Contemplating the Baptism of Jesus
The olives on the trees were not yet ready for harvest. There were things I could do around the orchard but I was restless. I told my wife I would go into town for a little while but I was reluctant, almost embarrassed to tell her why. I had heard that John, son of Zechariah, would be preaching and baptizing along the river today. The whole region was talking about “John the Baptizer” and crowds had been following him from town to town.
My wife is a good woman and I am not unhappy in my life, but lately I have had stirrings in my heart that I don’t understand. Something has seemed empty, waiting. It sounds odd to say it aloud – and who would understand such things? But it seems I even hear the scriptures with a deeper awareness these days. I know that our people have been longing for a savior since the time of our ancestors. We know he will come. But when? Somehow all of these feelings I can’t describe have brought me here to the banks of the Jordan.
At the river, scores of people sit along the bank, stand on the hill or line up in the waters, awaiting their baptism. “Come clean! Be baptized in the waters,” John calls out to the crowd. “Be forgiven!”
John is a riveting sight with his quiet intensity, his camel skin garb and his wild hair flying in so many directions. I let myself down onto an un-crowded section of the river bank next to a man about my own age who gives me a welcoming nod as I join him. We let the water flow over our feet as we watch the commotion. Dozens of people have waded into the water in front of John. As each person approaches, he speaks to them quietly, prays over them and helps them drop into the water and back up.
“Are you the Messiah?” someone calls out. He stops and shakes his head, his response deliberate: “I am a messenger.” Then he adds, “One mightier is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.”
“I baptize with water,” John says. “He will baptize with the Holy Spirit!”
The man next to me stands up in the waters and moves away from the bank a little. I stay seated, wanting to be a part of all of this, yet hanging back. John looks up to see my companion and walks over toward us, breaking into a smile. The two men embrace as if they are family and the affection between them is clear.
“Jesus,” John says warmly then
gestures questioningly toward the water. “You?”
John prays over Jesus as he had the others and plunges him into the river. But as Jesus bursts back up through the water, an odd thing happens. The sky, which had hung with heavy clouds all morning, parted a little and an unusual piercing light brightened the area.
Did others see this light, too, I wondered? The hair on my neck stood as I heard a voice, large, warm and loving. I’m not sure where it came from but it was everywhere at once and right in front of me. “You are my beloved son,” the voice said. “I am so pleased with you.”
I looked at Jesus. Beloved son? What does that mean? Some of the light that now shimmered on the river glowed in my soul. My heart seemed full where there had been emptiness moments earlier - yet I understood nothing more. I looked around at the crowd. I could see by their faces that some had seen and heard what happened. But others looked as if their lives were untouched.
Jesus embraced John once again and turned to walk out of the water. I turned toward the bank as Jesus walked past me and then I followed him as I knew I had to. He offered me a hand as I climbed out of the water. He looked at me with eyes that seemed to match the voice I had heard. Warm, big, intense. Those eyes seemed to understand everything about me, things that I had failed at, where I had not been at my best. Even the empty places in my life and the hunger for something I couldn't name. I knew in that moment that my life had changed dramatically. I would never have that empty feeling again. Yes, I would go home to my orchard, my wife and family but somehow, I would follow this man, Jesus.
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