"Master?" said Nicodemus. Jesus stopped and looked at him.
There was no fear at being accosted by a stranger at this unusual hour. Just expectancy. Jesus, always expectant, waited.
"Master," Nicodemus continued just above a whisper, "I am an old man. Just a moment of your time. I intend no inconvenience."
"It is you who are the 'master,' my friend. I remember you from when I was a child," responded Jesus. "I stood among inquirers in the Temple room, you sat upon the dais. I was but a scrawny youth."
"Eh?" grunted Nicodemus, "My mind fails me." For the first time he looked squarely into the face of Jesus. "I--I am sorry. I do not recall."
"It matters not," said Jesus. "For what purpose does the teacher of Israel seek the likes of me?"
"You are too modest," said the old man, "and you honor me more than I deserve. I suffer the curse of most old men; the older I get it seems the less I know and the more useless I become."
"And the more wise," said Jesus with heartfelt compassion for the old legalist.
Emboldened by his reception, Nicodemus said to Jesus, "Rabbi, I know you are a teacher who has come from God." (Better to give him the benefit of any doubt. He had seen with his own eyes what this young man could do.) "For no one could do what you do if God were not with him." For all of his furtiveness, Nicodemus was personally drawn to Jesus. For the first time in his life perhaps, he was seeking something--honest.
Jesus did not respond immediately, allowing the question implicit in the old man's flattery to hang. He seemed thoughtful, pensive, as if sensing genuineness. A casual observer to this scene might think that the younger man had a flair for melodrama, for he fixed his gaze on the older man and compelled him, "Look at me!" Nicodemus met the eyes of the Son of God. "Nicodemus. No one can enter the family of God unless he is born into it."
Jesus was not baiting the old man as much as one might think. He knew that Nicodemus was quite accustomed to argument and theological debate. This was but an invitation to such a discussion. Born into the family of God? A curiously delicious concept! Nicodemus rose to the bait. "I don't understand. How can a man be born when he is old? Would you have him enter a second time into his mother's womb?" An amusing repartee. The debate was on, good-natured, friendly, a scholar's way of making friends, of knowing one is accepted. Nicodemus smiled. He was enjoying this now. The only thing missing was--well, a flask of good beer!
Jesus felt the camaraderie of intellectual stimulation as well. "No one can enter the realm of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit." A critical theological distinction. "Flesh" he continued, "gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but can you tell from whence it comes or where it goes? So it is with everyone born of the Spirit."
"How can this be?" Nicodemus was stimulated. He had indeed come to the right place.
Abruptly Jesus' tone changed. Nicodemus was caught short in his elation when Jesus said, "You are an eminent and respected teacher and do not understand these things? Then let me then speak plainly. Nicodemus, I speak of what I know. I speak of what I have seen, but these things cause you to stumble and you cannot grasp them. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you can't believe them! How then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? How can I know of such things? Simply this: No one now living has ever been to heaven except the one who finds his origins in heaven--the Son of Man!"
He speaks of himself! The old man was shaken. He did not know whether to rend his clothes or fall to his knees. The crushing weight of his own evil propensities fell upon him. Emotions rushed. He needed to urinate.
"Just as Moses lifted the snake on a pole in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have life. I speak of life beyond temporal life, my friend. I speak of a life eternal."
Jesus stopped. He measured the impact of his words on Nicodemus and felt the warm pleasure of resignation and trust coming from wrinkled and pleading eyes. Nicodemus' head hung in quiet desperation. He had spent his life instructing young men in Torah, Nevi'im and Ketuvim, the three components of Tanakh, the Hebrew scriptures. But never--yes, never--had he considered that a deep, personal engagement with Yahweh was possible. Although he had never admitted it, he sometimes wondered if Yahweh were real, and if the Tanakh were filled with myth, marchen and fable. Jesus reached forth his hand and placed on the old man's shoulder. A moment of silence and feeling passed.
"God loves this world, old teacher, so much so that he gave his only Son."
Gave his Son? thought Nicodemus. As in sacrificed his Son?
"Yes" answering the unspoken question, "that whoever believes in him shall not perish but be given this eternal life of which I speak."
"What of Judgment, Master? Isn't that what God does?"
"God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, Nicodemus. God isn't like that. God sent his Son to rescue and redeem the world. That is the consequence of his love. That is why I am here. I choose to be held accountable for the sins of all people, thus they will not be condemned.
"God loves, but at the same time, he condemns evil. So he sent me to accept and to bear that condemnation. I will become sin for those who embrace evil so they might become the righteousness of God in me. Those who reject me condemn themselves. They are condemned because they refuse to believe that God could love them this much.
"That is the reason I am here, dear friend. The world is full of pain and suffering. The Father fails not to notice this. It causes him pain and suffering as well. So he sent me. The flow of natural forces, set in motion before the existence of human life, will not cease, will never cease until the end of all things temporal. The evil that engenders war, the horrible things men and women do to one another, their children and themselves will not stop so long as evil exists. But that is the reason I have come, to bring an end to all of this, to give men back their dignity and prepare them once again for the eternal family of God; to make them one with me even as I am one with the Father.
"That is the nub of it, Nicodemus; and though you may not know it--Light has come into the world. I am that Light. But instead of embracing Light, people embrace darkness. Evil is real. Evil people are real. Evil people embrace dark things. Evil people are afraid of Light. They hate it because Light exposes Evil for what it is. But whoever lives in truth moves freely in Light, and it is clearly seen that his deeds are of God. No shadows are about such a person. Such a person has a spirit that is born of the Spirit. Such a person is born of God."
Nicodemus did not have the answers to his questions, but he had met The Answer. He had let himself become exposed and in doing so became free of his long struggle. But isn't that how it must be? Without vulnerability, there is no relationship with God. He had opened himself to the Son and in doing so found peace.
With this, the teacher of Israel received his first taste of eternal firmament.