There would be no grand send-off this time for Jesus. It was still dark when we climbed onto our mounts. First light—that first glimmer of day—was just brimming in the east. There seemed to be no one about at such an hour, which was a good thing. How could Jesus explain this foolishness? To me, it just another adventure, but for Jesus, who felt that his rendezvous with John was commanded by God, it would be perceived as one more example of his heresy. There would be, we understood, no way to hide Jesus sudden absence from visitors and clients. If nothing else, it would be seen as irresponsible, which it was. It would also strike many of our family’s critics as suspicious, especially when he wouldn’t return home. All this was bad enough, but the fact that he would not be able to attend Samuel’s funeral, would strike them as unconscionable. Jesus couldn’t win.
I was excited, but also frightened for his sake. After getting dressed, Jesus, Amos, and I ate a frugal meal of cheese and bread, washed down by punch, and tiptoed out the door. Simon and the twins stumbled groggily from their pallets to see us off on our trip. To avoid creating a commotion, Tabitha and Uriah had said their goodbyes to me last night. The last thing Mama said to me, after a tearful scene with Jesus, was “Talk sense into him, Jude. Bring him back!” I felt comfortable on my mule, but, in spite of the extra padding I provided Jesus, he sat uneasily in his saddle. As I record this episode with amusement, I’m reminded of Jesus’ stoic attitude. It was no wonder that his disciples were “infantry” and not “cavalry.” I could think of nothing to say to Mama as she shrilled once more in my ear “Bring him back, you hear me?” Jesus must of have been disgusted with her. Mama was, I know now, in denial—blinded by love. In hindsight, this seems incredible after her visitation by Gabriel, the miraculous birth of Jesus (which I still find hard to believe), and the events surrounding their flight to Egypt. During our departure from Nazareth, she was merely annoying. Jesus mind was made up. None of us wanted Jesus to leave. Why did she carry on? I was making the best of a bad situation: another adventure, this time to see the famous wild man in the desert, who was none other than our cousin John.
All went well at first. Mama didn’t call out impulsively nor had Tabitha or Uriah shown up impetuously to send me off. Unfortunately, though, as quietly as we crept out of town, Noah, Joachim’s nosey neighbor, appeared suddenly in his yard holding up a lamp.
“Jesus, Jude,” he shouted, “is that you?”
“Oh, this is just great,” Jesus groaned.
“Where you going at this hour?” Noah’s voice was tinged with suspicion.
“Well, so much for secrecy,” I looked at him nervously. “Now the whole town will know!”
“Let me do the talking,” Amos said calmly. “Jesus might tell him the truth”
“He will tell him the truth,” I blurted thoughtlessly. “Jesus can’t lie!”
Amos surprised me. “I’m escorting them to a sick relative in Sepphoris,” he announced in a haughty manner. “The question is, my good man, what are you doing out at this late hour?”
Noah appeared to accept this reason for our departure, but I was certain he would spread the rumor that we snuck out of town in the dead of night.
I was glad that Amos knew how to reach our destination. I was familiar with roads in Galilee, but the dusty path the courier took us on, I sensed, was not on any Roman map. After only a few Roman miles, the sun brimmed a distant hill, throwing light on our trail. What we saw spreading south looked inhospitable.
“So, we’re heading toward the wilderness in Judea,” Jesus observed wryly. “Leave it to Cousin John to pick such a place.”
I was in a cheerful mood. “The Syrian desert is worse,” I said amiably. “Vultures avoid it, even snakes.”
“Oh, John didn’t pick it.” Amos laughed. “It picked him. It’s where he got his vision.”
“Hah,” I snorted, “there’s that word again.”
Jesus appeared to be praying again. He was a walker, not a rider. I felt sorry for him, but he had brought this on himself. Finally, after an hour had passed, Amos began chatting with us. To fill the void, he gave us a summary of John’s career. Considering his vast mind, Jesus might already have known this, but I found Amos’s summary interesting. It reinforced my concern about Jesus associating with this man. It appears as if the rumors were correct: John had run away to join a bunch of hermits. This group of holy men called themselves Essenes. They lived in a remote corner of the desert, away from normal Jewish tradition, which they rejected because of their own vision of our faith: a war between light and darkness, which culminates into a final encounter at the end of time. It sounded like nonsense at first, John later confessed, but the Essenes gave him a refuge and place to gather his thoughts.
