Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Beloved Disciple Chapter One, part 2

Coming up out of the water that day shouldn’t have been different from any other time I’ve bathed deep.  There’s always a moment when the wind and sun hit wet skin, sound returns to the world, and air-starved lungs draw in a gasping breath.  These were the same as with any swim in Gennesaret, yet there was a difference.  I felt different.
I looked up into Yochanan’s face, disoriented.  A moment ago he’d been holding me under the surface of the river.  Now he smiled at me, his brown eyes shining with water-reflected sunlight, and for no reason at all I started to laugh.  He hugged me, both of us laughing there in the middle of the river, and then led me back to the shore where hundreds of seekers waited to hear what he would say next.
“You sons of snakes!” he roared at a group of Pharisees.  My eyes widened in shock.  The Pharisees are the most devout men in Israel.
“I tell you again!  God doesn’t need you or your kind to fulfill His promise to Abraham!  If He wanted to, He could take these stones and turn them into men more like Abraham than you are!”  Angrily, Yochanan brandished a muddy rock in the face of a richly dressed rabbi.  “Don’t think that you’ll escape His wrath just because you’re descended from Abraham!  You boast of your family tree, but it’s barren.  Already God’s axe is laid at its root.”
The crowd roared its approval of Yochanan’s choice of target.  Unfazed, the Pharisee took a step back as if disgusted to be in such proximity to the Immerser.  He wrinkled his nose disdainfully as he spoke.  “You ignorant peasant.  You think a Nazir vow gives you the right to spit on all that has made Israel great?  I demand that you answer my question: who gave you the authority to immerse these people?  Don’t you even know that immersion is for Gentile proselytes?  These people are Hebrews.  They have no need of this—this—”   He waved a fat arm angrily about as he searched for a fitting term.  “This circus!” he concluded emphatically.  His companions nodded sagely.
“My authority is from the one who comes after me,” Yochanan replied, advancing again until he stood within a handspan of the uncomfortable synagogue leader.  “Does it bother you that I’m washing these people with water?  Just wait, then!  He’s going to cleanse your hard heart with fire!”  In a blatant show of disrespect, he jabbed the Pharisee in the chest with his finger, then whirled to face the crowd.  “And the rest of you, those whose hearts are soft, he will immerse in the power of the Holy Spirit!”
I listened carefully as he explained it all to us once more.  How Messiah was coming with a winnowing fork in his hand to separate his people from the chaff of society; how that chaff, worse than useless, would be burned up in an unquenchable fire; how we must learn to see ourselves as the chaff we were and repent of our sins now, before it was too late.  “Bring forth fruit to show what lives in your heart,” he urged.  “If you have truly repented, you will not go on sinning.  You will share with one another and treat each other fairly.  Your words will ring honestly; you will be content with what God has provided....”           
It was time to get Andrai and go home, but I didn’t want to.  The desire to stay with Yochanan, to learn from him, sprang upon me like a wild beast, taking me completely by surprise.  Was I really prepared to follow this man?  My father’s warnings were still fresh in my mind, along with thoughts of Sepphoris.  The Romans hated anything that smacked of disorder—and the crowds that gathered to hear the Immerser were most definitely disordered.  On top of that, Yochanan had gone out of his way to alienate the religious leaders, and I had listened to his rantings long enough to know that Herod wasn’t going to put up with him much longer either.  Of greater concern to me than all of that, however, was the very real probability that Father would all but kill me if I stayed away much longer.
The day was almost over, and I still hadn’t decided what to do.  Yochanan continued to exhort the crowd. “Who among you is ready to repent of his sins?  Who is ready to turn away from his worthless life of greed and follow God?”
“What do we have to do?” shouted one man in reply. Those standing with him hooted, and one struck him on the back.  Yochanan turned his piercing eyes on the group, studying them carefully for a long moment without answering: six men, probably in their mid-thirties, well dressed but also well built.  Two were especially large, and all wore expressions of amused disdain.  Sensing blood sport, the crowd hushed.
In the sudden silence the Immerser’s voice seemed even louder, though he was no longer shouting.  “To begin with,” he said, “you need to stop cheating your customers.”  The one who had asked the question straightened up, indignant at the accusation.  His brawny companion struck him once more, laughing.
“He’s got you there, Bela!” 
“And you,” Yochanan continued, pointing at the scoffer, “must stop visiting his wife.”  Abruptly the laughter stopped.
