Yochanon the Baptist
by Deborah Hemstreet
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Yochanon stood in the dark prison cell, remembering. It had been a difficult decision to make....or had it been made for him before his birth? He shook his head. In any case, the decision had been made.
"Emma? Abba?" Yochanon's thoughts wandered back to the day he had begun the journey that led him to this dark cell.
"Yes, my son," Zecheriah had answered. His dimming eyes had searched Yochanon's face intently. Yochanon's tone warned him that something of import was to be said. With one hand he had pulled at his long graying beard. The other gently touched Elisheva's as she lay down her mending.
"Abba, Emma, God has spoken to me." Yochanon remembered the strange feeling of triumph. He loved his parents, he loved his home, but he knew somehow that he was to begin the life he had been born for. There was no room for regrets, not now, only excitement at what lay ahead.
Elisheva looked away as he spoke. She needed no more words to tell her that his time had come. She must say good-bye to the son who had never really been hers to begin with.
Yochanon continued. "I must leave home and follow God's call." Yochanon could sense the tension in his parent's reaction, but he could not stop now. A strange glint filled his eyes. His presence became almost disquieting, and his words had rung with power. "I am not sure of all that I am to do, but God has shown me the words of Isaiah; I am to make them live.
'A voice of one crying in the wilderness. Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.... Abba, the word of God burns within me; I must go!"
Zecheriah overcame the sadness he felt at his son's departure and spoke falteringly, "Yochanon, I, we... know. I have known since the angel of the Lord appeared to me in the Temple of God, that this day would indeed come."
Elisheva continued, almost in a whisper, "And I knew your message from the moment you leapt in my womb when my cousin Miriam told me of her visitation."
The rare joy of acceptance filled Yochanon. "Then you understand?!"
"Yes my son, we do."
Was it his imagination, Yochanon wondered, or had his parent's voices suddenly gained that wispy, fading tone of the aged?
It all seemed so long ago. He could hear the hollow echo of a guard's footsteps coming closer. So, it was time? At least he had been given a few moments to prepare himself before Herod's order was carried out. Few were granted that honor. Odd, he mused, how a man's real decisions and actions are determined alone.
He remembered the desert; the lonely months as God had shown him what he must say; the sheer physical pain as his body had been toughened by exposure to the elements; and the weeping after he had spoken. So many had laughed and walked away, rejecting God's Word. He could still feel his anger at the vain righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, and the weakness of Herod.
Herod... proud, arrogant and boastful of his Jewish faith, disregarding every law of God in public... Try as hard as he could, although Yochanon hated Herod's sin, he could not hate the man. Maybe that was why Herod had come so often to the prison and asked Yochanon questions. Herod, a man riddled with fear and guilt, so consumed by his lusts that he was too weak to stand on what he knew to be true. No, Yochanon could only pity the man, even now.
The cell door opened. Even the small light from the torch, carried by the guard, made Yochanon's eyes hurt. "Sir," the guard said, "I'm sorry, but its time." The guard moved apologetically, not strutting as most of Herod's men. They enjoyed the power given to them. "I, I don't want to do this, but its the King's orders and I have a family..."
Yochanon interrupted, reached out, and touched the young soldier on the shoulder. "Don't be afraid; this sin will not be put to your charge."
The guard hesitated at this response. He had heard Yochanon's fierce preaching and ranting, both by the Jordan, and here, in this cell. That alone, one to one, Yochanon should be so gentle, surprised him. Yochanon, seeing the guard's confusion, led the way for a moment. "They are waiting, are they not? Lead on." They walked together in silence, forming a strange sort of camaraderie.
Yochanon's eyes strained to see ahead to the place where, in a few minutes, his own head would lie. For all the peace that he exuded, his mind was far from quiet.
"Is it really worth it, dying alone for the words you could so easily deny? Is Yeshua really the promised one? Is it worth it?" The thoughts assailed his mind. Yochanon grappled with them and his spirit triumphed.
He remembered how only a few days before he had sent his disciples to ask Yeshua, "Are you the one for whom we wait, or do we watch for another?" The answer had been strange.
"Master," one disciple had related to Yochanon, "Yeshua didn't answer at first. He turned and walked, and we followed. Many sick came to him. Blind, lame, deaf, the possessed... He touched and healed them all!"
"Yes, and then what?" Yochanon had prodded the man on.
"Well, Yeshua turned back to us and said, 'Go back and report to Yochanon what you see and hear. The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.'"
Even now, Yochanon again pondered these words. Memories flooded his mind: the compulsion to preach, his many fastings, the faces of those who had come to him for Immersion, the many questions by the Scribes and Pharisees, and the fire burning within him that could not be quenched. He himself had been amazed at the words he had spoken, but he knew that they were from God; peace came to him only when the fire within was released through the boldly spoken words spoken. Then there was the day that Yeshua himself had come forward asking to participate in immersion. He remembered the dove, the light, and the voice, "This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased."
Was it worth it?
"Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me."
Was Yeshua's way of ushering in the Kingdom of God really any stranger than Yochanon preparing the way before Him?
Yochanon looked ahead. His eyes had gotten used to the light and he could see the chopping block now. He pondered his own fate. Was it any better than Isaiah's or Jeremiah's? Had they too wondered if such a fate was worthwhile? At least he, Yochanon, had seen the beginning of the promise fulfilled, while they had only the assurance that God, indeed, had spoken to them. Surely their fates had required greater faith, and no one had believed them...
"I must decrease and He must increase," Yochanon whispered.
"Sir, uh.. over here, please."
Yochanon stirred from his reverie and looked at the guard. In the brighter light the guard’s face was now easy to discern. He was young, too young for this, another pawn of Herod's sin. Yochanon turned to him. "My son, you don't belong here. When this is over, go and seek out Yeshua of Nazareth. He will tell you what to do."
Yochanon turned, looked gently at the executioner, and stepped towards the block. "If anyone asks if I had any last words, tell them I said, 'It is worth it.'" Then, slowly, deliberately, he knelt down and laid his head on the cold stone.
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