Book Excerpt: John’s Gospel: The Way It Happened

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

Jesus mashed his eyes shut, trying to expel words that had burned into his brain. Those were John the Baptizer’s words, bellowed invectives Jesus heard over and over from the day he became a follower.

“Come, you sinful nation, cross the Jordan with me. As your ancestors crossed this river into the promised land, so cross with me, and be clean! Be purged of your sins! Enter Adonai’s holy land again, through these cleansing waters, and prepare yourself for his Messiah!”

Jesus rolled onto his back, listening to the snores of the others. Night had fallen several hours ago. He tried to craft a plan for their trip to the Galilee, but his concentration failed. The experience of a few days ago, with the Baptizer, still gripped him.

The prophet John had stood in the center of the river, still sporting the camel-hair coat that had become his trademark. A Jerusalem crowd filed by from the east as, one at a time, he dipped them in the Jordan and steered them on across to the Jerusalem side. “Make straight the path for the Messiah,” he rumbled, pausing only to suck air or dip another convert. “His sword will strike swiftly, the unclean slaughtered in heaps upon the ground. Do not be numbered with the sinful! Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees; every tree that bears no fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire! FIRE! Do not find yourself on the side of the sinful when your Messiah arrives!”

The Messiah. Always, the Messiah. John’s fiery message never wavered. “‘See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me,’” John shouted. “That’s what the prophet Malachi promised. Well, I am he! The Lord’s messenger! And what did Malachi say? ‘Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his Temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come.’”

Of course, it didn’t happen, no matter how loudly John bellowed. Word of the Lord’s appearance never arrived from the Temple. No triumphant Messiah, no fiery bloodbath. Yet Jesus had followed John, allowed himself to be immersed in the river Jordan with the rest of John’s followers, because he was learning from this strange teacher, learning the words of the prophets, and then … then …

Then the epiphany occurred, as soon as he came up out of the water. Epiphany? No, more like a transformation, like a foreign spirit invading his body and buoying him up. There, standing waist deep in the Jordan River, Jesus lifted his hands and face skyward. He praised God above and then waded through the water to the shoreline and strode west—into the desert, where he would spend a time in deep contemplation.

–John’s Gospel: The Way It Happened, 2013, by Lee Harmon

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