The Gospel reading last Sunday, the 10th, was about the baptism of Jesus. What might have been like to witness that incredible beginning of the ministry of God as Man? Here is a story told by someone who was there. Well…a story by someone who MIGHT have been there. It’s from the historical fiction book, Who is Jesus? I hope you enjoy reading about how this man’s life was changed. How would YOUR life be changed if you were there? Let me know.
We Were Different -Now I Know Why
Jesus and I grew up together in Nazareth. But he was different from all of my friends and me.
Here’s an example. We used to race to prove who ran the fastest. One day I tripped one of the kids I competed against. Typical for me, I narrowed my eyes at the guy and yelled, “Look out, will you?” like it was his fault. I picked up my pace and left him there, even though his leg and arm were badly scraped up. What do you think happened next? Jesus held up his hand to stop the race and walked over to the boy. He actually took the hem of his own cloak and wiped the dust and blood from the boy’s leg and forearm. He stretched out a hand to help the boy stand and asked, “Better?” Micah smiled huge and bobbed his head. My friends wore looks that reflected my thoughts: it’s like we’re watching snow fall in summer.
And another example was when we began classes at the synagogue. He always learned the material super fast and went ahead in the studies. Not only that, sometimes it seemed like he knew more than our rabbi.
I liked him enough. But sometimes I didn’t hang out with him because – well – it was more fun to live on that narrow line between good and bad. Jesus seemed planted on the good side.
Jesus’ father, Joseph, was a carpenter. My father was a farmer. Because everyone held them in high regard, my family didn’t look down on his, as often happens between farmers and artisans. His family was hard-working, honest, and giving. Still, our families didn’t do much together. I think it was because our routines didn’t coincide. Except on the Sabbath.
Everyone, artisans and farmers alike, gathered on Sabbath. And that’s when Jesus shone. When he was old enough to read the scroll in synagogue, we all looked hypnotized. There was something about his voice, and the way he read, that made us think he wanted us to grasp some kind of hidden meaning.
We all grew up and started our own families. Except Jesus. He spent so much time learning and teaching, I guess he couldn’t fit in a family.
I had a nice plot of land that my father gave me. My olive and fig groves flourished under my excellent care. After all, my father trained me. I found ready buyers everyday at the Sepphoris market – almost four miles from Nazareth – because my fruits, oils, and pastes were beautiful and their aroma called to people.
To say life was hard is an understatement. We had to pay the imperial taxes on top of our own temple tax, plus our tithes. All those taxes made it impossible to thoroughly enjoy the fruit of our own labor. Yes, I had a plot of land, but my wife and children and I lived with my parents and four of my siblings in a small, two-room house. Why? Because no one could make a profit, no matter how good their product. But it was more than not being able to get ahead; we could barely keep our heads above water. Each household had to constantly borrow to buy seed. Then we’d pray we wouldn’t need to sell ourselves into slavery to pay those debts. Who could ransom us if we did that?
We had no choice but to sell to the Romans in Sepphoris. Not only was the market huge and accommodating, the population was many times greater than little Nazareth. Sepphoris was one of the beautiful cities built by Herod and he considered this one his pride and joy. I tried to avoid the taxes that he forced on us, but collectors always found me. It was easy for them to keep track of us. Whenever we were at market, Herod’s spies, as we called them, kept close tabs on us.
Many of us chose to cheat – even our own neighbors – just to feed our children. It was simple to fool young shoppers with how much I placed on the scale, because they talked nonstop to their friends and didn’t pay attention to what they did. It was easier to cheat the old folks. They could be distracted in noisy crowds just like children, so I could place my hand on the scale or toss in a small stone with no one’s notice. Did I feel guilty? Sometimes. Like when I cheated poor old widows. Still, I didn’t feel guilty enough to change my ways. I needed every drachma I could scrape up. Besides, we never knew when the next tax hike would hit us.
My greatest embarrassment is forever chiseled in my memory. As usual, the men stood around the courtyard to talk after services one day. The women had hurried home to set out the late afternoon meal of Shabbat – what we call our religious observance of rest on the Sabbath. Jesus still lived in Nazareth then. Our typical conversation trailed from the weather to crops to taxes and, finally, the Roman occupation.
“I’m done with these Romans,” I spat on the ground. “They cheat us, they accuse us falsely, and they make life miserable. Where is our redeemer?” “Yes,” Joel chimed in, shaking his raised fist in the air. “We need to be rescued, and the Romans need to be annihilated.” Agreement rumbled through the small group. “Where is Elijah? Aren’t we oppressed enough?” I moaned. “Isn’t it time?” We all lamented with flushed faces and voices that grew louder.
“Men,” Jesus spoke in that quiet voice of his that demanded attention. “I agree life is unbearably hard. But perhaps before we blame all of our hardships on the Romans, we should consider our own actions. What does our own law call for?”
As one, we hung our heads.
“Do we forgive each other debts as we would hope they would ours?”
I began to feel exposed – like he knew my bad secret and was telling the world.
He didn’t stop there. “And, yes, they cheat us and steal from us. But which one of us can claim perfect integrity? Perhaps we should change our own ways first.”
