These Days of Dry Bones (Re-Visiting the Story of Nicodemus)

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Part One

The wind is blowing gently here by the Jordan River, but the words of the Baptizer are fierce. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.”

His eyes are on us, his words meant for us. We came to see what he would say for himself – this man drawing people into the waters for baptism instead of sending them to the temple to make sacrifices, attracting crowds with his declarations that God’s kingdom draws near. The others with me shift backwards and they begin to mutter under their breath, their indignation stirred by his insult.

Unbidden, words from the prophet Micah come to my mind and my hands begin to shake – He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

But if this is the fruit he means – the fruit in keeping with repentance – don’t I already produce it? Don’t I do all that is required of me?

Yet — my hands still tremble. I clench them into fists so that no one else will notice.

How can such a crowd become so silent? The Baptizer’s words are clear and carry so that every ear hears. “And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

The muttering around me becomes louder, insults for this wild man in his camel’s hair slipping from one man to the next, but I cannot speak.

It feels like he is looking directly at me when he opens his mouth again. “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

*******

I leave Bethany with one answer – this John, he says himself that he is not the Messiah. But his words have only filled me with more questions.

John’s declarations about repentance, about the ax at the root of the trees – I cannot shake them, even as I come home to Jerusalem. Why should I feel so unsure? I am a teacher. I know the law. I try to be wise in my work with the Sanhedrin. Anyone would say that we are holy – we are Pharisees, after all, set apart as much as we can possibly be from anything unclean. Our lives – my life – is dedicated to God.

And yet – we have heard no word from Him in so long…could this be the Word of the Lord? Isaiah prophesied a voice calling out in the wilderness, making straight the way for the Lord…could John, as he claims, truly be that voice?

The temple is ahead, beautiful in the light of the sun. It has been restored by one who does not honor God as we do, but it – at least – still belongs to us. I have often wondered what the kings of old would think if they could see us now – ruled by Gentiles, bound by the power of an Emperor’s law. First the Greeks held our land – our land promised to us by God – and now these Romans, they are everywhere and they consume everything in their path. When our fathers came back to this city, at last released from Babylon – surely this was not their dream, to have it fall back into other hands. Surely it was not what they would want for us – this constant struggle to keep peace with Rome, so that we do not lose power over our traditions and even our worship.

A weight fills my chest and it is like I am looking at these streets for the first time – how many beggars, blind and broken, line the way to the temple courts? Heat rushes into my cheeks as I see my friends – other teachers like me – walk by them. They take no notice. Just as I never take notice. And just like I have done so many times before, they begin to pray aloud on the street corners even while the poor beg for help.

Is this how we act justly? Is this what I call mercy?

Regret brings me to a stand-still.

I think of helping some of lame to the Pool of Bethesda – but perhaps that would only be giving false hope, for the pool is surrounded always and there is only enough healing for the one who reaches its waters first.

Terrible exhaustion grips my body – or is it my heart? – and I turn away from the Temple to take the roads that will lead me home.

*******

My wife is curious. I am barely through the door before she asks – “Is he the One? Is the Baptizer our Messiah?”

“No,” I say, and gratefully sink into a chair, rest my feet in a basin of cool water.

Though I do not expect it, she kneels by my side and gently rinses the dirt from my feet. “I have to admit – I think I am disappointed.” She looks up at me, tears suddenly rising in her eyes. “I’ve been thinking about how wonderful it would be to be rid of the Roman soldiers. If the Deliverer would come soon, we would be free again. Perhaps we would see the glory of God again, Nicodemus, if they were driven out!”

Glory.” The word on my lips is sweet like honey, but it isn’t the exile of Roman rule that I am seeing. It’s John, shouting out ‘After me comes one who is more powerful…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire…

We are a people of tradition and law. Our High Priest keeps order. We adhere to the commandments of God – but wasn’t there once more to our faith than rules and rituals?

We know about our God – but aren’t we supposed to be a people who know Him? Isn’t that why He called Father Abraham? Isn’t that why He rescued our people again and again, drawing us back to our homeland? Isn’t that why He promised to write His law on our hearts, so that we could be wholly His?

“I’m sorry. He isn’t the One. But – he said to repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” I say to her in a whisper, “and I think that he speaks only the truth.”

Her hands drop my feet into the water and the splash startles both of us.

********

I am watching the moon climb high and fade by the light of the morning sun. I cannot close these eyes to what I once could not see. I see money-changers in the temple – they set the price for the people to give sacrifices, to gain forgiveness, and the cost is too much for many to bear.

