We bought our daughter a small bottle of Chanel No. 5 for her eighteenth birthday. It was an extravagance but we thought… well, you only celebrate turning 18 once. I worked out the cost. For one litre of the stuff it would be around £11,500! That’s quite expensive. As we reflect on Holy Week it got me thinking about a man with some perfume in the Bible story. I’m not thinking of the woman who anointed Jesus at Bethany, but the man who loved Jesus in secret yet, when it really mattered, his money talked.
It’s Nicodemus. Famously, he cane to Jesus in the early days of his ministry – at night – to hear about the path to salvation. He saw something special in Jesus. He heard Jesus utter those immortal words which put the gospel in a nutshell…
No-one can see the Kingdom of God unless they are born again … For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
But he comes to Jesus at night, in secret. And if he becomes a disciple of Jesus, it remains a secret.
When the religious leaders talk of killing Jesus, it’s Nicodemus who speaks up. But he doesn’t say Jesus is innocent, and that he is the Son of God, but he instead insists they need to give him a fair trial. Maybe this is a delaying tactic, a political move by Nicodemus to give him time to think of something else, some other way of saving Jesus. Whatever it was, it does not work. Or does it? Jesus is arrested and given a trial, of sorts. Maybe he wouldn’t even of had this without Nicodemus’ intervention. It turns out to be a kangaroo court, a mock trial. And Jesus inevitably, as per God’s plan for our salvation, makes his way to the cross.
And this is where we see the third and most extraordinary cameo role for this quiet, thoughtful follower of Jesus. He brings a myrrh mixture to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Myrrh was a usual resin to use for this. Egyptians had been mummifying their leaders with myrrh for generations. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea together, two rich urbanite elite men, use their wealth to care for Jesus’ body. Little did they know how monumentally important was the task they performed. Joseph gives his family tomb. Nicodemus brings 35kg of myrrh.
Now, I don’t know how expensive myrrh was, back in the day. It’s cheaper now because it’s more readily available and synthetically produced. But it was a rare product back in the day and if it’s anything like the cost of Chanel No 5, you’d be talking about a gift worth £400,000.
Nicodemus didn’t say much. He wasn’t one of the big twelve. He wasn’t on the ‘leadership team’ of the early church. He was maybe a little shy in stepping forward. Yet when it really mattered, he used his wealth to show his love for Jesus. And after this event, we know nothing more of him.
The church is full of shy, quiet, thinking people like Nicodemus, who hold their silence until circumstances dictate they step forward. One particular friend of mine recounts how he never had to think deeply about the faith until he heard someone preaching heresy and had to challenge it. Another saint I know stepped forward to feed the homeless when the need was right in front of him and he had to work out whether following Jesus really meant something. Other friends have shared the faith, stepped out to be counted amongst non-Christian work colleagues when the work was incompatible with being a follower of Jesus.
These friends are not preachers or pastors. They are just, like Nicodemus, quiet and thoughtful people who’d prefer to stay in the background. But at that moment of truth they step forward and say – yes – I am a follower of Jesus – just when it really matters.
As we come to the cross and resurrection this weekend, I am proud to live as a Christian with many who are like Nicodemus. And I pray that we will all stand up and be counted for the gospel when our moment comes.