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?

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“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)

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Story-Undone (Imagining the Woman who Believed)

woman with veil

She holds hope steady, most days, careful with every step. She keeps it close, far from eyes that would condescend, words that would weaken the flame of maybe…of some day. For she is the story heard too many times. Sympathy runs out, she has learned, and the hopeless are pushed aside.

It is too hard, too difficult to keep building up the possibility of change when the suffering stretches on without end, and so days have piled upon days–years upon years– and even those who love her speak no hope.

For hasn’t she used up all of their condolences, tried each piece of advice to find none that fit? Solutions have run like water through her fingers. Healers have only taken from her, leaving her with nothing except pain that grows stronger.

And so she is irrelevant. Avoided, for these past years, like one who is cursed. And she can’t blame anyone for it – for what good is a woman who cannot be present in her own life? What future for a wife who cannot live as one with her husband?

They fear her, fear becoming like her.

She understands. But understanding makes it no easier to be alone, no easier to live without even a simple touch from another. Understanding does not lessen the grief of all she has lost.

She tries not to think of him, tries to forget their first years as husband and wife, when it seemed all she’d wanted – love and a family of her own – was hers.

But even in her mourning, she does not let go of the light, no – she holds it closer still.

**********

As she sips tea in the garden, her eyes on the stars, her mind is full of the rumors flying through the town. Usually, she closes her ears to the latest gossip, knowing what it is like to have her own name whispered and discussed. But these weeks have held tale after tale of a Nazarene moving about from town to town – a man preaching of the Kingdom of Heaven, a man leaving healing in his wake. Leprosy, paralysis, blindness, illness – ailment after ailment, gone with the touch of his hand. Even those tortured by demons are at peace, at last free –

–a rush of blood from her body leaves her light-headed and she places the tea carefully to the side. Oh, to be free. She breathes deeply, considers the moon in its pale glory, and wonders where he is now, this man of miracles.

With his name on her lips, she prepares for the night’s sleep, alone. It is a cold night and she shivers beneath the thin blanket.

Yes, some days the flame within her flickers low, with barely enough light to force her eyes open to face another day.

For who on this earth can change the ending to her story?

There is none. She knows it quite well.

*********

Her dreams are crowded. There’s Sarah, laughing into her hands at the prophecy of a son…and, again, rocking Isaac in wrinkled arms against a bosom renewed with life. There’s Hagar, crying out in the desert over her dying son…and a well bursting forth where there’d been only hot sand. She dreams of Hannah, years gone by without a son, weeping before the Lord…only turning around with a pile of coats in her arms and a smile on her face for her Samuel. There is Joseph, abandoned in a pit and sold as a slave, saving a nation. And, there, the face of the prophet and his words exuberant in her ears – Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows

She wakes, his name the first of her thoughts.

Who on this earth can change her?

No man, but she cannot give up on the I AM.  For if it will be to His glory, if it will be to His purpose, the endings change.

She knows that she is only a woman. One of many daughters of Israel, but does that mean He cares any less for her than He did for Hagar or Hannah?

Her favorite stories always have been of the murderer becoming a mighty man, the frightened villager a hero-warrior…a shepherd becoming King.

It seems to her that the I AM does not require a human of renown, only a human willing to believe in Him. She thinks of the promises the prophets spoke, of the Messiah her people long for…could this Nazarene – one who casts out evil and takes sickness away with a word – be the promised One?

The Messiah, he is coming, this is all she knows.

I believe. She says it loud, to the darkness and to the pain that keeps her from sleep. Slowly, carefully, she moves to a window and looks again to the sky. Again, she surrenders herself to the Almighty. For even if she is to live all her days with this burden, He has been the comfort of her years and has not abandoned her despite the declarations of priests and family alike that she is unworthy to enter the temple.

Never could she say it aloud to anyone without accusations of blasphemy, but it seems to her that though she could not find admittance into the dwelling of the I AM, the I AM has come to where she dwells. Only to Him can she attribute any peace of mind. Only to Him can she credit her joy, even now, in the beauty of this world that disdains her. “The Lord is my shepherd,” she says. “I shall not want.”

In the dim but steady light of the moon, she holds it deep within her, the glowing flame of faith that she refuses to live without. 

*******

Little Joshua knocks on the door, his basket of fruit nearly empty.

“There isn’t much left to buy,” he says with a shrug. “Too many people in the streets today. They were hungry.”

“What was going on?” she asks, keeping her careful distance.

He grins, sudden like a flash of lightning. “The prophet from Galilee is on his way through,” he says. “I saw him myself.”

“Jesus?” The name dances out of her mouth in a whisper.

“Yes,” he says. “My father says he is a liar, but my mother says he is the one the prophets spoke of because a liar can’t make a blind man see.”

Her skin wakens like a cool wind washes over her and she knows only one thing: she must see him.

********

Her eyes search the crowd.

She wonders at the way they follow casually, some eating chunks of bread, some laughing at a newly told joke, some gossiping about the man and his miracles like he is a million miles away instead of right within their midst.

Have they not heard?

Have they not seen?

Can he be any other but the Promised One?

And if he be the Messiah, if he is one sent from the I AM – how are they not all on their knees? How can they not run to him with their hungry relatives, their sick brethren, their own fear-filled hearts?

She pushes past, murmurs of complaint following her. Maybe some recognize her, for they back away. Unclean, they must be whispering.

But most don’t notice. They are too busy with their conversations, their own worries.

She stops a stranger, a woman with a child clinging to her hand. “Where is he going?” she asks.

“To heal a child,” the woman says. “A dying girl.”