Everywhere I turn, I see bondage. I see Pharisees and Sadducees tightly bound in battles of their own making. I see leaders – Roman and Jewish alike – scrambling to keep their own power. I see the sick and the elderly, abandoned and afraid. I see widows in want. I see the poor with shoulders slumped. I see how they never lift their eyes to meet mine.

I lift my own eyes to heaven – Messiah, will You come and deliver us? Can these dry bones live again?

For I begin to understand that we are a people destitute, devoid of God’s presence. My own righteousness showed itself by the Jordan River; it is blemished and ragged. We are pleased with the sound of our own voices and do not plead to hear His. We have filled ourselves up with power of our own making and have not even noticed that we are famished for His Spirit. I am no exception – but how can I change this? How can I enter into the presence of the Almighty God?

He will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire…

I think of Moses standing barefoot before a burning bush.

I think of the Hebrews following a pillar of cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night.

God, will You show us Your glory again?

_________________________

Part Two

My wife comes into the house, already back from her trip to the market. She sits her overflowing basket onto the floor. “Nicodemus, what are you still doing here? I thought you were going to the temple this morning.”

“I was tired,” I answer, “so I decided to stay here. But I see you’ve had a productive outing.”  I raise my eyebrows and point at her basket. “Rachel, have you left anything in the market for the rest of Jerusalem?”

She laughs and shakes her head. “Who knows how many relatives are going to show up this year to stay with us? The cleaning is nearly done, but I have to start preparing for the meal now before all of Israel fills our streets.”

Pesach. She is right. Time is passing quickly by and the days of Passover are close…once again, we will remember the days of old. We will remember our escape from Egypt. We will remember the miracles of God. We will remember the days of His glory in our midst.

Rachel crosses the room and puts her hands over mine, kneels so that we are face to face. “I know you have felt unwell, but I do think you should take that trip over to the temple. I think a walk will do you a great deal of good. Perhaps the fresh air will help you to finally have a restful night’s sleep.”

“Perhaps,” I say. But I cannot bear the thought of passing the beggars in the streets. I cannot bear the unrest in my soul when I cross into the temple courts. It was not so long ago that I found my greatest satisfaction there where my name is known, where I fulfilled my duty to God – but that day by the Jordan pierced my contentment. And now – the Baptizer sits in jail, taken in by Herod so that he can no longer declare the sin of our Roman ruler’s marriage to the people.

If John no longer calls out the Word of the Lord in the wilderness, where can I hear the voice of God? And will he remain in prison – because our High Priest fears provoking Herod’s anger – while we celebrate our festival of deliverance?

We will remember the presence of the Great I Am in the lives of our fathers – but will we pray for Him to be among us now?

Without warning, the cry of Habakkuk springs from my heart – Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord. Repeat them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy.

Yes, it is mercy that I need.

“Besides – you are missing the talk of the town while you are cooped up in this house.” The tone in Rachel’s voice shifts, gentleness giving way to urgency. “And – I think it is something you need to talk to the others about. Because I couldn’t get many details -”

“News of the Baptizer?” I lean forward, suddenly energized.

“No – not exactly. But there is news of one he baptized before Herod captured him. A Galilean man.”  She squeezes my hands. “Perhaps it is just market-gossip, but people are saying that he is a prophet of God. They are saying he is a prophet with the power to heal.”

I stand to my feet, pulling her up with me. “His name?”

She shakes her head. “I don’t know.”

“I’ll go,” I say. “If there is anyone gaining attention like this, Simon and the others will know.”

*******

The morning sun is warm as I lift my face to the sky. With the Passover comes spring and the first blossoms on the fruit trees. The times of the rain are passed, the time of the songbird has arrived…this is the change of season. How ready I am for new life.

I stop for a few moments, putting alms into the hands of the blind and lame, but I do not linger because this does not feel like enough. How can a few coins help someone who cannot see? How can I give these people any hope?

My wife’s words ring in my ears – a prophet with the power to heal – and I enter into the temple courts in anticipation.

The courts are, indeed, full today. There is a steady sound of conversation and the lowing of cattle waiting to be sold. I overhear a complaint – “the first dove was blemished, and he charged me twice as much for the second!”  Turning, I try to figure out who had been treated so poorly in their attempt to make a sacrifice, but they are lost in the bustle.

I glance around – there is Simon, one who prides himself on knowing everything there is to know. I eagerly beckon to him.