And, no kidding, he looked directly into my eyes. How did he know? A well of sadness rose up within me.
You would think after that admonition, almost a warning, I would immediately mend my ways. But not one week later when I entered Sepphoris, a tax collector called to me for all to hear. “Justus, you seem to have forgotten to pay your tax the last time you sold here.”
Traitor, I mumbled under my breath. Then, out loud, “Oh. I’m. Well, I meant to,” I stumbled. Trapped again.
“Let’s see what you plan to sell today.”
He rummaged through my cart and stole a handful of figs for his own belt. He miscounted – in his favor of course – everything I had with me. “Today you will pay one shekel.”
“But – but – but. I can’t sell enough to pay such a tax.”
“You should have thought of that earlier.”
I sighed and scuffed away with knit brows and pursed lips. Then I hoped that yet another friend could lend me money. My anger refueled. I continued doing business as usual.
As we trudged through life, we clung to the hope that soon Elijah would herald the arrival of our redeemer.
After more than ten years of marriage, my family of seven still lived crammed into my father’s house. Miscounted purchases here and weighted scales there continued. Every day I tried to sneak past the tax collector. I rarely succeeded. I considered myself a poor provider. I was tired. And angry. “How long, O Lord? How long?” I cried out each night.
One night, I could barely hold my head up as I dragged my empty cart toward home, with a nearly empty belt tied to my waist. My equally tired and angry neighbors chatted. Judah mentioned a rumor about a man named John. He preached about repentance and said things like, “Get everything ready for the coming of the Lord,” and, “Someone is coming after me who is much greater than me. Compared to him I am less than a slave. I am not even worthy to take off his sandals.”
My breath caught. What? I stopped dead in my tracks. “Are you serious? What does he mean, prepare the way? Like, for a king?”
“I don’t know. That’s what I heard. Odd character. His clothes are camel’s hair and he lives in the wilderness, they say, like a hermit.”
“Is he an Essene?” I asked. “No one seems to know. But he makes his way to the Jordan every day.”
“Do you think?” I paused. Could it be? Dare I say?
“Do you think it’s the prophet?” As the whispered words released, I felt my heart pound in my ears.
Just before sundown we gathered for the first Shabbat meal. I shared the rumor with my family. My father stopped sharpening the knife he’d been working on and stared at me.
Slow and quiet, he spoke one word, “Elijah.”
My heart raced again.
By the time services ended the next day, the entire village buzzed. The men gathered, as usual, and we all talked at once. Voices pitched in excitement as speculation rose. The older men paused often and looked heavenward. Jesus was with us, of course. I noted he didn’t join the conversation.
“What do you think, Jesus?” I asked.
“What do you think, Justus?”
“Well, I think it could be true.” Do I? Suddenly I needed courage. I looked at my friend. “Right, Judah? Don’t you think it’s Elijah?”
And then everyone shouted affirmations. The conversation heightened to a frenzy.
I never did hear Jesus’ answer.
That evening some of us made a plan to visit the Jordan ourselves. That decision was the beginning of radical change in me.
Since we had some time yet before Fall planting, we agreed to take ten days – four days out, two in the Jordan River region, and four back. My father and brothers, some nephews, and neighbors made up our party. Jesus went, too.
News travels fast around here. Along the way, we met scores of people who also wanted to see the display at the Jordan. Speculation was rampant. Hope was high. Our steps were quick. I made a mental note that Jesus remained peculiarly pensive.
The scene from the summit of the mountain that overlooked the river made me dizzy. Hundreds of people stood in rows five deep at the shore. About ten of them were in the water, in a circle around one man at their center. It was his voice, not the hundreds gathered, that reached us. As we descended, that voice became more clear.
He quoted scripture. It was the Prophet Isaiah. “Get everything ready for the coming of the Lord. Everyone will see God’s salvation.” And then he said, “I am the voice that cries out in the wilderness.” He called for people to repent. But not the kind of repentance that we knew about – the kind that had to be done over and over again. No, he preached that the Redeemer would soon come and that we needed to prepare our hearts for his arrival.
The rocky path couldn’t slow us. We nearly tumbled down the mountainside. That strange quickening zipped through my heart again. Is it true?
Soon we were close to the man dressed in camel’s hair, with unruly hair, just as described. We listened, mesmerized. The passion in his unnaturally loud voice confirmed that he believed every word he spoke. Our ears filled with the message they longed to hear.
“Get everything ready for the coming of the Lord!” He preached for us to stop cheating our neighbors and stop wanting things that didn’t belong to us. In a nutshell, he told us to live the Mosaic Law of morals and righteousness.
The hot sun tiptoed toward the western sky; its brightness peeked through clouds that kept us cool. His voice penetrated my being. His words pierced my heart. My eyes brimmed, filled with sadness at how I lived my life. What example have I given my children? The thought broke my heart. I wove through the throng of fellow pilgrims; we all longed for freedom. Refreshing coolness lapped over my feet as I waded closer to the prophet in the river.
“Here I am! I am a sinner. Cleanse me!” I called to the man with a hyssop branch. He turned to me and waved me further into the moving water. When I reached him, the water was at my waist.
