Psalms of September: A Collection
By Alan Dowd
The Gospels remind us that there are many ways to come to Jesus, perhaps as many ways as there are people on earth. The apostles came with great expectations. The Samaritan woman came unaware and unprepared. The adulterous woman came with her head bowed low in shame. The Pharisees came with an agenda. Pilate came with a smirk. One thief came with an order, the other with a broken heart. Through these stories we learn that perhaps the only wrong way to come to Jesus is to come to Him only once—and never return.
Seeds of Life
One man who didn’t make that mistake was Nicodemus. Captured in John 3, his is probably the most famous come-to-Jesus moment in all of history. And there is much to be learned from it.
Nicodemus was a key member of the Sanhedrin, a group of wise, powerful men who interpreted and enforced matters of Jewish law. Underscoring the authority of the Sanhedrin, Jesus Himself called Nicodemus “Israel’s teacher.” (John 3:10.) Yet his status and acumen didn’t prevent him from asking Jesus questions, albeit under the cover and secrecy of night.
We shouldn’t miss the symbolism here. Nicodemus came to Jesus at night in order to protect his image. Jesus doesn’t blow Nicodemus’ cover, but He delivers a blunt message about darkness and light: “Men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil,” He explains, no doubt sending a signal to His visitor. “But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”
In a sense, Jesus is saying that it’s not enough just to know Him or come to Him. We must also have the courage to tell the world about it. Nicodemus wasn’t yet ready to take that step.
But he keeps coming to Jesus. During their encounter, he comes at Jesus with questions and doubts: “How can a man be born again when he is old?” It was a very personal and honest question for Nicodemus, and it was probably humbling for such a wise man to ask. “Surely he cannot enter a second time his mother’s womb to be born,” he wonders aloud. (John’s use of an exclamation point underscores that the exchange is probably not conducted in conversational, diplomatic tones.) “How can this be?” an exasperated Nicodemus asks again. Jesus answers by explaining that everyone who believes in the son will have eternal life, which begs an unasked question: Do you believe, Nicodemus?
There is no evidence that Nicodemus believed—or even understood—what Jesus was saying. But the seeds were planted. In John 7, Nicodemus openly defends Jesus before the Sanhedrin at great political and personal risk. In response, his colleagues mock him with sneering questions.
By John 19, the seeds are blooming and the transformation of Nicodemus’ heart is well underway. No longer afraid to expose his relationship with Jesus to the light of day, he comes to Jesus one last time—at the cross. With a tenderness and passion and courage that the apostles lacked, Nicodemus prepares Jesus’ lifeless body for burial, wipes away the bloodstains, wraps his teacher in linen, and buries his savior. You can almost hear him whisper through his tears: “Now I understand. You were pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities. And you are the way to the Father.”
Nicodemus struggled with God for an evening, and like Jacob it changed him forever.
To the Source
Of course, it wasn’t just the rich and powerful who were transformed by a come-to-Jesus moment. Mark 9 tells the story of a desperate father who came to Jesus on behalf of his demon-possessed son. “It throws him on the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid,” the father explains, adding that the evil spirit has robbed his child of speech.
At first, he didn’t want to bother Jesus. Instead, he asked the disciples to help. But like so many of us, they tried to rely on their own strength and failed. They were simply too weak to do any good on their own. An argument actually broke out among the dumbfounded disciples about their powerlessness. It was apparently something new for them, since they later asked Jesus, “Why couldn’t we drive [the spirit] out?”
So, with nowhere else to turn, the boy’s father boldly bypasses the bickering disciples and takes his son right to source of healing and calm—to Jesus. “When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion.” Moved by their condition, Jesus asks the father how long his son has suffered. “From childhood,” he answers. “But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”
“If you can?” Catching him in doubt, Jesus throws the man’s words back at him to make a point. “Everything is possible for him who believes,” Jesus promises. And the man answers with perhaps the most honest and human words ever uttered to God. “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” Even in doubt, he had more faith than most: Wrapped inside his doubt, inside his request, was something that even the disciples lacked at that moment—a recognition that all of our strength comes from God. Even the strength necessary to approach Him. Even the strength necessary to know Him. Even the strength necessary to believe.
Free to work because of the man’s honesty, Jesus casts out the evil spirit and heals the boy. Luke’s account poignantly adds that Christ then gives the boy back to his father. (Luke 9:42) Does He not do this for all of us? We come to Him sick, lost, doubting and under the control of a powerful foe. But Jesus erases our doubt, heals us and gives us back to our Abba Father—our Daddy.
Through the Roof
The story of this desperate but unbelieving father reminds us that no one really comes to Jesus on his or her own. Someone, somewhere—even if we weren’t aware of it—carried us to Jesus through their prayers, friendship, sacrifice or example (or all of the above).
An even more powerful illustration of this is found in Mark 2. Jesus was preaching at a home in Capernaum. According to Mark, “So many had gathered that there was no room left, not even outside the door.” But that wouldn’t deter four special men from carrying their paralyzed friend into the very presence of God.
With the house overflowing, they couldn’t get through the front door. So they came to Jesus through the roof. After digging through the tiles and boards of wood, they lowered their helpless friend on a mat through the hole. Mark tells us the paralyzed man came down right above Jesus.
Imagine that scene. Jesus is preaching the Good News before a huge crowd. Maybe He’s the guest of a wealthy businessman or a religious official or one of the apostles. As He speaks, He’s interrupted by a commotion on the roof. And moments later, a man is being suspended in mid-air above Him.
Jesus doesn’t ask for an explanation or apology. Instead, he forgives the man and heals him. But incredibly, it wasn’t because of the paralyzed man’s faith—it was because of his friends’ faith. “When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, ‘Son your sins are forgiven.’” It was their faith that impressed Him and moved Him, their faith that cleaned his soul and healed his body.
What a powerful of example of how brothers and sisters can literally carry each other past the man-made obstacles. Indeed, no one has ever come to Jesus without someone else’s help.
Coming and Going
Sadly, not all come-to-Jesus moments end so happily. Most of us come to Jesus with preconceptions. But as the story of the rich young ruler illustrates, only those who set aside their preconceptions can become His followers.
Luke 18 tells us that the man came to Jesus with the right question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks. Jesus answers by pointing to the letter of the Law. “You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’”
Here’s where the young man’s preconceptions are laid bare. “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he proudly declares, no doubt thinking Jesus will confirm his preconceptions by applauding his piety. Instead, Jesus peers into his soul and exposes the one thing he lacks: a personal relationship with the son. “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven,” Jesus explains. “Then come, follow me.”
When he heard these words, the man became sad, his face fell, and he walked away from Jesus. His careful observance of the commandments was a good start, but it was not enough to ensure eternal life. Nor was money. His money could not buy him the one thing he asked for and needed most. In fact, it was his money that stood between him and Jesus, between him and eternal life.
Jesus loved him so much that he wanted to remove that one obstacle to eternity. But He also loved him enough to let him go.
We don’t know if that nameless young man ever came back to Jesus. But if he did, we have a good idea of how Jesus would react. With arms wide open, like the prodigal’s father, he would run to him, embrace him and welcome him home.
Coming to Us
These stories are our stories. We come to Jesus in confusion and embarrassment, in darkness and shadows, in desperation and doubt, in the arms of friends and strangers, in poverty and riches. But we never come on our own. Something pulls us or pushes us or leads us. That something is Jesus. Indeed, the only reason we can come to Jesus—and keep coming to Him—is because He first came to us. “I have come that they may have life.”
*Published by The Plain Truth magazine in 2003, Psalms of September is a collection of Dowd's essays on matters of faith.