Although our mothers were cousins, I never met John till he began preaching. His parents had died when he was very young (Luke 1:18), and he had been raised in the wilderness among the Essenes (probably the Qumran monastery where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered). They were a radical ascetic Bible thumping sect, who viewed themselves as the true people of God, and kept themselves apart from all of us worldly people. Frankly I did not want to go anywhere near them.
Then John suddenly appeared from nowhere the other side of the river Jordan, and we heard that thousands of people were flocking to hear him (John 3:23, 26). I knew at once that something new was happening. I told my mother that my brother James could mind our carpentry business, and I would be away for some time. Strangely she seemed to know I had to go. When I arrived I found quite an encampment of people waiting to get near the man they called John the Baptist. I sat down with a group who were cooking their meal, and they were discussing what the prophet had said yesterday.
I was intrigued because we had been without prophets since Malachi, the last of the prophets, four hundred years ago. The rabbis said we didn't need prophets any more. We had the word of God to study. How could my second cousin be a prophet?
So I asked my new friends "What does he preach about?" They explained they all felt they were lost, and things were going from bad to worse in their lives and in our country. John urged them to be baptized as a sign of turning to God to be ready for the Messiah who would soon appear among them. They said they had been thinking about the prophet's message, and they intended to be baptized that afternoon. "Can I join you and see what he looks like?"
The man was certainly strange. The shaggy beard and hair did not impress me. I preferred the clean cut look of a Roman businessman. John wore a long garment, not made of good Egyptian cotton but camel hair like a desert Bedouin. It was held together by a leather belt. But then on second thoughts I wondered if that was what the prophet Elijah must have looked like.
As people stepped into the Jordan river they bowed their heads in front of him, and he said "God bless you." Then he scooped up half a gourd shell of water which he poured over them. It just took a minute, but at the rate of one a minute for four hours I must have seen at least two hundred people baptized. They were obviously very devout and moved by the event.
Then he said he would be baptizing again the next day, but it was now time to teach the newly baptized. They gathered in a tight circle around him, and the rest of the crowd listened from as far back as I could see. "You need to show forth the fruits of your turning to God. Start by being generous to the poorer members of your community " (Luke 3:10-11). He had a special word of advice for the despised mafia tax collectors (Luke 3:12-13). And for the Jewish mercenaries who served in the Roman army (Luke 3:14). I was impressed. But then he began talking about the "coming one" and I wanted to go and hide from the crowd. He was certainly a humble man and said he wasn't worthy to untie the thong of the Messiah's sandals (Luke 3:16).
I had a great longing to have this great man pour the water over me, but I kept watching day after day till the crowd waiting for baptism had thinned (Luke 3:21). I didn't get near enough to ask him why he used water to baptize people, but I ran my mind over each of the scrolls I had studied in our synagogue library, and I began to grasp some of the rich significance of water.
In the Genesis scroll water fell on Noah and his family in the ark as other people perished (Genesis 7:11). In the Exodus scroll Moses sprinkled the people with water as they crossed the Red Sea and escaped from Pharaoh's power (1 Corinthians 10:1-6). Water gushed out from the rock when they were thirsty in the desert (Exodus 17:2-6, 1 Corinthians 10:4). The priests had to wash before serving in the tabernacle (Leviticus 8:6). In the scroll of Joshua the river in the Jordan was held back to enable the people to cross over into the promised land (Joshua 3:14-18). The righteous are like trees planted near water (Psalm 1:3). David asked to be washed from his sin (Psalm 51:2). Naaman's leprosy was washed clean in the Jordan (2 Kings 5:14). And one of the prophets had a vision of a great river of blessing flowing out from below the threshold of the temple (Ezekiel 47:1-12). Wow! What a wealth of water imagery!
I decided that I must be baptized, and one day I would use baptism as a means of enrolling my disciples (This model of baptism is set out in another book on this site, Go Make Learners). So I approached the prophet and kneeled in the water before him, but he said "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" When I insisted, and kept my head bowed, the crowd went silent and I felt the water pouring all over me.
I was going to slip away quietly from the crowd of his disciples, and I stopped for a moment to give thanks and look to the Spirit for wisdom as my mother had described (Luke 3:21). But the prophet pointed at me and announced excitedly "Here is the Lamb of God who keeps taking away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). Everybody began dancing with joy. When I looked up I found myself looking right into heaven (Matthew 3:16, Mark 1:10) and I heard words (Matthew 3:17, Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22) which began to change my understanding of who I was.
Meanwhile John the Baptist was explaining to his disciples and the crowd around them that the purpose of his baptism was to prepare people for the coming of the Messiah. He had been told he would know the Messiah had come when the Spirit descended on a particular individual like the dove hovering over Noah's ark. That was what he had just seen, and he also added that I would soon be baptizing people with the Holy Spirit.
But that did not explain how I could be the Lamb of God or baptize with the Spirit. And it certainly did not help me come to terms with the awesome words I had heard. Obviously I needed time alone to work through this. Again I remembered my mother's advice, and I asked the Holy Spirit to guide me to the right place. I first thought of the hills to the east of the Jordan, but the Spirit stopped me from going in that direction (Acts 16:6). Then I crossed the Jordan at the ford just above the Dead Sea and walked south towards the monastery where John had been raised. Perhaps they would take me in and leave me alone in a nearby cave? But the Spirit told me to move on (Acts 16:7-8).
As I went on walking south I remembered that King David had hid from Saul in the wilderness of Engedi (1 Samuel 24:1- 7). It was a long day's walk, but finally a farmer riding a donkey told me I should go up the valley to the Goat Springs. To my astonishment I found a lush valley. It reminded me of the love song, "My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms in the vineyards of Engedi" (Song of Solomon 1:14). I had read that in my teens when I fell in love with Esther. I thought of settling among the vineyards, but it was too distracting.
Up a bit higher I found just the right cave in the thick forest. The problem was it was infested with wild beasts. The birds were stunning, and I quite liked the wild goats, but the hyenas and leopards terrified me (Mark 1:13). I decided to ask the Holy Spirit to fill me with love for these animals, and I was rewarded by the birds flying down to eat out of my hand and a leopard coming to let me stroke her and pat her head.
But I soon discovered that this was the Spirit's idyllic introduction to the real purpose of my retreat into the wilderness.
Chapter 4 .....