“You make him sound like a fugitive.” I interrupted. “Was he on the run?”
“Jude,” Jesus chided, “let the man speak.”
“John was running from himself,” explained Amos. “You’re aware that he abandoned his heritage and left his mother’s estate unattended. Many people thought he was mad for that. It was, they said, irresponsible and reckless.”
I thought of what Jesus was doing and suppressed a smile. Amos’s summary worried me, especially after hearing skepticism in his voice.
“It’s true,” Amos glanced back as Jesus, “most holy men are slightly mad. Elijah and Jeremiah probably were. John once admitted to me that before he got his calling, the Essenes saved him from destruction. They taught him discipline and the proper way to pray. They also taught him one of their most important rituals: cleanliness. John rarely bathed until joining their band. Those people bath three or four times a day. He might not look like it in his skins and rope sandals, but he abhors uncleanliness now. He washes himself countless times in the River Jordan to prepare sinners for the Deliverer.”
After hearing that word, the hairs on the back of my neck prickled.
“How very strange,” Jesus said, glancing at me. “John has interpreted baptism in a whole new light.”
“Yes,” Amos sighed. “I think the Essene practice of bathing has much to do with what John is doing now. I was baptized myself. After I told him I was a courier, he jumped at the chance of sending me to you. He wants to make you a convert like me.”
“A convert to what?” I asked, shaking my head in wonder. “Just exactly what is he preaching, Amos? Is this a new religion? What is John up to?”
“Jude,” Jesus scolded, “you’re being rude!”
Amos laughed at my questions. “Let me see,” he mused, scratching his head, “…Just the other day, several Pharisees and priests came to test our prophet. Already, John is considered a heretic. They had come all the way from Jerusalem to trap him into speaking blasphemy. They tried to trick John, but he was too smart for them. At one point, as we grew fearful for our prophet, a priest asked John who he was. He answered, ‘I’m not the Christ.’ He used a Greek word, unfamiliar to many of us. We have a word for our nation’s deliverer: the Messiah. He explained to us later that they’re same man. When the priests questioned him further, John shouted into their faces, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’ Often John acted deranged. Many things he said in the past we didn’t understand, but we understood these words. He was talking about the Deliverer, the Messiah—the Christ. Yet his answer confused the learned me that much more. Wringing his fat finger at John, a Pharisee asked, ‘Why do you baptize these people, if you’re not the Christ?’” And John replied: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but after me will come one greater than me, whose sandals I’m not fit to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire!”
Amos’s appearance belied his quick wit. He seemed to savor that last line. Reigning in his horse, he looked back, waiting for our reaction. It didn’t make sense to me. Jesus had halted his mule. He sat there, staring into the direction of Judea, a frown playing on his face. I could barely hear him. Bending sideways in my saddle, I heard him say, “I have no doubts now…. John quoted Isaiah—another sign!”
“Well, I have doubts,” I confessed. “Isaiah has said a lot of strange things. James once pointed out to me that he contradicted himself about our people’s expected deliverer. In one passage he claims that he will be despised and rejected and in another his will come like a conquering king. Which one—‘Holy Spirit’ or ‘fire?’”
“You don’t understand Jude,” Jesus said irritably. “How could you understand the mystery given to our family by God? It’s just now dawning on me!”
I know now that even Amos, in spite of being John’s disciple, didn’t grasp the importance of Jesus’ summons to the river. In fact, the courier appeared to have doubts about John, too. John, himself, must have expected a warrior king, who would rid our land of oppression. Did he want Jesus to join in his heresy against our religion?... Or was it something else?
Plunged into silence for an hour or more, we continued our journey. I was greatly troubled by this exploit. That’s exactly what it appeared to be: an exploit—a rendezvous with a mad prophet in the wilderness of Judea. I had quickly lost my enthusiasm. My excitement for the trip eroded with each mile. None of this made sense to me, despite Amos’s explanation. Jesus and John were opposites in almost every way. After passing from southern Galilee into the province of Judea, I was reminded at first of the desolate expanse of the Syrian Desert, but it was not the same. There were little towns instead of oasis for us to stop and rest at. The Judean peasants were no different than the Galileans. We always found a communal well to water our beasts and, at one stop, even given fresh bread by a farmer who pitied the wayfarer. It was at this town, in fact, that we made camp for the night in order to arrive fresh the next day.