“You lying dog…” the man growled.  Shoving Bela out of the way, he began slogging determinedly through the mud toward his accuser.  As he came, he curled his large hands into fists. 
Yochanan stood his ground. “‘Those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it.’”  He was calm as he quoted the proverb.  “Are you ready for the harvest?”  But the man, angered beyond all common sense, did not slow his steps, and several of his companions joined him.  I figured they were going to silence Yochanan by any means possible and regardless of the consequences.  Several others came to the same conclusion, and as one we stepped between them and their target.  Still more men, however, joined up with the attackers—why, I couldn’t begin to guess.  Maybe Yochanan had angered them too, or maybe they were just looking for a fight. 
Some Roman legionaries who had been lounging about until then noticed that trouble was brewing, sat up, and began to reach for their weapons.  “Go home,” I said to the big man, pushing my face close to his.  “Can’t you see you’re about to start a riot?  Yochanan’s right—you’ll only make trouble for yourself this way.  It’s not worth it!  Just go home.”  The brute stopped just long enough to grab me with both hands and shove me aside. Unable to keep my footing in the ankle-deep muck, I tripped over the man beside me, and then one of the attackers tripped over me, and then I lost track of what was happening as bodies surged into the river yelling and flailing.  Over all, I could hear the chilling sound of iron scraping as swords were drawn.
I am not about to be thrown into a Roman prison for rioting, I thought, not today!  Quickly I twisted around and crawled as fast as I could through the press until I hit clearer, deeper water.  Then I swam, fifteen years of fishing Lake Gennesaret paying off, until I was a considerable distance from the riot.  I crawled out on the opposite shore, crept around an outcropping of rock, and sat down to rest out of sight of the soldiers.  After a while, it began to quiet down, and I peeked around to see that the mob had been dispersed.  The soldiers were leading a few men off in chains.  I recognized none of them.  Of the Immerser there was no sign.
Well.  So much for finding Andrai.  I didn’t relish heading home without him, either.  The sun was setting.  I decided to stay put for a while longer, then make my way into town for the night.  With the last rays of the sun, however, went also the last bit of warmth, and my dripping clothes were only making it worse.  I took off my bedraggled cloak and tunic and wrung as much water out of them as I could, shivering, then put them back on. It was then I smelled a fire.
Listening carefully, I could hear a faint crackle not far away.  Quietly I followed the sound into a small, dry gully.  Yochanan was bending over a few burning branches, drying himself off.  He looked up and motioned to me.  “It’s cold.  Come to the fire.” 
"Thanks."  I sat beside him, letting the warmth seep into my bones.  He was quiet.  Following his example, I said nothing but listened to the music of fire and crickets.  Then I heard another sound.  It was my stomach rumbling.  Suddenly I remembered the sack at my waist, the remainder of the provisions I had brought for my journey.  The bread was ruined, but I still had two smoked fish that were damp but edible.  I offered one to Yochanan, and he took it with a smile, held it up, and thanked God for it.  Then he sat, pulling tiny pieces from the fish and eating each one with relish, as if he’d never tasted anything so good.  I devoured the other in three or four bites.  Yochanan passed me a worn skin of water, and I drank.
Except for his invitation and prayers, Yochanan ha-Rachats spoke not one word that night, but it was a companionable silence.  We took turns feeding bits of grass and twigs into the fire until we were both dry, and then we lay down where we were and slept.
*  *  *
For a brief moment I couldn’t remember where I was or why I was lying on the ground.  All I knew for certain was that I’d had that dream again, the one where I am riding at the king’s side.  (A strange thing, that, considering I’d never in my life been on a horse.)  I rolled over, saw the Immerser snoring beside the ashes of the fire, and all at once that desire that had so overwhelmed me the day before—the desire to stay, to learn—came flooding back.  
I must be insane.  I was almost arrested yesterday.  I wanted to learn about God’s kingdom.  I wanted to be ready for it, for Him.  Father will not understand this, not at all.  I wanted to know what Yochanan meant when he talked about wheat and chaff.  It’s that stupid dream fueling the hope, that’s all it is.  I didn’t want to be deadwood anymore.  Besides, what makes me think he’d even want an ignorant Galilean fisherman following him around, pestering him with questions about the coming of Messiah?  I needed to talk to him.
