Second Sunday in Lent
The first time I went to see him, I did so under cover of night.
At the time I thought it was just a wise precaution. As a prominent Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin, it could have been touchy if any of my peers found out that I had gone to visit the maverick rabbi from the Galilee. In the words of Ricky Ricardo, I would have had some ‘splainin’ to do. So I thought it best to travel the streets alone, incognito, to try to satisfy my curiosity about this odd but compelling figure called Yeshua.
It was only later that it occurred to me that my nighttime visit was appropriate in another, more profound, metaphorical way. The darkness of that moonless night mirrored the darkness within my soul. I was groping about like a man in a blindfold, hoping to latch onto something that would slake my thirst for truth, for understanding, for … illumination. I remember a later time when I heard Jesus preaching, and he said, “I am the light of the world; anyone who follows me will never walk in darkness.” He was the one I had been looking for all along, as it turns out. I just didn’t know it yet. On the night of my first visit I was still groping.
From the time I was a young boy I had had a deep interest in the things of God. As a young man I threw myself into the study of the Torah and the Prophets, I spent some time among the ascetic Essene group near the Salt Sea, and finally I aligned myself with the Pharisees. They seemed to me to offer the best balance between intellectual rigor, religious practice, and theological innovation. The Essenes were rigorous but a bit too fanatical for my blood, and the Sadducees … well, I have long felt that they too readily went along with anything the Roman administration wanted. I thought of many of the priests as Pilate’s and later Florus’s lap dogs, so eager to accommodate even the most egregious violations of the laws of our people and the dictates of justice, as long as in doing so their income and estates and villas were secure.
I never said any of this aloud, of course. I confess to my shame that in my younger days, besides my hunger for knowledge and the strictness of my religious practice, I was also ambitious. Not necessarily for power or wealth, but for prestige. My father’s father had experienced some setback as a young man—I never knew just what, because it had leveled a serious blow to the family honor and was therefore never discussed openly, but only in hushed tones that would always cease as soon as my brothers or I drew near. Even though I didn’t know the details of my grandfather’s indiscretion, I felt its effects keenly. A cloud always seemed to hang over our household, and would follow me as I walked in the marketplace or to the meeting house in our village. It became a sort of obsession with me: the notion that I could restore our family’s honor and erase the memory of my grandfather’s shame by achieving high rank among our people.
I did pretty well at it, too, rising in the esteem of my teachers, then surpassing them all in erudition and piety, and finally being appointed to the great council in Jerusalem. Along the way I had learned diplomacy and discretion. When I disagreed with one of my colleagues on some point of interpretation, if that person ranked above me, I would swallow my objections and say nothing. I became so adept at bridling my tongue that I became known among my peers as “Silent Nick.” One of your writers once said that it was better to keep one’s mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. Well, I was no fool, but I knew how to keep my own counsel. I became a cautious man.
So cautious that I even shrouded my face as I ventured out to converse with Yeshua. It helped that it was a cold night, but I would have covered my face even in the sweltering heat. Self-protection had become second nature to me. Prudence was my middle name.
But there was something about this guy that drew me out that night, against my better judgment, to talk with him. He had burst on the scene only weeks before, when he made a huge splash by demonstrating in the temple during the Passover festival. He had come into the Gentiles’ Court with a whip in his hand and a chip on his shoulder. He flipped over the tables of the money changers and drove out the livestock assembled for sacrifice. I was with my colleague Andronicus in another part of the temple complex when we heard the commotion, and we hurried over to see this young firebrand, surrounded by scribes, priests, merchants, and the elders of our people, all shouting at once.
Andronicus went over to join in the fray, but I stood back a little way, cautious as ever, and watched and listened. Yeshua looked remarkably calm, considering his zealous exertions of a few moments before, still evident in the form of upended furniture, broken cages, bleating sheep, and grown men on their hands and knees frantically scraping together the coins Yeshua had scattered on the pavement. All the leaders and many of the onlookers were yelling at him, shaking their fists and demanding that he explain this outrage. He raised his hand and opened his mouth to speak, and I was surprised to see the clamor die down almost immediately. The young man had a natural charisma and an innate sense of authority, and every eye was drawn to him, mine included.
He said in a calm, clear, authoritative voice, with a maddeningly enigmatic turn of phrase I would soon know all too well, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19).
At that, the crowd erupted again, some crying, “He’s a madman!” and others, “Away with him!” Another of my colleagues from the council, Simeon, after some considerable effort got the people to quiet down again, and said to Yeshua in that condescending way of his, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” (John 2:20). He scoffed, and looked around at the assembled mob for support: “Am I right, people?”
The crowd clearly did think he was right, and he was soon buffeted with congratulatory backslaps as his friends said, “Good one, Simeon! You shut him up and no mistake!”
I paid no attention to the blustering Simeon, but looked instead straight at Yeshua. I found it nearly impossible to take my eyes off of him, to tell the truth, his presence was that riveting. I suspected that behind his words lay something more than the ravings of a lunatic. Clearly he had uttered an oracle, and it had gone right over Simeon’s and his cronies’ heads. I smiled to myself when I saw Yeshua roll his eyes and walk away.
