(part 1 of ‘Jumbled up in Jerusalem’)
John the Baptist was an odd-looking bloke, hairy as hell, dressed in distressed camel hair and coarse fabrics, eating grasshoppers dipped in wild honey. But boy, could he preach! He lived in the remote wastelands, on the wrong side of the Jordan, in Arab territory. You’d think he was trying to get away from everyone, but they came to him in droves. Though no one knew who he was, or where he came from, he just popped up like so many other mystics, sages, ‘Messiahs’ …
Some said his father was a priest, or that he was Jesus’ cousin, but no one really knows. Not that any of that mattered. He was too busy dunking people in the river, rebirthing them and preaching old school religion. From his watery pulpit, standing in the middle of the Jordan, he preached sermons like this:
You need a fresh start.
You’ll never get one unless you reject your past.
Put it behind you,
make God your starting point.
But don’t just take it from me.
Someone else is coming,
his preaching is shit-hot,
he’s really going to blow your minds.
I’m just the understudy,
tying up his sandals.
I’ve rebirthed you with water,
he’s going to rebirth you with fire!
When he’s finished a stranger comes up, John rebirths and dunks him in front of the crowds. The cloudy sky clears for a moment, just above him, and an incredibly bright ray of sunlight shines on him, followed by a loud crash of thunder. Years later, the people who were there, and a whole bunch of storytellers who weren’t, say that they heard God speak to him, ‘You’re the One! I’m proud of you.’ And then he disappeared, there was no sign of him. He had a knack for disappearing in the middle of a crowd. People say God whisked him away to somewhere even more remote. Somewhere only the ‘Devil’ can find …
I’ve reconstructed the next part of the story as a fantasy, the original suggestion that Jesus went ‘forty days without food’ is a bit of a clue, and shifted the action to present-day London.
Jesus’ rebirthing and encounter with God was like an overdose, he went into a mystical state. After arriving in the desert, he went for weeks without food until everything got very freaky. As his stomach growled and his mind drifted his ‘evil twin’, Mr Devil, turned up, ‘Yo Sonny, God’s Special One, Son of God, or whatever … What’s this nonsense you’re doing, it’s not Ramadan you know! I can see you looking at stones and wondering, “Could I make them bread?”’
And he was. He asked himself, ‘What Would Moses Do? — “Bread ain’t enough, it’ll keep you alive but it’s not the key to life”’. ‘No’, he said to Mr Devil, ‘not this time and I don’t want that joint you’re holding either, I came out here to get real, not get wasted.’
‘OK then,’ said Mr Devil, ‘it was your idea to come here. You think God has something special in mind for you but here you are, in the desert being a nobody, torturing yourself. Let’s see who you really are, what you dearly want to be. You think you’re a superhero don’t you?’
Well, yes, he did, guilty as charged. He had been singled out, God spoke to him and he was fizzing with God’s power, but what to do with it all?
‘OK, God, superhero, whatever, let’s see …’ And suddenly he found himself on top of a very tall building, some kind of ‘shard’. He looked down, whoa! It was a long way down. ‘You want to, don’t you?’ Said Mr Devil, ‘Chuck yourself off, impress everyone — flight, anti-gravity, air-braking, invisible parachute. I dare you. You like that old Bible stuff — “God will protect you, the angels will feather-bed you, you won’t even stub your toe.” Jesus thought, ‘Yep, already thought of that one.’ ‘I’m not jumping’ he said, ‘I’m not testing God, this is my challenge, I have to walk first, not fly.’
‘Well come up higher, see if that changes your perspective.’ And he could see gherkins and eyes and all kinds of weird buildings. ‘Look, the city is corrupt, they’re all working for me, I can give you all this, you could be a banker! Just let me be your coach, guru, mentor, PR advisor.’ It was an attractive thought, he could really get his message across if he controlled the market, he could control the audience — brainless followers through social media and mass marketing. Until he remembered how much he hated Facebook. ‘“The medium is the message,”’ he said. ‘There’s no God, or reality, in all this bling and vacuous crap. I don’t know why you even showed it to me. Well I do, it’s success. I don’t want success, I want to be authentic.’ The bubble burst, no sign of his alter-ego. ‘Mr Devil’, in his black cloak, went to ground, lurking, waiting for another opportunity, where the shadow could pop out destructively and spoil things. But Jesus was ready, and then, oddly, the angels did come. Struggling with this mixed message, the challenge went on.
A couple of months later, John was arrested. He was too much of a troublemaker for the authorities. The Romans didn’t like him because he told soldiers that they should treat prisoners with respect, brutalism doesn’t like being messed with. And the religious leaders couldn’t stand him, he told the people that they didn’t need priests, they could make things right with God themselves. The Temple was almost empty some days. He kept talking about the Messiah as well — ‘Don’t worry about what the priests say, get ready for God.’ That annoyed them as well, they didn’t want the Romans cracking down on them because the people were getting restless. He signed his own death warrant.
After being arrested John was taken to a kangaroo court, in front of the local puppet-ruler, ‘Herod the not-so-great’. He might have got off if he hadn’t started preaching about adultery. Herod had married his brother’s wife, he stole her from him, John told him it wasn’t kosher. Herod threw him straight in jail, but let him out to preach in his private synagogue. He got a bizarre kick out of hearing how immoral he was. But after a drunken party, when Herod tried to impress his guests by getting his teenage step-daughter to dance for them, John got the chop (all pretty normal for the Herod family). Herod’s wife had it in for him, she always got what she wanted. Herod was so impressed by his stepdaughter’s dancing that he offered her anything. She was so surprised, and probably creeped out, that she asked her mother, who told her to ask for John’s head, on a plate, and that’s what happened.
And that was the end of one radical preacher. The people were looking for someone else now, but there was no one. Jerusalem was quiet, the authorities went back to everyday brutality, the priests to religion that didn’t rock the boat (Jesus used boats quite a lot …)
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