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I spend so much idle time these days, sitting by this window, looking out over the coming ruin of this once great city of Jerusalem – this once blessed nation. I see so much hopelessness. We are desperate.
Some ask me about the Messiah’s origin. Yes, I am old – I was alive then, but I wasn’t there to see this birth event. In fact, none of us were. It was just this one young village girl’s account of an experience she claimed she’d had. But she wasn’t anyone important. Just a teenager from a small town up in the lake region. Frankly, she was nobody who mattered to all of those who counted in the great city – so everybody ignored the rumor. Almost everybody, that is…Not Herod, as it turned out, or some truly wise men from the East, but we found that out much later.
I myself was a child then. In a few years I had my hands full enough, being trained to help my family in our corn, wheat, and barley business.
Those were such good times for us. My father was a rich businessman - a merchant on the grand scale! Our granaries were filled to bursting – and I was the best of his sons in business. So, as my dad aged, I had his entire enterprise to oversee and extend.
I was scrupulous about everything. I have always been very generous and knew how to give so that we’d get a decent return, if, in nothing else, at least in good will. On that note, I was also very careful to fulfill my Temple tithe in every measure.
It was natural, then, that I should join in with the group of rich businessmen who took their work and their faith seriously. We fancied ourselves “the separated ones.” We might all be laymen, but we were holy, set apart to observe the law in all its finest details. We prized legalism and separatism. Some people said we were a club of lawyers. Some of us actually were lawyers. So anything that touched the religious law interested us.
But now and again word would leak out about a strange and precocious child from up north who could understand the deep mysteries the rest of us could only glimpse. He wasn’t one of us, of course, so most of our set ignored him. But the rumors of his strange doings kept trickling down.
One incident involving him even happened right here in Jerusalem about a dozen years after his mother’s initial report about the angels. This boy shows up at the Temple one Passover. He’s about 12 or so and instead of leaving with his parents, like I always did, this boy sits down with the teachers, listens to them carefully, asks questions, and amazes all of them with his understanding and his answers. Then he startles everyone by calling the temple his Father’s house. The teachers didn’t understand what he meant. I guess none of us did.
I myself had been trained at the Beth Hamidrash – the school of the rabbis – here in Jerusalem. I had a particularly good teacher – Rabbi Gamaliel. My dad could afford the best. Students came in from all around. Of course, we had the rabbi’s own son, Simon, who is so famous now. And my best friend, Joseph, whose family is from the east, up between Lydda, Antipatris, and Joppa on the coast of the Mediterranean – it’s a little town called Arimathea, which is hardly on the maps, so you may not have heard of it. His father dabbled in a lot of stuff, including real estate and they owned a beautiful garden park in the northern part of Jerusalem, where we loved to go and play on holidays when we were young. In my class we also had a zealous young man from way over in Tarsus named Saul who was pretty philosophical and always arguing about some fine point in the law.
And me? I was always looking for the deeper knowledge. Like in business, I was always figuring, “so what’s the angle?” Well, it was like this with religion too. Anything worth doing is worth applying yourself to – you know, to get it right.
So, I studied hard and I worked hard. And you can imagine my father’s pride when I was appointed to the aristocratic supreme council of seventy-two ruling elders: the Sanhedrin. Although he was semi-retired by now, Dad still had a hand in the business, and, having a son in government was good business – since it enhanced the family reputation and, besides, it gave him a personal distinction – some reflected glory: my son, the councilor, the leader of our people, working daily with the high priest himself!
“You go ahead, Nicodemus,” he’d say. “Take your place in the city gate, son. Judge the people. You’ve helped me set this business up so well, that your brothers can operate the workaday running. Besides, you working close and dipping in the same lunch pot with all those representatives of the best families is good for all of us. For one thing, your two youngest sisters are at marriageable age and maybe you can help us attract a good match. And putting in a word for the business now and again is just what we need, if we’re going to expand into the caravan trade in any serious way.”
