Now Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.
A large crowd had gathered on the east bank of the river. John was on the far side, standing on a giant rock, preaching. As Jesus approached, he could hear John taunting someone in the crowd. “What brought you out here anyway,” John shouted, “if you really believe that you are perfectly keeping the law? I am here to baptize those who repent of wrong-doing? What have you done?” There was some murmuring in the crowd. Jesus began to move toward the river. The crowd was accustomed to making way for those who wanted to be baptized, and they moved aside as Jesus pressed forward.
Ahead of Jesus, a man waded into the river, and John jumped off the rock to join him. They spoke softly but intently together. When the man turned his face toward the crowd, tears were streaming down his face. He turned to John again, speaking words no one in the crowd could really hear. Finally, he knelt in the water and bowed his head. John dipped up water in his hands and poured it over the man’s head. Then he extended his hand and helped the man to his feet. As the man returned to the crowd he brushed past Jesus, standing on the bank.
When John saw Jesus, his face lit up, and he began to wade toward him. Jesus stepped into the water. “You! What brings you here?” John cried out as he embraced Jesus.
“I have come to be baptized,” Jesus replied.
“You? Baptized by me? I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
But Jesus answered him, “Do it. We must do the work God has given us to do.” Then John consented.
Jesus knelt in the water. John hesitated for a moment, then dipped up water in his hands and poured it over Jesus’ head. Jesus looked up at John, and John extended his hand to help him stand. Instead of turning toward the crowd, Jesus turned away toward the far side of the river. Suddenly light! Blazing! Blinding! What glory! People sucked in their breath all at once in a massive sigh.
Jesus stepped out of the water. Total silence. As if the very air had ceased to move, as if everyone’s heart had paused at the same moment. As if the sands of time had turned to thick mud.
Then a sound too magnificent to describe. A voice. A presence.
A point of light glimmered high in the sky and began to descend. Was it a dove? Or something like a dove? A package of light that never resolved to any firm image. It seemed to rest on Jesus. Some covered their eyes. Some covered their ears. Some backed away. Some said later that they heard words. “This is my beloved Son. I am very pleased with him.” Others said it was thunder.
The crowd was unnaturally still as they watched Jesus walk away from the river toward the desert wilderness beyond. Some said that they saw the dove, the light, the unknown beautiful thing, which had rested on him flying away, and Jesus appeared to be following it.
Jesus walked from the river into the wasteland on the far side of Jordan until he reached the equally barren hills. There was no dove in sight. It was hot and dry and rocky. There was no food and precious little water in this desolate, inhospitable place. Day after cloudless day. Night after freezing night. He was alone, but not alone. One minute his mind was filled with images of family, friends, and even strangers which he drew into his heart. The next he saw the horrifying terror of the cross. He prayed. He walked over rocks, up goat paths, down gullies. He was hungry and tired, hot and cold, brave and afraid. For forty days and nights he wandered this wilderness. He ate nothing. He drank water whenever he found some, but he was restless.
His body complained, then it whined, then it cried out for food, but there was none. After forty days without food, Jesus was famished, exhausted, drained.
He sat down on a flat slab in the thin shade of a boulder on a dry, rocky slope. In the distance he saw something move. It came closer. It was a man in a tattered, dirty robe with a sort of rag tied up and hung over his arm
When the man was close enough to speak, he waved in Jesus’ general direction, brushed off a large flat stone nearby and sat down. He nodded his head toward Jesus, a smirk on his face as he rummaged in his filthy bag and pulled out a dry crust of bread. He munched on it silently, ostentatiously licking the last crumb from his lips. Brushing at his robe, he leaned toward Jesus. “You got any raisins? I’m starving here.” Jesus shook his head. “I have nothing,” he replied.
“Nothing? You’re the son of God and you have nothing?” The stranger stood up and walked closer, cocking his head as if examining Jesus’ face closely.
“Oh, yes,” he said sneering. “You’re the son of God, all right. Everyone says so. They all saw that light show down by the river with you and John the Unwashed. They were dying of curiosity about you for at least ten minutes. The son of God? I know who you are. You were born in a stable somewhere. You and your peasant parents scuttled off to Egypt in fear of Herod, but you are the son of God? You grew up in a hillbilly town and learned carpentry from your dad. Oh, but you are the son of God! Wow! I’m so impressed. Now you have spent forty days wandering around in these stupid rocks, with nothing to eat. What’s up with that? We can’t have God’s son starving. Well, if you are the son of God, why don’t you turn these stones into bread. God can’t want his kid to starve, can He? Are you really the son of God? I know who you are. You can’t fool me.”
