Matthew 3:1-12 – The Second Sunday of Advent – for December 8, 2013
“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near…” (Matthew 3:1-12)
I came to this godforsaken place because everyone came.
Some traveled from as far away as Jerusalem. I could tell by their accents and how they acted superior to the rest of us.
I didn’t want to come.
I did want to come.
For weeks, in town, and in the countryside beyond, the gossip had all been about the wild man, about how no one had heard of him, and then it was as if he’d become more popular than praying for rain or despising the Romans.
I’d heard the snide comments.
The wild man ate insects down by the river!
“He’s got the brain of a locust,” a friend of my father muttered two days ago. “Why bother with him? Let him shout and curse. Like all the crawling creeping things, he’ll be gone by season’s end.”
But I’d seen my father’s friend sneak away to the river. Don’t actions speak louder than words?
The wild man feasted on honey down by the river!
A scrawny kid, just outside the synagogue yesterday, in a shrill voice I couldn’t ignore, claimed he’d seen the man reach into a beehive to scoop out sweet nectar.
“Not one stung him,” the kid squealed. “Those bees buzzed and swirled. They were caught in his beard and landed on his arms, but he just ate the honey.”
“That would never happen!”
“It’s all true. I saw it myself.”
Later on that day, the slender-as-a-straw kid raced ahead of his family, and led them down toward the river.
By nightfall, my colleagues and I gathered at an elder’s home. It wasn’t a secret meeting, but we’d agreed to come from different directions at different times. For hours we debated what to do. Ignore the wild man and he’ll go away. He promised people a heaven he couldn’t deliver and they’d turn on him. He’s all piss and vinegar and the people would weary of him. He’d try to baptize a fat man and both would drown. The fleabag prophet condemned people to hell when he’d be there soon enough. The Romans will kill him.
On we argued.
And yet on the next day, every one who’d scoffed and joked headed for the river. We joined with hundreds; some walking, friends carried friends, a few turned back, but most hurried to the godforsaken place where the wild man preached. The bright sky seemed like a bowl blazing with blue flames. It was a morning where you could see as far as the mountain called Herman. The river was named because of that distant peak, for Jordan means “descent,” its precious water flowing from Herman’s snow to the depths of the Dead Sea.
We too descended, near where the wild man stood, the sluggish water circling his waist. His beard was unkempt, his eyes like arrows as they darted from one person to the next. I ducked behind a taller colleague, hoping his broad shoulders and billowing robes would hide me.
Then he saw us. How could he not? My colleagues and I were bunched together, separate from the others. After all, we were better than the others . . . smarter than the others.
And then he shouted, a raw voice like summer thunder.
“You brood of vipers. Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
He kept shouting, kept accusing, never turning his arrow eyes from us.
And so I did flee, scrambling up the riverbank’s sludge of mud, stumbling, legs churning. I ran from his awful truths.
I cowered behind a nearby willow tree and wept. I didn’t need to hear the rest of his accusations. He knew the worst of me. Greedy. Selfish. Paying lip service to God while demanding others honor me.
I leaned against the tree, shivering in the heat. People came, people went. I saw my colleagues scurry back to town, as if a pack of feral dogs. They laughed, cursed, schemed. Not one looked for me. Finally, as the late afternoon’s shadows lengthened, blessed silence arrived. No shouts. No water splashing. No children playing games. No weeping or keening. The current lapped against the shore, birds swooped across the water’s surface to chase insects, branches clattered like nagging old women from a gust of wind.
Still I clung to the willow, slumped to the ground, my feet lead, my legs iron, my soul wounded.
I never heard any footsteps, but suddenly the wild man was beside me. I didn’t—couldn’t—move. Maybe he wouldn’t see me. Maybe he only paused before going to eat more honey or seek some greater truth deeper in the wilderness, or he would . . .
“We’re all afraid, aren’t we.”
It wasn’t a question. His voice was as calm as a summer breeze. No anger. No condemnation. No hate. No vile or bile or guile.
I managed to open my mouth, to mutter a few words. “You were right. I’m a hypocrite, I’m . . .”
He glanced down. I wondered if he’d smile, if a terrible grin would carve his weathered, sweaty face. But he just stared. At me. Into me.
“It’s not enough.”
“What isn’t?” I whispered.
“But you speak what we need to hear,” I blurted. “We need to be cleansed of sins, and you seem to know how far we are from God. Those are things I should know, but I know–”
“Nothing,” he finished for me. “None of us know anything. People will sin again before the water is dried.”
“You’re right to condemn us.”
The wild man laughed harshly. “I only speak words I should heed.”
“But you’re why I came,” I said. “Everyone says you have God’s ear, and that your words are God’s voice.”
He spat more brittle laughter. “Everyone is wrong.”
And then I said it, for I only had honesty left to confess, “You are right to condemn me. I’ve hurt others, told lies, cheated and–”
“I only know how to condemn . . .”
The wild man paused, his silence long enough for a hawk’s screech to welcome the night, long enough for another burst of wind to shake the willow’s leaves.
“Judging is the safer portion, the easier path,” he said.
He stepped away, into the day’s fading light. For the first time since cowering by the roots of the tree, I studied him. His shoulders slumped, his fists clenched and unclenched. He fiercely gazed at the distant, dark horizon as if it could fulfill all of today’s dreams.
“I have yet to learn how to love.”
After a long pause, he trudged toward the desert, silent as death.
I held my breath for an hour (at least, it felt that long) and then removed my robe, sandals and even my phylactery. I found a lamp discarded from the day’s crowd and lighted it, hoping it would guide me back to my belongings. I waded into the Jordan. Glancing toward shore, I spotted the lamp’s feeble light. Above, the moon glimmered through a haze of clouds. It felt like I lived between the past and future, between puny earth and the vast heavens.
The wild man, who seemed as broken as me, rightly judged my kind, rightly judged me. He also judged himself. Was he that much different than me? Judgments are weeds in a garden. I can repent, but how can I learn to grow the flowers of love? To love myself? Love others?
I am a Pharisee and know nothing.
Except to wait, between the gone and not yet.
Except to wait.