Meeting the Lion

There are butterflies in my stomach, a rasp in my voice. So many years I have waited, yet I am almost afraid to go in.

I will be alone, I think, though you can never be sure in this place. It is, after all, a place of meeting – if a man stepping into a lion’s den can be called a meeting. A lion no one can see.

Two priests and one king he has devoured for doing what I will do. No, for doing it wrong, I remind myself. He is not unfair. Yet he is still a lion.

I take a quick breath, rest one hand against the other to slow their trembling, and I wait. I am too old to be this nervous, and too alone. My life is narrow and still. No children, no grandchildren. Just my wrinkled wife and I, living out our days. My wrinkled wife, who still stares as mothers pass, children in their arms – who stares as one starving, though we are past our years and there is no more hope.

Will the great Lion receive me, this dried-up old priest who cannot even father a child?

I walk unsteadily toward the door and step into the temple, peer into the golden, glowing Holy Place. I am to burn incense on the altar which stands across the room. Behind the altar hangs the great, thick curtain – blue, purple, and red, with embroidered angels staring back at me. Behind that, the holiest and most dangerous place of all.

I pause for an instant, remind myself to breathe, and take a few steps forward, but something goes wrong. There is a flash, a sudden glare from the golden walls, and I freeze in astonishment. There, by the altar, something stands – not a picture, but a moving creature, bright and tall.

“Don’t be afraid,” it said, which struck me as unreasonable. Dazzled and blinking, I squinted at the brilliant form, shielding my eyes with quivering hands.

“Zechariah, your prayers have been heard, and Elizabeth will have her joy. You will have a son, and you are to name him John. He will turn the hearts of the fathers toward their children, and the children toward the Lord, their God.”

“But… but how can that be?” I sputtered. “We’re too old.”

Well, that was a mistake.

“I am Gabriel,” he said soberly and glued my lips closed for months to come. Until, in fact, the day my wrinkled wife laughed with tears running down her face, surrounded by friends, our baby boy in her arms.

By then, bright Gabriel had appeared also to Mary and she, at least, believed him. A chill runs up my spine to think of it. The sun is rising on God’s ancient promise to lead us out of death and darkness, and the child in Mary’s womb – God’s own Messiah – will accomplish this.

These are things too great for me, for I was a priest of the great Lion of Judah, trembling to go before him, and afraid he had forgotten my name.

But I am different now, for I have felt the tender mercy of our God, who hears our prayers and forgets no one.

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This story is a dramatization of Luke 1 (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=luke%201&version=NIV)

“And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God.”
-Luke 1:76-78

Note: 2 Chronicles 26:18 and Leviticus 10:1-2 tell of a king and two priests who were punished for incorrectly performing this procedure.

As If He Knew

I touch his face, and the white cloth comes back red.

I saw him last on Sunday; the whole city saw him – the quiet eye at the center of a storm. The crowds thundered, and the ground shook with their celebration, but even then, I saw a quiet sadness in his face, as if he knew…

Well, the crowds are gone, though their shouts still ring in my ears. I see their faces – the rich and poor, distorted first by joy and then rage in this week of madness. And now, there is only silence.

I lean over him in the dim room, bend to untangle thorns from his hair, and my lungs fill with the sweet, musky scent of perfume – a strange tang of beauty among all this ruin. My friend returns with fresh water, and we begin again, our fine clothes now spattered, our soft hands stained with his blood.

I shouted, too, that day. I had been watching him for months, amazed, and could not help feeling that, against all odds, things had finally come right. That all our misery had been swallowed up into something larger – something we heard was coming but had lost the power to believe.

Well, tears running down my face, I finally believed. I shouted alongside the rich and the poor, my face hijacked by a joy I could not contain.

But it had been wrong after all, and here we are.

He looks ten years older than yesterday, withered and wrung. His hands frozen in a cramp of agony, flesh torn from his back. The five gaping holes where life drained out.

I watched it all. I made myself watch – the gut-wrenching cruelty, the pain flashing across his face. But somehow, they did not win. He did not break. He did not even seem surprised. Every humiliation and misery their mean little minds could think of. Every dirty little insult our own people could spit at him… He took it all and gasped, “Forgive them.”

When it was finally over, I hurried to the governor’s mansion, no longer caring what the other rulers would think. Pilate gave me an evil look and snarled, “So, you’re one of them. Well, you got your wish. Now, what do you want?” His face changed when I told him.

I took his written order to the centurion at the cross. He looked up to the body, then back at me.

“You were his friend?” he asked, with a strange expression.

“Yes,” I stammered, thinking how little I deserved that title.

He called for a ladder and helped me take him from the cross, staring for a moment into Jesus’ face and lowering him to me with surprising tenderness.

It struck me again how Jesus changed us. All of us. Some hated him, and some loved, and some were just confused, but we all changed in one way or another.

