Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Wilderness Paths

[A "sermon," reposted from my sermon blog. Generally, I don't do that, but hey. It's a story.]

It was dry, bone dry, death dry.

Yohanan would have licked his lips, but his mouth was filled with powder, fine dust that ground between his tongue and his teeth, that scraped between his reddened eyes and eyelids.  It was good, good that he didn’t have to speak, because all the voice he had was a raven’s croak.

There was no-one to listen, not now, not now that he’d wandered away from the river, away from the place where the crowds had gathered to listen.  Not that he’d had much to say, not then, but that didn’t matter.  People always came to see the show, like the circus of the accursed Romans.

What he had said, he had shouted, bellowed out into the shimmering heat of the day and into the stink of the crowd.  He had cursed them, cried out at them for their madness.  Some had heard, some had scoffed and left in disgust, but some had stayed, eyes bright and changed, or eyes brimming and wet with the tears that he himself could no longer muster.

He’d cast them into the water, one by one into the slow-flowing mikvah of the Jordan, the ancient ritual bath washing away the dust of their travels through the world, the copper-brown water staining their copper-brown flesh.

Still they pressed in, reverence mingled with shouted questions, debates blossoming into shouting all around him like flowers in the spring.  It was too much, too much, their crowded voices a distraction from the One voice that drowned out all others.

And yet he taught, shouting back, roaring out answers like a cornered lion, until the day grew dim and the shadows long, laying one after another into the waters.  

He had fled them, then, fled from the riverside, shouting warnings and curses at any would would follow.  He didn’t want them following, but he also didn’t want to be by the water, not at night, not when things with shining eyes came howling and gibbering.  Most of them were animals.  Some of them were not.

There, in the half light, movement in the bony fingers of a scrub-bush.  Yohanan squatted, eyes sharp and focused by his hunger.  Locusts, five, six, seven of them, more, their dull brown matching the color of the dirt as they gnawed at the furtive growth of leaves.

He plucked at one, slow in the cooling air of evening. Then another, then another, filling his hand, feeling the hard chitin against his palm, the strugglings of tiny legs.  With a thick, dirty thumbnail, he popped off the heads, plucking the legs away, and popping the thick meaty abdomens into his mouth.  Like figs.  Or grapes.  

Only no.  Not really.  Not really at all.

It was hard, hard to swallow against the dust, the acrid flavor mingling with the taste of clay in his mouth, his mouth thick with the paste of it.  Not at all like figs.

A woman had brought him figs, just this morning, and flat sour bread, and a skin with watered wine.  That had been good, a gift.  The locusts were was also a gift, only in that it stayed the snarl in his stomach for the night.

And it kept him on his path.  Because the figs were good, and the wine was gently sweet in the skin, and nearby Nazareth was full of possible pleasures.  He could choose those pleasures, in a moment.  But they were not the wilderness path he had chosen, and to which he had been called.

He remembered the first time he journeyed beyond that simple home in the hill country, with his father Zechariah, down into the bustle and stench of the town.   His father was growing old, his beard a splash of earth and silver, but it was years before that night he had been unable to rise, unable to speak, unable to move his arm.  He was still strong, and he had said to Yohannan that it was time for him to see the city.

Not Nazareth, not that little backwater, but Gadara of the Decapolis, the ten cities that were the backbone of trade in the region.  Gadara, renowned for its wisdom and teachers, a real city, filled with souls, not just by the hundreds, but by the thousands.

He was just thirteen, finally a man in his fullness, or so he thought, finally a full part of his community, and yet he’d never traveled there.

He’d not known what to expect, not known the wildness and distraction of the town. There were just so many people, so many, a press of faces, a blur, so many you could never remember them. It was too much.  The shouting, chasing madness of the marketplace.  The smell of the incense, the stink of fish, the fragrant oil shining in the beards of the merchants.  He’d not expected the brightness of the baubles, the shine of the bracelets that tinkled on ankles as the women walked past.  It had been beautiful.  It had been horrible.  

He’d not expected the cries of the lepers on the road into town, or the desperate emptiness in the eyes of that child, begging with its mother.  He’d not expected the whip of the soldier, lashing at a prisoner, dragged away for failing to meet his debts.

So much life, so much noise, and so much pain.

And no-one seemed to notice.  It struck Yohanan like a blow, like a stone.  The excitement of the journey wanted nothing more, nothing, than to return to the wilds, to the comfort of his small village.

Maybe it was that Yohannan had grown used to the quiet of the hill country around Galilee, to the slower ways of things.

Maybe it was that he lived in the backwater of a backwater, that he was just not wise to the ways of things, that he just didn’t get how important all of that rushing around and shouting and shine was.

Maybe it was that he spent his days wandering with the herd, and every new soul he encountered out there in the wilderness seemed worth knowing, seemed filled with their own story, a story that wove up with his own.  

But even then, even as a boy, he had known that wasn’t it.

It was from the teachings of his father and the songs of his mother.  It was from the reading of the Torah scrolls, the reading that had come so hard for him at first.

He heard the stories and he read, about the one whose name was Everything, who was called Adonai, the Lord, who was called Elohim, the Strong Ones, how the I Am That I Am had come to Abram and to Mosheh, how Elohim had given a covenant to his people.  At the heart of that covenant was balance and justice, a justice woven out of the whole cloth of Adonai’s love for his people.

It was a simple path, the simplest and humblest of paths.   But in the rush and chase of life, in the shouting of the market, in the pride of the sword’s sharp edge and the shouting of powerful men, the people forgot it.  There was too much to see, too many other bright and shiny things to draw their eyes, and so they lost sight of the way.

The cries of the hungry?   They couldn’t hear them, because the shouting of the fish merchant and the seller of silver trinkets drowned them out.  The shivering of the child, begging in the cold of the morning with his widowed mother?  They couldn’t see it, couldn't see that little body trembling.

Their paths were crooked, wild and circling, endlessly folding back over the same selfish, bloody ground.

They simply couldn’t, lost in the struggling rush of their loud lives.

Yohannan squatted back on his haunches, feeling the roughness of the crude cloth against his back.  Hard as it was, that was why he preferred the wilderness paths.  The quieter places, the humble dirt, paths so simple they were just part of the world. Paths so simple, they were where the voice of Adonai could be heard.  

There, in the evening sky, a single star bright in the heavens.  An evening wind whispered up, and muttered in his memory.  It reminded him of those strange stories of his strange cousin, the stories his mother would tell him when he was just a boy.  And the words of a scroll suddenly sang in his heart, that scroll of Yesahyah the prophet.

Bamidbar Panu Derekh Y’weh,” “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,” it began.  “Baaravah m’silah l’eloheynu.”  “Make his paths straight.”

And though the night air was growing cold, Yohannan felt the warmth of that hope.

[A "sermon," reposted from my sermon blog. Generally, I don't do that, but hey. It's a story.]