Scripture Matthew 27:62-28:15
THE GRAVEYARD SHIFT
(c) Copyright 2000 Rev. Bill Versteeg
Becoming a soldier in the esteemed Roman army corps had been Sabian's life long dream. When he was young, watching the proud Roman Centurions march by was a vision that caught his eye. One day, he would be in the disciplined ranks, knowing how to march, knowing how to wield a sword in battle, having all that power, holding his head high while doing great things for the mighty Roman Empire. His father encouraged him. When he became a teenager he went into training. The training camps were brutal. Everyone had to do exactly as told. Everyone had to march in perfect step with one another. Everyone had to obey their captains perfectly, or everybody paid the consequences.
Sabian learned hard and quick. By age 20, his muscles were strong, his manly frame attractive. He stood out as a soldier with a future. But at the same time, he was learning some hard lessons. Lessons like: "Soldiers do the will of politicians." And they have to do that will often without question, without breaking rank. At times, Sabian didn't like that power he had as a soldier, especially when that power seemed to be wasted on useless things like the time he was shipped off from Rome to Jerusalem. Jerusalem was not terribly important to the empire except that it lay on a major trade route to Africa and the locals had to remain subdued, quiet, not a problem.
Sabian became one of the head guards in the Jerusalem detachment. In the few years that he had been there, he had come to realize all over that it was the soldiers job to do what politicians wanted. When Herod sneezed, soldiers jumped to attention. When Pilate ordered something, well, you did it, but not quite as fast as you would do something for Herod. He just wasn't as powerful, and he was more of a politician who had to listen to the people.
The events in Jerusalem had been
normal. Putting down another potential rebellion in Jerusalem. They
arrested a guy who claimed to be king of the Jews. There
seemed to be some meager evidence against him.
It was Saturday morning, Sabian was
rudely awakened by his sentry, a younger soldier who stood guard and
took in messages for the garrison. Apparently, Pilate had had another
meeting early in the morning with some of the Jewish politicians, now
they wanted the garrison to guard the place where the man who claimed
to be King of the Jews had been buried. At first the order puzzled
They marched to the tomb. When they arrived, they saw that the entrance to the tomb had already been closed with a very large stone. People tried to close tombs to keep robbers and animals away from the decaying body. But they set to work. The first thing they did was place a couple of short pieces of rope over the stone and the entrance wall of the tomb. They heated some wax and poured it over the rope on rock and on the other end of the rope on the wall of the tomb. If the rock ever did get moved again, they would certainly know it. Sabian set six guards near the tomb, and he set 5 scouts out in the garden around the tomb to watch for any unwelcome Jewish women or men coming by. Sabian walked back and forth, making sure everyone was doing there job.
Saturday went fine. This was Jewish Passover day. The Jews were too busy with their feast to pay any attention to this dead man's grave. Saturday evening came. Sabian knew that his men would need rest for the night. He planned to have at least four men watching per 2 hour watch throughout the night. That started when the sun set.
They had a totally boring day watching a grave. Just as Sabian thought, the followers of this man were to scared to show up, to scared that they would become known as his followers, his disciples, after all, it might be dangerous for them. He just knew this night would be boring too. Still, he choose to stay awake through the shifts. Make sure his men did a good job. The request came down straight from Pilate and the Jewish rulers had made it clear they wanted a good job done. Some of his men mumbled about how pointless this job was. Sabian quickly reminded them that they would only get their salt if the job was well done. (Roman soldiers were paid with salt which they later sold in the market places for money. We get our word SALary from this Roman practice.)
The first 2 hour watch - 6 men stood guard, nothing happened.
The second 2 hours watch - 4 men stood guard, nothing happened. But there were concerns now. They were worried about the third day, and that would start at any time. The day after the Passover was what the politicians were really worried about. So Sabian, for the next watches jumped the guard up to 6 men. He himself was one of them. And he was sure that nothing would get past them.
The third watch, nothing happened.
The fourth watch - 6 men on guard, nothing happened.
The fifth watch, there were hints of the sun coming closer to the horizon in the east. "Get through this watch," thought Sabian, "and it should be easy the rest of the day."
Suddenly there was a bold of light that shot out of the sky and came down to the ground with such a thunderous roar that the earth shock under their feet. Every soldier standing fell to the shaking ground! Every sleeping soldier instantly tried to get to his feet! But what they saw come down was more than light, it was a powerful being, and when his feet hit the ground, it shock even harder. Rocks were rolling, trees were shaking back and forth. Sabian noticed his men first hiding their eyes, then trembling in fear falling around him. This was more than they could imagine, more than he could imagine. This being was too powerful to stop, he fell to the ground, and before fear overcome his mind, he watched this powerful being take the stone, and break the seals, and then sit on the rock. In total fear, he lay frozen, unable to believe his eyes, his ears...
As the sun just started to rise, some women came and they talked to the angel. It spoke and said "Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay." The women peaked inside the tomb and then they ran way.
Sabian's mind started to clear. The bright white being was just sitting there on the rock. He crawled on his stomach from one soldier to another, waking up his men, telling them to retreat to safety in the bushes, to regroup, to decide there what to do.