His grin is broad as he bypasses a sheep running from its new owner and comes to my side. “I am glad to see you are better, my friend!”

“Yes, thank you, I am much better today. How did you know I was ill?”

“The same way I hear most things. My wife heard from your wife that you were suffering some ailment.”

The beating of my heart is louder than even the chatter around us, isn’t it?  “Perhaps, then, you will know about this news my Rachel spoke of today. Perhaps she heard it from your wife.”

“The so-called prophet?” Simon’s eyebrows are raised high. “My Rebekah will not stop talking about him. She has never laid eyes on him, but the cousins of our servants sent word from Cana that he can turn water to wine and give sight to the blind. From all the stories they fill her head with, she will soon think the man can raise the dead!”

“Is it true?” I ask, a vision of the Baptizer in my mind – after me comes One who is more powerful than I…could this be the One he spoke of? “Who is he?” I ask, but my words are drowned out by sudden shouts of indignation.

Simon’s eyes are no longer on me. “Who is that?” he asks. “What is He doing?”

I turn to look – there, in the middle of a pack of running cows and sheep, stands a man with a whip in His hands and – even from here I can see it – fire in His eyes. We are shocked into stillness and silence as He drives the animals out of the courts. Their owners, protests pouring out, have no choice but to run after the animals. The man strides to the money-changers, looks at them as they stare up at Him with mouths hanging open. Without a word, in a swift motion, He takes their gold coins and throws them with a clatter onto the floor. He reaches back to the tables and sends them crashing to the ground. The nearby merchants draw back with their doves.

He turns to them and speaks. “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!”

At the sound of His voice – at those words – I don’t know how I am so certain, but there is no doubt in my mind that this is the man from Galilee.

The money-changers are on hands and knees, picking up their coins. Those men with the doves are leaving without complaint. The noise of the people has ceased. All eyes are on Him.

And there is one of our own, fury in his eyes, stepping around the overturned tables to approach this man. Simon grabs my elbow and pulls me along as others draw closer – I see Annas, indignation clear on his face, among the crowd.

“What sign can You show us to prove Your authority to do all this?” It is Annas who speaks out – our former High Priest’s voice is still strong, despite his age.

The man is bold; He looks directly at Annas. “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

Despite the tension of the moment, a muted chuckle rises from the crowd.

One of the priests calls out to Him, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and You are going to raise it in three days?”

Simon looks at me and shakes his head. “Does this man not fear the power of our council? Is he threatening our temple?”

“He is not afraid of anyone in this temple,” I say to Simon. That much is clear. “Can’t you see that there is no fear in that man? But I don’t know what He means.” I don’t know what it is He really saying – but I want to find out. He called this temple His Father’s house – and defended this place with authority in His voice. I have never seen – or heard – anything like this before.

But when I turn my head back to the center of the crowd, I no longer see Him standing there. I just see Annas and the rest of our people, with confusion in their expressions. As they begin to point at the mess and criticize the stranger’s words, the confusion becomes anger. Simon joins in the conversation and I slip away. I want to know this Galilean who so boldly cleansed the temple of our unrighteous ways.

*******

Rachel was right – the streets are quickly become congested with visitors and vendors preparing for the Festival.

I stop the first person I see. “Do you know where the man from Galilee is?”

“You mean Jesus?” The old woman smiles. “Follow the crowd. They will find Him.”

Jesus.

Is this what hope feels like?

I press into the throng of people and, yes, they are looking for Him. I am shoulder to shoulder with the poor, with the sick, with the forgotten. I think of the words we will soon say over the Passover meal – Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat; whoever is in need, let him come…

There, there He is. I hang back as all of these men and women, their children, approach Him. He listens to every word that they say. He bends His ear to the bent and lowly. He meets their outstretched arms.

I see a man with a useless leg drag himself closer. Was this the lame man I offered alms such a short time ago?  I had no hope for him – but Jesus touches him and I see the leg straighten and become as it should be. I see the man touch his leg in astonishment and watch as he leaps through the air, landing firmly on both feet.

“Glory be to God!” he exclaims.

Glory.  I cannot help myself. I move closer.

I watch a blind child placed at His feet. I see His touch, though I can’t hear His words from here, and I see the child’s unfocused eyes brighten. The child’s jubilant laughter is matched with His own.

Oh, these glad shouts of those who before carried sorrow heavy on their shoulders – isn’t this the sound of deliverance?

This – this is the impossible happening right before my eyes and, indeed, I stand in awe.

