Friday, March 25, 2016

The Hands with the Nails

Imagine if you will, for a moment, you are in a market and you come across a vender who you’ve seen before.  You recognize this man because he was in the gathering of the new sect of Judaism called Followers of the Way.  What is more, despite the man’s old and wither exterior, he still carries himself as a veteran of the Army.  A soldier of the Roman guard never loses the stature.  There is an intangible way in which he stands and presents himself so that you know he served his country well.  But today he serves you by selling you fruit from his stand.

The truth of the matter was, you knew he would be here selling fruit.  You had to talk to this person.  Only recently you became a believer in this Christianity, and you had to hear the story for yourself.  You wanted to hear it from the guard who was there.  The rumors at the gathering of Christ are that he saw it with his own eyes, and you must know what happened.  You hand him your couple of coins for the fruit, and a question, “I saw you in the gathering on the first day of the week.”  He quietly gives you your change. “Can I ask you a question,” without pausing for him to answer you ask your question, “They say that you were there, were you?” 

“Kid,” the vender begins, “you need to be careful, don’t you know it is dangerous to be a part of that sect of Judaism? How do you know that I won’t hand you over to the mob for being a Follower?” 

“Because I saw you in the gathering with my own eyes. I recognize the scar over your left eye. I must know what you saw with your eyes.  Tell me about the day he came back! Please!” 

The old merchant sighs as he calls his son over to attend the stand.  “Kid, walk with me.” Leaning on a cane and using your shoulder for support he leads you to a quiet hidden corner of the market and sits down on a bench.  He examines his cane as you wait with wide eye anticipation.  “I was there kid, but do you know why I was there?” 

You are taken aback by this question, “You were a soldier didn’t you just have orders to be there that morning?”

“Yes I did, but I volunteered for those orders.” He stops and looks at the back of his wrinkled hand making a brief fist then relaxed his hand on his knee. “Do you know why I volunteered?” You didn’t even have a guess to hazard one.  “I volunteered because I was there the day before.”  The old man pauses for a long time.

The day before? What does that mean? I just thought he saw the angle. You think to yourself in his stillness.  “So did you see the angel?” You broke the silence the question sounded much louder then you expected. 

“My squad was given the sunrise shift,” He began his story. “To tell you the truth I was on edge that morning.  This tomb was the sight of a great leader. We mocked him yet he was a great leader.  We wondered if we would have to fight off his followers.  People are likely to ambush you early in the morning.  But as the Sun rose we lost our fear that they would attack.  Then the women showed up carrying their spices.  You had to take pity on them, their eyes bore the marks of the bitter tears of mourning, weeping until there were no tears left to weep. 

“We were going interrogate them concerning their business at the tomb, and give them a hard time.  But we didn’t even get to word one, the ground began to shake.  I thought ‘ambush.’  But no ambush could move the ground like this did.  And the stone covering the tomb began to role on its own power.  In my prime I could have moved it with the help of two of my fellow soldiers, but not by myself and it was moving.  And what was more, light was pouring forth from the tomb.  Tombs are dark and dank places they are not bright and beautiful.”  The old soldier paused staring into the far distance seeing that day with clear eyes. “The angel said to the women, not to us, ‘Do not be afraid.’ We heard the implied task, ‘soldiers you guys should be scared.’  All of us lay there like dead men.  Maybe if we don’t move he won’t hurt us.”

“Why would the angel hurt you? You were just doing your job?”  You interrupted.

With his eyes returning to this time and space, he focuses on you with the deep wisdom that only pain and mistakes can bring, “Child, do you know what my job was?” you stand agape not sure how to answer the question. “My job was the job of a guard and soldier.  I was not just on some random assignment we did not guard the tomb because it was good thing to do on a Saturday night.  We were the ones in charge of carrying out the punishment, and ensuring that the punishment stayed effective.  Do you see these hands?!” He said holding up both hands in fists. Relaxing his fists he turned his hands so you could see his palms, and he examined his knuckles again. “These hands are the hands that put the man in the grave in the first place.”

The sound of his confession landed with the force of a sledge hammer striking stone.
“What happened?” you ask sheepishly not sure if you want to know the answer.  You ask sheepishly not sure if you can live unless you know the answer. 

