Four miles south of Lake Kinneret where the Yarmouk River merged with the Jordan a new preacher was seen. He spoke of the bleak recent history of the Jews and of a better future. Yohanan brought a new thing, a ritual cleansing of sins that bypassed the mediation of priests.
The priests and the Sadducees and the tetrarch Antipas himself believed this Yohanan was seeding the whole region with people who would be anxious for the coming of a new theocratic ruler, one who would reorder the laws to favor the destitute and upset the established ways.
A crowd often gathered on the riverbank by mid-morning. Some were present to hear him speak for the first time. Others have returned to seek the cleansing of body and soul that he offered. A young man named Yeshua was one of the latter, as were his brothers Shimon and Yosy.
Yohanan said, ‘Six centuries ago the king of Babylon burned down our temple, ended the line of David on the throne, and exiled the people far to the east. Five centuries ago the king of Persia defeated Babylon and allowed many of our exiled people to return from captivity.
Four centuries ago Nehemiah restored the temple, but he used the income it gathered to pay heavy tribute to the Persians. Three centuries ago a Macedonian king conquered the whole world, and his generals divided the world among themselves, ruling as kings after his death.
Two centuries ago the Greeks, and Jews who had adopted Greek ways, dedicated the temple of God to one of their own gods. The prophet Daniel called a remnant to stand against this evil and so they did. Antiochus and the Greek faction was defeated. We were independent at last!
For a time we paid tribute to no one except our own wicked priests, But a century ago our independence came to an end. When the Roman general called Pompey completed his conquest of Syria he elevated John Hyrcanus over King Aristobulus and named him ethnarch of the Jews.
But Pompey was our real king. And after Hyrcanus, the son of Aristobulus became ethnarch, the one who was named Antigonus. But he was murdered by the foreigner, Herod, and the Romans named this Idumean our king. And Herod made the second temple the wonderment of our people.
But the cost of building out the temple drove landowners to become tenant farmers, and tenant farmers to become day laborers, and day laborers to become beggars or bandits. The dwelling of God became a net capturing the wealth of the people to deliver it to the hated Romans.
What do we hear God telling us through all these events? After victory in a violent revolt we only managed to claw back a hundred years of independence before losing it again. God is telling us that only he himself can bring a lasting end to the evil of foreign domination.
Within the lifetime of many of you listening today God will overthrow the Romans with violence, but he will not dwell in the temple to be served by the wicked priests. God himself will be our temple. It only remains for you to ask yourself, are you ready for his direct rule?
Your sin is a broken chariot wheel that mars the road with every turn. It’s not enough to sacrifice a lamb and patch the holes in the road that trail out behind your sin. You know the law. You must repair the wheel itself and become pure before God. Who among you is ready?’
Yohanan had four disciples who acted in the role of screeners. They would listen to the people confess their sins and judge whether they were ready to advance to the waters of the Jordan to be baptized of Yohanan. Little Yosy drew Yudah of Kerioth for his screener.
Yosy told him the small misdeeds of a boy, not yet fourteen, leading up to the big one, and Yosy was brought to tears. For it was Yosef Jr. who fetched for his father a rotten pole on the job in Sepphoris that gave way under his weight and caused him to fall to his death.
Yosy had warned his beloved father the materials they were given to set up the scaffolding were no good, but Yosef merely recounted the story in the Law of when the Israelite slaves complained there was no straw for their bricks Pharaoh compelled them to fetch it themselves.
Then Yosy was brought to the river’s edge by Yudah to be baptized by Yohanan. His brother Shimon was confessing to Barthulumawus the slightly more nefarious venialities of a slightly older boy. He spoke of his uncle Hilfai marrying his widowed mother under the Levirate law.
For it was Shimon who first began to call Hilfai by the nickname ‘Clopas’, which means replacement, and the name had taken hold, and even the neighbors began to use it, but it pained his saintly mother whenever she heard it, and of course it greatly dishonored Hilfai.
So Barthulumawus was intreated, and he brought Shimon to the water’s edge to be purified by Yohanan. And his older brother Yeshua was conversing with two Jews with Greek names, Andreia and Philippos, who would one day be known to many as St. Andrew and St. Philip.
Yeshua told them, ‘My father set up and tore down scaffolding for stonecutters in Sepphoris, and I helped him, but often I would grieve him with a rebuke. Our work would keep us alive for now but the city we were building for the Romans would kill all our people in the end.
And so great was this new city, this blot on our land, that trees could no longer be felled at hand to make new lumber to hold fast the stones, or new poles to lash together for scaffolding. We used again what we had at hand, but these grew corrupt with insects and weather.’
So the work grew dangerous. It took the life of my father. My uncle married my mother under the Kinsman Redeemer law. He was a sofer, and he was apprenticing his son Yakob to be a scribe in turn. We had to be very quiet around Yakob as he slowly copied out the Torah.
Hilfai told me the rabbi who had ordered the scroll was paying a daily wage to bring bread to his own family, but there would not be enough for the newly doubled family until Yakob had completed the Torah. He said we needed to find work, and in this he was blameless.
But Hilfai and my mother and my sister Salome all wanted us to take up scaffolding again so soon after my father was laid in his tomb. I refused. In anger told them it was just a slow way to commit suicide. So I left, and my brothers also refused them, so they came with me.
I did not honor my mother and father, nor did I honor he who became my father under the Levirite law, as almighty God commanded Moshe we must do, and so I piled sin upon sin, and I have no answer before God, and now I will lay my hand upon my mouth with my fault laid bare.’
Then Philippos and Andreia were satisfied that Yeshua was truly contrite. They brought him to the edge of the river to be baptized by Yohanan. With a warm smile of welcome, Yohanan gently waded with Yeshua twenty feet to the middle of the small river to dunk him in.
But a deep green glow suffused the river, and Yohanan lost Yeshua. It was entirely beyond his experience. Then Yohanan panicked, and started splashing around in the water looking for the man. The river was wide but it was only waist deep, yet Yeshua was nowhere to be found.