Who can this be but One from God? Is this the beginning of a new season for our people? Is this what the Kingdom of God looks like?

I can’t trust my legs to take me any closer, but I watch and I wonder – if He can heal bodies, can He bring new life to my dry and weary heart? Can He change even me?

With my eyes filled with tears, I finish the Passover words and I begin to believe them:

This year we are slaves; next year we will be free people.

___________________________________

Part Three

“We will monitor His actions and make sure He is controlled,” Caiaphas is saying as I step into the circle of Sanhedrin members gathered around him. “The last thing we need is the threat of an uprising against Rome – we must not let this Galilean incite the people into rebellion. We cannot chance losing control over our own affairs.”

This conversation is a far different one than I had with my Rachel last night. We talked well into the night about the wonders I had witnessed, hope leaping in our hearts. It was not rebellion on our minds, but restoration.

But these men nod their agreement with the High Priest.

“What if,” I hear myself saying, “it is a good thing? What if He is the one who can free us from Rome’s authority?”

It is a vision of glory – Israel crowned among the nations, all men walking together in peace. And – at last – our God as King, His glory surrounding us.

“Many have tried and failed to make Jerusalem our own again. What makes you think this man could succeed?” Annas eyes are narrowed, like he tries to peer into my mind.

“I know you are hearing the reports – and I have seen it for myself. He is no ordinary man. He touches people and they are healed of their ailments.” I cannot hold in my excitement. “Men! Don’t you see? Perhaps we have been waiting for this man, for this moment of time!”

“Look into it! He is the son of a carpenter – from Galilee of all places!” Benjamin looks at me with pity in his eyes. “Nicodemus, how can one so wise be tricked by one such as Jesus? Haven’t we seen these ‘healings’ before? He pays the poor to bring him their fake injuries and illnesses – it is not too hard to give sight to someone who can already see, now is it?”

I shake my head. “No, friend. This was no deceitful ploy. These crippled men were the same beggars I passed every day on the streets.”

“Enough!” Caiaphas’ face is strangely red, his hands gripped together. “He insulted the temple of God. He showed blatant disrespect to all of us. Not one more word shall be spoken in this place to imply that this Nazarene could be the Anointed One!”

“We are waiting for the King of Israel,” Annas says, “and not for a carpenter. I say this is the Baptizer’s doing. John has already caused us enough trouble with Herod and it is clear he has sent this man in his stead to provoke the people. We will not give him more attention than he deserves. No one on this council is to speak in favor of him or the people will surely take note.”

Everything within me wants to protest, to ask how they can be so quick to pass the final word of judgment – do they not want things to change? Can they not see that He did not insult the temple but defended it?

Every other man here nods agreement with Annas, their expressions grim and their wills resolute.

And I am filled with fear for all of us – if we are sent a new Word from God, will we be able to hear it? If we are sent One who baptizes with Spirit and fire, will we welcome him?

The ax is already at the root of the trees, John said, and the warning pounds in my head, twists in my gut.

Our fathers saw the Glory of God and begged to go back to their chains in Egypt…they died in the desert from lack of courage to enter into the Promises of God.

Oh, keep it far from me, my God – these dry bones crumbling in this desert of our own making.

If it is as John said – if the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, how will I find my way there? How can my unclean lips and this heavy heart come into Your Presence?

********

“They do not want us to be involved with him,” I say to my wife as she places two cups of tea on the table. I pick up one cup and stare into it. “If the people continue to be stirred up over him, they will try to stop him.”

She stares at me from across the table, her always-lovely dark eyes open wide. “They will stop him from helping our people? Why?”

“Caiaphas and the others – they do not believe that he can be the Messiah. They dismiss the healings as deceptions. They say that a carpenter from Nazareth is no king of Israel.” I put down the tea without tasting it and push away the bread. I have no appetite.

Rachel takes the bread and breaks off a piece of it. She looks back up at me and shrugs. “That is what they say. But what do you say?”

I think, again, of the way He drove out the merchants and stood up against the moneychangers. I think of His mysterious, fearless words. I think of His laughter as the lame danced and the mute began to sing out praise to God. I think of the fire in His eyes.

“I don’t know if He is King of Israel,” I say, “but He is not just a carpenter. And they may say He is from Nazareth – but how can such miracles be done unless He is from God?”

********

The moonlight streaming into the room only makes it more difficult to sleep. I turn, again, and Rachel sits up.