Well, all this was fine with me. I had helped him develop ours into a thriving enterprise and the Sanhedrin was certainly the place to make connections with the power people. In addition, it was full of scholars I liked and admired: my old professor, Gamaliel, his son Simon, Shemaiah the scribe, my best friend Joseph from Arimathea – and – not that argumentative Saul, who was off serving a tribunal, judging criminal cases. The high priest might have been running the show, but Gamaliel kept it all interesting.
And that’s what I was doing when the “miracle child”—all grown up now—suddenly burst on Jerusalem like a thunderclap off the eastern sea! We hadn’t heard about him for years, not since that incident when he was 12, and then the rumors started up again about strange doings in Galilee. I mean, we all know that prophets and soothsayers are a denarius a dozen. If it’s not the Essenes with their “king of light” nonsense that’s going to get us all killed, it’s some desert crackpot blowing in from the Negev with a special revelation how he ought to be high priest. And, of course, they all eventually end up here in Jerusalem and we argue most of them out of town!
But there was something about this one that so different.
For one, the things he did. He went to a wedding and turned jugs of water into wine! I’ll bet the local ale houses didn’t like that much – not to mention the family that owned the Galilee wineries. When we heard that, Shemaiah, whose family has an interest in the wine we use in the temple, kept muttering, “Wine out of well water? Who can compete with that?” Think what the local reaction was!
Then he started in on the mass feedings – 5,000 men plus additional women and children out of some child’s lunch?
This guy was like a one-man economic disaster. He could put us all out of business. In one day, he could make up enough meals to bankrupt the entire food industry. Fifteen thousand people suddenly don’t need to buy supper? Do you know what fisherman do when nobody’s buying their fish? They can’t put them in their purse for tomorrow – this stuff goes bad over night!
And then when he starts preaching to the people, what does he talk about? “Don’t worry about buying good clothes!” God is going to provide that? So now he’s in the textile business with God!!! Talk about an unfair trade monopoly! Who’s going to compete with the Almighty for daily wear? We’re talking about the One who kept our ancestors’ clothes from wearing out for forty years in the desert?
And then he says, “Don’t worry about where you live – a fox hole or a bird’s nest is fine?”
For purple merchants, landowners, tradesmen, this kind of talk threatens the whole economic infrastructure. We’re built on business. What’s good for business is good for God and God’s people.
And that’s another thing! This young man from Galilee is handing out authoritative words on God as well. Who does he think he is? God’s son or something?
And that’s when the report of his mother from thirty years ago comes into play. Because, that’s exactly what he thinks he is – the son of this earthly woman, who was given her child when the Holy Spirit of the Most High put a divine seed into her.
That was what his followers were claiming – and it seemed so preposterous! Like God was Zeus or something, running around impregnating women! It sounded blasphemous really. The great teacher Philo wrote that for a Jew to even consider God could “change into a human” or “a human into God” was the “most grievous impiety.” Philo wrote that, by the way, exactly fifty years ago in Alexandria, when he lived through what we are now enduring. His words, wise but wasted, were addressed to that insane monster of an emperor, Gaius, who’d had his images placed in every house of worship. His callous prefect Flaccus incited the Gentile mob to pillage and slaughter us and there was a great pogrom. The only thing that saved us was Gaius getting himself assassinated, so Claudius, who at least wasn’t crazy, could take over the government.
But, I don’t think anything is going to save us now from Vespasian and the destruction of all we hold most sacred and dear. I, Nicodemus, sit here in my window and wonder, how did it ever come to this? How did we ever fall so far from God that our city and our civilization have been given over into the hands of the Romans and Jerusalem is about to fall and we are all about to die?
Some have been wailing around the city that our doom is upon us because we murdered James the Righteous, the earthly brother of the Miracle Child. I think it may very well be because we rejected and murdered God’s greatest gift to us: the Miracle Child himself. How blind we have all been.
But there are extenuating circumstances for our blindness. See, all of us call God our Father. But, what we mean by that is God is our Creator, the One from whom we inherited the land we were promised and our favored status among humanity as God’s chosen people. But, none of us imagine God to be like an earthly father – some large man in the sky – like the pagans imagine their gods. The true God is a Spirit – not sexual at all. God told Israel back in the days when the law was being given in our book, which we call: “These Are the Words That Moses Spoke,” (which some these days call Deuteronomy), in chapter 4:12-16, which says, when “the Lord spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice…Since you saw no form when the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire, take care and watch yourselves closely, so that you do not act corruptly by making an idol for yourselves, in the form of any figure – the likeness of male or female.”
