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Easter: A Soldier's Perspective    

 

INTRODUCTION:   Imagine that this is a small hill just outside the city of Jerusalem. The year is somewhere around 30 AD. You are the crowd that has gathered to witness a public execution. In front of you are three crosses; crucifixion being Rome's favoured means of execution to dissuade would-be rebels & dissidents. Each cross bears the body of a dead man. Imagine that I am the military officer in charge of the execution squad. My name is Marcus Titius. I am a Centurion in Caesar's mighty Roman Empire.    

 

What are you lot staring at?!   Haven't you ever seen an execution before? God knows, I have seen more than my fill of them since I was posted to this hell hole …… this God-forsaken country of yours. I've lost count of the number of criminals and whackos that we have hung out to dry - especially those self-styled messiahs who thought they could take on the military might of Rome and liberate your pathetic little nation from Caesar's power.   See these three? What a strange mix. The two on either side are just deadbeats - criminals who through their own stupidity got caught stealing. Can you believe that? Well, whatever else you may say, Roman justice is swift and thorough!  

 

But this one here on the middle cross? You know, at first I thought he was just another religious nut. I put him in the same box as that trouble-maker called Theudas - you know, the guy who called himself the long awaited messiah. He gathered about 400 followers and tried to defeat us? What a loser! I led the company of troops that tracked him down. We simply killed him and the "faithful 400" suddenly found some other important things that they needed to do. It's amazing! Cut off the head and the snake dies.  

 

And then there was that character called Judas the Galilean. By the way, not the Judas who claimed to be a disciple of this Jesus - we found his body this morning. Seems he had a hand in betraying his so-called master and then had a subsequent "attack of the guilts". He went out and hung himself. With friends like that…….?   No, this other 'Judas the Galilean' was a self-styled liberator who tried to lead an uprising - without success. Seems all his courage deserted him when we put the sword against his throat. His followers didn't spend too much time disappearing into the hills, either.  

 

So maybe you can understand why I thought this Jesus was just another ego-maniac who lived in a fantasy world. His crucifixion orders said that he claimed to be the King of the Jews. That's why that sign is up there - "Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews". But I've got to tell you - there's something very different about this one. I've seen more people executed than you can poke a spear at….but nothing, nothing like this. I have seen and heard things today that, if I take them seriously and act on them, could change my life forever.  

 

Some of you were here when my soldiers hammered the nails into this Jesus' hands and feet. We treated this execution just as efficiently and dispassionately as every other execution. But He has behaved in ways that I have never seen before.   And you know what really grabs me? Not just the way He behaved but especially what He said. He didn't say much and probably most of you were not close enough to hear everything He said. But I was right there…right beneath him. I heard it all.    

 

I'm used to hearing swearing and cursing. I've been called more names than there are days in a decade. I've had curses called down on my head like you wouldn't believe. I've heard all the last minute protests: "I'm innocent!""I didn't do it!"   But I've never heard the things He said. And I'll never forget what He said.   Even while we were hammering in the nails, He cried out;   "Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing".  

 

Can you understand why that stopped me in my tracks? Me, the hardened soldier who was desensitised beyond feeling? And He didn't say it just once. He repeated it - again and again - like He was appealing to a Supreme Court Judge not to pass judgement on us, his executioners.   No swearing. No Cursing. Just an appeal for us to be forgiven. For all of us. You. Me. The soldier over there with the hammer at his feet and the spear in his hand. How could this Jesus seek forgiveness for me in light of what I was doing to Him?  

 

I found myself thinking about Flavius. A fellow Centurion. A brother-in-arms who I thought was my friend. I thought about the day he betrayed me. The day he charged me with treason against Caesar. Oh, I was acquitted alright. But the mud sticks and I have no doubt that I have been assigned down here in this hell hole called an "outpost of the Empire" because of Flavius' treachery.  

 

I came to hate Flavius. I resent what he did to me. And that hatred & bitterness energises and motivates me. Every time I am reminded of being here in Palestine the hatred intensifies. I have become the prisoner of bitter resentment.   But what I have done to this man is far greater than what Flavius did to me. And yet He seeks that I be forgiven.   If He said nothing else, I would still realise that I was in the presence of someone who was very much out of the ordinary.      

