When rulers taunt and threaten

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“Hezekiah’s Pool,” the dry courtyard at bottom left, might be the Upper Pool mentioned in 2 Kings 18:17. At distant right is the golden Dome of the Rock where the Temple stood. The large grey dome at near left is Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

From the roof of my hotel on the west side of Old Jerusalem, I look down into “Hezekiah’s Pool,” an ancient reservoir that still echoes taunts an enemy made there almost three thousand years ago. At that time Assyria, after wiping out the Northern Kingdom of Israel and deporting its citizens (2 Kings 17), threatened Jerusalem. The Assyrians were brutal: ancient reliefs show them beheading prisoners of war or skinning them alive.

So Jerusalem had reason to be terrified when King Sennacherib of Assyria invaded the Southern Kingdom of Judah in 701 BC, conquering all major cities except Jerusalem. But Isaiah warned God’s people not to seek superior weapons or make compromising alliances: “Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, who trust in the multitude of their chariots and in the great strength of their horsemen, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 31).

King Hezekiah of Jerusalem tried to appease the Assyrians, even sending to King Sennacherib gold and silver stripped from the Temple. But Assyria still dispatched envoys to Jerusalem who spouted propaganda by the “Upper Pool.” If today’s empty pool by my hotel existed in Hezekiah’s time, it was just outside Jerusalem. Inhabitants of Jerusalem stood on the city wall nearby to hear the Assyrians (2 Kings 18, Isaiah 36).

While archeologists dispute which ancient site actually is the Upper Pool, the message of the Assyrians is not in doubt: Egypt is a “a broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of anyone who leans on it,” the Assyrians sneered. You people are so ignorant of horses that Assyria will give you two thousand if you can provide soldiers able to ride them! Yahweh himself told us to come destroy you!

Leaders of Jerusalem were humiliated, and asked the Assyrians to please speak in Aramaic, the language of diplomacy, rather than in the Hebrew everyone could understand. No, answered the Assyrians, we want to communicate with common folk who, like you, soon will be eating their own dung and drinking their own urine.

King Hezekiah prayed, “O Lord, deliver us . . . so that all kingdoms on earth may know that you alone are God.” Speaking on behalf of Yahweh, Isaiah told Assyria, “I will put my hook in your nose” and “turn you back on the way by which you came” (2 Kings 19).

Sure enough, one night during the siege an angel of the Lord struck down 185,000 Assyrians, perhaps by plague.  The Assyrian army returned home, Jerusalem was spared, and King Sennacherib was assassinated by his own sons.

I cannot rejoice at such loss of life. But the story of taunts at the Upper Pool, and the account of unexpected reversal in warfare, remind me that God is sovereign in history. Nations may rage and rulers taunt, but people of faith need not be immobilized by fear. We will not always be saved from harm, but a just God controls our destiny.

From my rooftop I look into what may be the Upper Pool. I also see both Dome of the Rock where the Temple surely stood and Church of the Holy Sepulcher where Jesus died and rose. Fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy of beating swords into plowshares (Isaiah 2), Jesus calls followers to lay down weapons and love our enemies even in crisis when it could cost us our lives.

© 2017  J. Nelson Kraybill ******************************************IMG_0410 (4)

Come with Ellen and me on a Peace Pilgrim walking tour in Galilee and Jerusalem! Dates are May 14-25, 2018, and the pace will be moderate. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum, and hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took his disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls, trace the triumphal entry route on foot, and also travel by vehicle to see much more. The Gospels will be in our hands, and prayer in our hearts. Interested? See https://www.tourmagination.com/tour/holy-land-peace-pilgrim-walk-jesus/

 

Giving the knee to Jesus as Lord

 

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On this first-century tomb at Colchester, England, a Roman soldier carries the rod that means he was a centurion. His weapons hang from two belts of the kind that Marcellus removed and threw to the ground to disarm.

American football players protesting racism recently gave the knee instead of standing at attention during a performance of the United States national anthem, triggering a Twitter storm from the president of the country and a cloudburst of editorial commentary. The wave of  athletic protest began when a player named Colin Kaepernick, wanting to call attention to black men dying at the hands of police, knelt in public at pre-game ceremonies.

Kaepernick is a confessing Christian with Bible verses (not ones I would choose) tattooed on his body. A few years ago, he spoke of his commitment to Scripture. Just as each football team “has a thick playbook full of very specific responsibilities,” he said, the “same is true of our ‘playbook’ the Bible.” Kaepernick was raised on stories of Daniel in the lion’s den and Jesus standing before Pilate. He was accustomed to praying as he entered the football stadium, and has made large contributions to international charitable causes. But symbolic protest made him the object of scorn.

The witness of Marcellus

Kaepernick’s costly witness reminds me of Roman centurion Marcellus, who became a Christian while in the Roman army. On July 21, AD 298, Marcellus stood in front of troops he commanded in Morocco, threw down his weapons, and declared, “I am a soldier of Jesus Christ, the eternal king. From now I cease to serve your emperors and I despise the worship of your gods of wood and stone, for they are deaf and dumb images.”

The emperor in AD 298 was Diocletian, who shortly would unleash devastating persecution of the church. With his empire restive, Diocletian promoted patriotism by requiring all soldiers to sacrifice to the Roman gods and to honor the emperor on his “divine” birthday as a manifestation of the god Jove.

Marcellus resisted, and faced court martial on October 30, AD 298. The judge asked, “What madness possessed you to throw down the symbols of your military oath and say the things you did? . . . You threw down your weapons?”

“Yes, I did,” the soldier replied. “For it is not fitting that a Christian, who fights for Christ his Lord, should fight for the armies of this world.” Marcellus was beheaded immediately after trial.

A martyr’s grave in Indiana

The medieval church in Europe often placed martyr bones under the altar when they established a cathedral. When University of Notre Dame in Indiana founded a new basilica in 1870, they followed that tradition and acquired the bones of Marcellus, which now rest under the high altar. I pray in the basilica each October to thank God for this saint’s witness.

Kaepernick will not lose his head. But at least for the time being, this gifted athlete appears unemployable. Though their circumstances and motivations are different, I honor the actions of both Marcellus and Kaepernick. Marcellus refused to worship “deaf and dumb images” of gods and emperors. Kaepernick protested politicians and civic leaders being deaf and dumb to racism. May I have the courage like these followers of Jesus to make public, nonviolent witness against idolatry and injustice.

© 2017  J. Nelson Kraybill ******************************************IMG_0410 (4)

Come with Ellen and me on a Peace Pilgrim walking tour in Galilee and Jerusalem! Dates are May 14-25, 2018, and the pace will be moderate. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum, and hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took his disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls, trace the triumphal entry route on foot, and see much more. The Gospels will be in our hands, and prayer in our hearts. Interested? See https://www.tourmagination.com/tour/holy-land-peace-pilgrim-walk-jesus/