They got together behind trees. They watched. Other bright white beings appeared, went into the tomb. More Jews came, this time men and women, everyone of them left excited and running.
"We have got to go tell the captain what has really happened." Sabian said. But some of us have to watch to make sure that no one takes the body. Right then, one of the Jewish men ran past them yelling that the tomb was empty. Sabian could not believe his ears. Seeing other people at the tomb, he dared this time to go near enough to peak inside. Sure enough, it was empty! Yet no one had robbed it! He had to report this to the authorities. He took two of his men with him and together they raced to their commander who took them to the leaders of the Jews.
"You must here this sir. A powerful being of light came down. The whole earth shock. We could not stand on our feet. He broke the seal to the tomb and there was no body in the tomb. He said that this man we crucified is alive again.!"
The Jewish leaders had a very strange and dark look of fear in their eyes. They asked Sabian's men questions and questions, but their story was the same. This man Jesus must be alive! The Jewish rulers look frantic! They were running about getting other Jewish men into a meeting. Then they told Sabian and the two men with him to wait, they had some decisions to make.
While they were meeting, Sabian and his men talked. They knew they were in trouble. They had been given the task to make sure that the grave would not be robbed. It would certainly look like it had been robbed, of a body, and if they failed that badly in their task, not only their jobs but their life was at risk. They were in a lot of trouble.
"But we couldn't help it!" the younger soldier said. "No one could stand up to that power. Something really incredible happened there!"
Just then the Jewish rulers returned from their meeting. They came out with a large sack of money, obviously their religion was good business. And then they handed the large sack of money to Sabian!
"What is this?" Sabian asked.
"Money, lots of it!" the Chief of the Jewish Priests said.
"You and your men."
"For your story. We want you to tell others this story: Say that 'His disciples came during the night and stole him away while you were asleep.'"
"Are you crazy!" blurted out the younger soldier. "Everyone knows that Roman soldiers don't sleep while they are on watch. It would mean a court martial. Something really happened there last night. I saw it with my own eyes. His followers didn't steal the body. Nobody did. This is much bigger than that!"
"Be quiet!" Sabian ordered. "Let me do the talking!"
And then Sabian continued.
"This story won't work. When our superiors hear that we fell asleep on a watch, we will certainly loose our rank if not our jobs as soldiers, maybe even our lives. And these men of mine will save their skins before they save your story. No one will die for a lie."
"Oh don't worry about that!" the religious teacher answered. "We will talk to Pilate right away and tell him what a marvelous job you have done. You have done and are doing everything that we want you too. You'll have absolutely no reason to be worried."
This time the middle aged soldier could no longer keep his mouth shut. "You're telling us to tell everybody that 'His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.' No one will ever believe us. It won't work. How can sleeping people tell what happens when they were sound asleep. Your story doesn't work!"
The older priest said, looking right into the soldiers eyes with a threatening look "What other option do you, soldier, have?"
The three Roman soldiers looked at each other.
If they stuck to their story that something really powerful had happened, their superiors would not believe them. They would be court martialed. They would at least loose their rank if not their jobs or their lives. They would certainly get no salt for this tour of duty. No one would believe that they slept through the robbery, or that they woke just in time to see the robbers leaving. Robbers carrying the body of a dead man could never outrun fit Roman soldiers! But besides being court martialed, this lie was the only choice they had.
Sabian looked in the heavy sack . These were all silver coins. He had wondered about his future, this was it. He pulled out a few of the coins and showed them to his fellow soldiers. This was real money and lots of it, far better than salt. All they would have to do is promote a lie for some politicians, religious politicians in this case. And after all, a soldiers duty is to fulfill the wishes of a politician... And on top of that, this way, these priests would give them a cover story, they wouldn't get into trouble with their superiors.
On that day, Sabian made a choice with 11 of his men, the choice to tell a lie, and not a very good lie at that. But they were rich for soldiers. So they told the lie, not to their superiors, much more to the Jewish people who seemed to want to hear this lie. And their lie continued to be told among the Jews for years to come.
As Sabian grew old, with his little hoard of money, he noticed how hard being proud as a soldier had become. Being a soldier wasn't such a great thing. It was doing a job, sometimes an ugly job, fulfilling the wishes of politicians, telling lies.
He knew the truth of what happened and sometimes he wondered what it all meant. A new group had been developing in the empire called people of "the Way." Otherwise called Christians, whatever those are. He never got into what was going on. He had his house, his chariot, his entertainments, his life was good, not fun, but good. But having been there at the Garden that one scary day, he wondered, as he got older, what would happen to him, when somebody put him in his tomb....
What do you think would happen?
The scripture passage on which this story is based: Matthew 27:62 - 28:15
62 The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate.
63 "Sir," they said, "we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, 'After three days I will rise again.'
64 So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first."
65 "Take a guard," Pilate answered. "Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how."
66 So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.
28:1 After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.
2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it.
3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow.
4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.
5 The angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified.
6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.
7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples: 'He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.' Now I have told you."
8 So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.
9 Suddenly Jesus met them. "Greetings," he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him.
10 Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."
11 While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened.
12 When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money,
13 telling them, "You are to say, 'His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.'
14 If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble."
15 So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.
(NIV) Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright (C) 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.