So, we thought, how can this be? How can this man be born of an earthly mother and actually have God as his father? How can someone be both human as we are and at the same time our God among us? It seemed to fly in the face of everything we believed.
True, it made sense out of Scriptures we could never fully understand, like that puzzling passage in Isaiah’s prophecy in 9:6, “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
You see, our question here goes far beyond asking: is this man the Messiah, the Anointed One of God, he for whom we have been waiting. It is asking something much more profound: Is this One somehow Almighty God among us. And, if so, how can that be?
But at the same time we were puzzling over his bold words, this fully grown now “Miracle Child,” was backing up everything he was saying with the most incredible deeds. He was turning lepers and others with dreaded skin diseases back to normal – their skin as smooth as babies’! He was lighting up the eyes of people blind from birth! He was raising the dead back to life! And I’m not just talking about village rumors – I mean servants and children of Roman officials! It was astounding! And then he and his gang arrived here in Jerusalem.
Well, he immediately got everybody’s attention. The first thing he did was storm into the temple, make a whip out of the cords they use to tie up the animals and stampede all the sheep and cattle out of the courtyards. And while the merchants were all running after their wares, he then turns over all their tables and spills the coins everywhere so that they all run together and nobody knows what belongs to whom. Some were outraged, but this didn’t actually bother me at all. See, the Sadducees, our competitors, were in charge of the Temple. As a Pharisee, I’d never really approved of all this commerce going on inside that the Sadducees were allowing. Sure, I’m a businessman but I think there’s a place for business and it’s not in God’s house. Besides, anything that put the Sadducees in an embarrassing position was just fine with me – and with the rest of the Pharisees.
What disturbed us all, however, was what he was yelling as he was driving them all out, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” There it was again. “My Father’s house.” What did he mean exactly?
I wondered and when I wonder I find out! I discovered the Miracle Man was staying at a home here in Jerusalem, so I slipped over to see him one night. When I arrived, all this man’s disciples were hanging about outside. But that was fine with me. My main concern was avoiding the notice of my colleagues in the Sanhedrin, who were dead set against him. This is why I chose night.
So, I came calling and there he was – a young man a little younger than my age, strong and lean and tanned and looking both serene and determined. I decided to be polite, as I always am, and began respectfully:
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who came from God; for no one is able these signs to do that you are doing unless God may be with you.”
But, the man, who was called – of all things “Jesus,” which, as you know, means “God is salvation,” was short on small talk or formal pleasantries. He simply looked at me fully and steadily, but not unkindly, for what seemed a very long and uncomfortable minute, like my whole life lay out before him on some tribunal’s examination table and then he said, “Indeed truly, I tell you, unless someone is born from above, they are not able to see God’s kingdom.”
Being born another time? I was confused and blurted out: “How is anyone able to be born after having grown up? He is not himself able into his mother’s womb a second time to enter and be born?”
Jesus simply said, “Indeed truly, I tell you, unless someone is born from water and Spirit, that one is not able to enter into God’s kingdom. What is born from the flesh is flesh, and what is born from the Spirit is spirit.”
And right there he was telling me about his dual parentage, if I’d only had the ears to hear him or the wisdom to understand it. He himself had both births simultaneously, born of a woman and of the Spirit of God. I had had one birth, but he seemed to be offering me somehow to follow him and receive the second. I was baffled.
He smiled at me and said gently, “You are the teacher of Israel and these things you do not understand?”
Well, no, I guess I didn’t.
So then he spelled it out so plainly for me. He revealed he knew these heavenly things because he had descended to us from God’s very presence, from heaven. He explained the significance of Moses lifting up the symbol of the snake in the wilderness to heal Israel from snake bites – that somehow he himself was going to be lifted up and heal us all from the bite of the great Serpent Satan. I had no idea at that point he meant he was going to be lifted up on a Roman executioner’s cross and die for my guilt as well as ignorance to set me right with God. He told me he wasn’t here to condemn me, but that God loved me so much that God sent him, God’s son, that I might believe in him and gain eternal life with God. I felt so strangely warm inside, even though I was thoroughly astonished.