 

Which brings me to these other two. At first they both behaved very predictably. Lots of obscenities….cursing….shouts about injustice. But then, one of them seemed to have a change of heart. While his mate cursed and abused us - not to mention heap a pile of sarcasm on this Jesus - the other one told his partner in crime to shut up. And then he put into words a growing conviction within me about Jesus. The thief on that far cross said, "This man has done nothing wrong".  

 

What followed next I still don't properly understand. That thief - who somehow I think was genuinely sorry & repentant (I mean, I read people pretty well after all these years) - well, he asked Jesus to…… well, I think his words were. "Remember me when you come into your kingdom."Jesus spoke to him with such conviction and authority:   "I assure you, you will be with me today in paradise".  

 

I say authority because, being a soldier, I know authority when I hear it. But what puzzled me was the assurance & certainty that the thief received. I was puzzled because this thief had just publicly acknowledged his guilt. How could he be with this Jesus in paradise? Was I witnessing some kind of death-bed conversion? You can't just confess your guilt and appeal for mercy …. Can you??  

 

Somehow that sign above his head which was meant as a sarcastic joke suddenly seemed strangely authentic and a statement of reality. I felt I was in the presence of....royalty…of a King.   You know, there's one thing I've learned about suffering and imminent death. It clears away all the garbage. You see a person for what they really are when they are about to die. No more games and pretence and sham. Just stark reality. When He talked about a kingdom, I felt I could believe it.

 

     I have to acknowledge that I didn't understand everything that He said from up there. He spoke to one of you women. I couldn't see which one of you it was.   "Dear Woman, here is your son".   That's what He said. And then He spoke to a man in this crowd.   "Here is your mother".   Made no sense to me. What did get to me was the fact that in the face of his own death, He seemed to be concerned about that woman. How unselfish is that??

 

If impending death reveals the true heart of a person, then this man was truly caring and compassionate. I felt rebuked by that kind of unselfishness. I mean, I suddenly realised how self-centred I had become. I really care only about myself. Maybe it's time for me to begin thinking of others instead of being obsessed with my own lot in life.     What happened next really spooked me! I mean, I've been to a lot of weird places and I've seen a lot of bizarre things in my time. I figured nothing could surprise me any more. But what happened next surely did!!

Some of you were here when we nailed him to the cross about 9.00am this morning and there was nothing out of the ordinary - nothing, that is, until midday. The sun started to lose its light! I know; it sounds stupid. And I thought maybe I'd been out in the sun too long and it was starting to melt my helmet and my brains along with it. But many of you were here. You saw it. The darkness. Like it was the middle of the night. Three hours it stayed like that. Not a cloud in the sky but it was as black as night.  

 

At 3.00pm from this middle cross came a cry in the darkness that made my blood run cold.   "My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?"   The gentle strength of His first words about forgiveness addressed to someone He called 'Father' gave way to a heart-wrenching cry -a cry that pierced the air…and pierced my soul. The sense of desertion and incredible isolation was overwhelming.  

 

You need to understand that I'm not a religious man. But if I ever wondered what hell is like, I need not wonder any more. It was a cry of anguish like I've never heard before - and believe me, I've heard a lot of people cry out in anguish. But this was more than a cry of physical pain. Much more.   Suddenly the darkness over the whole execution scene took on a new meaning for me.

 

It was like…..well, it was like some evil darkness & power suddenly possessed His soul. It was like He was dying a thousand deaths. Let me ask you; Is it possible for a man who has done nothing wrong to die as though he was guilty of every wrong that has ever been committed - past, present & future?? That cry of being God-forsaken …… it was a cry just like that.   I don't know where He was when He cried out like that. But wherever it was, I never want to go there.    

 

The whole experience was becoming so unreal. It would have been easy to think that it was all a dream or 'other worldly'. But then, again in the midst of the darkness, I heard Him say,   "I'm thirsty".   That simple statement was a needed reality check for me. He was human. This was really happening.   There was great intensity about all of this. I had a sense that this couldn't last much longer.

 

Mind you, I've seen victims of crucifixion last for days. But this Jesus - He wasn't going to last long. I know it sounds weird but it was almost like He was in control. Not me. Not my men.   Not the hypocrites called religious leaders who manipulated this whole execution. Jesus seemed to be in charge of all that was happening.  

