Stories engage our senses and captivate our thoughts. Come and listen to a story about a time when people were waiting for something and expecting someone who would change everything.
The journey was going to take almost the full day, which was why the small group of young priests and temple servers decided to set off from Jerusalem at daybreak. A few months ago the first reports had started to circulate that a strange man who lived in the wilderness had started publicly baptizing people in the Jordan River. Baptism wasnʼt the strange thing. It was a regular practice for those who were converted to the Jewish faith or for those who wished to participate in some sort of ceremonial washing. This meant that even the message of repentance that this man was preaching about wasnʼt that unusual. What was strange was that he had garnered such a following in such a short time and in such a desolate place. Furthermore, no one knew who this man was nor where he had come from. This mystery of the manʼs identity stirred the imagination of the young men and as they travelled they talked over all the rumors that they had heard about the man with everyone offering their opinion on his origins and what his appearing might mean.
The men knew that they were getting close when they could start to make out the blue-brown line of the river Jordan which snaked its way through the harsh desert landscape. It was then that they began to hear a voice which started as a whisper carried on the wind, and grew louder and clearer with every step they took toward the water. After another hour the men finally found what they were looking for. Close to 500 souls (a much bigger group than the rumors had suggested or that they had imagined) stood at the edge of the river starring at a man waste deep in the flowing waters. He was dressed in a tunic made of animal skins with a leather belt buckled round his waist to hold everything in place. His hair was thick and matted and his grizzly beard was long and unkempt. His voice was strong and seemed to come at you like a boulder rolling down a hillside, but landed gently upon the ear. Upon seeing this sight one of the group leaned over to his companion and said sarcastically, “If this is all we came out for, we should have stayed in the city. Beggars just like him are on every street corner.”
The men approached the crowd and stood at the back. “Repent for the light of God has come into the world, a light that even the blind will see. I tell you today is the day of the Lordʼs vengeance and the beginning of the year of the Lordʼs favor. Rejoice in the Lord, and turn from your ways.” At that moment a man dressed in dark robes cried out and ran toward the shaggy beast of a man. Without care or hesitation the man in the dark robes pushed through the water, his clothes fanning out over the easy current. When he came to the speaker he fell before him on his knees. The man lifted the dark robed convert up and talked with him briefly and then took the man and plunged him into the water drawing him up again a few seconds later. The baptized man was sopping wet, but even from the back of the crowd the men from Jerusalem could see that he was ecstatic. The Baptizer led him up out of the water and as they stood on shore he raised his voice and said, “This child of Abraham has turned away from his wrongdoing. His blindness has been pierced, will yours be?” At these words members of the crowd ran toward the baptizer with a shout, so that they too could be baptized.
In the midst of this chaos the group of men were able to push their way forward to get a better view of the proceedings right from the edge of the river. The people who had come forward were mostly poor although there did seem to be a few women who looked rather well-off. No matter what their rank or station they were all plunged beneath the surface and as they came up out of the water the men sent from Jerusalem noticed that they all wore the same expression of joy and relief that they had first seen on the face of the man dressed in dark robes.
As the baptizer walked the last person up out the water the group from Jerusalem approached him hoping to intercept him before he entered into another round of preaching. The oldest member of the group, a man well connected in the religious world of the temple spoke for the group and said “Baptizer, we are priests who serve at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Even there your reputation is widespread and so we have come in order to learn about you and to see for ourselves what rumors about you are true or not.” The Baptizer replied, “I did not know it was the habit of the priests of God to indulge rumor and speculation. Have you seen what you came to see?” The priest replied deferentially, “In times such as ours, rumor and speculation can be dangerous and must be exposed. Many are looking for a change in fortune. We simply want to know who you are and where you come from.”
The baptizer crossed his arms, heaved a sigh and looked straight at them. “I donʼt think I am the Messiah if that is what you are getting at.”
“What are you then?” the priest asked. “This is a large crowd of people and they have come out here to see something. Are you Elijah? Is that what they are hoping for?”
- “No,” said the Baptizer.
- “A prophet maybe? We havenʼt seen one of those in centuries. Perhaps that is why they are drawn to you. Are you a prophet?”
- Once again the Baptizer simply shook his head and said, “No”
- By this time an audience had begun to circle the Baptizer and the small group from Jerusalem. As one of the priests looked around, he quickly became alarmed noticing looks of anger and contempt on the faces of the men and women who in some cases stood only an armʼs length away. No matter who this man was, he thought, these were people who looked up to him, and would defend him if that is what it took. The protection of the city and his position as a priest didnʼt matter at all out here on the edge of the wilderness. He looked to his comrade, who had been talking to the baptizer and noticed that he too had perceived how disgruntled and dangerous the crowd was becoming. In an attempt to hurry things along the spokesman said “Then what? Just give us something that we can take back to our superiors. Who are you? Where did you come from?”
The Baptizer unfolded his arms and drew himself up, his eyes became wider and more wild as if to embody what he was about to say. Then in a voice that seemed to hold even greater weight, the baptizer said, “I am the voice that echoes throughout the wild and rocky places, the voice that cries ʻPrepare, prepare a new pathway for the Lord, and make it straight.ʼ” At these words, one of the temple servers leaned over to one of the priests and whispered with a sense of wonder, “Heʼs quoting the prophet…heʼs quoting Isaiah.” But the Baptizerʼs words didnʼt deter the spokesman of the group who by this point was simply hoping to get the information he needed and get out before anything happened. He looked at the baptizer and with a greater sense of urgency asked, “And why are you baptizing those who come out to you?”
At this question, the baptizer turned his gaze toward the crowd and seemed to no longer concern himself with the group of priests. The Baptizer said, “I am baptizing you with water alone, there is nothing in it. The joy that you know comes from a heart prepared for the Lord, the heart of a person who has remembered the good gifts of God. To those who have experienced restoration in this river…hear me. There is someone who will come after me. He is a man so great that I am not even worthy enough to undo the loop on his sandals. His is a man that you do not know, but I tell you that he stands among you even now.” At these words the expressions of anger on the faces of the crowd changed almost immediately to oneʼs of shock and awe. Men and women began to turn their heads this way and that. Tittering was heard from every corner of the crowd which swelled to such a pitch that no one in the crowd notice the Baptizer turning to speak once again to the party from Jerusalem.
The men of the group could see that something had changed in the Baptizerʼs body. His shoulders seemed stooped and his face was creased with weariness, but his eyes still glowed with the intensity of the wilderness which surrounded them. He leaned toward the men and slowly said, “You want to know who I am? I am not worth concerning yourself with. Go back to where you came from and tell your superiors to not concern themselves with rumors any more. For the day is coming when the voice in the wilderness will not be heard as just an echo in Jerusalem, but will come from the very heart of Zion herself.”
We leave this story here and return to our own time and our own place to watch and prepare for Jesus, who has come to change everything and will come again.