There had been no sign of the bandits my Gentile friends and I had feared in Galilee. That would occur the following day. When we made camp not far from the farm on the edge of the small village, Jesus sat in moody silence. Using his fire-making kit with expertise, Amos made us a small fire from the dried limbs and twigs gathered near town. The bread, grapes, and cheese Mama packed for us was wolfed down by Amos and I, but Jesus ate little and took only a sip of water.
“Your brother is upset?” Amos whispered to me.
“No, my brother is foolish,” I whispered back.
“I can hear you.” Jesus looked up dreamily. “I’m not upset or foolish. I was praying.”
“You pray with your eyes open?” Amos frowned. “I always close mine.”
“Simon had trouble with that, too” I snickered, chewing a grape. “It’s easy. I can do it anytime. Simon’s not too bright.”
Jesus gave me a tolerant smile. “Amos,” he chose his words carefully, “…I’m worried about Jude. I don’t like him going home by himself—”
“Don’t worry.” He held up his hand. “I might not make the trip again—I have to rest my horse. John will send someone. There are other men with horses encamped by the river.”
“I don’t need an escort,” I bristled. “I brought my sword.”
“You had an escort before,” Jesus reasoned. “It’s dangerous out here by yourself.” “Don’t argue, Jude. You’re not traveling alone!”
“He’s right,” Amos nodded, lying back on his blanket. “I have a sword and fast horse, but even I, a courier, don’t like riding alone.”
“Really,” I said distractedly. “How long have you been a courier?”
“Longer than I would like to remember.” He yawned. “Now that I’m with John, I’m not sure what I’m going to do.”
“You’ll make the right decision,” Jesus spoke drowsily. “…Tell me more about the folks at the river.”
“There’s a constant wave of pilgrims,” Amos replied thoughtfully, “rich, mostly poor, some riding, most walking, a few even in fancy coaches, and, the day before I left we were visited by those priests, Pharisees, and doctors of the law. I’ve spent so much time in the saddle. I have no wife and children. John’s band are my family now.”
“I haven’t seen my cousin in many years.” Jesus replied as I drifted off to sleep. “I always knew he would be a servant of God…”
Once again, as so many times before, I found myself in the midst of a nightmare. This time, unlike previous nightmares, I didn’t know I was dreaming. The discussion of Cousin John implanted the seeds of a dream in my head, which I believed was prophesy. Suddenly, it seemed as if I was transported to a river, which I had never seen before. In fact, except for the trip my family took to Jerusalem in which Jesus had discussed the Torah with priests and scribes, I knew little of Judea. The first glimpse of it had not been impressive, but it was much better than the Syrian Desert. Now, however, I found myself in a long list of supplicants, marching toward Cousin John, who stood in the river baptizing lost souls. He was tanned as dark as a Bedouin. As described by Amos, his scraggly beard and wildly knotted long hair was accentuated by animal skins and rope sandals. I was not afraid yet, just annoyed. I heard him pray quietly for each of them, dunk them, and then send them on their way. When it was my turn, though, the dark, sinister eyes in John’s sun tanned face flashed brilliantly, and a snarl played on his lips.
“You, spawn of the Gentiles,” he roared, “defile this holy place. You don’t believe. Your heart has been corrupted by Romans, Greeks, Syrians, and Egyptians. You’re polluted. You bring your pollution to the river. You I shall baptize permanently!”
Dunking me into the cold water now, he held me down with both hands. Clearly his intentions were to drown, not baptize, me. I looked up from the depths and could see his maniacal face break into a fiendish grin. I screamed and thrashed about, but John had overpowered me. The last thing I remember before I awakening by the fire was his voice shouting, “I am a voice calling in the wilderness…” Then I awakened with a jolt looking into Jesus’ face. His blue eyes glowed in the firelight, contrasting John’s dark pupils, and instead of shouting into my face he was saying over and over again, “Jude, Jude wakeup!”
Amos stood in the background, a mere shadow against the low-hanging moon, clucking “Ho, I bet that woke the farmer up!”
“Jude,” Jesus said, as I sat up and looked around, “was it another bad dream. Were you on the road again—the bandits, the slave block?”
“Whoa, dear me,” Amos muttered, “he went through that?”
“Little brother,” Jesus persisted, “was it that other dream…the one about the crosses. Was that the one?”
