Word spread quickly about the wild preacher by the Jordan River who was baptizing everyone who came to him.
When the religious leaders in Jerusalem heard about him, they got nervous. “Sounds like another one of those hot-headed religious bumpkins with more zeal than sense,” one of the rabbis said when he heard the news.
“Some moron claiming to be the Messiah is all the excuse the Romans will need to crack down on us again,” another joined in.
“You are right, Rabbi Yehir,” a third agreed, “but the people are already declaring that this man is a prophet. We need to tread carefully.”
“Of course, Rabbi Misael,” the first shot back, “but this newcomer needs to understand that the Pharisees know about him and are watching him closely. He cannot go on thinking he can say anything that comes into his addled brain or claim himself to be someone he is not!”
“Yes, exactly!” Yehir said with strong approval. “An impressive delegation must be sent to question him. We’ll see what courage he has when priests in their full regalia show up, look him squarely in the eye, and demand answers of him.”
“Sin is no big concern for you,” John the baptizer’s voice boomed along the river bank. “You sin every day. You live in it. But do you think the Most High God is like you? No, I tell you! NO! The God of Israel is holy, holy, HOLY!
“Listen to me, all of you! God has told me that His kingdom is coming. Do you understand what I am saying? God’s kingdom is on the way. IT IS NEAR AT HAND! Do you want to be in His kingdom? I can see that you do. Then you must be holy, because HE is holy! Listen to what I am telling you! You must repent of your sinful lives, humble your hard hearts before Him, and be baptized! That’s the only way…”
“Hey you…Baptizer!” The interruption came from one of a small group of priests and Levites who just arrived and had pushed their way to the front of the crowd. John stopped his sermon and looked hard at the men standing pompously before him.
“Just who do you claim to be?” the speaker asked accusingly.
John surveyed the men with a critical eye before answering. “Well, I’ll tell you who I’m not,” he returned. “I am not the Messiah.”
This response seemed to take the religious leaders by surprise and they looked at each other in confusion.
“Maybe he thinks he’s Elijah,” one of them whispered to the spokesman. “He dresses like him.”
“Are you Elijah?” the spokesman asked.
“I am not.”
“Moses said that another prophet like him was coming,” another piped up. “Are you that prophet?”
There was more animated whispering among the obviously irritated group. Finally the spokesman said, “Listen you, we are priests and Levites! We have important matters to deal with! We can’t have our valuable time wasted by the likes of you! We were sent here by the religious leaders in Jerusalem to find out who you are, so enough of this! Who are you? What do you say about yourself?”
John paused thoughtfully, making them wait several long moments for his answer. Finally he said, “I am…a voice.”
“What?” one of the Levites in the back of the group asked. “Did he say he was a voice?”
“See hear!” one of the priests blurted out, but John cut him off.
“Yes, a voice. As Isaiah the prophet said, I am ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.’ Every crooked path must be made straight. Every ravine must be filled in, and every high place must be brought low. And if you will excuse me, some of those who have been brought low by the words of God need me now.”
John stepped down from where he had been speaking, pushed through the group of priests, and walked out into the Jordan River. With joy, the crowd who had come to hear him speak followed, and one by one, they waded out to John to be baptized.
From the bank the delegation from Jerusalem watched in fascination as hundreds of people confessed their sins, filed into the river, and came out joyfully praising God.
“It is clear that the people accept this man as a prophet,” the spokesman said to the others.
“It is also clear that they are genuinely turning to God,” another said. “Just listen to them!”
“And did you see the way they’re looking at us?” a third asked nervously. “I…I don’t think they trust us.”
“Hmmm…I believe you’re right,” the spokesman said to the others, “They clearly are for him and against us.
“Brothers, listen to me,” priest continued expressing his thoughts, “in order to regain respect in the eyes of the people, I think we should receive this man’s baptism. What could it hurt?”
After a few moments of deliberation, they all agreed and began taking off their priestly garb, folding them carefully and placing them on nearby boulders. Then, pushing their way to the front of the line, they waded out to the preacher.
When John saw them coming for baptism, his piercing gaze stopped them. “You snakes!” Looking past them he saw their neatly folded robes on the bank. “How quickly you shed your skins, but inside you are still vipers! The poison of your hypocrisy drips from your fangs! Who warned you to flee from God’s coming wrath?” The priests and Levites were dumbfounded at the tongue lashing they were receiving.
“Oh, the Lord stands ready to receive you,” John continued, “but only if you get rid of your arrogance and pompous pride.”
“How dare you!” one of the priests shot back. “We are ministers of God! We serve in the temple! We are Abraham’s…”
But John cut him off. “Don’t tell me Abraham’s your father, ‘cause God can raise up children of Abraham from these stones! Religious rituals from false hearts mean nothing to God. Repent of your pride and arrogance! Turn away from your hypocrisy! Lay your wicked hearts before God with true brokenness before it’s too late! Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, so every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire! You men should be very afraid!”
With a huffs and snorts, the priests turned and marched back to the bank to retrieve their robes.
As John watched them leave, he noticed that one Levite remained before him. A second Levite, when he saw that his friend had stayed, paused for a moment, and then he too waded back to the baptizer. John looked them both in the eyes and asked, “What do you seek?”
“Sir,” the first began, “my friend Eliezer and I have studied the Holy Words from our youth, and we both know enough to understand that we are sinful men.”
“We also understand that your words are true,” Eliezer quickly agreed. “Gershom and I have had this conversation many times. We just want to please God and be close to Him. Are you the one who can tell us how to do that?”
A smile spread across the rough prophet’s face and he put a hand on each of the men’s shoulders. “You have just taken your first steps in that direction,” he said encouragingly. “I have heard you confess your sins. Now let me baptize you, then stay with me. I need to get you ready for the One you are seeking because He is on His way.”
Short story by Alan W. Harris
(Inspired by John 1:19-28, and Luke 3:1-9)