He left Jerusalem immediately after our conversation and I returned to the Sanhedrin deeply in thought.
A little while later, he was back in the temple and teaching the crowds and things were turning really nasty. A group that had heard about his birth by a virgin mother, insulted him, since they all knew he wasn’t Joseph son, so they said, “We are not illegitimate children.” They claimed they were descended from Abraham and they were the true children of God.
But Jesus replied, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I myself came from God and now I am here. For, I did not come on my own, but he sent me.”
There it was again, his utterly uncompromising claim that he, a human being, was conceived by God’s Spirit.
And then he stated it plainly – he called himself the “I am,” the name for God! He told them he saw Abraham rejoice about the day he would come. They cried out, “You aren’t even fifty years old, how have you seen Abraham!”
And Jesus shot back, “Before Abraham was, I am.”
That was it! They all picked up stones to kill him for blasphemy, but he was gone by the time they’d found some.
And where had he gone? Outside to cure a man all of us had seen all our lives – a man blind from birth! Can you beat that? And, indeed, all of Jerusalem was filling up with formerly diseased and handicapped victims now healed and productive active citizens. Day after day, a steady stream of these began to be dragged in before us for questioning - a veritable outpouring of formerly lame, and blind, and sick, and leprous people – one after another after another! I didn’t know what there was to argue about. I’d seen these people every day in the streets. He healed them – no discussion there.
I tried to speak up for him once when the Temple police were being berated for not arresting him and explaining that no one had ever spoken as he did. I knew exactly what they meant.
I defended the police. I said, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”
But my colleagues on the Sanhedrin slammed me down. “Surely you aren’t also from Galilee, are you?” they sneered at me. “Search and you’ll see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee!”
Shortly thereafter, they managed to ensnare Jesus and kidnapped him one night and held an illegal trial under cover of darkness. It was all done swiftly and expertly and, before any of us knew it, there he was: lifted up like Moses’ bronze serpent in the wilderness, and dead on a Roman cross. It was despicable. I was ashamed of my colleagues and deeply saddened.
My friend Joseph from Arimathea, who also had not voted for the trial and execution, felt exactly as I did about Jesus: at first, intrigued, then full of hope, then shattered in despair. We stepped forward and took him from his cross - his regular disciples had gone into hiding – all except one named John, who knew the high priest and had taken in Jesus’ mother, she of the virgin birth, to comfort her.
I invested in a hundred Roman pounds’ worth of spices and ointments for Jesus’ body, while Joseph went to Pilate and asked him for permission to take that body down. Together we buried him in Joseph’s lovely garden park, in a new tomb Joseph had set aside eventually for himself.
Never would we have guessed what was to happen in three days, when all our mourning turned back to astonishment and joy. I saw him alive again, but that’s another story, for another day.
Today, some forty years later, I too have experienced the two births. Born of flesh from my sweet mother and my dearest father. And born a second time in the Spirit by believing and following Jesus, “God is salvation,” right up to the present day.
And now I am very old, awaiting my own loss of this life and my entrance into the life to come – that blessed life that is eternal with Jesus and his heavenly Father. Indeed, there is nothing left for me here. Last winter my granaries were burned down in the rioting. Everyone I love is dead or gone. Finally the mobs have gotten what they’ve been asking for. Jerusalem is besieged. Starvation and disease will soon run rampant through the city. We will fall. I can do nothing more for my people. So, my mind journeys constantly to days long ago, when God in human flesh walked among us.
I am so glad I defended him and that I and my dear friend Joseph – now long gone – had the courage to bury God’s son. That was money we invested well! Today I couldn’t raise a tithe of that sum and soon it will all be over. And then Jesus will stand up for me before his Father as I once had the privilege to stand up for him before my peers.
Hail, Mighty Savior! Into your hands I commit my spirit.
So be it. (Amen)