“Do you repent of your wicked ways?”
“Yes, I do!”
“Do you long for the coming of The Messiah?”
“With all my heart,” I whispered.
“Then be cleansed. Go on your way and sin no more.” And with that, he plunged the hyssop into the water and then shook it violently over me. I lifted my arms and raised my face to the heavens.
How do I feel? Clean? Yes, but so much more. Free? Yes, I’m free! My lips stretched into a smile that nearly split them.
As I came up out of the river, my father and brothers hurried toward the man named John. As in a dream, I watched my family and friends’ faces light up as they, too, experienced a spark of true freedom.
When they came up out of the water, we embraced as though we hadn’t seen each other in years. We are new.
Though we wanted to shout and jump for joy, John continued to preach, even as the sun dipped. We focused on him. He stopped abruptly in mid-sentence, and shifted his gaze. His voice changed to one of awe and surprise as he called out, “Look, here is the Lamb of God! He will remove the sin of the entire world.”
As one body, my father, siblings and I turned to see Jesus walk through the water to John. My eyes widened. My mouth dropped open. What does he mean? What is Jesus doing?
John continued, “I mentioned him earlier. I told you that after me there would come a man who is greater than me because he existed before me. I didn’t know who he was, but the reason I started to baptize in water was so that he could be revealed to Israel.”
Jesus? Jesus is the Lamb of God? The One we’ve waited for? My mind muddled with a thousand questions.
And then Jesus asked John to baptize him.
John stood spellbound for a few moments. He found his voice again, “Why are you doing this? I should be baptized by you.”
And Jesus answered, “It’s okay. Many things, all righteousness, must be fulfilled. This is the right thing to do for now.”
John bowed his head briefly before he thrust the hyssop branch into the river and shook it over Jesus.
I had many sins to be cleansed of. Have I ever seen Jesus say or do anything that could warrant a need for repentance? Surely not.
Yet Jesus looked as refreshed as everyone else baptized by John. And just as he came up out of the water, wearing a hint of a smile, the remnants of the sun broke majestically through the clouds, and a dove that seemed to come from the sun itself flew onto Jesus’ shoulder. Before I could question the sight – and I’m not exaggerating when I say this – a voice that thundered from the skies themselves spoke, “This is my son, whom I love. I am fully pleased with him.”
Jesus raised his eyes toward the heavens, as did John. My eyes followed their gaze to a glorious peach lining of every dazzling white cloud.
When I spun back to look at Jesus, the dove was gone. I reached my hand out to him, “Jesus?” I didn’t recognize my own meek voice.
His eyes danced as he nodded acknowledgment to me, but he continued past me and disappeared into the crowd.
I couldn’t wait to share the excitement with my friends. But my amazement did not reflect in their eyes. What? Didn’t they see the dove and hear that voice? The voice that claimed him as son the way a father claims his own? Dismayed and confused, I kept quiet.
After Jesus’ baptism, the sun continued its rapid race to the finish line of the horizon, painting us in soft pinkish orange. Our immediate party headed to my cousin’s house, where we stayed. Jesus did not return with us. I won’t go into detail about how excited we all were and how much we shared that night. Suffice it to say, we fell asleep not long before the first cock crowed.
When the second cock crowed, we hurried back to the banks of the Jordan for at least a little more of John’s enlightened preaching. When we had no choice, we pulled ourselves away from the region for home. We couldn’t find Jesus. I wanted to tell him how different I felt. And I wanted to tell him that I saw the dove and heard the voice. The voice of his father?
That day in the Jordan transformed my life forever. I decided right then that, even though it seemed we couldn’t survive without cheating, I would trust the guidelines of Mosaic Law. And guess what? Living as a man of integrity didn’t make life any harder on my family than before. But things were different. Peace inside of me ruled over the worries: no more internal wrestling matches between the reality of being a cheat while I proclaimed to be a good Jew. And, I began to see myself as a good provider who did my best.
When Jesus returned to Nazareth, it was on a Sabbath. I recognized added confidence as he strode into the synagogue. He picked up the scroll and read, “The Spirit of the Lord is within me. For the sake of all, God anointed me to announce good news to those who are poor. He sent me to proclaim that those who are imprisoned will be released. Those who are blind will see. Those who are broken will be forgiven. I publicly proclaim that this is the time ordained by the Lord.” The place was more silent than ever as he closed the book and ended with, “What you have heard today brings this scripture to its complete fulfillment.”
When his discourse ended, many faces around me reddened with anger, which matched raised voices. For me, I knew at that moment who he was. My head spun with pictures of us growing up together, so I didn’t hear why he stirred up such wrath. In fact, I didn’t get to talk to him afterward. He enraged so many people that he left town, almost secretly, before dawn.
At last, the words of our ancient leader Joshua made total sense. Others can choose to follow their desire for money or land or power. But as for me and my household, we choose to follow the Lord. It is the best decision our family ever reached together. No longer are we driven by greed or lack of forgiveness. No longer do we seek revenge on those who make life difficult. Worry and fear are no longer companions. Instead, joy and peace from within sustain us through the good days and the bad. Thanks be to God!