The startled traveling merchant jumped at the words. He had worked hard to get all of his pack animals to the Jordan River, and they had used the last of their energy to cross it. He was tired. His donkeys were tired, and they needed to rest before they made the push to get to Jericho.
The merchant turned to face the speaker, and the fear immediately escalated. Standing before him was a bare-chested, wild man! He was a thin, powerful-looking fellow with long, shaggy hair, an equally long, unkempt beard, and piercing dark eyes that seemed to bore into his very soul. With some rags wrapped around his waist and standing closer than the merchant considered a safe distance, the stranger was holding a large, dripping pile of honeycombs in both hands.
The merchant wanted to say, Hello, what can I do for you? But the best he could do was, “Huh?”
“I’m trading this honey for one of your feed sacks,” the wild man said bluntly.
The merchant noticed that it wasn’t a request. Totally intimidated, the merchant pulled an almost empty bag of grain from the donkey beside him and dropped it at the man’s feet.
With a smile, the wild man shoved the honey at the merchant and began licking the sticky residue off his fingers. Snatching up and untying the bag, the stranger emptied its contents on the ground in front of the donkey, who began rapidly consuming the snack.
“Mind if I borrow your knife?” the stranger asked as he drew the blade from the merchant’s belt and began cutting a hole in the bottom of the rough, camel hair sack. Then he sliced a hole on each side and slid the knife back into its owner’s sheath. The stranger pulled the rough sack over his head and slid his arms through the holes. Snatching up the leather strap he had dropped, he quickly tied it around his waist.
“That’s better,” the wild man announced as he appraised his new clothing. He turned and walked with energy to a cluster of boulders nearby. Bounding onto the top of the rocks, the stranger looked down on the twenty or so merchants and servants camping beside the Jordan and began addressing them in a loud and powerful voice,
“All of you, stop what you’re doing and listen to me! I have news!”
The wild man stood tall with his hands on his hips and waited for the people to gather closer. With the boring nature of their tedious and mundane existence, proclaiming something new was always a sure way to get people’s attention. “My name is John, and God Almighty sent me to tell you that things are about to change!”
“What?” several in the crowd asked with concern. “What’s going to change?”
“Everything!” John laughed. “The kingdom of heaven is coming! It’s close at hand right now!”
There was much animated discussion among the listeners at this news. One cried out, “Are you the Messiah?”
“Me? No, I’m only a messenger. But when I’m done One is coming Who is stronger and more powerful than I am. He will bring the kingdom of God, and when it comes, each of you needs to be ready!”
Everyone was excited to hear these words, and there was much cheering and slapping each other on the back. The merchant to whom John had traded the honey held his knife in the air and shouted, “What do we do to get ready?”
“I’ll tell you what you do!” John shouted back fiercely. “You repent! The kingdom of God is a place of righteousness and holiness. Only those with broken, humble, repentant hearts will be able to receive it.”
“What do you mean?” the merchant asked, putting his knife away. “Won’t we be fighting the Romans?”
“You’ll be fighting alright,” John shot back. “You’ll be fighting like warriors as you confront the sin in your lives.” John saw the confused looks on their faces and added, “Stop cheating people in your business dealings. Don’t withhold pay from your laborers. Don’t abuse your servants, and you servants, don’t steal from those you serve.
“Look at all of you! You’re busy trying to put gold in your pockets while you let the treasure God has already given you slip away. Teach your children to know and love God. They are the God given treasures you already possess. Don’t turn your hearts to pursue gold. Turn your hearts to God and teach your children about Him! And if you’re really serious about getting ready for God’s kingdom, then be sure you bear the fruit of genuine repentance.”
“What fruit?” someone asked.
“True repentance changes you,” John returned. “It moves you to action! Your first action is to be baptized…right here, right now! Being baptized requires a soft, broken heart, and it will be putting your inward repentance into action. You’ll be taking an outward step of commitment to God and showing Him you are serious about being ready when His Holy One comes. That’s the kind of heart He’s looking for and the kind of heart that will recognize Him when He comes. Unless you change your proud and arrogant hearts you’ll be blind as cave crickets to what God is doing. The Coming One is on His way to bring you salvation. I am here to get you ready to receive it.”
John then hopped off the boulder, walked confidently through the small crowd, waded out into the river, and turned, looking expectantly at his audience.
Slowly, one by one, these rough men threw off their tunics and waded out to get ready for the coming One.
Over an hour later John waded out of the Jordan and moved past the group of happy converts. “I’ll be here tomorrow,” the wild man of God called over his shoulder as he walked away. “Tell folks!”
As the baptizer retreated into the wilderness, a large grasshopper flew up from the weeds beside him, and like a snake striking, the wild man’s hand shot out and snatched the large insect in midair. He popped the creatures head off with his thumb and quickly ate the rest of it, licking a remaining smudge of honey off his wrist as he did so.
By Alan W. Harris
(Inspired by John 1:14-15, Mark 1:4-8, and Malachi 4:5-6)