As if he’d been listening in on my internal debate, Yochanan chose that moment to wake up.  He yawned, stretched, and then headed toward the riverbank.  I did the same, choosing a different spot for privacy’s sake, then returned to our makeshift campsite.  He was already there, waiting for me.
“Here, carry this,” he said, and tossed me the water skin.  Then he turned and followed the gully to its end, heading roughly northward parallel with the river bank.  When I began to introduce myself, he held up a hand, gesturing tersely for silence, and turned his face away as if listening to someone else.  Then he smiled and, turning to the left, led me up a small rise to a clump of stunted trees.  In the early morning hush I could hear an intermittent droning of bees.  Yochanan continued to move toward the sound and stopped beside a half-fallen poplar.  “Give me the water,” he said.  I handed it to him and watched as he poured half of it onto the ground.  He worked the dirt with his hands, kneading it until he had made a mud paste, then slathered it over his right arm.  Looking heavenward, he spoke earnestly.  “O Adonai, Yahuh-Yireh, thank you for providing this hive.  Please tell the bees to share politely!”  Then he moved toward the bee tree and gin­gerly reached a hand in­side.  He drew it out slowly, grasping a large chunk of honeycomb.  Several bees crawled lazily over his mud-coated arm.  Gently, he blew on them until they flew off back to the hive. 
Handing the dripping comb to me, Yochanan used our remaining water to wash the mud off  his hands.  Then he took the honeycomb, blessed it, and broke it in two, returning half to me.  He sat and began to eat. 
For a moment I just stood there and watched him.  I was intrigued by all that had just passed.  Then I noticed that my own breakfast was dripping uneaten to the ground.  Sitting beside Yochanan, I caught some honey on a finger and licked it clean.  Yochanan was doing the same.  It seemed we were going to share another meal without talking, but my curiosity wouldn’t allow it.  I broke the silence.  “Rabbi, who are you?”
Again he smiled.  “I’m nobody.  I’m nothing,” he replied.  “Nothing but a voice, shouting out in the wilderness—and every now and then, someone hears and listens.  ‘Get ready!’ I shout.  ‘He’s coming!’  When he gets here…”  His voice drifted off as he leaned back and looked up at the sky.  “When he comes into his kingdom, then my joy will be complete.  But me?  I’m not worthy even to speak his name.  I’m nothing but the wind.  The Lord blows me around wherever He chooses and puts words in my mouth whether I want—”  He stopped abruptly.  Suddenly very seri­ous, he asked me, “Why? Why do you care who I am?”
Why did I care?  I fumbled for just the right words and decided on the simple truth. “Because I want to learn from you.”
He studied me as he had that group of ruffians by the riverside.  His eyes were piercing, like swords, but I met his gaze without flinching.  Finally he pursed his lips, nodded once, and said, “Good enough.”  Reaching into a leather pouch hanging from his belt, he pulled out what looked like an almond and dipped it into his honey, then popped it between his teeth.  He held out the pouch to me, invit­ingly.  “Locust?” he asked.
“Uh—no, thank you. “  I know locusts are on the list of clean foods, but I’ve never been that hungry. 
“You asked who I am,” he continued.  “I suppose I should ask the same of you.”
“Yuannan bar-Zebdi.  My father fishes Lake Gennesaret from Bethsaida of Capernaum.  My brother and I are partners with him and a few others.”
“Your mother—her name is Shelomith.”
 “Yes!” How did he know that? I was definitely in the presence of a prophet. 
He smiled.  “Your grandfather, Yoachim, is my mother’s youngest brother.  We’re cousins.  Didn’t you know?”
“You’re Zechariah’s son?”  Of course I knew the story.  Great-aunt Elisheba had married a priest from Ain Karim.  They’d only had one son, very late in life, but we had never met because he’d run off into the desert before I was born, much to the scandal of the family.  I’d heard the tale more than once, but I hadn’t dreamed there was a connection to the Immerser.
“And God has directed you here, to me.  You, a Galilean fisherman who dreams of the Lord’s Anointed.  How fitting,” he murmured.
I started to say something else, then caught myself.  What did he mean, who dreams of the Lord’s Anointed?  Did he somehow know about my dream?  Before I could decide whether or not to ask him, he continued.
“You know him.”
“Know him?” I blurted, stunned.  “Do you mean, I know the Messiah?  Personally?”  For just a second, I believed him.  Then the absurdity of his statement brought me back to reality, and I started to laugh.  Trim your sail, Yuannan.  He can’t have meant it literally.  From the look on his face, though, Yochanan wasn’t joking.  Quickly, I apologized for my stupidity.  “I misunder­stood you, didn’t I?”
