The wind is blowing gently here by the Jordan River, but the words of the Baptizer are fierce – “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.”
His eyes are on us, his words meant for us. We came to see what he would say for himself – this man drawing people into the waters for baptism instead of sending them to the temple to make sacrifices, attracting crowds with his declarations of God’s kingdom drawing near. The others with me shift backwards and they begin to mutter under their breath, their indignation stirred by his insult.
Unbidden, words from the prophet Micah come to my mind and my hands begin to shake – He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
But if this is the fruit he means – the fruit in keeping with repentance – don’t I already produce it? Don’t I do all that is required of me?
Yet — my hands still tremble. I clench them into fists so that no one else will notice.
How can such a crowd become this silent? The Baptizer’s words are clear and carry so that every ear hears. “And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
The muttering around me becomes louder, insults for this wild man in his camel’s hair slipping from one man to the next, but I cannot speak.
It feels like he is looking directly at me when he opens his mouth again. “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
I leave Bethany with one answer – this John, he says himself that he is not the Messiah- but his words have only filled me with more questions.
John’s declaration about repentance, about the ax at the root of the trees – I cannot shake them, even as I come home to Jerusalem. Why should I feel so unsure? I am a teacher. I know the law. I try to be wise in my work with the Sanhedrin. Anyone would say that we are holy – we are Pharisees, after all, set apart as much as we can possibly be from anything unclean. Our lives – my life – is dedicated to God.
And yet – we have heard no word from Him in so long…could this be the Word of the Lord? Isaiah prophesied a voice calling out in the wilderness, making straight the way for the Lord…could John, as he claims, truly be that voice?
The temple is ahead, beautiful in the light of the sun. It has been restored by one who does not honor God as we do, but it – at least – still belongs to us. I have often wondered what the kings of old would think if they could see us now – ruled by Gentiles, bound by the power of an Emperor’s law. First the Greeks held our land – our land promised to us by God – and now these Romans, they are everywhere and they consume everything in their path. When our fathers came back to this city, at last released from Babylon – surely this was not their dream, to have it fall back into other hands. Surely it was not what they would want for us – this constant struggle to keep peace with Rome, so that we do not lose power over our traditions and even our worship.
A weight fills my chest and it is like I am looking at these streets for the first time – how many beggars, blind and broken, line the way to the temple courts? Heat rushes into my cheeks as I see my friends – other teachers like me – walk by them. They take no notice. Just as I never take notice. And just like I have done so many times before, they begin to pray aloud on the street corners even while the poor beg for help.
Is this how we act justly? Is this what I call mercy?
Regret brings me to a stand-still.
I think of helping some of lame to the Pool of Bethesda – but perhaps that would only be giving false hope, for the pool is surrounded always and there is only enough healing for the one who reaches its waters first.
Terrible exhaustion grips my body – or is it my heart? – and I turn away from the Temple to take the roads that will lead me home.
My wife is curious. I am barely through the door before she asks – “Is he the One? Is the Baptizer our Messiah?”
“No,” I say, and gratefully sink into a chair, rest my feet in a basin of cool water.
Though I do not expect it, she kneels by my side and gently rinses the dirt from my feet. “I have to admit – I think I am disappointed.” She looks up at me, tears suddenly rising in her eyes. “I’ve been thinking about how wonderful it would be to be rid of the Roman soldiers. If the Deliverer would come soon – we would be free again. Perhaps we would see the glory of God again, Nicodemus, if they were driven out!”
“Glory.” The word on my lips is sweet like honey, but it isn’t the exile of Roman rule that I am seeing. It’s John, shouting out ‘After me comes one who is more powerful…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire…’
We are a people of tradition and law. Our High Priest keeps order. We adhere to the commandments of God – but wasn’t there once more to our faith than rules and rituals?
We know about our God – but aren’t we supposed to be a people who know Him? Isn’t that why He called Father Abraham? Isn’t that why He rescued our people again and again, drawing us back to our homeland? Isn’t that why He promised to write His law on our hearts, so that we could be wholly His?
“I’m sorry. He isn’t the One. But – he said to repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” I say to her in a whisper, “and I think that he speaks only the truth.”
Her hands drop my feet into the water and the splash startles both of us.
I am watching the moon climb high and fade by the light of the morning sun. I cannot close these eyes to what I once could not see. I see money-changers in the temple – they set the price for the people to give sacrifices, to gain forgiveness, and the cost is too much for many to bear. Everywhere I turn, I see bondage. I see Pharisees and Sadducees tightly bound in battles of their own making. I see leaders – Roman and Jewish alike – scrambling to keep their own power. I see the sick and the elderly, abandoned and afraid. I see widows in want. I see the poor with shoulders slumped – I see how they never lift their eyes to meet mine.
I lift my own eyes to heaven – Messiah, will You come and deliver us? Can these dry bones live again?
For I begin to understand that we are a people destitute, devoid of God’s presence. My own righteousness showed itself by the Jordan River — it is blemished and ragged. We are pleased with the sound of our own voices and do not plead to hear His. We have filled ourselves up with power of our own making and have not even noticed that we are famished for His Spirit. I am no exception – but how can I change this? How can I enter into the presence of the Almighty God?
He will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire…
I think of Moses standing barefoot before a burning bush.
I think of the Hebrews following a pillar of cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night.
God, will You show us Your glory again?
“The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because He was before me.’ I myself did not know Him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that He might be revealed to Israel.”
Then John gave this testimony: I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on Him. And I myself did not know Him, but the One who told me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the One who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.” –John 1:29-34
“Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about Him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised Him. He went to Nazareth, where He had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day He went into the synagogue as was His custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. Unrolling it, He found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me To preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives And recovery of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are oppressed; To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him.
And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” – Luke 4:14-21
(Although we can’t be sure that Nicodemus was among the group of Pharisees visiting John the Baptist, I like to think that this might be the moment his heart begin to know that there was something more in store…the scenes with John the Baptist are based on John 1:15-34 and Matthew 3:1-17)