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A Soldier’s Story

December 24, 1995 | First Presbyterian Church Orlando |

I am not the man I was.
I am changed.
Permit me, please, to tell you who I was, and who I am now…

My name is Marcellus. I am a centurion in the Second Italian Cohort of the Imperial Army of Rome. I have spent my entire adult life in the military, and I have tried to be a good soldier. However, I will not—try to gloss over who I was and what I did. I am guilty of many things, I suppose, but that for which I bear the heaviest guilt is the fact that twice I was responsible for the taking of innocent life. Understand, please, that in both instances I was simply carrying out the orders of my superiors. I may have been troubled down inside by what was being done, but I was a good soldier, and a good soldier always obeys his orders.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here, so let me take you back to where it all began. I had not requested to be sent to Judea, and when my commanding officer delivered the assignment to me, I was deeply disappointed. There were a dozen places I would rather have served my emperor than in Judea, but that was not to be my lot. I was promoted to the rank of centurion, placed in command of a squadron of 100 soldiers of the Legion, and ordered to establish a base in Jerusalem. It was there that I would spend my military career—a career marked by two great crises; one at the beginning of my service, the other at the end.

The first crisis arose in Bethlehem.

Shortly after my arrival at the new post, I received orders from the legion commander to take my squadron and provide security for the region around Bethlehem, six miles away from the capital city of Jerusalem. The emperor had decreed that everyone was to return to their ancestral homes in order to be counted and registered for the purposes of increasing the rate of taxation. It was not just an inconvenience for the people, it was an infringement upon their freedom. We knew that more than likely there would be incidents of protest and civil unrest. Security, then, was a top priority. I established my headquarters at the little inn at Bethlehem and then deployed my soldiers about the town and in the surrounding countryside. The Roman aide to Judea’s King Herod—his name was Senecus—was actually responsible for the census. He and his staff dealt with the hordes of people who flocked into Bethlehem to be counted.

One afternoon, as I stood guard at the inn, I watched scores of foot-sore travelers try to get a room in the inn, only to be turned away. Then, just about twilight, a man and a woman arrived—he seemed lost in his thoughts, and she was in obvious pain. When he saw me, he asked: “Can you tell me where we can find shelter? My wife is to bear a child and the pain is already upon her.” My heart went out to them, and so I said: “Come with me.” I took them to the stable where my squadron’s horses were being boarded. I pointed to a corner of the stable where there was some fresh hay, and I said, “You can stay here. It’s not much, but at least it’s some protection. May the gods be with you.”

I then returned to my post. Strange things happened that night. The night sky was filled with the brightest lights I had ever seen, and there was some commotion out around the stable, but nothing to be overly alarmed about. The next morning I checked the stable. There they were—the man and the woman, only now she was holding in her arms a tiny baby. I heard the man say: “Mary, I must take the child and register both him and us.” The woman replied: “But, Joseph, I haven’t the strength to move. You will have to take him alone.” And then the woman called Mary placed the child in Joseph’s arms with loving care. At that point, I stepped out of the shadows and volunteered: “Let me go with you, and I will see that you have no difficulty registering.” So I took the man and his child to Senecus, and then stood close by while the registration took place. Senecus said: “Your name, please, and the names of your family.” The man replied, “I am Joseph. My wife is Mary. We are from Nazareth, and the baby—well, we shall name him Jesus, because He is a descendant of King David.” And then he added, and while the words trailed off into a whisper, I was close enough to hear, he added: “Maybe I should say that He is a descendant of God.” Senecus, not understanding what the man said asked: “Well, is it the family of David, or not?” Joseph held the child more closely and said: “Yes, the family of David. That will do.” Senecus said, “That’s all. You can go now.” I watched them walk away. I thought to myself, “Interesting name, Jesus of Nazareth.” It literally means “God Saves.” Interesting name indeed.

I didn’t see them again; and primarily because shortly thereafter the crisis took on deadly proportions. King Herod sent word from Jerusalem that we were to seize and kill all of the male children in Bethlehem under two years of age. Apparently, it was provoked by some new threat to King Herod’s power. I knew it was wrong, but still, I carried out my orders. I guess that’s always my defense, isn’t it? Simply obeying orders, we swept through the town taking innocent young children away from their parents and putting them to death. It was ugly business indeed. I don’t think I have ever gotten over it. Maybe I never will.

Well, the crisis in Bethlehem soon passed, and I returned to my duty station in Jerusalem. There I served for the next thirty years. While there were no major military engagements during those years, the Jewish people continued to resent our presence in the land, and occasionally that resentment would lead to unrest. The situation got much worse when Caesar appointed Pontius Pilate as governor of the province. He was an absolute disaster. He antagonized the feelings of ill will which already existed.

And that led to the second crisis of my military life.

It happened in Jerusalem. Pilate, the governor, sentenced to death by crucifixion an innocent man. I was to carry out the death sentence. Now mind you, I am a soldier. I have known my share of killing and bloodshed. I have witnessed, and even presided over many crucifixions. So this crucifixion was not my first. It would, however, be my last. My problem was the man who was being crucified. Pilate himself had declared the man innocent, and yet he still signed the man’s death warrant. And I? Well, once again, I followed my orders, though I was being ripped apart inside by terrible misgivings.

Pilate handed me a plaque which he said was to be affixed to the condemned man’s cross. I looked at the inscription and my heart nearly stopped. It read: “Jesus of Nazareth. King of the Jews.” My mind raced back across the years to the Bethlehem census. That’s when I had first encountered the name “Jesus of Nazareth.” The man, the woman, the stable, the baby. It all came back to me. What had the man said? The child was a descendant of God? Yes, that’s what he had said.

Because I didn’t know anything else to do, I did what I always do. I carried out my orders. A squad of my soldiers and I escorted the condemned man to the place of execution. My soldiers made quick work of it all, though I tell you the sound of hammer hitting nails still haunts me in my sleep. When my men had finished their grim and grisly work, I lifted my eyes to look at him. To my dismay, his piercing eyes seemed to be staring right back at me. And then he spoke as if he were speaking about me. He said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” The words hit me like a blow to the solar plexus, knocking the breath out of me. I collapsed to my knees. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. He knew that I was the guilty one, not He, and yet He was offering forgiveness to me for what I was doing to Him. I had been cursed by men nailed to crosses, but never had I been blessed by one. Suddenly, the afternoon sun was blotted out by thick clouds, dropping a veil of darkness over the whole scene. A final gasp escaped from His lips, and His tortured breathing stopped. And then from a depth and with a power I could not control, words came rolling up out of me on a rushing torrent of emotion, and I cried: “Truly, this man was the Son of God!”

I didn’t understand what I was saying then, but I do now. You see, the two great crises of my military career involve the same person—one took place at His birth; the other at His death. One took place on a night that was as bright as the day, and the other took place on a day that was as dark as the night. In one He escaped from dying, while little children died in His place; in the other, He didn’t escape from dying and He died in place of us all. I was there on the night He was born in a stable in Bethlehem, and I was there on the day when He died on a hill in Jerusalem. And what I now realize is that when He died, He was also born because He was born in my heart—not as a child, but as the Son of God, the Savior and Lord of my life.

How can I tell you what that means?

Well, in the military tradition, the sign of total surrender is the breaking of one’s sword; for when the sword is broken, the soldier must depend upon the mercy of the conqueror. Tonight I break my sword. I surrender my life to the baby born in Bethlehem. Now, His orders only shall I obey, and Him only shall I serve—until I die ..

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