13: A Voice Crying in the Wilderness
All sorts of people came to listen to John the Baptist as he preached in the wilderness. Among them were tax-collectors. They were the people whose job it was to gather taxes and turn them over to the Romans.
The tax-collectors were hated by the people, for they often took in much more money than they were supposed to. They kept the extra money and became rich.
Even those selfish thieves came to John with fear in their eyes. They wanted John to baptize them. They asked him, "Master, what must we do?"
The prophet did not chase them away, for he saw that repentance was in their hearts. He said to them: "Do you really want to repent? Show that in how you go about your business. Be honest from now on, and do not wring more money than you are entitled to from people."
The power of John's words was so great that even soldiers, came to him. Rough, crude men whom everyone feared stood before the prophet. Now they were afraid. They were afraid of the great day of which he spoke.
"What about us?" they asked. "What must we do?"
John knew perfectly well what godless lives these men had lived. They had often robbed people. No one was safe when they were around. He said to them, "Stop your plunder and extortion. Simply be satisfied with being soldiers."
John turned no one away, no matter how wicked he was, provided there was repentance in his heart.
Pharisees also came to John, but there was no repentance in their hearts. In their pride they believed they had not sinned. They hoped to earn a place in heaven through their good works.
They looked pious too. Moreover, they were scholars well versed in Scripture, and they kept the laws of Moses. In fact, they had even made up extra laws, which they also kept. In their clothes they had wide hems on which Bible texts were stitched. They prayed on street corners and they gave alms generously to the poor. But they did all these things only to be honored by men.
They needed that honor from their fellow men, for deep in their hearts lived a continual anxiety. The voice of their conscience accused them. But when people praised them, they no longer heard the voice of their conscience.
The Pharisees deceived themselves and the people. They had no genuine love in their hearts, and they were not truly pious. They were proud hypocrites.
Sadducees came too. The Sadducees were leading priests but they did not believe. They did not accept God's Word, and they rejected the idea of heaven and angels and eternal life with God.
"We only live once," they said. "Let's eat, drink and be merry, for when we die it's all over." Naturally, there was no repentance in their hearts.
Now these Pharisees and Sadducees, these blind leaders who poisoned the hearts of the people with their teaching, came to John. They saw how he baptized. They saw how the people honored him.
Because the people thought so much of John, the Pharisees and Sadducees were willing to be baptized by him.
They didn't really need to be baptized, for they were pious Jews and children of Abraham. But surely they belonged to the Kingdom of which John spoke! In fact, they should be first in that Kingdom. John would surely feel honored if they came to him. He would bow before them and give them the best place, in the front row, close to him. The people would see once more how outstanding and how worthy of honor their leaders were.
What a hopeless misunderstanding! John did not bow before the Pharisees and Sadducees. There was no place for them in his circle—and no place for them in the Kingdom of heaven. John knew that there was no repentance in their hearts.
He chased them away, lashing out at them with cutting words: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Show first by your works that you want to repent! Are you really Abraham's children? Then show that you have the same faith as Abraham. Do you suppose God needs you? I tell you that God can raise up children of Abraham out of these stones!"
No one had ever dared to speak to these mighty men in such tones before! Who was this man, that he had the nerve to do such a thing? He must be a great prophet, the people thought. They whispered to each other and looked at John with awe and respect. Could it be that John was the Christ, the one they all awaited?
John sensed this question in the people's hearts. "No!" he cried out. "I am not the Messiah. I am only a voice crying in the wilderness. The One who is coming is mightier than I am.
He is so great that I am not even worthy to untie His shoes or to be His lowliest slave. I baptize you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."