Just over two months ago, Doan and I stopped into the Savory Spice Store in Princeton; we went there to say hi to the owner, a friend of ours named Jon, and to pick up some frankincense and myrrh for the Epiphany (we probably bought some more Ghost Pepper Salt as well). Myrrh, if you remember from the Epiphany, is the “aromatic resin from (a) tree native to Somalia and eastern Ethiopia. Highly prized in ancient times, myrrh was at one time worth more than its weight in gold. When burned as an incense, myrrh produces a heavy, pungent scent. Instead of evaporating or liquefying, myrrh ‘blooms’ or puffs up when burnt. It was said that the Roman Emperor Nero burned a year’s worth of myrrh at the funeral of his wife, Poppaea.”1 Myrrh is at times tough to find, and it’s expensive: Savory Spice sells it for almost $50 a pound.
So what does this Epiphany myrrh talk have to do with anything in Lent, you might ask. Well, it has to do with one of the men that we can find on the 14th Station of the Cross, the last one, found over by the door to the anteroom. One of those men is Joseph of Arimathea, the wealthy disciple of Jesus who donated his tomb for Jesus’ burial. Last week during the Instructional Stations of the Cross, our Church School kids learned a bit about the second man on that Station, a man we heard about in our Gospel today.
Nicodemus was also a wealthy man, a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin, the high court of Israel, so he was essentially a Supreme Court Justice. The last time we here about Nicodemus in the Gospels is depicted on that Station – he assisted in the burial of Our Lord, bringing 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes with him. One Jewish scholar rejected John’s depiction of Nicodemus bringing 75 pounds of the stuff for Jesus’ burial, not the least because 75 pounds of myrrh would normally prepare up to 200 bodies for burial,2 not to mention cost, at the time, the equivalent of about $150,000.
But the Nicodemus that would bring 150 grand worth of spices with him to a burial is exactly the Nicodemus we meet in John’s Gospel. “Rabbi,” Nicodemus said to Jesus, “we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” That is a bold statement, even if it did come from a man careful enough to approach that young, controversial Rabbi under the cover of darkness. Jesus essentially ignores what Nicodemus said and changes the subject dramatically: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus hears this from Jesus and then says, basically, “Whatcha talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” You might be thinking the same thing right now: “Whatcha talkin’ ’bout, Father? Most of this sermon has been about death, and now you’re talking about being born again?”
Just like Nicodemus, we heard Jesus begin with birth and end with death: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,” Jesus said, “even so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” In other words, so must I be lifted up on a cross for your salvation. “What that means is that the way a person gets “born again,” as Jesus has been describing this to Nicodemus, is precisely by being crucified with Christ.”3
To Nicodemus, this meant that he had to ‘die’ to the things he had always clung to, die to the earthly things that kept him from understanding heavenly things; Nicodemus had to come around to the fact that even though he was a well respected teacher of Israel, when one stands in front of the Son of the living God, one does well to just follow Him wherever He goes.
Nicodemus learned that lesson, even if it took a little while to sink in. Nicodemus followed Jesus to the Cross, sacrificing his reputation, his livelihood, and enough myrrh to make Nero blush. All he got in return was the perhaps the greatest honor a man could hope for, to care for the body of Christ. Maybe it was at that moment that Nicodemus fully understood the words Jesus said to him on the night they first met; maybe it was then that, being born again, he saw fully the kingdom of God. This Lent, the question for us becomes What must we die to, what earthly things must we set down, so that we might follow Jesus to the Cross?
1Myrrh, Savory Spice Website.
3Scott Hoezee, This Week