She nods her thanks, keeps stepping ahead, looking for the man that has brought these people together.

And, there, in the middle of it all, men walking all around him — there He is. She stops, so suddenly that someone bumps into her, muttering annoyance at the collision. Never before has she seen this man and – yet – somehow she knows Him. “Jehovah-Jireh,” she whispers. “I believe. Help me believe.”

This is her chance. Her moment to call out to Him, to receive healing.

Instead she stays totally still but for her eyes, which follow Him.

Because there is a little girl, so sick that her parents fear death is her fate.

She thinks of the babies she has never held, the love-loss she has mourned.

No, she will not disrupt His journey to that child. She will not hold Him back from comforting a mother who cries for her daughter, a child suffering.

She watches as He walks further and further away. An ache deep in her stomach is so sudden and sharp that she gasps aloud, bends slightly with rushed breath.

Perhaps — perhaps she can get just close enough to touch Him. Even the slightest touch of His robe — it would be enough, she is sure. She will not bother or detain Him. Only grasp the hem of his robe, just for a moment.

One foot in front of the other and the closer she gets, the more determined she grows.

Paying no mind to those blocking her path, she weaves and ducks and squeezes through until He is there, before her, and the pitter-patter heart-beat in her chest is all she feels. Almighty Lord, she prays, my life is in Your hands.

Quiet, though no one could hear her in this chaos, she steps quick and light. She stretches her arm out, fingers reaching–and the hem, it is soft between fingers for but a second and gone, pulled forward. Her hands fall back, empty.

But the weakness she has worn like a second skin drops away.

Her very bones feel brand new and she stands taller, joy like sunrise filling her with warmth. Is her skin glowing? Can her body hold such power? There is no surge of blood, no faintness of head or heart. She is whole. He has made her whole!

Oh, but the beauty of this Man and the holiness of this place!

“Bless the Lord, O my soul!” she sings it, sings it straight to the heavens, her eyes never leaving him, this prophet who is more than a prophet, this man who is more than a man.

And he stops. Stops, looks to His left and right- He says something to the men who walk by Him. They all stop, looking around and shrugging. He turns around.

The conversations of the crowd cease.

In the sudden stillness, His voice is clear – “Who touched my clothes?”

One of the men nearest reaches out to Him. “You see all these people, all crowding against you. How can you ask, who touched you?”

Her palms are slick with sweat, her legs shaking beneath her. Of course, of course He felt her touch. Despite her best effort, she has interrupted His journey, infringed on His time. She is just a woman, a woman who does not deserve this blessing — perhaps she misunderstood what was asked of her. Perhaps – of course!- she should have sought some freedom from her impurity before touching Him. A sacrifice — many sacrifices — offered in the temple…for what can she offer Him now? She has nothing.

He is still looking and she is trembling, but there is nothing to do but confess. Nothing to do but accept whatever the Holy One wills.

She moves forward and falls at His feet. She does not dare look up.

“Master, I am the one. I touched you.” Tears come fierce. “For twelve years, I have been unclean with an issue of blood that no man could heal. I’ve been forgotten by my people, but still I have waited upon the Lord – I knew I must come to You, though I didn’t want to stop You on Your journey — and, Master, I am made whole by one touch of your garment. If I have offended you with my touch, I am sorry – so sorry-” The words can no longer push through the sobs shaking her body.

“Daughter.”

His voice is low and edged only in compassion. Her nerves still and the tears slow – she looks up. Daughter?

“Daughter,” He says again. “Your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”

It has been so long since someone has really looked at her. It has been so long since she has felt like she mattered.

And He is smiling. Smiling, at her – with eyes that know her, with eyes so full of love like she has never before seen.

She couldn’t ask Him to stop — but He stopped, anyway, and He stopped just for her.

At His feet, she lingers, and in His eyes – she sees Truth – she sees the light carried within now standing before her, never to be hidden again.

Her hope, at last – finally – has been fulfilled.

He has changed her story.

All she can do is cry out praise, because something within her knows: He has come to change every story.
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He changed her life, this woman who had suffered for so long. He gave her healing, peace of mind…He gave her freedom. Because she believed – because she followed Him – everything changed.

Who am I today? The woman so sure of her need that she will reach out to Jesus and fall at His feet in total dependence upon Him? Or am I a face in the crowd, content to hear of His works but not ready for Him to work in me?

I hope that I am like the unnamed woman, seeking Him always. Never self-sufficient….finding hope only in Him.

What I know for sure is that we will be changed when we reach out to touch Him, believing Him. If our situation doesn’t change, what we hold inside will. He is never too busy, never unavailable. What I know for sure is that even if we don’t feel like we can ask Him to stop for us, He already has.

To Him, she was never unloved. Never forgotten. To Him, never useless. Never hopeless.

And neither are we.

He came into our world to change our story.

We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen. We look at this Son and see God’s original purpose in everything created. For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible, rank after rank after rank of angels—everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him. He was there before any of it came into existence and holds it all together right up to this moment. And when it comes to the church, he organizes and holds it together, like a head does a body.

He was supreme in the beginning and—leading the resurrection parade—he is supreme in the end.From beginning to end he’s there, towering far above everything, everyone. So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross.

You yourselves are a case study of what he does. At one time you all had your backs turned to God, thinking rebellious thoughts of him, giving him trouble every chance you got. But now, by giving himself completely at the Cross, actually dying for you, Christ brought you over to God’s side and put your lives together, whole and holy in his presence.” ~From Col.1 (MSG)

(This was originally posted in September of 2012)