|"Jesus and Nicodemus" by Crijn Hendrickz (1616-1645)|
Of course I came to him by night.
Can you imagine the repercussions if I’d walked out to see him in broad daylight?
I, Nicodemus. Son of Gurion, a modest family, but one proud to know its sons were scions of the house of Judah. I, a leader of the Pharisees, whose only hope was that we should honor and worship Almighty God in the best possible way. I, Nicodemus, going boldly by day to see the man who was at the center of the most scandalous disruption of the Passover our people have ever seen!
It was just two weeks ago. The Passover was drawing near, and Jesus went into the Temple, our holiest of places. And yes, the outer courts of the Temple were busy with buyers and sellers of animals for the coming sacrifices. And yes, the moneychangers were there, converting Roman currency to our own coins—we cannot let the Roman coins into the Temple, because they bear the face of Caesar, and call him “god”. Caesar is not God. Only the Lord Almighty is God.
But Jesus had no patience for the changers of money. And he had no tolerance for the buying and selling of sacrificial animals. They say he made a whip out of cords and drove everyone out, down to the last seller of the last cow. And then, he dared to say that, if the Temple were destroyed, he could rebuild it in three days. He dared to speak blasphemy, on that holy ground.
No. I would not go to see such a man by day. But after the seven days of the Passover festival, I went myself to pray in the Temple. I myself inquired of God. And, as sometimes happens, in my heart I heard the quietest of whispers. “Go. But take care.”
All was quiet in my house. My servants and my children were asleep, as was my wife. And even if she had awakened—my Chava—she was not unaccustomed to my walking in the garden at night. She wouldn’t be alarmed if I just slipped away for a time. And so I did.
Bethany is a short walk from Jerusalem, a gently sloping path that leads you, if you continue, up the Mount of Olives. But I had to go only as far as the home of the siblings, Martha, Mary and Lazarus. It was well known that Jesus stayed with them when traveling to Jerusalem for any reason. As I walked the mile and a half, I found that I was worried. I worried that he would be asleep. I worried about how to find him without disrupting the entire household. I worried that I should have brought a servant to slip in and awaken him. I carried the worry in my stomach, like a bowlful of buzzing wasps. My worry was unnecessary. As I approached the modest stone house, off the footpath and to the left, I was greeted first by a fine fig tree, mature with great curving boughs, its tiny blossoms just budding. And then, even before I saw him, I heard his voice, saying just one word: “Nicodemus.” And there he was. Sitting beneath the flowering tree, a shawl pulled around him. Jesus.
And it happened to me, the same things that happened to the other men, the thing I heard Andrew and Simon Peter talking about, quietly, as they exited the Temple at the end of the Passover observances. The sense of peace, combined with a sense of excitement—it’s almost impossible to describe. And yet there it was. Is.
I shook my head, as if to say to myself. Now, now. The way I would say it to one of my children, or to my wife, if she should become overly excited about something. Now, now. And I recited to him the speech I had prepared, just as I had rehearsed it.
“Rabbi,”—I called him “Rabbi,” as a sign of respect. How could I not? Despite his antics in the Temple, there were witnesses… many witnesses… to certain… actions he had performed. His followers called them “Signs.” Water into wine. A parlor trick? Perhaps. But the people who had attended that wedding were filled, not with wine, but with wonder. And healings. He had healed a woman. He had cast a demon out of a man. These are not parlor tricks. Our word “Rabbi” means “Great one.” I had no problem calling him “Great one,” in the face of these signs.
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
Not a word of it was untrue. I believed God was somehow working through this man, even though I was only seeing him for the first time.
I wonder now what I expected him to say. Perhaps I wanted him to argue with me—to tell me, “Only God is great.” Or, “It is the power of God, not my power.” I wanted him to… play the game with me. The game the holy men play. Those of us who are all too well aware of our power, and yet we must pretend not to be aware.
He looked at me quietly. He was reading me. Finally, he spoke. Whatever I expected, it was not this.
“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born anothen.”
I am not being cagey. I am using the Greek word, “anothen,” because… it was at the root of a misunderstanding. I replied:
“How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Particularly, I added to myself, if her bones lie bleached and cold in a tomb.
I truly did not understand.
He spoke of birth. We have our understanding of birth. It is something of the realm of women, and when it is finished, God willing, a new life has come, and the rituals of purification are performed, and the family has grown. But it happens once. I cannot be born again.
He smiled. He was patient with me, more patient than I am with my students.
He spoke very carefully, but he was not condescending. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
Ah, I thought. Water. He refers to his friend, the crazy one, down by the river, who pushes people under the water and calls them clean. But the Spirit… that is another matter.
He was still speaking, but his voice had taken on a kind of urgency. “…The wind—the Spirit!—blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
As he spoke, a memory came to me, very old. I was a small child, and we were gathered around the table for the Passover meal. All the adults were there—my parents, and my grandparents, an aunt, an uncle—all gathered closely around a table. I noticed then for the first time something odd. An empty place at the table, with a cup that was the most beautiful, the oldest and most precious in my mother’s collection. There it was, at that empty place. But all the important people, the most honored ones, were there. No one was missing. Why was the most beautiful cup being wasted on an empty space?
I looked to my father and saw him smiling. He’d been watching me. He knew my question even before it was on my lips, but I asked anyway.
“Abba,” I said, “why is Amma’s beautiful cup at the empty place at the table?”
My father’s eyes brimmed over with joy. I couldn’t understand then, but I understood later. I understand now.
“My son,” he said, “It is Elijah’s cup. We save a place at the table for the prophet, should be grace us with his presence. And one day, he will appear, and he will answer all our unanswered questions.”
As I sat with the young Rabbi, I remembered the stirring in my soul when my father told me we were waiting for—we were expecting—the great prophet Elijah, last seen as God took him to heaven in a fiery chariot. We were expecting him at our table! A delicious shiver ran down my spine as a small child… and it still does, each and every time I remember that moment.
And now, as Rabbi Jesus spoke of being born of the Spirit, I felt it again: the bracing audacity of my father’s expectation. The thrill of his hopeful and smiling face. The recognition that we—our family, not a family of wealth or honor—that we could expect to be in the company of God’s greatest and most faithful servants.
I had been lost in my memory, the image of that Passover table as bright as a full moon. My breath caught as I heard Jesus’ words to me:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
God loved the world… It was as if my heart broke open on hearing those words.
I… I who had committed my life to study, to learning, to searching the Holy Scriptures in order to know how best to please God. In order to know how best to honor him by our gatherings at the table. To knowing what was sinful and what was not.
I was now confronted with the astonishing notion that God loved the world. That same world that had rejected God, again and again!
Scripture taught it. I could recite the verses from memory. The steadfast love of God for Abraham; for Jacob, for Joseph. The psalms singing of the steadfast love of God for his people Israel.
I knew it. I knew it. So why did it feel completely new? It was as if the young Rabbi’s words themselves had washed the world, with me in it, and everything was fresh, as if we had all been…yes! Born again.
We talked long into the night and almost until the breaking dawn. In the end, we were silent together, even as the sun slid over the crest of the mountain and broke upon us. My mouth was silent, but in my heart was a chant, over and over, one that started in stillness, but which grew as I walked down the path to my home in Jerusalem. It went, “The love of God. The love of God. The steadfast love of God.”
I looked back over my shoulder, and saw that young Rabbi Jesus had vanished. But I knew we would meet again.
I took with me his gift. The love of God. The love of God. That I, Nicodemus, should know... that we all should know... the steadfast love of God!
Thanks be to God. Amen.