The wineskin was empty under John’s head when he woke up. No surprise, the wineskin was always empty when John was around. It seemed like such a good idea at the time to use it as a pillow. It was a bit too full, so he decided to drink a little to make it more comfortable. The first adjustment wasn’t enough, so he made another…then another. Then it was too low, so the only way to fix it was to drain it and fill it with air. No reason to waste good wine, so John finished off the skin. Then he was too “comfortable” to blow up the bag so there was little point in using it as a pillow but at that point nothing was going to stop him from passing out anyway. So there he slept until the morning light hit his face, harsh by John’s standards but in truth rather dim here in the dark wood where he was holed up. His head pounded as he ritualistically picked up the wineskin to pour out any measly dregs that might remain. And just like every other day, stale and sour air was all he could extract. They say that the definition of insanity is repeating the same thing expecting a different result. In that case, John was well and truly crazy, although his hope was that the visitation that was coming would end in the same result as every other time.
The sun was just slipping below the horizon and as John peered into the deepening scarlet, an unearthly figure of the same color came into view.
“So how is my friend today? In control of all that life can throw at you, wanting for nothing, as usual?” came the familiar voice.
“Naturally,” replied John, repressing the urge to speak the truth. “But I would, of course, enjoy the gift you have slung across your shoulder.”
“Ah, yes, I wouldn’t forget to bring my dear friend his daily skin. Regretfully, it is not of the highest quality today, but wine is wine is it not?”
Nearly salivating and barely able to stop himself from leaping for it, John said, “That it is, yes, that it is. I suppose the price is no different today then?”
“No it is not,” said the creature as he placed the wineskin on the ground and advanced toward John. “Defeat me and it is yours.”
After his daily vomiting and tremors, John was in no shape to wrestle, let alone win. But night after night it was always the same, John would wrestle his demon and win the prize of another night of drinking…and another day of suffering.
John had no way of knowing just how many times he wrestled his demons. Since no razor had ever touched his hair, as was the Nazrite custom, he just looked a bit shaggier as each miserable day passed. Of course, when a child is dedicated to God in the Nazrite tradition, he is also not supposed to touch strong drink. Perhaps the angel who announced that to John’s dumbstruck father understood that John could never drink in safety. John began to sob as he thought of his now deceased parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, who had given up hope on having children long before the angel shared the amazing news. “Some miracle, look at me now” John shouted into the waning light along Jordan’s shore where he stood ready to end the struggle once and for all.
When the silhouetted figure was within earshot, John shouted, “Not tonight!” and moved from the shallows to where the current could drag him under.
When John awoke, he was wrapped in a camel skin blanket, lying by a warm fire.
“Here, eat,” the gentle voice spoke. John squinted at the being surrounded in light to see him offering a plate of something.
“Locusts in a honey sauce. It tastes better than it sounds,” the angel said as he propped up John so he could take the nourishment.
“Why?” muttered John.
“Well honey keeps well even in this climate and there is no shortage of locusts.”
“No, why did you save me?”
The angel leaned in close to John. Looking him straight in his eyes (and straight to his soul), he said “because you have to make a highway in the wilderness, a straight path, raising valleys and lowering mountains in the process.”
John laughed so hard that he fell over into a spasm of coughing rolling on the ground. “You sure you got the right drunk for that job?”
The angel waited for John to regain his composure before continuing. “Of course I did. I told your father you were destined for greatness and he and your mother loved you more than life itself, keeping you from harm…and strong drink, I might add…as long as you were in their care. That was the only (and best) gift they could give you.”
Now it was John who was dumbstruck. The angel continued, “But now it was up to you to give yourself a gift, and yesterday you did just that.”
“Did what? Give myself a gift by trying to die?” John nearly choked on his words hearing them out loud. “I was just sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
“Precisely,” said the angel, “the gift of desperation.” The angel left a long silence to let that sink in before going on. “The world is in despair, John, but God is gracious and is sending help. The world will have a hard time seeing through its gloom to find its salvation. So you need to help.”
John shuddered, not just from the chill he felt, but from the fear he felt in his bones as he noticed the sun about to set. Fearing what was to come next he said, “but I can’t even help myself.”
The angel understood John’s fear. “Yes, the demons will return. The only way to defeat them is one day at at time. God’s gracious gift to you is the sanity you crave. The world will see a shaggy man shouting in the wilderness inviting people to cleanse away their demons in a cold muddy river, but God will hear an invitation to be born into the world.”
John pulled the blanket tighter and sat in the silence for a long time. Then he looked up at the angel and said, “I will do it. But how will I know when the savior comes?”
The angel smiled. “You already leaped for joy once when you were in the presence of the savior, albeit in your mother’s womb. Now safely back in the love and care of God, you will leap again when you meet the savior of the world.”
While they had been speaking, the demon had arrived. Startled, John leaped to his feet. Then he walked into the river and beckoned to the demon, “Change your entire way of thinking, because heaven is now!”
The demon came at him in the shallows….and John wrestled him under the water. Gasping as they broke the surface, John watched as the dripping demon became an angel right before his eyes. Now aglow with heavenly light, he looked John in the face and said, “Arise! Shine! Your light has come.”
Rev. Ian Lynch is pastor of First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Brimfield, MA He blogs about the intersection of spirituality and society at CultureDove.blogspot.com and the intersection of spirituality and ornithology at https://birdparables.blogspot.com