He sits in darkness, in his cell, and remembers, and wonders. So many memories flow in and out of each other, and he lets them flow as they will: the stark hot sun of the desert, the small scuffles of animals in the cool of the evening, the amazed delight his elderly parents always showed towards him, the son they never expected, the awareness, from the time he was a small boy, that he was different from the other children, that God had touched him in a very particular way. He remembered the shock, as his life widened beyond the gentle piety of his parents’ home, of realising just how far Israel had fallen from the height of her calling, and the deeper shock to realise that so many either couldn’t see it, or didn’t think they needed to do anything about it. How could one not speak out about evil when one saw it?
But one figure dominates his memories: his cousin Jesus, who is not like anybody else. They knew each other by sight, but God had led them by very different paths until they met again that day on the banks of the Jordan. It had been a clear day, with the sky that startling desert-blue and just a few high clouds. He had been standing there, with the muddy water of the Jordan lapping about his feet, exhorting and baptising in the midst of the crowd, when he looked up to see a young man walking towards him. He recognised his cousin, but at the same moment that feeling he had always had about Jesus suddenly broke through into startled recognition, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” He had been testifying to the coming of the Messiah; now He was here and all the pieces clicked into place.
He remembered their gentle bickering over who should baptise whom, but, more clearly still, that transcendent, unearthly moment when Jesus rose from the water and the Spirit of God descended like a dove upon Him and a voice from heaven declared, “This is my Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”. It had all seemed so wonderful, so real, and he had lived and preached with increasing boldness in the light of that reality.
And now the light and glory seemed to have disappeared, and, locked away in darkness, he wonders what he has done. There is no sign of the Kingdom, Rome still rules the world, and Herod, in all his hideous corruption, is still on the throne. Was it all for nothing? In desperation he sent a message to Jesus, “Are you really the One, or are we waiting for another?”
And now, even as he sits in the silence, his friends return with Jesus’ reply, “The blind see, 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 ..” What had he been thinking, that the Kingdom would appear in a flurry of trumpets and a thunder of galloping horses? No, that was not what the prophets had foretold. The Kingdom did not come like a dreadful storm, with the madness of wind and the clattering of hail. It appeared softly, in silence, like the Spring, bringing the world to life one flower at a time. Things were unfolding just as they should be, and he, John, had done exactly what God desired of him. In that hope he could find his peace.