It was not long after that episode that I made my nocturnal visit to the rabbi. Passover had ended and the streets were deserted. We met in a quiet spot not far from the Mount of Olives. I had come because I was intrigued by this mysterious character who seemed to have sprung up out of nowhere and yet carried himself as one with unquestionable authority and the right to interpret the law with absolute freedom (some said license). A rumor was going around that he had performed a sign at a marriage feast in some nondescript Galilean village a few months ago—he had transformed water into wine. I can’t believe it was an accident that the water had come from the jars used for the purification ritual. He had taken the flat water of our traditions and changed it into the joyous wine of something utterly new. He was a reformer, and we needed as many reformers as we could get in those troubled times. I discovered later that his mission was much more than mere reform, but at the time that was enough to draw my interest.
When I arrived I said to Yeshua, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” (v. 2). I was pleased with the way that sounded: respectful but noncommittal. Turns out it didn’t much matter, though; he didn’t acknowledge my compliment, didn’t even seem to have heard me, but instead came back with a non sequitur so out of the blue that I wasn’t sure I heard right. It appeared his style was to skip the pleasantries and jump right into the deep end.
What he said was this: “Amen, amen, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born anew from above” (v. 3). Where did that come from, I thought? I hadn’t said anything about seeing the kingdom of God, and what did he mean by being born anew, and what was the deal with the two “amens” at the beginning of the sentence? It was a verbal quirk of his that I noticed he did when he wanted to emphasize something strongly. I had never heard anybody do that before. It reminded me of the formula many of the prophets used: “This is the word of the Lord.” He was backing his words with divine authority. Curious. Not blasphemous, necessarily, but certainly curious.
It took me a moment to regain my footing. He had used a word that could mean to be born either “anew” or “from above,” and I got the feeling he wanted to convey both ideas at once. But I had no clue what he was talking about. I stammered out something stupid along the lines of, “How can an old person like me be born again? Am I supposed to crawl back into my mother’s womb to be born anew?” It sounds kind of snotty, I realize in retrospect, but in the moment I was genuinely confused.
Then Yeshua hit me with another of those “amen, amen” sayings, which sort of did and sort of didn’t answer my question. He did that a lot. I realize now that he was not answering my questions, but rather the questions I should have asked. He said, “Amen, amen, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” He must have seen my look of consternation, because he continued by saying, “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew from above.' The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (vv. 5–8).
The language he was using was so new to me, and his ideas were so unconventional that I didn’t know what to make of it all. He said a lot more that night, about a figure he called the Son of Man being lifted up like the bronze serpent Moses raised in the wilderness to save the people from snakebite, about God’s love for the God-hating world, about God’s unwillingness to condemn us but our stubborn insistence on condemning ourselves, and so on. But the image that stuck in my mind most of all was that bit about the wind.
Ruach. That’s the word in the language of our Scriptures. Pneuma it is in Greek. It means breath, wind, spirit. It was the ruach of God that swept over the waters as God fashioned the heavens and the earth at the beginning of all things. It was the ruach that God breathed into the man he had formed of clay, making him into a living creature. It was the ruach of God that blew over the valley of bones in Ezekiel’s vision, lifting them to their feet, wrapping them in flesh, muscle, and sinew; and that then entered them, bringing them to life.
What Jesus was telling me—I didn’t know it yet, but I would understand it later—was that he had come to change everything. Turning the water of the old covenant into the wine of God’s new world was only the beginning. In Yeshua, the ruach of God was at loose in the world, blowing where it would—wild, untamed, untamable. That the ruach would continue to blow even after he was, as he called it, lifted up from the earth. That he himself would breathe the ruach onto those who would come after him, so that they too would be wild and untamable. That I could be one of those if I so chose.
Understand, it took me a long while before I pieced all this together. When I left that night, I felt more confused than ever. I felt discouraged. But Yeshua had planted a seed, and it began to germinate in my depths, secretly, until it was ready to bear fruit. The wind, the ruach, had begun to blow.
I kept tabs on Yeshua and his crew after that, as I continued to ponder our enigmatic conversation. He was back and forth between Jerusalem and Galilee a lot over the next couple of years, and it seemed that every time he came to town he got himself embroiled in some controversy or other. He was always making somebody mad—mostly, I think, the people who wanted so desperately to maintain control, and for whom the prospect of God’s untamable wind blowing through their neat and orderly lives was truly terrifying.
Over time I started, without really noticing it at first, to become less cautious. The wind was blowing. I had occasion to defend Yeshua once when the council was debating whether to arrest him. That got me into a bit of hot water, I can tell you. But when Yeshua ran afoul of the leaders one final time and got lifted up like the serpent in the wilderness, I went with my friend Joseph to collect his body and give him a burial fit for the king I had come to believe he was, all bets were off. I had thrown in my lot with Yeshua, and I could never go back to my safe, respectable, cautious life. I haven’t missed it for a second.
Since that day I have been swept along on the untamable wind of the Spirit, what one of your songwriters once referred to as “the reckless raging fury that they call the love of God.” Because that’s what it is, in the end. It’s love. It’s acceptance. It’s truth and grace, justice and righteousness. The wind blows away all barriers and divisions. It knocks down every flimsy structure we set up to try to keep ourselves safe and respectable, every wall we build to separate ourselves from what—and whom—we fear. It blows through my every pretense, all my theological posturing and intellectual humbug. It blows me over every time I set myself up on pedestal or throne. It sends me to places I never would have gone, to people I would never have given the time of day. The untamable wind of God never lets me become complacent or comfortable, but is always shaking me up, sending me out, pushing me ever deeper into God’s truth, into God’s unfathomable love.
I have never felt so alive.