A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
February 1, 2015
University Baptist Church
The Story of Shimon Bar Kochba
Some call me Simon Bar Koseba, but I like the name given to me by Rabbi Akiva, Simon Bar Kochba, Son of the Star.
I lived from 81-135 of the Common Era. I never saw the great Temple of Jerusalem. But I heard about it. I was raised on stories of its glory, destruction and our Jewish scattering. It was like the stories of the Exodus and the Exile—pivotal in our history and identity.
The area where the Temple had been was being rebuilt by the Roman Emperor Hadrian. But it was not going to be a Jewish Temple. On our holiest mountain Hadrian wanted to build a temple to Jupiter. Can you imagine a bigger sacrilege? It was like he was taunting us. Shrines to other pagan gods would appear all over the city—making it a multi-faith center instead of the holiest place of the Jewish faith.
I was drafted by the Jewish Diaspora to do something about it. I was a descendant of David. I was a skilled military leader, a gifted orator, even a bit of a miracle worker. I was up for the task. I commanded a large army, but we operated largely by stealth. By carefully planned and executed guerilla warfare, my troops captured the temple mount in 132 CE. Eleazar the Priest and I reestablished the sacrifices on the Temple mount for the first time since the temple was destroyed sixty-two years before.
I documented my time in charge and some of your archeologists found some of my letters in caves above the Dead Sea.
Our little utopian experiment lasted for only three years. We didn’t have time to rebuild the walls and the defenses. Roman soldiers systematically wiped out 985 Jewish villages and killed 580,000 Jewish soldiers. Many of our supporters died of starvation. Rome’s resources overwhelmed us and the revolt ended in 135. It was a bloody time, Roman and Jewish soldiers dying one after another.
While we won the grudging respect of Rome, the holy city was expunged of Jews. And it was renamed Aelia Capitolina.
Some called me prince. Some King. Some Nasi, Messiah. Some General. But I want to be remembered not by my conquest, not by my military triumphs, not by the way I vilified many of my opponents, not by my failed attempt to root out Roman imperial rule. I want to be remembered for my zeal for God and my love for the Hebrew people. It led me to lead my people for better or for worse. Maybe I wasn’t the right ruler. Maybe another is the true Messiah.
Twenty-one and a half years ago, Kim and I went on a second honeymoon. We had been married for a little over a month, did our Nova Scotia honeymoon in August, but went to Wales and England in September. We were singing in a professional group called American Voices led by our church organist. He worked it out to get us invited to sing at the Cardiff Music Festival. American Voices did a lot of early American music, some of it Sacred Harp, of course. The title for the month-long festival was “the Rhetoric of Revolution.” Each performer played with the music that undergirds revolution. It’s the music that makes and sustains the movement. Can you imagine a Civil Rights movement without the music/
The music that we shared was of the American Revolution and the Confederacy. Separated by 100 years, the language, the rhetoric was the same. Both talked about freedom from tyranny. Both talked of liberty. Both invoked the heroic name of Washington, a kind of Messiah figure, the Native son of the South’s Virginia. Of course the freedom and liberty that the south sang about was the freedom to own slaves. But that’s beside the point. The rhetoric, the heroism, the arc of the music was inspiring.
Who has not been moved by songs like this: (singing)“Do you hear the people sing, singing a song of angry men, it is the music of the people who will not be slaves again, when the beating of your hearts echo the beating of the drums there is a life about to start when tomorrow comes.” It’s inspiring, isn’t it?
The Psalms are that kind of writing. That kind of rhetoric. Many of them are war psalms. Many of them were sung. They give meaning to the movement. They are meant to be memorized, intoned and sung back with gusto…
Who hasn’t sung many versions of Psalm 23: “The Lord’s my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. She restoreth my soul my cup runneth over.”
Or Psalm 137 “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept for thee Zion. We remember, we remember, we remember thee Zion.”
Or Psalm 24 “Lift up your heads all ye gates and be ye lifted up ye everlasting doors. The King of glory shall appear, the King of glory shall appear.”
We just sang Psalm 147 which says in part: “The Lord builds up Jerusalem and gathers the outcasts of Israel; heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”
Then there are the parts we would rather forget, like the end of Psalm 139 “O that thou would slay the wicked and that men of blood would depart from me. I hate those who hate you. With perfect hatred I hate them.”
In the Oscar winning film of a generation ago, Saving Private Ryan, an American sniper calms himself by reciting Psalms. They disturbingly help him hone in on his target.
Jews and Christians alike during the first few centuries, were invoking these psalms to help them make sense of their world. Pulling an ancient song from our childhoods or our past can remind us of who we are and who we long to be.
How many of you get all misty when we sing a Christmas carol, or another song of our childhood. It does something to us, as well it should.
So think of what the people must have been thinking and singing when Shimon Bar Kochba led his revolt in 132.