Well, his wounds are clean now, and the cool, stone tomb smells of spice and fresh linen. Nicodemus leans over him one last time, whispers, “I’m sorry”, and a tear splashes on the gentle, wounded face.

What was it John called him? The lamb of God… He was gentle, yes, but I met a few of the people Jesus healed. I tasted bread and fish he pulled from thin air. I talked to Lazarus, who he raised from the dead. I held Jairus’ sweet daughter in my own arms. I felt the earth shake when he suffered, and I watched the sky go black.

This was no lamb. No force on earth could bind him, not all of Rome’s legions. And yet he was bound. And he bled. And he lies here, dead.

The blood of lambs is taken, but this man’s blood was given, and an urgent thought stirs in me. A memory. A question. The lamb of God, the old book predicted, “pierced for our rebellion and crushed for our sins… whipped so we could be healed.”

And suddenly, I see it. We celebrated the right man for the wrong reason. This – this! – is what it means to be Messiah: The rightful king, broken for us. This was our punishment, not his – laid on him, our hero, who, even in his agony, forgave us.

We stumble out, exhausted and grieving, just as temple guards arrive with orders to seal the tomb. With a flourish of authority and style, they shoo us away and roll a great stone in front of the door, forgetting that God is on the other side.

————————-

Surely he took up our pain

and bore our suffering,

yet we considered him punished by God,

stricken by him, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,

he was crushed for our iniquities;

the punishment that brought us peace was on him,

and by his wounds we are healed.

-Isaiah 53: 4-5

Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea, and he himself was waiting for the kingdom of God. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body. Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid.

-Luke 23:50-54

He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds.

-John 19:39

Reviewer comments for “A Different Kind of Sky”

One of the best books I’ve ever read. Such a captivating story…

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Started to read at 11 p.m. last night. Finished it at 5 a.m. this morning. Bad idea but well worth the loss of sleep.

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Such a descriptive narrative. Well thought out and expertly written. I feel like I just lived life alongside Mike… There is so much depth and richness in the storytelling that I didn’t want it to end.

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This book had me laughing and crying. It was an emotional read full of wonder, hope, and sadness.

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I found myself experiencing side-splitting laughter, bouts of deep, heartfelt grief, and curious excursions into the overwhelming vastness of human existence, confronting the age-old questions: How is it that humans exist, and for what purpose?

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The characters feel like real people. The storyline contains a solid mix of humor, sadness, suspense, and drama.

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This book was really hard to put down. The character development by the author draws you into the story, making you feel a strong connection to their life’s journey. Excellent book for a club as the depth is well beyond a surface discussion of life, faith, joy, tragedy, etc. Can not wait for more from this author!

Find the story on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1625862393

A Dream

Man, did I have a strange dream last night.  I seemed to be on the sofa, watching TV as the evening news began and the announcer said something like this…

“…Many in the nation were surprised today by a Supreme Court ruling that the celebration of ‘Christmas’ is a ritual of the largely discredited Christian religion and thus disqualified from public display.  In his response to the ruling, the President stated ‘As this nation emerged – slowly and painfully – from the deeply rooted practice of slavery, so we will survive the turmoil that arises from this painful but necessary decision.  Christian intransigence has forced this nation into a clear and unmistakable response.  Those who continue to embrace a dangerous and hurtful tradition that excludes and offends many of our citizens must be confronted.  Those who would raise their children in an atmosphere of mystical thinking and intolerance must be restrained.  For too long, Christians in America have claimed the right to think and say whatever they want by hiding behind a very un-American tradition.  It is time for a change.’”

“The ruling specifically forbids any observation of the ‘Christmas’ ritual in public and lists both visual and audio indicators which will constitute violation, including manger scenes and several familiar songs.  The American winter holiday, Festivus, is not affected by this ruling.  No word yet on implications of the Christmas prohibition upon observations within private homes.”

“In a companion case, the Supreme Court denied an appeal by Phil Robertson, the extremist jailed three years ago for quoting an unpopular Christian scripture during a media session.  The Court found that the FCC regulation violated by Robertson – which has since become the law of the land – did carry the authority to arrest and incarcerate offenders, even though that clause was appended by federal administrators, rather than by Congress.  Responding to this ruling, the President hearkened back to a major theme of his third election campaign: ‘We remain a nation in transition.  For a brief moment in our history, it has been necessary to increase the protective powers of the federal government in order to guarantee the freedoms of our people.’”

“In other news, the Court upheld the conviction of a Michigan man who, according to NSA records, attempted to transmit an email note stating that ‘Government of the people, by the people and for the people is – right now – perishing from the earth.’”…

Suddenly, the dream was shattered by the sound of my alarm.  Imagine my relief to wake up in the real world.