[The following is a work of fiction. Though obviously based on the events of John 3, it is not in any way meant to be a theological study or doctrinal statement. Rather, it is what C.S. Lewis might (charitably) call “sanctified imagination“, to probe and challenge my understanding of Jesus — and perhaps yours.]
I wait in the darkness, shivering — not from the cold. Most would call what I’m doing disloyal; some would call it blasphemy. I can’t help it; I have to know. I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, I can barely think. My familiar world — everything I’ve ever believed in — is hanging by a thread. I’m terrified that the thread might snap; yet, a part of me is hoping that it will. That just maybe there’s something bigger, brighter, and more beautiful awaiting at the bottom of this seemingly dark chasm I’m dangling over.
But the real question that rings through my head is: will He come?
Chapter 1: The Dream
Call me Sam. Ever since I was a child, I’ve longed to be a scribe. To sit at the feet of the holy men, to spend my life reading and writing the holy books, arguing their meaning with my peers — I could never imagine any life better than that. While other kids pretended swordplay with sticks, I buried myself in books. My father Jacob burned with pride behind my mother’s tears when I left home at age 13 to attend the school of Gamaliel. Had he lived, I knew my father would burst with honor at my being accepted as secretary to Nicodemus at the tender age of 18.
I was that good. I knew it, my fellow students knew it, and now two members of the Sanhedrin showed that they knew it: Gamaliel for recommending me, and Nicodemus for hiring me. My dream had come true.
And it was a dream job. Nicodemus, if not quite the equal of the incomparable Gamaliel, was far more approachable, even fun. He had an endlessly inquisitive mind, always wanting to see the other side of things. Though a bit absent-minded — which is why he needed a secretary! — Nicodemus was a kindly master, and strove as hard to live the law as to know it. I counted myself blessed among all men, and prayed regularly for God to shower mercy and grace upon my new master.
Which he did. Though Roman oppression must’ve chafed at his devout soul, yet Nicodemus sought to look for the good, and find reasons for praise and thanksgiving. Nicodemus always walked around with a psalm in his heart, and a proverb on his lips. His wry smile and lilting laugh brightened many a dry hour in the scriptorium. I began to think that nothing would ever darken the joy in my master’s heart.
Chapter 2: The Nightmare
Then He came. We’d heard rumors of Him for months, but I considered them too fantastic by half. We hadn’t had a prophet for centuries, and even they never turned water into wine, or held mass healing ceremonies. More likely it was just another charlatan out of Galilee, using sleight of hand and mind games to impress the country yokels. I suspected he’d never dare show his face in Jerusalem, or submit to the knowing eyes of men like my master.
I was wrong. The first I knew of it was when the temple courtyard became filled with the sound of crashing tables and screaming men. I wondered if it was an earthquake, like the one that shattered Jericho; but no, it was simply a man — albeit one moving so fast I barely glimpsed his face.
But even that glimpse shook me to the core. That man was dangerous. His face looked like the wrath of God. I didn’t know until later that this was that much-talked-about Jesus, but I realized right away that he was prepared to destroy everything I stood for. How I hated him.
I stayed behind to help clean up the outer court, so I only heard second hand of his impertinent, ridiculous claim that he would destroy and rebuild the temple in three days. I’m a great believer in due process, but I found myself daydreaming of leading a lynch mob to stone the blasphemer. When Nicodemus came and gravely asked me to locate where this so-called rabbi was staying, I rejoiced; I felt sure the Sanhedrin had quickly decided to arrest him and mete out his well-deserved punishment.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, Nicodemus asked me to send this rabbi a message arranging for a late night encounter. My master looked so disturbed I thought my heart would break. I feared that the Sanhedrin had decided to arrest the man by stealth, and my master’s honest soul was grieving at his role in the deception. Not that this lying rabble rouser deserved any better, but it was brutally unfair that gentle Nicodemus had to carry out the dark deed.
When he left that night for the encounter, he looked like a man carrying his own cross to a Roman execution. I spent the entire night on my knees, praying for my master’s soul, listening for the sound of temple guardsmen riding to the arrest, waiting for an end to the nightmare this Galilean had brought upon us. But I heard nothing. When Nicodemus finally returned, it was early morning, and he looked like he had been out wandering the entire night. I searched his face for bruises, convinced that the Galilean must’ve suspected our plot and ambushed my poor master instead.
But when I asked as much, Nicodemus awoke from his daze and looked at me in surprise.
“I went merely to ask a question.” he said quietly.
I was stunned. What question could this great man possibly have for an untutored outlander like that? In my shock I blurted out, “Did he answer?”
He shook his head, smiling sadly. “Not that question.” And with that, he gave me a look that ended all conversation, and tottered off to sleep.
Chapter 3: The Awakening
The next few weeks passed in a blur. My master refused to even discuss what had passed between him and Jesus, but merely told me to drop all my current assignments in favor of some new research. Oddly, half of it wasn’t about the usual holy writings, but studies of natural things: birth, wind, creation. I found myself running ragged all over town, even going to the homes of wealthy Romans in search of classic Greek manuscript that I (with my vulgar koine training) couldn’t yet read. Once I made the hot, dusty trek to Tyre to copy rare Persian manuscripts from the days of the Prophet Daniel (which I also couldn’t read, but faithfully traced).
In a way, I was grateful. I couldn’t bear to be in the house and see my master’s once-cheerful face so troubled and sad. He kept to his room virtually all day, rarely ate, and seemed never to sleep. The exhaustion of running errands at least helped me sleep, despite the manifold worries that ran through my head. Though even my dreams were troubled.
