My name is Yohanan. You know me by the name John. My Father’s name is Zechariah and my mother’s name is Elizabeth. I was an only child, and a surprise at that. My parents were told they would never have children, that my mother was barren. Oh how my parents prayed for children. And finally, just when they had given up hope, just when my mother was almost past child bearing age, she got pregnant with me. At a time when most of her friends had grand children, she was having her first child. Her prayers had been answered. Maybe that was why I was always different. She was so overjoyed by finally having a child and a son that she kept praising God. She kept praying and praising the God who did not forget her, even if he took longer than she thought he should have! Anyhow, her people were good Jews firmly established in Jerusalem. My father’s people were rural priests-holy ones. My mother’s faith is what drew my father to her. But he didn’t realize how much like her family she was. (Laugh). You never do. They argued. Anyhow, I was different from my friends. Really different. I was restless. I was always ill at ease. Like my ancestors, whenever it got overwhelming, I went to the desert and tried to pay attention to what was bothering me. I would sit and listen. I knew God was behind some of what was bothering me but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. As hard as I tried to pay attention….it was painful. I would go to the desert, sit for a couple of days listen and I would almost get it, almost, but would have to eat or drink, and then would return to my parents village, just on the outskirts of Jerusalem. And I would still be restless. It was almost an ache. Finally, unable to bear it any more, I just left. I retreated to the desert and stayed there most of the time. I ate what I could find, mostly locusts, and some honey. When I was thirsty I would drink at the Jordan River. My clothes wore through quickly. I made do with what I could find. I guess I was kind of wild looking. But I kept in touch with folks. People think the desert is totally bleak but there are unmarked paths that folks use to get from one place to another. And people also congregate where there is water. So I would hear what was going on in Jerusalem. And the more I heard, the more distraught I became. I think my dis ease when I was home came from seeing how people treated each other in Jerusalem. Here we were, Jews under Roman occupation. You would think we would have helped each other. But no the tribal fights, you know, among my cousins and their families, carried over into Jerusalem. Some of my family members were super religious. Others used our religion for profit. Other relatives were still waiting for a Messiah to rescue us and return us to our former glory. Many thought that was a pipe dream, that we should accept the current reality and make the most of it. And make the most of it they tried. They colluded, COLLUDED with the Romans. They used their name and connections to make money, lots of it, in the Roman system. And often it was at the expense of other people. They became lackeys of the Roman Empire, an empire that used our labor, sometimes to the point of death. They were in with the Romans. And some of these folks were my mother’s people. It was sad. She was so holy and yet so blind to what her family was doing. My father would argue with her. It was only when I left that that I could really see and hear what was going on. But I felt so conflicted. I loved my parents, loved all the best that was in them. I loved our little house Temple where we worshipped behind closed doors. But leaving let me hear what God better. Leaving let me be more of who God was calling me to be. I wasn’t sure where I was being led. I had no idea what the outcome would be. I just knew I had to pay attention and trust God. And so I went. And when I came across people in the desert, I would ask: how are things in Jerusalem? And I would hear the same thing: those with power, however tenuous, using and abusing those without. I felt such anger. I felt such anguish. I would start quoting the scriptures, the prophets of old. If the Jews in Jerusalem wanted God to restore us to power, abusing people was not the way to go. Our ancestors, Isaiah, Hosea, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Micah, all of our ancestors kept pointing that out. That kind of behavior only leads to more death. I was frustrated and anguished and angry. I started speaking out. And people started seeking me out. Some of the folks who came to hear me had bit roles in the Roman Empire. And after hearing me, they would feel guilty. What do we do, they wondered? Wash yourself of your sins! I would tell them. How? They would ask. I remembered that somewhere in the scriptures I heard growing up, a couple of the prophets would wash away people’s sins so when these folks wanted to repent, I would take them to the Jordan and baptize them. It wasn’t totally out of my tradition. And you all, your modern Jewish brothers and sisters have ritual washing- mostly the women, but sometimes the men. There is something your modern Jews call a Mikveh- a ritual bath. And your Muslim brothers and sisters do something called wudu- ritual washing, before they pray at the mosque or masjid. Washing away sin was not unusual. In fact it can be really powerful. At least it was for the folks who came to me, who heard my anguish, who understood that everyone felt short of the glory of God that lived in them. Many of the folks who came to hear me, eventually understood that we all live in ways that dishonor our souls. We all live in ways that dishonor our souls. They began to recognize that. And that was the beginning. The forgiveness, the washing away was the beginning. I had to remind them that it is not enough to say I’m sorry. Repentance means turning around, turning back to God. So as I baptized them, I told them their sins were forgiven. Then I added, go and sin no more. After a while I heard that some of the folks that got baptized went back and found different ways to live in a very tense situation. Found ways to live that didn’t hurt other people. Sometimes, they changed jobs. Sometimes they spoke up and risked arguments and ostracism. But it made a difference. For them, and for other people. And soon that happened enough that folks came looking for me. One day I looked up and saw a whole mess of people coming to the river. There were Roman soldiers. Decent pious people were there and some not so decent and no so pious. And when I started preaching repentance for sins, they are started smirking as they looked at each other. It was like they are thought the others there had to repent, but not them. They were all pointing fingers. Including my mother’s people. They were just sure I couldn’t be talking about them. I had enough. I looked those opportunistic people and yelled: you brood of vipers! I called them snakes. Snakes, even lower than pigs! I was so angry. Some walked away. Some were shocked and came forward. And those that came forward, they would be the ones who would end up following my cousin Joshua. You know him by the name Jesus. But that is another story. Before you can get to his story, before his story can really make a difference in your life, you need to wait. You need to pay attention. Even the best among you, and I know there are some really good people here, even those folks need to search their hearts and ask what is there that is keeping them from being all that God calls them to be. What is it? Pay attention! Pay attention. You will miss the goods news of my cousin Jesus if you don’t.
Before I close, one of the people I ticked off was Herod’s wife. She manipulated her daughter into asking for my head. So I am off to martyrdom. But I think your Pastor will invite you to renew your baptismal vows. It might be a good idea to do that before you hear the rest of the story—the part about my cousin Jesus. Can’t hurt right? Might even help: might help Jesus grow up in your heart. My journey is almost over. Yours has just begun. Blessings to you as you continue on your journey.