With a swift movement, a candle is lit in her hands. In the flickering light, I see tears in her eyes. “If what you say – if what you feel is true – then it will be far worse to not believe in Him than to deal with the anger of the council.”

My heart feels like it is taking up all the room in my chest, leaving no room for a deep breath. My palms are slick with sweat. “He may be gone already. Now that the Festival is over, many are leaving. And if anyone sees me – if anyone knows that I have sought Him out – ”

“Then what? What will they do?”

I sit up, wholly awake. “I don’t know. And maybe it doesn’t matter.” I think of Moses catching sight of that bush ablaze with a fire that did not consume and drawing near to it. I think of his prayer and it becomes my own – Show me Your glory. “There is much that I desire – and I desire it more than the approval of those men.”

Rachel leans her forehead against mine. “You will go – but make the journey carefully, early in the morning. If the council does have men watching him, they may try to stop you from reaching Him.”

The moon catches my attention again and I do not lie back against the pillows. I get up and reach for my robes. “I am going now.” She is right – I must reach Him. I will not risk missing this chance.

*******

The streets are empty and still but for the braying of a donkey in the distance. The scent of smoke floats with the wind.

I approach the road where I last saw him. The rumors flying through the market assured Rachel that He and His disciples were staying in a house along this way.

But it seems I will not have to search for him, for he has found me.

Face to face, under the moonlight, I can breathe again. He smiles and I feel no trepidation, no worry that he will turn me away. I am welcome here. This man that I have never before me – he knows me. So it without hesitation that I say – “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

He looks into my eyes and replies, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

It is like he sees straight into the desires of my heart. The Kingdom – this is what I long to see. This is where I want to be, in His Presence. But born again? Yes, these bones – they need new life – I need new life – but how is it possible? Is it, in fact, too late for me to enter into His Kingdom? “How can someone be born when they are old? Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

He answers, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’  The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

“How can this be?” I ache to understand his words. I ache to know of this birth and His Spirit.

“You are Israel’s teacher,” says Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony.  I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.  Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

My ears feel like they are hearing for the first time, my eyes open to a light like no other – everything, everything within me is wholly listening to these words – yes, even the very Word of God.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.”

Oh, I cannot stay here on this border of fear and unbelief – for over it is the Promise of God.

Long enough, we have lived through these days of dry bones – long enough, we have wandered in our own power without His Presence to lead us. Long enough, we have neglected the cause of mercy. Long enough, we have been content with our own wisdom instead of hearing the Word from our God.

And no sacrifice has taken the weight of guilt from my heart for my sin, for the way I can never measure up to the law  – but His words offer a way to freedom. His words offer salvation from condemnation. Here, in the presence of Jesus – this man from Nazareth and yet from God – I feel the fire of God’s glory and the song of His mercy. No, my hope will not be disappointed. For at last our God has come to us again, at last our Deliverer’s mighty arm is extended to His people. He loves us – we are a people beloved of God, a world given the gift of His life.

Who can stand on such holy ground?

Spirit, blow over us. Blow over me, make me new like one born again, like one made new. Write Your Word on my heart, teach me to know You – to walk with You, to honor You in all my ways.

On the outside, I remain the same –

But inside, abundant life flows.

 

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These Days of Dry Bones — Part One of Nicodemus’ Story (Love Leads Us Home {following Christ to Calvary}, Day 1)

The wind is blowing gently here by the Jordan River, but the words of the Baptizer are fierce – “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.”

His eyes are on us, his words meant for us. We came to see what he would say for himself – this man drawing people into the waters for baptism instead of sending them to the temple to make sacrifices, attracting crowds with his declarations of God’s kingdom drawing near. The others with me shift backwards and they begin to mutter under their breath, their indignation stirred by his insult.

Unbidden, words from the prophet Micah come to my mind and my hands begin to shake – He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

But if this is the fruit he means – the fruit in keeping with repentance – don’t I already produce it? Don’t I do all that is required of me?

Yet — my hands still tremble. I clench them into fists so that no one else will notice.

How can such a crowd become this silent? The Baptizer’s words are clear and carry so that every ear hears. “And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

The muttering around me becomes louder, insults for this wild man in his camel’s hair slipping from one man to the next, but I cannot speak.

It feels like he is looking directly at me when he opens his mouth again. “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

*******

I leave Bethany with one answer – this John, he says himself that he is not the Messiah- but his words have only filled me with more questions.