Which is why I was still asleep when my master awoke me one morning with a shout. I ran to his room, fearing that he had injured himself, only to find him dancing around in his night clothes, singing a psalm of praise. When he saw me, he broke in delighted laughter and swept me up into his half-mad dance.
“O Sam, give thanks to Yahweh,” he exclaimed. “It is true — everything. It is all true!”
I was torn between relief at my master’s returned good humor and fear that he had completely lost his mind. Seeing my concern, he paused and collected himself, still chuckling.
“No, Sam. I have not gone mad. If anything I have gone sane. At long last, it all makes sense. I finally know who he is.”
Realization slowly dawned. “You mean, you’ve figured it out?” I cried, seized with sudden gladness. “You know how to refute the Galilean, expose him as a fraud?”
The look of shock on my master’s face froze the joy that had been building in my heart. “Oh Sam,” he whispered, his cheerfulness now vanished.
Suddenly it all clicked. The secret meeting, the haunted look, the illicit research, his rapturous epiphany. Nicodemus wasn’t part of some official plot to unmask Jesus. He had become a believer in Jesus. He had thrown his lot in with illiterate fisherman and a desecrator of the temple. The man I loved and revered as my own father had turned his back on everything he had taught me.
He saw my stricken look, and reached out a comforting hand. With a cry I struck him away — a crime moments earlier I would gladly have whipped anyone else for doing. I rent my clothes, screamed unintelligible curses, and ran as fast I could out of that God-forsaken house.
Chapter 4: The Darkness
In my grief and confusion, I wandered like a lost spirit. I knew not where I was — or even who I was. All my life I had defined myself by my devotion to the God of my fathers, the God of the temple, the God of Nicodemus and Gamaliel. I had found my identity and security in the unbroken tradition of prophets and teachers stretching back to Moses — and even to Adam himself. Yet my own master seemed ready to throw his lot in with someone dedicated to destroying everything we loved. Madness!
But what is sanity when the father of your soul has gone mad?
My feet apparently knew the answer. Through no conscious thought, I retraced the steps of my childhood, and after many hours found myself staring at the school of Gamaliel in the fading twilight, the way a stray dog stares at a butcher’s shop. O, to have such a childlike faith again! To be able to rest in the security of knowing that all the men you trust also trust each other, and trust in the same God.
But that comfortable world was gone, shattered by two men: my master whom I loved, and this Galilean rabbi I now hated from the depths of my being.
So wrapped up was I in longing and anger that I did not notice the man who stepped up beside me until he touched me on the shoulder. I whirled with a sharp retort on my lips, which died instantly as I recognized Gamaliel himself! Though the great teacher was not exactly known for his compassion, he was perceptive enough to sense something amiss. Without a word, he beckoned me into his office.
Though we students had often heard him speak, it was a rare — and frightening — privilege for us to talk to him. For students, his personal study was like unto the grave, for there were only two reasons to be there, both of them final: to be catechized and graduate, or be disciplined and expelled. Though those days were long behind me, I found myself wondering which type of interview this would be.
In his usual methodical way, Gamaliel gently extracted the story of what had happened. He seemed particularly interested in the unorthodox research I had being doing, and — surprisingly — almost relieved that I did not know what this renegade rabbi had said to Nicodemus. When he had wrung the last fact out of my overwrought mind, he sat in silence for a long time.
I awaited his judgement in equal silence, though my thoughts raced at a fever pitch. I was as tense as a trapped rabbit, imagining the worst. Would he call for the temple guard to arrest Nicodemus? Or had he too thrown in with the Galilean, and have me arrested to protect Nicodemus?
Finally, when I thought my nerves would snap, he spoke. But his words were the last thing I expected.
“What is your name?”
The question was so pedestrian I almost laughed — hysterically, to be sure — but caught myself in time. This was Gamaliel, after all. He never forgot anything, not even something as trifling as a student’s name. As usual, he was after something deeper — but still expected an answer.
“My name is Sam-u-el, ‘heard of God’, in honor of the last judge and first prophet. My parents wanted me to be similarly devoted to the Lord’s work.”
He nodded, indicating I had properly understood and answered the question.
“What did Eli say to Samuel when the boy came to him in the night?”
My mind raced. Surely Gameliel wasn’t implying… But there was only one answer I could give:
“Go back and lie down. If the voice calls again, say, ‘Speak, God. I’m your servant, ready to listen.’
Gamaliel nodded again, then rose in dismissal. I knelt and kissed the hem of his robe. He laid his hands on my head — as he had done once before at my graduation — and whispered a soft prayer I could not hear. I rose, bowed, and backed out of the room. I closed the door as I left, and it echoed through the empty school like the lid of a tomb.
At last, I know what I must do — even if I still don’t know why. I find again the one called Andrew, through whom I had arranged my master’s fateful interview. The first time, I had thought him dull and simple. Now, his placid eyes seem to see right through to the depths of my soul. I’m not even sure what I tell him, but somehow he understands. He promises nothing, except that he will relay my request for his master to meet me at the same place and time he had met Nicodemus.
So now I wait. I know not whether the time for Jesus to arrive is long past, or hours in the future. Time has lost all meaning. I am suspended between past and future, life and death, heaven and hell. I have no answers, nor even any questions. All I have left is a single prayer:
Speak, God. I’m your servant, ready to listen.
[To be continued…]