“No, not this time.” I answered, glancing at the flames. “I dreamed I was at the river. When it was my turn, instead of baptizing me, John held me down. He had the face of a demon. I think it was a sign!”
“It was just a dream,” Jesus tried reassuring me. “It wasn’t prophecy this time Jude. It was a plain old nightmare. I’ve had enough of them myself.”
“Me too,” Amos chuckled, “especially after drinking rot-got wine.”
In desperation, I clutched Jesus robe. “It was a sign I tell you! You mustn’t follow that man. He’s not right in the head. I know it, and Mama and Samuel know it. Even Amos thinks he’s mad!”
“It’s a different kind of crazy,” explained Amos, “divine madness they call it. John’s really no threat.”
“Listen Jude,” Jesus said, shaking my shoulders, “you can’t understand this now. I barely did. But I know who I am now. Don’t worry, I’m not following John…Though the forerunner, John’s following me!”
“What did you say?” Amos looked at him in disbelief. “That doesn’t make sense.” “You are special, Jesus,” he struggled with the words, “I saw that immediately…. Just why does John want to see you? You aren’t like other men…”
Amos was close to the truth. How is that this stranger sensed what I should have plainly known? All I could think of was that Jesus was going blindly into the unknown, which was true. By the campfire we had witnessed Jesus wrestling with his divinity. I know this now. God, not John, the Baptist, was guiding his steps. One day his statement that John would follow him would be born out, but that hour I was confused. What did all this mean? None of it made any sense. I had left home with Jesus and our guide excited but filled with misgivings. Now tomorrow filled with me dread. I was convinced that my nightmare had been a warning. I couldn’t understand why Jesus was throwing away his life. With his gifts, he could be anything he wanted. What future did he have with that man? That night, as I tried fitfully to go back asleep, I knew that things would never be the same. Blinders had been on my eyes. They were the same blinders afflicting the woman who bore him and almost everyone who knew Jesus, the man.
When we broke camp, I was groggy from lack of sleep. I could see that Amos was troubled too. A great urgency filled us. It was as if something momentous was going to happen to the world, and we would be the first to know. Gobbling down another snack prepared for us by Mama, we climbed hastily into our saddles, still munching on our bread and cheese, and continued in a fast trot south.
“The sooner we get to the river,” Amos grumbled, “the better!”
Great expectations gripped me, yet the ride south had been uneventful. After a few stops to water our horses, rest, and chew on a few figs and grapes, we reached a point in the road where we could look ahead and actually see the river but it was still a distance away. Riding toward us, were three horsemen. The instincts instilled into me by my Gentile friends came into play immediately. I drew my sword. Amos drew his sword too. Though he had no weapon, himself, Jesus showed no alarm as they approached and insisted that we put our swords away.
“Begging your pardon, Jesus,” Amos demurred, “I’ll hide it under my cloak, but I won’t re-sheath it. Jude, your handy with the blade—you do the same.”
“I plan to.” I said, gripping the hilt.
“ God is protecting us,” Jesus reassured us. “Would He allow anyone to stop me now?”
“Yes,” I said flatly. “Didn’t you once tell me not to tempt the Lord?”
On that note, the three men galloped toward us with swords raised, whooping like Bedouins on the attack.”
Amos and I attempted to flank them on each side. It was an age-old method of deflecting a charge. Each of us would attempt to dispatch the riders on the left and right, while the center horseman charged straight toward Jesus, who just sat there waiting for the attack. Amos proved to be an able-bodied fighter clashing swords with the first bandit as I swung my blade at the second. To my horror, Jesus continued to sit calmly on his mule, as if courting death. There was no time to even call out to him. Neither of our opponents were seasoned swordsmen. Though they rode horses, they were even dirtier and more bedraggled than Amos. They must have been desperate to attack one travel worn courier and two men on mules. To our surprise, the central horseman, reined his horse up on its hind legs, startled by the play of light in Jesus blue eyes. I had seen this effect before. It had unsettled my Gentile friends when Jesus greeted us in front of our house. This time, however, it was more than that.
Jesus raised two fingers as if blessing the men. “We have no money,” he informed his attacker, “what you do angers God. Call your men off my companions and be on your way.”
The dark stranger, though initially startled, laughed loudly. “You are a bold one to sit there without a sword and order me around. You will give us your horse and mules, and we’ll let you live.”