John’s declaration about repentance, about the ax at the root of the trees – I cannot shake them, even as I come home to Jerusalem. Why should I feel so unsure? I am a teacher. I know the law. I try to be wise in my work with the Sanhedrin. Anyone would say that we are holy – we are Pharisees, after all, set apart as much as we can possibly be from anything unclean. Our lives – my life – is dedicated to God.

And yet – we have heard no word from Him in so long…could this be the Word of the Lord? Isaiah prophesied a voice calling out in the wilderness, making straight the way for the Lord…could John, as he claims, truly be that voice?

The temple is ahead, beautiful in the light of the sun. It has been restored by one who does not honor God as we do, but it – at least – still belongs to us. I have often wondered what the kings of old would think if they could see us now – ruled by Gentiles, bound by the power of an Emperor’s law. First the Greeks held our land – our land promised to us by God – and now these Romans, they are everywhere and they consume everything in their path. When our fathers came back to this city, at last released from Babylon – surely this was not their dream, to have it fall back into other hands. Surely it was not what they would want for us – this constant struggle to keep peace with Rome, so that we do not lose power over our traditions and even our worship.

A weight fills my chest and it is like I am looking at these streets for the first time – how many beggars, blind and broken, line the way to the temple courts? Heat rushes into my cheeks as I see my friends – other teachers like me – walk by them. They take no notice. Just as I never take notice. And just like I have done so many times before, they begin to pray aloud on the street corners even while the poor beg for help.

Is this how we act justly? Is this what I call mercy?

Regret brings me to a stand-still.

I think of helping some of lame to the Pool of Bethesda – but perhaps that would only be giving false hope, for the pool is surrounded always and there is only enough healing for the one who reaches its waters first.

Terrible exhaustion grips my body – or is it my heart? – and I turn away from the Temple to take the roads that will lead me home.

***************

My wife is curious. I am barely through the door before she asks – “Is he the One? Is the Baptizer our Messiah?”

“No,” I say, and gratefully sink into a chair, rest my feet in a basin of cool water.

Though I do not expect it, she kneels by my side and gently rinses the dirt from my feet. “I have to admit – I think I am disappointed.” She looks up at me, tears suddenly rising in her eyes. “I’ve been thinking about how wonderful it would be to be rid of the Roman soldiers. If the Deliverer would come soon – we would be free again. Perhaps we would see the glory of God again, Nicodemus, if they were driven out!”

Glory.” The word on my lips is sweet like honey, but it isn’t the exile of Roman rule that I am seeing. It’s John, shouting out ‘After me comes one who is more powerful…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire…

We are a people of tradition and law. Our High Priest keeps order. We adhere to the commandments of God – but wasn’t there once more to our faith than rules and rituals?

We know about our God – but aren’t we supposed to be a people who know Him? Isn’t that why He called Father Abraham? Isn’t that why He rescued our people again and again, drawing us back to our homeland? Isn’t that why He promised to write His law on our hearts, so that we could be wholly His?

“I’m sorry. He isn’t the One. But – he said to repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” I say to her in a whisper, “and I think that he speaks only the truth.”

Her hands drop my feet into the water and the splash startles both of us.

********

I am watching the moon climb high and fade by the light of the morning sun. I cannot close these eyes to what I once could not see. I see money-changers in the temple – they set the price for the people to give sacrifices, to gain forgiveness, and the cost is too much for many to bear. Everywhere I turn, I see bondage. I see Pharisees and Sadducees tightly bound in battles of their own making. I see leaders – Roman and Jewish alike – scrambling to keep their own power. I see the sick and the elderly, abandoned and afraid. I see widows in want. I see the poor with shoulders slumped – I see how they never lift their eyes to meet mine.

I lift my own eyes to heaven – Messiah, will You come and deliver us? Can these dry bones live again?

For I begin to understand that we are a people destitute, devoid of God’s presence. My own righteousness showed itself by the Jordan River — it is blemished and ragged. We are pleased with the sound of our own voices and do not plead to hear His. We have filled ourselves up with power of our own making and have not even noticed that we are famished for His Spirit. I am no exception – but how can I change this? How can I enter into the presence of the Almighty God?

He will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire…

I think of Moses standing barefoot before a burning bush.

I think of the Hebrews following a pillar of cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night.

God, will You show us Your glory again?

______________________________________________________

“The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because He was before me.’ I myself did not know Him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that He might be revealed to Israel.”

Then John gave this testimony: I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on Him. And I myself did not know Him, but the One who told me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the One who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.” –John 1:29-34

“Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about Him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised Him. He went to Nazareth, where He had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day He went into the synagogue as was His custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. Unrolling it, He found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me To preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives And recovery of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are oppressed;  To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him.