“The Lord lifts up Jerusalem and gathers the outcasts of Israel; heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” (Psalm147:2-3)
Roman Emperor Hadrian had at one time promised to rebuild the temple, but then changed his mind, deciding to transform Jerusalem into an entirely pagan city. He also instituted a ban on circumcision, which I’m sure made some squeamish parents and some babies very happy. But if you wanted a sure fire way to determine who was not a Jewish male, and therefore a threat, all you needed to do was lift up his tunic. Hadrian wanted to remove all traces of Judaism, literally. Hadrian banned the teaching of Torah, the assembly of Jewish people, the ordination of rabbis-almost like a Marshall law.
The timing was right for a revolt. The Temple was destroyed in 70, so the land needed to be purified and re-sanctified before a new temple could be dedicated in the round and holy number 140, a good seventy years after the temple was destroyed.
The first Jewish War was held between 66 and 70 and resulted in the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Between the first and the second war, all of the Gospels that are in our present Christian scriptures were written, plus everything that was not written by Paul. The infighting about what would be the final canon of scripture was still a few hundred years off. So, Bar Kochba was leading this Jewish revolt around the time that the Christian Church was being organized and changing. The question was, would the Christians participate or not? How much allegiance did they have to their Jewish roots?
Could they rally behind another leader whom some were calling Messiah and still have identity as Christians?
Bar Kochba came the closest to the classical messiah figure as revolutionary. In this sense, his memory was a threat to Christianity and it’s messiah Jesus. To Bar Kochba were attributed supernatural powers. He was known as a Redeemer, a savior, a general and a king. Kinda like George Washington. Christian sources describe him as a murderer or a bandit. It just goes to show you that history is in the eye of the beholder. The name Bar Kochba means son of a star which harkens to the prophecy from Numbers 24:17 "I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Scepter shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth."
The Star Prophecy appears in the Dead Sea scrolls, which might account for why Bar Kochba’s letters were found amongst the Qumran caves. So this Son of a Star Shimon Bar Kochba led the Jewish revolt against Rome between 132 and 135 C.E. He united his 400,000-man army in Judea and led the Jews in battle. This rebellion later became known as the Bar-Kokhba revolt. They printed coins that said “for the freedom of Jerusalem.” Bar Kochba was a well-organized and effective King. The problem was that he was not strong enough to fight off Rome, no matter how many people were behind him. And his heroic brethren and sistren saw their last messianic hope dashed.
Now the question was, who would take the place of Bar Kochba in the minds and hearts of the people? Who would be the real Messiah? If a military conquest could not happen, or was doomed to failure, what revolutionary figure might we follow? That’s when people started to consider or reconsider Jesus of Nazareth and their non-conscripting and nonviolent members.
Jesus says some downright revolutionary things. He said the Kingdom of God is at hand. “Blessed are the poor for the Kingdom of God is yours. Blessed are you who are hungry for you shall be fed. Blessed are you who mourn for you shall soon be laughing.” (Luke 6:20-21). In this new kingdom, debts shall be erased, slaves set free, wealth redistributed. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full, for you shall hunger. Woe to you who are laughing now, for soon you will mourn.”(Luke 6:24-25)
Those are pretty revolutionary things. As Reza Aslan reminds us, “To say the Kingdom of God is at hand…is akin to saying the end of the Roman Empire. It means God is going to replace Caesar as ruler of the land….The kingdom of God is a call to revolution plain and simple.” (Zealot pp119,120) The cross is a symbol of sedition, says Aslan, not self-abnegation. Jesus was crucified because he might overthrow the state.
But every time Jesus was offered an opportunity to lead an army, he turned it down. It was one of the Devil’s temptations in the Desert, giving him dominion over all of the land. Jesus chose a different path. It was one that would be more long-term, more lasting, more redemptive. No less courageous that Bar Kochba’s but much more effective in the long run. Jesus’ work was to change hearts and minds and set the stage for revolutions to come. God’s restoration requires a revolution. It happens in structures but it also needs to happen in our hearts.
So as Christians, are we revolutionaries? If so, what kind of revolutionaries are we prepared to be?
As Tracy Chapman sang, “Don’t you know, we’re talking about a revolution and it sounds like a whisper”
What we need to do is listen to the stories of revolution. Maybe we even need to sing their songs. We need to remember the courage of the revolutionaries and then decide what is going to make the biggest and best long-term change.
We follow one who was given the chance to take a military stand and chose against it. He instead said that we need to cleanse ourselves of hatred, of the need for revenge, of simplistic and dualistic judgments against our enemies. We need to befriend the friendless. And witness for peace, all while singing the songs of peace.
That is truly revolutionary and will not be silenced. Let’s have that kind of revolution.
Let me close with the words of the great bard James Russell Lowell:
Once to everyone and nation comes the moment to decide.
In the strife of truth with falsehood for the good or evil side.
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever twixt the darkness and the light.
Though the cause of evil prosper, yet ‘tis truth alone is strong.
Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne.
Yet that scaffold sways the future and behind the dim unknown
Standeth truth within the shadow, keeping watch above God’s own.”
May we be thus rooted in courage and sustained by the grace received in singing the songs of freedom.