Yochanan shook his head.  “No, I misunderstood your dream.”  He did know!  “Oh, don’t be surprised that I know your dream.  God does speak to me once in a while.”
If God had told him about my dream, perhaps God had also given him the interpretation for it.  Eagerly, impatiently, I waited for him to explain, but he was silent.  “Why did you think I’d know the Messiah?” I pressed.
“Because of your dream, and because your mother is Shelomith bath-Yoachim.” 
I wrestled with that thought, but said nothing.  I suspected that I had already pestered him with too many questions; this “voice” of God spoke only when it suited him.  So I waited, hoping to hear some word that would make clear the mystery he had dropped, like manna, onto the ground before me.  But Yochanan, apparently, had said his piece; he spoke no more. 
I wondered if we would return to Bethabara that day.  We did not.  Instead, he filled the water skin and struck out into the wasteland on the eastern bank of the Jordan.  During the warmest part of the day we stopped to rest in the shade of a rock shelf.  I drifted into sleep, head pillowed on a clump of weedy grass.  When I awoke, the sun had dropped low.  Gnats crawled over my face and arms, tickling and biting, and I swiped at them ineffectively, mouthing sharp curses.  Pulling myself up, I looked around for just a moment, not sure how long I’d slept.  Yochanan was nowhere in sight.  Then I heard singing.  Standing on the top of the rock ledge, Yochanan stood silhouetted against the setting sun, arms outstretched, his voice raised in song:
“Yet still they continued to sin against Him,
To rebel against the Most High in the desert.
And in their heart they put God to the test
By asking food according to their desire.
Then they spoke against God;
They said, ‘Can God prepare a table in the wilder­ness?
Behold, he struck the rock, so that waters gushed out,
And streams were overflowing;
Can He give bread also?
Will He provide meat for his people?’”
I climbed the outcropping and stood listening for awhile, then joined in the psalm:  “So they ate and were well filled; and their desire He gave to them.”
Yochanan turned and pointed at me.  “Those words are more fitted to your tongue than curses, son of Zebdi.  If you would prepare your heart for the Lord’s Anointed, you must start with curbing your tongue.”  He scowled at me as he spoke in what I would come to regard as his “prophet voice.”  It was the voice that had led me into the Jordan to be immersed, just as it had led hundreds of others, but I was ashamed to be hearing it now.  I hadn’t realized that my anger at a few insects would cause problems with the Immerser.  One of the first lessons I would learn from my new teacher was how relentless, how uncompromising, he was where sin was concerned.  In disgrace, I lowered my eyes.
Yochanan stepped closer.  In a more conversational tone, he continued, “I can’t stand the flies, either.  But calling down the wrath of God is serious business.  You need to understand that.” 
“What’s for supper?” I asked, as we climbed back down to our campsite.  “No, wait, let me guess.  Locusts?”
Yochanan laughed.  “Unless you have something else.”  He handed me the water skin.  “I’m not ready to eat yet.  Let’s go.”  He put his back to the sunset and headed out.  “We’ve got a long journey ahead of us before we get back to work.”
“Spreading God’s word.  Crying in the wilderness.  Making straight paths for the Lord,” he sang, dancing now more than walking.  “I hear Him better on an empty stom­ach, I’ve found.  You might try it.”  Suddenly the whimsy left his voice and he stood still, arms crossed.  He addressed me solemnly.  “In fact, I insist.  If you want to be my talmid, my disci­ple, then you’ll start by fasting in repen­tance.  You need to bring forth fruit in your life in keep­ing with your new walk with God, Yuannan.  Perhaps a few days without food will teach you to hold His name in reverence, rather than using it to curse every insect that pesters you.”
What have you gotten us into? complained my growling stom­ach.  First honey and bugs, and now nothing!  Who did he think he was?  I started to protest, but something in Yochanan’s face made me bite back the words unspoken.  This was more than a punishment for a few careless words spoken in anger.  It was even more than a test of my obedi­ence and commitment.  Yochanan genuinely believed that I needed this fast to prepare me—but for what?  Echoes of this morning’s conversation sounded in my memory.  You know him.   Did I?  Or—I caught my breath as the thought hit me with a leaden fist—would I?

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