishing all night long to no avail.
But if you say so, I’ll let down the nets.’
He knew the Lake and knew what to expect.
The other hands reluctantly turned to.
To their immense surprise, when this was done,
so many fish were caught the nets were on
the point of breaking. So they signalled friends,
who owned another boat, to come and help
and soon both boats were filled. A bumper catch!
But by then, Simon, on his knees, called out,
‘Leave me, I beg you. I’m a sinful man.’
But Jesus said, ‘You must not be afraid.
From now on, be assured, you will catch men –
women and men of every race and place.’
The sons of Zebedee, called James and John,
were Simon’s partners in the other boat.
Their father blessed them when they asked to leave
to follow Jesus wheresoe’re he led.
Then, taking nothing, and no glance behind,
all three became disciples of the Lord.
Still teaching by the Lake of Galilee – (A9)
the crowds, as ever, swarming by his side,
the Lord saw Levi, in the pay of Rome,
collecting taxes in the Custom House.
He paused to say, ‘Leave this and follow me!’
Ignoring explanations or excuse
the man jumped up at once and stood by him.
To celebrate this unexpected call
Levi arranged a great feast at his house
inviting all his tax-collector friends.
Jesus, of course, came as the honoured guest
and his disciples joined the gathering.
The Pharisees and Scribes took careful note.
‘Why does your Rabbi mix with such a bunch
of roisterers and notorious ne’er-do-wells?
They’re stooges of the Romans, all of them –
collect the taxes and make sure we pay.
They do the dirty work and bleed us dry.’
These were the comments his disciples faced.
But Jesus heard their pious mutterings.
‘I’ve come to welcome sinners that repent,’
he said: then with a look askance, perhaps,
‘but not the “righteous”: not unless they hear.’
The Pharisees and Scribes were held to be
the men for whom religion meant the most.
On Mondays and on Thursdays every week
The Pharisees put on their plainest clothes
and fasted. Others did the same.
Jesus was asked by John’s disciples why it was
that his disciples did not fast. John’s did.
Some may have looked with envy on the feast
that Levi had prepared and he enjoyed.
But John himself had spoken of the Lord
as if he were a bridegroom, come for all
to welcome and to celebrate. Indeed,
he said that his small part as bridegroom’s friend
would count for little when the groom arrived.
Jesus explained the feast without excuse.
‘Could any wedding guest be sad? The groom
is still among them. They’ll have time enough
to mourn and fast when he has gone away.
Take what I say to heart. There is no point
in patching an old coat with cloth un-shrunk.
The patch will make an even bigger tear.
And no-one puts new wine into old skins.
The wine will burst: the skins will all be lost.
And even though the old wine’s still preferred
new wine will always need new skins. Drink up!
The days for fasting are not far away.