Jesus looked up at the impertinent jerk leaning lazily against the rock wall. He looked across toward Jordan, remembering how the children of Israel had wandered in this very wilderness, nourished by the God’s gift of manna. “I know you, too,” he said. “Bread isn’t the food that matters. What God says matters.”
“Oh, really,” said the stranger. “I think I know what really matters. Ever since Eve you have chafed at the fact she listened to me. Her kids do, too. And you can’t stand it. I know what you want.” He waited for Jesus to speak, but Jesus said nothing.
“Hey, you want to make a big impression right now? You think that fasting for forty days will do it? Believe me, nobody is paying any attention to you. The day John baptized you, everybody was impressed. In fact, if you had not run off across the river and out into these big, hot rocks, they were all dying to meet you. Now, a month later, nobody cares. They hardly remember it happened. You are in the same dark corner as their new year’s resolutions. Why do you think they will remember you? All those sins they confessed that day? They couldn’t tell you one of them now, either. So if you want any attention from these ignorant peons, you need to make a big impression. It would be sooooo easy. Listen! Just jump off the roof of the temple! You jump, God reaches down and grabs you. You drift like a feather to the ground. That would get their attention. You would be a real celebrity if you did that. People would hang on your every word. They would follow you everywhere. They would give you the best food and lots of parties. Everyone would want to get close to you. Your autograph would be worth a fortune. We could go there right now. We have the power. We could do that. Why do you want to do it the hard way? ” He paused, but Jesus looked back silently.
The man strode nearer to Jesus and pointed a finger at him. “You’re so big with the Scripture. Here’s a scripture for you. “He will command his angels concerning you,” and “On their hands they will bear you up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” As he spoke, the rocky hillside morphed itself into the temple in Jerusalem, and they stood at the highest pinnacle looking down. The courtyard below was filled with people. The stranger kicked a pebble over the edge, and when it struck the ground everyone looked up. The stranger was now dressed in the blue robe of a priest, but he was as dirty and stinking as ever. “Your public awaits,” he said, leering at Jesus. Jesus looked at the sleazy peasant in his sacrilegious costume. His body leaned toward the man who leered at him and pointed down to the courtyard full of people. “Don’t tempt God!” he said.
The man leaned back and cocked his head to the right.
“Aaah. Well, now. You’re a tough one, but just come this way. I think I have exactly what you want. Let me see if I have it right.” The man brushed at his robe, which had turned purple. A huge gold chain and pendant set with a precious stone hung around his neck. The temple faded into an amorphous blob and the wind began to blow. Did the hillside tremble and rise under their feet? Or did it just feel that way? Suddenly, they could see to the edge of the world. In the distance there was a low murmuring sound. It seemed to grow louder as they viewed the expanse below. At first it might have resembled a crowd at a parade, but as it grew louder, some voices became distinct. Mourners at a funeral. Cries of pain from torture. A woman weeping because her baby was starving. A man screaming in madness at the mayhem of a battlefield. The sounds grew louder and images of suffering floated in the air before their eyes.
The stranger waited for Jesus to speak, but he said nothing.
“Look there,” the man said. “See all those people. The kings? The peasants? If you continue your way, when do they get relief? If you insist on doing it your way, what happens to you? Do you really see what you are getting yourself into? Down there, I do what I want. It’s not like I have to work at it. They just like my ideas. I get what I want, because I know how to satisfy my customers. And by the time the bill comes due for services rendered, they can’t do anything about it. Now, when you disappear one day, and we know you are going to do that, who do you think will be there to step into the gap you leave? But I’m not selfish. You want it? You got it. We can do business. A few minutes of your time, and then you get exactly what you want – complete control of all those people. If you choose to give them bread and circuses, I won’t even bother you. It will be so easy. You just kneel before me and say “Your will be done.” That’s it. Then they are all yours.”
Jesus’ tongue seemed to stick to the roof of his mouth. He felt hot. He looked at the people and loved them. He could hear their cries for help, he could feel their brokenness. He wanted to wrap his arms around them. Then he saw something else: a cross. He shuddered. Was there any other way? He turned to the grubby man robed in purple. “Get out! Go away!” he shouted. “Leave and don’t come back! I know what you are up to. No deal. Worshiping you is not an option,” he said. “It is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
Satan backed up. “Okay. Okay. I get it. You are all fired up now. Even after forty days of starving you are still excited about what you think is your calling. Fine. I’m leaving. But don’t think this is over.” He vanished.
Then the devil left Jesus, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
© 2008 Katherine Harms
all rights reserved