And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” – Luke 4:14-21

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(Although we can’t be sure that Nicodemus was among the group of Pharisees visiting John the Baptist, I like to think that this might be the moment his heart begin to know that there was something more in store…the scenes with John the Baptist are based on John 1:15-34 and Matthew 3:1-17)

What to Remember When You Feel Forgotten

Milky Way @ Joshua Tree National Park

His eyes were filled with regret as he told her that their time together was over. But what good did his sympathy do for her? His affection was not deep enough to keep her there, to keep their son safe – shame turned her skin hot, each breath seemed too loud and too long. For hadn’t she thought that he had chosen them? Hadn’t she thought their child important?

She’d been wrong. “I never asked for this,” she said to him. “You came to me. Everything I did was to please you.”

She remembered those first months, her Ishmael growing within. Perhaps she had been wrong to so resent this man’s first woman, but never had she expected to bear a child that would not truly belong to her. Never had she felt the loneliness of belonging to a man whose heart was fully enthralled with someone else.

She had fled this place, all those years ago, chosen to leave the unkindness of her mistress. She would’ve kept away, would’ve made a new life for herself — but who would argue with an angel of the Lord? Who would expect this banishment when the Lord had stopped her, had seen her as she ran — when He saw her trouble and promised her descendants too many to count?

She’d thought that meant He would guard Ishmael’s life – even if the promise did come with warning of Ishmael’s wild spirit.  There must be hope for his future.

What would become of them if He had changed His mind?

“I am sorry. You must go.” Abraham looked away from her, toward Sarah’s tent.

Her words had no weight. She had no power to change this. No power to protect her son. She knew he had shown no kindness to Isaac, but was there no mercy? Had all of their chances ran out?

“How will I take care of him?” She threw her pride to the ground, clasped his robe. “Please, let him stay. I will go. Keep him here.”

“The Lord has spoken. He will take care of my son.”

Nothing was fair, nothing was right. The woman who had brought them together, the woman who had willed her Ishmael into existence – she was now forcing them into exile, blaming Ishmael for his place in the camp.

Abraham gave her food and a skin of water, placed it all on her shoulders.

Her son dug his feet into the ground as they took the first steps away. He crossed his arms. “Why are we going? It isn’t fair. It’s because of him, because of Isaac.”

He was leaving his friends, his bed, his father. His home.

“We have to go,” she said. “Please,” she whispered, desperation making her fingers weak as she grasped for his arm. “Please. I can’t stand being here anymore.”

“Where will we go?” he asked. “What will we do?”

And she with no answers, except to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Did the Lord see her now?

It felt like He had closed His eyes.

********************

Keeping track of their days in the desert soon became impossible. She didn’t care how many hours had passed, not anymore. There was too much barren ground, too much heat, too little rest from the anxiety cramping in her stomach. They sweated out any of the water they drank by day and shivered side-by-side at night. She had no idea if they were any closer to finding a place to survive than the early morning when they had left home. She had no idea how to find more food for Ishmael’s growling stomach once their rations ran out.

He had stopped asking questions. He had been walking these last days without complaint. She had stumbled and he helped her back to her feet, gently brushing sand from her hands.

“I need to sit.” With the breaking of their silence, he swayed and she steadied him as best she could. “Water?” he asked, his hoarse voice cracking on the word.

She took the skin out and held it to his lips. A few drops fell out.

The last drops.

“Sit,” she said, guiding him to a patch of prickly bushes. “Stay here.”

There was no more water in the skin and none to be found in this forsaken place. She looked into the cloudless sky and down at her boy. Her strong boy, her almost-man, had tears running down his dusty face. Leaning close, she kissed his dark cheek and turned. I love you. She couldn’t bear to look at him again. He needed water. And she had none to give.

I cannot watch the boy die, she thought. I cannot. It is more than I can take.

No thought to her direction, she moved away from him, far enough that he could not hear her wail, and fell to the ground. The tears she’d tried to hold back all came, now that there was nothing left to lose.

What is the matter, Hagar?

She coughed on the tears suddenly caught in her throat. She knew this voice. She held her breath, afraid to miss a word coming from the heavens.

Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.

Her vision was suddenly clear of the salt-stinging tears and the sun’s glare abated as she stood, hope giving her legs the strength that had been lost. Her eyes opened wide.

There, there not such a distance away – a well! 