“As a member of the Praetorian Guard it was my duty to do the will of the governor.  We were the special force to the governor. Mostly we kept the peace in the province but we also followed the orders of the governor.  My unit always seemed to get the special assignments of carrying out and guarding the executions.” The old soldier paused again stealing himself to relive the horrors of his past life, “We nailed many people to crosses. The thousands we crucified.  It became second nature for me to pick up a hammer and drive a nail into the wrists of some prisoner. 

“And when they brought this one to us we wanted to have some extra ‘fun’ because they said he claimed to be King.  I thought there was no king but Caesar.  I thought another political upstart we will put him in his place.  So one of my buddies made a crown for this would be king. And we took turns punching him.  (My squad mate and I had a competition to see who could knock out a tooth first. It was par for the course.  Neither of us succeeded this time.)”

At this point in the story you want him to stop, you’ve heard enough. But with the shear shock and reality of this old man’s hands striking the Savior's face you say nothing and listen as he continues, “these hands, these old withered hands, struck and struck and struck Jesus’ face, back, head, gut.  The smell and stain of blood will never come out.  He took it.  He never pleaded for his life he just endured the punishment we kept leveling at him.  What kind of king would do this? He could have called legions of angels to snuff us out and yet he took our mockery, ‘you call yourself king,’ I said, ‘wear this crown! Prophesy who hit you.  Here hold this reed it’s your scepter to your weak and non-existent kingdom! Hail the king of the Jews’ as we hit him again and again” The old soldier chuckled to himself, “If I had only known. Even Pilate mocked him.  On the cross he put the sign that read, ‘This is Jesus, King of the Jews.’  I think Pilate was also mocking the Jews in essence saying, ‘I have the power to crucify your king.’”

“So you saw him on the cross?  Did you read the sign?” You break your silence and interrupt the retelling.  You wonder who this soldier was that you were talking to today.  

“Read the sign I? Saw the sign?  You don’t know do you?  I held the sign.  Do you know how I got so close to it?”

You just stare in disbelief with your mouth slightly open.  You don’t even want to hazard a guess. So you let his answer to the question fill the silence. 

“They handed me the hammer, ‘Go nail this up for Pilate.’ They gave me the hammer and five nails.  These 9 inch nails were more than sufficient to hang up the mocking decree.  I knew my task.  It wasn’t that hard you know.  Sometimes they fight. He didn’t he was too weak to fight.  He couldn’t even carry himself to Golgotha.  We had to conscript a man of Cyrene, who was nearby, to carry the cross for Jesus.  Even though he was so weak another squad member held his hands down.  Yes I was not just there to put up the sign.  The first time you drive the nails through a person’s hand for crucifixion is the worst.  I remember the first time I almost passed out.  When no one was watching I threw up.  But not this day, it was sad to say old hat.  And in short order we had his hands and feet secured to the tree.  I can still hear the sound of hammer on nail ringing out like a clear bell, declaring my guilt.  Here was this condemned man powerless to do anything except accept his fate and endure the cross.”

“Why did you do it?” you hear your mouth saying with a tremble.

“Don’t look at me with disgust, it could have been your hand.  It in many ways was.” He took a deep breath, “But it was my hand.  You must understand I was a soldier it wasn’t mine to question, it was only mine to follow the order.  I wasn’t an officer I wasn’t even a sergeant, and it was my turn to do the difficult tasks.  With a heavy and deadening ‘thunk’ the cross was lifted into place and this broken man hung with nothing to his name, nothing to wear but the crown of thorns upon his head.  He hung there powerless to do anything. 

“The people walked by, ‘he said he would save others he can’t even save himself,’ ‘He is the king of Israel let him come down.’  I don’t believe any of them understood what was necessary on that day.  If he saved himself, if he came down from the cross he would have saved only himself.  To save others he had to go through the cross not around it.” Again the old veteran looked into the sky, this time his eyes focused a few feet above his head.  “I still see him when I close my eyes.  I still see him hanging on the cross.  Usually they had hatred in their eyes and terror as they work out the futility of their fate.   He had sorrow, and grave pity.  He wore the same look as someone who was betrayed by a dear friend. And with that he use the last of his strength to lift up his body with his nail pierced feet and cry out, ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me!’ And with one last cry in pain and agony he gave up his last breath.”

There was a long moment of silence and stillness.  You sat down and put your back against the nearby building and put your face into your knees.  You wanted a much different conversation.  This was the man who was there when the Messiah came out of the tomb.  You did not want a story of a murder.  You wanted glory and not guilt.  So you both sat there neither one breaking the silence. Just around the corner in the market could be heard the bustle of venders making their last sales for the day packing up the remainder of their goods. 

