The River and the Desert
It began with the conviction that it was time to move on from Nazareth. I’d always known that this would come at some point—indeed Mum had frequently reinforced it. She often recalled the stories of Bethlehem and Egypt, and her special poem that we called ‘Mum’s Message’ had frequently been a source of spiritual inspiration. We’d also kept up to date with stories of cousin John’s life in the desert, and news had reached us that his ministry in the Jordan valley was growing fast—indeed there were folk from Galilee, and even a few from Nazareth, who had ‘taken the plunge’! It felt like this was the sign I’d been waiting for to move me on.
I chatted with Mum and the rest of the family about leaving Nazareth—my brothers were now well grown up, and able to support each other and the family. Some were working nearby in the big new city of Sepphoris where Dad had worked until he passed away. Mum and I had such a special bond—and had learnt so much from each other. Losing Joseph had even drawn her closer to God—it had been a joy to see her realise that God is so loving—that he was indeed her Father as well as mine. Mum was tearful, but also affirming when we agreed it was time for me to leave.
I’d made the journey south so many times—we’d gone up to Jerusalem most years for the Passover. However I knew when I walked out of the house that day that this was different. A ‘leaving and cleaving’ process was happening that had always been unavoidable, and yet also had to be deliberately chosen.
I’d heard that John was baptising at Bethany—not the Bethany where our family friends Martha, Mary and Lazarus lived, close to Jerusalem, but Bethany on the other side of the Jordan river, a little way north of the Salt Sea. I knew it has a special place in the story of our people—close to where Joshua crossed the Jordan, having taken over from Moses, and close to where Elisha took over from the prophetic work of Elijah. I loved the fact that Bethany meant ‘Place of the Poor’.
As I journeyed I was aware of others making the journey south—some were on their way to Jerusalem and had heard about John, so thought they’d see what he was doing. Others had stronger convictions. When we arrived at John’s location it was all deeply moving. His message was powerful, and echoed so strongly many of my own convictions. It was amazing to see the extraordinary response of people as they embraced John’s invitation to make a fresh start with God. There were huge numbers of people—mostly from Judaea and Jerusalem, but also from the Galilee—I met up with some folk from the new Galilean towns around the lakeside where your fishing industry has been expanding so rapidly.
I was also impressed by the variety of people who came to John—and the welcome he gave to them all—even to Roman soldiers and those who collected Roman taxes—people whom others so often despised. John’s welcoming of them echoed so strongly my own convictions. However it was the message that he was only the ‘Preparer of the Way’ that was the most challenging one for me. I was struck by the way in which he had captured much of his vision from the writings of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah’s prophecy was so special to me too—I’d grown to especially love the readings from Isaiah that we enjoyed in our synagogue in Nazareth.
John and I were so glad to see each other, and to have opportunity to renew our family bond and friendship. We are almost exactly the same age—John older by just a few months—the story of my Mum’s visit to John’s parents in Jerusalem during their pregnancy was part of our mutual family folklore. He was a wild looking guy—his life in the desert had shaped him into an extraordinary figure—just like I imagined Elijah to be! It was clear that in addition to the crowds, who just kept arriving, he had people who had become his followers, who held him in very high respect, and wanted to live by his teaching. I was very struck by John’s insistence with them that he was only the ‘Preparer’, and not the Messiah that everyone was talking about. We both sensed that my arrival was hugely significant.
I knew it was right to request that John baptise me—the step I was taking to begin the new work could not begin in a more appropriate way. I was stepping out of the old and embracing the new, and knew in my spirit that this was the Father’s will. He was of course reluctant—even suggesting that it should be the other way round!
I’ll never forget the experience of it. Not that the mucky waters of the Jordan were much of an attraction! I remembered the reluctance of Naaman the Syrian to wash himself in the Jordan—and had some sympathy with his attitude! Nevertheless it was a wonderful charismatic moment—John holding me as I submerged myself, and then the amazing oneness I felt with both the Father and the Spirit. His words to me ‘This is my Son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased’ reached to the deepest places of my heart and spirit, and I knew I was beginning a journey that was to be momentous.
John’s perception was also extraordinary—I even recall him informing some of his followers that I was the ‘Lamb of God’. I’m not sure what that would have meant to them—but it was so significant that I was able to meet and chat with them—though they were rather despising of Nazareth! You folk were amongst them and you told me that you were fishermen from Galilee, and even invited me to come with you to Capernaum where you were based. It was important confirmation of where the Father was calling me to begin his Kingdom work.
I explained that before I could embark on this new chapter I had to ensure I was well prepared. Whilst the vision was clear of what the Father now wanted of me, I needed to take some time out to personally prepare for it—and ensure that the priorities I adopted in the coming months were sound and well rooted.
John’s insistence that he was ‘the voice of one calling in the desert’ had a big impact on me, and I sensed that the desert was now to be the place where I should crystallise my own way forward. I looked across the Jordan to the barren wilderness mountains of Judaea and Samaria, and knew that this was to be my home for as long as it took.
In the end it took forty days—and extraordinary days they were too. I’ll always be glad for them—for they will shape the months and years that lie ahead. The temptations I faced there, to distract me from the Father’s plan for my life by enticing me with food, or diluting the Father’s call by the devil offering me a way of achieving it without sacrifice, or diverting me to even worship the devil and enable his control over this world to be retained, will all raise their ugly head again in the coming months—it’ll be good to be able to recognise and banish them.
So now, at last, here I am with you in the Galilee, inviting you to be a part of the adventure that lies ahead for us with folk who live in these parts, and further afield. I’m so glad for you, and for your courage to leave your nets and see where this takes all of us. Let’s make a start.