The other two men, now given an excuse to stop fighting, drew back and waited for a response. Fearing for Jesus safety, Amos and I began to dismount. Because Jesus had no sword, himself, he might be swiftly dispatched by his attacker. What Amos and I didn’t know yet, though, was that God was, in fact, protecting us. In the distance, a whirling pillar of sand and soil, which the Bedouins called a sand devil, appeared suddenly on the road south.
“Cover your eyes,” I called to Amos.
Jesus had already covered his face, but, as Amos and I escaped the pillar, the other three men were caught off guard as the choking funnel engulfed them. Jesus rode away from it coolly, his face hidden in his hood.
“See,” I called back as we galloped away, “don’t tempt the Lord!”
“Will they follow us?” Amos asked fearfully beneath his scarf.
“No,” I replied light-headedly. “Those people are superstitious. They probably thought it was an evil spirit. The Arabs call them jinns.”
“I dunno,” Amos looked back nervously, “that was more than a jinn!”
“You really believe that?” Jesus gave me a disappointed look. “I once told you that prayer could move mountains. You should have more faith!”
“I’m sorry,” I sighed wearily. “This is lot for me to take in. I was really worried about you for a moment, but I should never have doubted you. I’m sure God sent that sand-devil. You always told me he works in mysterious ways.”
I was trying to make light of it, but Jesus was right. I had, since we began our journey to the river, shown a lack of faith. It seems likely to me now that Jesus, with all his powers, read me like a scroll, but he rarely ever showed it. That day, as we approached the Jordan River, his smile returned and he chatted with us, perhaps to soften his momentous meeting with John.
He called to our courier, who rode ahead of us in moody silence: “Amos, do you understand why our people sacrifice animals and offer God the first fruits?”
“Yes.” He turned in the saddle. “In my line of work, I have to know how to read. I’ve read the law, but I find these scrolls tedious. I much prefer reading about the prophets and our heroes. The law, especially its rules for sacrifice, wasn’t written for simple men. It was written for priests. The last time I visited the Temple I was a little boy.”
“Well said, Amos!” Jesus laughed softly. “What about you little brother?” He looked over at me. “You’ve stored much information in your thick head, much of it nonsense. Given your disgust for this custom, do you think sacrifice to expiate our sins is necessary?”
“Well, I understand the meaning behind it,” I searched for words, “like Amos, I think it’s a priestly matter. Simple folks do so many things in the name of religion automatically. I think that the law—rules of living and sacrifice—should be simplified so they can understand.”
“You have said it!” Jesus clapped his hands. “The law and sacrifice must be clarified so that all can share in God’s grace.” (A shadow, as though a cloud passed over, fell over his face.) “…And something else beyond the sacrifice!” his voice caught in his throat.
“Hey, are you all right?” I reached over and shook his arm.
The Spirit of the Lord moved Jesus. “Something wonderful and terrible came into my head,” he struggled, “nothing will ever be he same!”
“Look!” Amos pointed to small ant-sized forms moving to the river’s edge. “We’re almost there!”
From that moment on, until meeting Cousin John, Jesus remained in a daze. Nervously, Amos kept looking back at us. I was beside myself with anticipation as we rode down the long winding trail, dismounted by an old acacia tree and made our way on foot to the scene. John was saying to a convert, “I baptize you with water, but another will come to baptize you with the Holy Spirit,” when he looked up and caught sight of Jesus standing in the crowd.
His dark eyes flashed in his sun tanned face with fearful purpose, he pointed a long finger at Jesus, and cried out in a booming voice, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”
Shaken by his words, I watched Jesus, whom Samuel claimed was sinless, being baptized like all the others, as if he was a convert. I could scarcely believe my eyes. When he had finished dunking Jesus, they said something to each other I couldn’t hear, Jesus walked out of the water toward those waiting in line, and John called to his disciples standing in our midst, “He must increase, and I must decrease. He is your teacher now.”
“So,” Amos said, turning to me, “that’s why your brother gave us that sermon. John is mad! Is he saying that his cousin is the lamb—the sacrifice to God?”
“Yes,” I answered in a constricted voice, “but how will I explain this to our mother? She wanted me to talk him into coming home. This looks very permanent.”
“Oh, your brother’s not coming home,” he informed me solemnly. “I don’t know what John has in mind now…. This is a whole new game!”