She ran, laughter trailing behind her. “Ishmael!” she shouted with renewed energy, renewed hope. “I am coming!”

Her son would live.

The Lord still had His eyes on her.

She would never again have Abraham in her life or a place in his tent, but his God had not forsaken her. He had not pushed aside His promise to her son.

They had not been forgotten.

************

Maybe you are in your own desert, unsure of why you’re stuck there and desperate for a way out.

Maybe you feel unimportant and cast aside. Maybe you feel forgotten.

Maybe you are heart-sick because there is pain on every side and no easy solutions are in sight.

Maybe you are asking this question: God, do You even see me?  

I imagine that Hagar felt all of these things. It’s easy to wonder how Sarah could have been cruel enough to send this woman and her child away, but then – in those years while she waited for a child, didn’t Sarah wonder why Hagar had been given what she so desired for herself? She, too, probably felt unimportant. Cast aside. Not worthy enough to have a place.

Sarah and Hagar could not understand what was happening in their lives. Sarah heard God’s promise and thought it would never come to pass, at least not if she was involved. She was too old and so this covenant-child would belong to someone else…Abraham’s future would surely leave her behind.

Hagar knew the Lord had spoken of a future for her son and yet there was nowhere to go, no place for them. She gave up hope and prepared to die.

Yes, these women had more in common than they probably would have admitted. And we have a lot in common with them, too.

Sarah and Hagar felt alone and forgotten.

But they were never actually alone or forgotten, not for one moment.

Neither are you.

Sometimes it feels like we can’t see God…like we can’t quite hear or feel Him.

But that emotion doesn’t change the truth that His eyes are always open to us. His ears always hear the cries of one who seeks Him. He never, ever leaves us alone.

We know that these are the promises God has given in His Word – and yet, sometimes, we let ourselves get caught up in the trouble we see and the pain we feel. We forget to trust in the One who knows us best, the One who is the Author of our faith and our life-story.

He has a plan for us — just like He had a plan for Sarah and Hagar. He has a plan for the people we love, just like He had a plan for Isaac and for Ishmael. Sometimes His long-term vision requires a desert or a circumstance that we just cannot understand. In this life, we cannot explain all of the ways and whys of God…there is no way to capture and unfold every mystery on this side of eternity.

But we know that He will complete the good work He began in us. (Phil. 1:6) We know that He works all things for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. (Rom. 8:28)  And we know Who He is – our Provider, our Comforter, our King. When our world and our hearts are shaken, we have to remember this: we serve a God whose Word endures forever. We serve a God “who has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand and with the breadth of His hand marked off the heavens…who has held the dust of the earth in a basket and weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance.  Our God will “bring out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of His great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing”.  (from Isaiah 40)

Not one of them is missing.

Every single star is named. Every star is in its place.

I can’t help but think of God’s promise to Abraham: Look up at the sky and count the stars – if indeed you can count them. So shall your offspring be.

That’s us, friends. We are spiritual children of Abraham, blessed because of his faith.

And the God who is the intimate caretaker of the stars (when we can’t even begin to see or count each one) knows you by name, too.

Isaiah 40 goes on with a question from The Lord to his people – “why do you complain? Why do you say that your way is hidden from Me? Why do you say that your cause is disregarded by your God?

Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary,

and His understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.”

You are not hidden from God. He hears you. He sees you. He has compassion for you.

You are named, friend, by this God of great power and mighty strength. Not one star is missing, not one is forgotten.  And neither are you.

We may not be able to understand it all – the closed doors, the deserts, the pain-because His grace will always outdo our imaginations. But some day we will see how He kept us, refined us, ordered our steps exactly as they needed to be to bring us to His heart.

Hagar and Ishmael’s story goes on to say this: God was with the boy as he grew up. (Genesis 21:20)  God was faithful to all He had promised.

I think there’s a lot to glean from the lives of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, and Ishmael…but what I want to remember on this day is, simply, the love God has for His people. He is a Father who makes springs in the desert and provides all that we need. He covers our sin with His own righteousness and His grace is our forever-hope.

He hears us.

He sees us.

We can trust our hearts to His loving hands.

“Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be revoked: before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear. They will say of me, “In the Lord alone are deliverance and strength.”

“He tends His flock like a shepherd:

He gathers the lambs in His arms and carries them close to His heart.”  (from Isaiah 40)

 

*fictional re-telling of Hagar and Ishmael’s story is drawn from Genesis 16 & 21

*photograph from andrin0