 

Actually, one of my men was present when this Jesus was brought by the hypocrites to our commander, Pontius Pilate. According to my man, when Pilate reminded Him of his authority to order the death penalty, Jesus said something to the effect that Pilate had no authority or power at all unless it was given to him by God.   Sure sounds to me like Jesus was in control.    

 

Almost as if to confirm that thought as it came to my mind, He cried out again. But this time, it was not a cry of anguish and agony but a cry of victory.   Of all the executions I've overseen, I have never - and I mean never - heard anyone utter such a cry.   "It is finished!"   Now understand me here. I've heard cries and shouts of victory. When battles have been won. When the enemy has been defeated. When victory has been secured. As a centurion, I have cried out like that - a shout of celebration as the last enemy stronghold has been crushed.  

 

I can't begin to explain all this to you. All I know is that somehow that cry of God-forsakeness was transformed into a shout of victory. Instead of being the loser, He was the winner. Whatever enemy He had faced, He now had conquered.     But there was still one more thing He said and one more thing that happened before this amazing, cosmic, awesome drama was complete.  

 

The one more thing He said was,   "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit".   Whoever this 'father' is, this Jesus was surrendering his life to him. Probably the same 'father' He addressed originally when He appealed for Him to forgive us because we didn't know what we were doing. There was such a sense of peace with Him now. Like when a mission is successfully completed and it's time to go home.   I probably sound like an old softy - a bit of a whoos - but I don't care.

 

I had this strangest feeling that He was commanding death to come and be His servant and take Him home to this 'father' of His. Then came the last piece of the puzzle for me. He breathed out His life. You heard me right. He didn't wait for death to come like a conqueror. He actually breathed His life out of His body. It was His choice. His decision. His authority.    

 

That's what did it for me. When I add all this up, I am convinced that this one on the centre cross is not a mere man. Nor is He a madman. Nor is He some kind of well-meaning but mis-guided martyr. Surely, this man is the Son of God! When this day began my life was predictable, routine and aimless. But if this Jesus really is the Son of God then I can't ignore that fact as though it has no implications for me.

 

I just have this gut sense that life could be dramatically transformed if I could just learn more about Him.   I think about what that thief said: "We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong …… Remember me when you come into your kingdom."  Just a confession of guilt and an appeal for mercy. Can it really be that simple?  

 

And I think about Flavius. My bitterness and resentment towards him is eating me up. I've become obsessed with my anger. Did he know what he was doing? How can I forgive him? But then, how can this Jesus forgive me? 

 

Now I must go. I've got two things I have to do.   Pontius Pilate has commanded me to return to the Pratorium. Apparently someone called Joseph has asked that the body of Jesus be released to him for burial and Pilate can't believe that Jesus is already dead and wants confirmation from me. I can't wait to see the look on his face when I tell him how he died!  

 

I've also received a preliminary briefing that I may be asked to station a squad of soldiers at the grave of Jesus. Something about the possibility of body-snatchers. Rumour has it that this Jesus taught His disciples that three days after His execution, He would be raised from the dead. Wouldn't that create mayhem among the religious types.  

 

It would also turn my world upside down. It would prove beyond a shadow of doubt that I can no longer dismiss this Jesus as irrelevant to my life. I would want to get to know Him. I would have to get to know Him.   If we do end up posting a guard on His grave, I think I'll be there come Sunday….just in case.   Rising from the dead?   You know, after all I've seen here today, that wouldn't surprise me one little bit!!          

 

For the Centurion, his encounter with Jesus meant that life could never be the same again. He could not ignore the uniqueness of Jesus.   Many of you reading this today have made the same discovery. You have allowed yourself to stand at the Cross (as it were) and to seriously ponder the fact that the figure on the centre cross madeyour sin His own and died your death.   In some mysterious, inexplicable way this Jesus absorbed into Himself every sin that has ever been committed. My sin. Your sin. And He died as though He himself committed those sins.   There are two ways to get to heaven but only one of them works!   You can do all you can to perfectly fulfil God's law all the time with no room for even the slightest transgression. That's the way that doesn't work!!   Or you can recognise & confess your sin - just like the thief on the cross - and appeal to Jesus for His mercy and grace. An appeal based not on what you can do to be somehow worthy of forgiveness and new life, but based on what He has already done and finished.   The choice is yours.   I am appealing to you today to make the decision to surrender your life to the One Who surrendered His life so that you might live.  

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