Myrtle Smith was legend among church leaders in Jersey City in the 90s. A matriarch of Clairmont Lafayette Presbyterian Church, Myrtle was a roughly five foot tall grandmother with a looming presence. Plain spoken and no nonsense, Myrtle didn’t say much but what she did say was true.
Once, I was carpooling with Myrtle and a newly minted, lady killer of a minister to a community policing meeting (some things never change) at a church in Greenville. With a magnetism akin to that of Billy Dee Williams, the young minister relayed how God called him to ministry, appointed him to speak truth to power and compelled him to come to the church meeting we were headed to. Puffing on a cigarette, Myrtle listened gravely and after a long pause said, “Reverend, I am seventy-eight years old. In all that time, not once has the good Lord seen fit to speak to me directly. And yet, here you are, a young man, and it appears that God speaks to you several times a day.” She paused, took another long drag of her cigarette and asked, “Now, why do you think this is?”
Creatures give glory to God, not the other way around, and when the God of the Old and New Testaments does speak it’s less like a personal trainer and more like an earthquake or a purifying fire. The people of Israel found this out in the wilderness. When God came in person to speak to them from Mount Horeb, His voice was like thunder, the mountain smoked and people trembled in terror. Calling Moses aside they said, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But DO NOT have God speak to us or we will die.” Exodus 20:19
After all, God speaks truth, and like Myrtle’s cigarettes it’s always without a filter. Had they known how hard to hear that can be, the people of Israel wondered if wouldn’t have been a better idea stay in Egypt and live like slaves.
Nicodemus found this out too when he came to talk to Jesus under the cover of darkness, not wanting to risk his reputation and, let’s be real, his livelihood by being seen in the company of this teacher who turned over the money changers tables in the temple and herded out the merchants and the farm animals with a whip. Nicodemus started the conversation by confessing that he and all the other church leaders knew Jesus was from God, but I don’t think Jesus gave Nicodemus a chance to explain why he came. Being a cleric myself, had Nicodemus been given more time to speak I think he would have said something like , “Rabbi, can you give me some pointers on how to serve God more without rocking the boat?”
But Jesus won’t have any part of sneaking around, throwing decorative pillows on threadbare furniture, pouring new wine into old wineskins or tweaking instead of risking. Flat out, Jesus says, “Nicodemus, you have to chuck the whole thing, start from scratch and be born anew.” (John 3:3)
The word of God isn’t safe. It changes priorities and challenges our compromises. Were we to listen, God could speak a word of life to us that might make us feel like we will fall over dead. That’s because God insists we live instead of just get by.
The last time we see Nicodemus in John’s Gospel it’s in broad daylight with Joseph of Arimathea. They’re removing Jesus’ dead body from the cross. Apparently, neither of them were worrying anymore about what people would say. I wish I knew what their lives were like afterwards but no doubt they would serve as a reminder: Once you start listening for God you can’t un-hear what She says.
And thank God for that.
Your sister in Christ,