Audio is available here: Meeting the Baptist
I wonder what it would have been like to be standing by the riverside, listening to the wild-eyed, wild-haired prophet who had stomped in from the wilderness, off the very pages of Scripture. One among the crowds, jostling for a place to see Elijah—could it really be that the prophet who stormed the gates of heaven in a fiery chariot had been sent back?–and to hear his message.
I wonder what it would have been like to stand there alongside seekers and scoffers and soldiers looking to make sure order was kept. Cold chilly Jordan lapping at my feet. Sweat. Dust. Murmuring. He is a prophet, says the woman next to me to no one in particular. He’s Elijah, says another. He has a demon, says the rich-robed Sadducees from the back. Loud enough to hear; not loud enough so that I can see who spoke. Coward.
The soldiers keep their distance for now. They are muttering away in a language I don’t understand. But I know by their gestures what they’re saying. This could be trouble. They’re right. It could be. I hate them. I remember when they marched into my village and crucified 15 men. Because my brother threw a stone at them. I watched them kill my brother. Why didn’t I die with him? Part of me wishes I did.
His wife and sons live with me now. I don’t have enough to feed my own, but still. My brother’s name will be remembered. Why can’t they go back where they came from? Life here is hard enough without them taking their taxes and shaming us at every turn.
My thoughts are interrupted.
I see him now. He’s a shimmer in the distance, striding from the desert toward the river, slowly getting bigger. He’s short. Lean and wiry. I thought he would have been taller.
His eyes sparkle. Does he have a demon? I’ve seen people with demons. Their eyes are vacant or filled with hate. His eyes are overfull. Of what, I don’t know. Something. It looks like it is going to spill right out of him and cover us all.
The religious leaders are wrong. It’s plain enough. Just look in John’s eyes. He doesn’t have a demon. It’s odd you know. His face is grim, but it looks like he will break out into laughter at any moment. No one with a demon laughs.
John is from God. I know that now. Why can’t they see it? They know so much more about Torah and Temple than I do. Why don’t they say that John’s a prophet? How can they miss it? What’s wrong with them?
He’s wading into the river now. Ankles. Knees. Waist. And he stops. He’s standing there, beneath us. I’m pushed from behind. Everyone is coming close to see. Pressing in to hear. I’m glad I came early. I’m right in the front. He can’t be more than a few feet away.
Standing in the river. He must be freezing. If he’s not careful, he’s going to slip and baptize himself. I smile. He doesn’t seem to notice or care. He just stands there. Staring. Waiting. Even the holy men from Jerusalem quiet down. And the soldiers keep one eye on us and one eye on the prophet.
“Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near!”
That’s all he gets out before the first one nearly jumps into the river and wades to the prophet. She’s young. I don’t recognize her. She’s not from around here. Where is her husband? Really, what is this world coming to? Women.
They talk briefly. And then, swoosh. She’s under the water and up again, coughing and sputtering.
And then comes another, and another, and still another. I’m in to my ankles now.
People all whispering to John before the plunge. Before the washing. What are they doing?
Why is the river at my shins?
The people have stopped now. He’s turned his gaze to the rich-robed scoffers at the back of the crowd. They don’t seem to notice that he has noticed them.
“You brood of vipers!” Now he has their attention! “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Hoo hoo, he’s letting them have it! Straight up, John. Don’t let up!
“Do not presume to say for yourselves, we have Abraham as our father.” Hang on, John Abraham is my father, too. Doesn’t that count for anything? I’m a son of the covenant. I am of the tribe of Judah. My family came back from exile with Ezra. Doesn’t that count for anything? And why is the water up to my knees?
“I tell you the truth, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” John, that’s not fair. I mean, I’m all for getting at the fat-cats who profit from the piety of the rest of us. Who scowl and scoff because we’re too busy working to read the Scriptures and figure out the ins and outs of living the law. Come on, John.
OK. Are the snows of Hermon melting more than usual? The water’s now up to my thighs. Man, it’s cold!
“Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
He’s looking right at me. How did I come to be in front of him? What is going on? His gaze pierces me. He sees my soul. And I start to babble.
“I hate the Romans, John. They burn and they steal and they kill. They take our women. They humiliate us. And I hate the Sadducees from Jerusalem, John. They pile us up with burdens. It’s not enough that the Romans tax us, but we can’t even go to the Temple, John, without the Sadduccees taking their cut. They are crushing us. I hate them John. And the Pharisees too! I can’t live the law the way they tell me too. I hate them all.
“I don’t know how not to hate them. I hoped that Abraham was enough. What are the works of repentance, John? How can I do them?”
His hands are on my head now. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
What on earth does that mean? And now I’m under the water. His hands are firm, holding me there. And then, sunlight. Spitting. Baptize with the Holy Spirit? Fire? I don’t get it.
I’m as confused as ever, walking back to the river bank when a man meets me. He is coming in to the river, to John and I am going out. His eyes meet mine. They are so like John’s, I stare. He meets my gaze. They are the same eyes. And they are different.
He stands in front of John. His accent is different. He’s from Galillee, I think. It looks like John wants to be baptized by him. That would be a switch. The baptizer baptized! I wonder what the sadducees would do with that? I wish I could catch more of that they’re saying.
They’ve stopped talking. Everyone has stopped talking. The new man turns toward the crowd and John puts his hands on his head. I guess John lost the argument.
And his eyes meet mine.
“His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear the threshing floor.” He’s going under. Why aren’t his eyes closed? Why is he looking at me with John’s eyes, and not John’s at the same time? Why is this all happening so slowly? Chest. “He will gather his wheat into the granary;” neck, “but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” He’s under.
Up again. Is the sun brighter? Why are he and John staring at the sky? Now I understand. He is the One who is to come. Not John. John made his paths straight. John got me ready. But He is the kingdom of God come near. And I have seen God’s glory.
I wonder what it would have been like to be standing by the riverside, listening to the wild-eyed, wild-haired prophet who had stomped in from the wilderness, off the very pages of Scripture.