“In that moment,” the man began again, “the world began to fall apart.  I learned later that the temple vale was torn in two.  It was as if God was tearing his cloths.  In deep sorrow when a love one dies the only appropriate response is to tear, your garments.  It is the only way to externally show your tremendous remorse.

“And on that day the Son of God died on the cross, by my hands.  Even the earth shuddered, shook and was ripped apart.  Stones split and the earth gave up the dead.  Everything was turning upside-down.  I remember looking at my fellow soldier who helped me nail Jesus’ hands and feet and he said to me, ‘truly this was the son of God.’ And when the assignment came down to guard the tomb both he and I volunteered for the morning shift.  We did not want any one kidnapping the body of this amazing man.  

“What we did not expect was for him to enlist the help of angels.  The heavenly messengers that Sunday morning trumped any herald for any earthly king.  I one time was in a delegation bringing a message to Caesar.  In our finest dressed uniform with a full complement of envoys we were a sight to see.  And this mission looked dull and dingy compared to the white spender of the angel sitting on the stone that day.  What could we do but lay flat on our faces.

“When the women departed we got up and saw the body gone.  The garments were laying there folded.  If you are going to rob a body you don’t un-rap it first.  You grab it and run.  These garments were unwrapped and folded neatly.  We honestly ran.  It is the only time I can remember running away in uniform.  We told the Jewish leaders and they paid us off to keep quiet.  But I could not shake the events of that day from my mind and heart.  What had happen?  The one we mocked as king commanded heavenly forces that no Earthly king ever could.  This one who was powerless to lift his own head in great splendor had the power to overcome the grave.  

“It took me several years, but I completed my military contract and left the ranks of the guards.  And hat in hand I went to find members of the growing sect, those Followers of the Way, those Christians.  I wanted to make sense of what happened I wanted to beg for forgiveness for murdering their leader.  I went to them into the heart of this obstreperous group.  I expected condemnation.  Instead I met the apostle Peter at Cornelius’ house.”

“You met Peter as well?!”  You stammer incredulously. 

 He just smiles and shakes his head, “I expected Peter to react harshly, instead he said to me, ‘Don’t you see? You only did what he gave you to do.  He had to die that day.  The punishment given to Jesus that day became the price of your forgiveness.’  On that day I declared Jesus as my King and Savior.  He is my strength and power.  I realize that when I saw myself as strong I was really weak and in his weakness his strength was revealed.

“Thank you kid.” He finishes up. 

“For what?” You reply

“For allowing me to tell my story. It is important for people to know, Jesus is like no other king.  Jesus is like no other savior. Jesus is like no other God.  And as we continue to grow we must tell people we cannot remain silent.  Jesus Christ is the victor over sin and death.  Jesus Christ conquered the grave.  The one we thought weak is powerful. The one we condemned brought us forgiveness.  If there was any set of hands that Jesus would hold accountable these hands,” he said holding up his age leathered hands. “He shouldn’t forgive these hands.  And these hands he forgave.”  A tear rolled off his nose and landed on his wrist.  He wiped his eyes and grabbed his cane as he stood, “come on kid it is time to go.”

As he stood and turned to walk with you back to his farm stand you ask him, “can I come back and hear the story again.”

“Kid I will tell you this story again and many more.  I will tell it to you many times so that you will believe, that Jesus the Messiah is who he claimed to be King, Savior, and Sovereign God.”

You both leave and you help him take down his market stand.  The rest of the details of that evening are relatively mundane but the words of the soldier’s story grew in your heart.  He is risen, Jesus was man and God.  He died and rose again.  He is the crucified savior. And he loves and forgives the man who put the nails in his hands.  He loves and forgives you.  The next week you go back to listen to the story again but this time you bring a friend.  And the next time you both bring friends and the truth continues to grow.  God’s word goes forth.  The good news is proclaimed out of the mouths of youth and the lips of the aged.  And the word of God could not be stopped.

I don’t need to tell you that two thousand years later they are still telling his story.  Not the story of the soldier but Jesus’ story.  Because as that soldier would tell you it was not about him it was about Jesus the one who rose from the dead. 

Easter morning sermon  22 March 2015 at Valley Alliance Church 

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