Posted by: owizblog | December 8, 2013

The Man Between The Ages: Sermon, UCB, 8 12 2013, Advent 2

Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12

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Here’s a piece of ridiculously unrealistic, airy fairy nonsense:

The wolf will live with the lamb,

    the leopard will lie down with the goat…

    and a little child will lead them…

    their young will lie down together,

    and the lion will eat straw like the ox…

The young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.

They will neither harm nor destroy

    on all my holy mountain…

How likely is that?

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But there were people, twenty-odd years ago, who would have said that hopes of a peaceful end to Apartheid, and a peaceful transition to majority rule, were just as unlikely and unrealistic in South Africa.

You’d expect me to mention, today, the death of Nelson Mandela.

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The best questions are the open-ended ones that invite you not just to answer, but to continue to think about your answer. Someone I respect very much asked me yesterday whether I thought that there was something “Christ-like” about Nelson Mandela. Someone I respect very much, and someone who respects me enough – and knows me well enough – to leave me space to think about my answer.

I’m still thinking…

My friend also knows me well enough – as do you, by now – to know that I’m very much an “on the one hand… on the other…” sort of person.

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And that’s where I am at the moment. On the one hand, for Christians, Jesus Christ is unique. In him we encounter the ultimacy of God. On the other hand, Christ-likeness, as Paul tells us in the great hymn he quotes in Philippians chapter two, Christ-likeness is the goal of our being: “Let that mind that was in Christ be also in you…”

And I found myself pondering, but very quickly, for me, offering a preliminary answer to that huge question. There is something about the shape of Mandela’s life that points me, as a Christian, to Jesus, and to what Christ’s coming is all about.

Oddly enough, this isn’t because Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was a saint. I was fascinated to hear Desmond Tutu, a man who should be able to offer a Christian appraisal of Mandela if anyone can, say that if a saint is a perfect human being, Mandela wasn’t a saint, certainly not in that sense.

Being “Christlike” isn’t to do with being a saint…

Tutu repeated some observations about his friend that he’d made in an interview he’d given to the American television programme Frontline while Mandela was alive. (1)  “He probably is over-loyal to the ANC… His sense of loyalty sometimes was a weakness… I would say that there were times when I would have hoped that he could have come out, and said either very clearly and firmly, ‘This is what we do.’”

It’s important that that’s said – and important, too, that Archbishop Tutu emphasized that Mandela knew this about himself – because that lets us see just how remarkable the remarkable things about him were. And this is how Desmond Tutu puts that…

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He was locked away for twenty-seven years.  “Humanly speaking, he was done for. This is oblivion. The forces of evil are on the rampage, and basically … the movement of resistance, there was very little to speak about. The stuffing had been knocked out of it.” “We would say conventionally that he had disappeared, that this was a waste. That is how we all felt. This is a waste. This good man.

“It turns out, actually, that it wasn’t a waste. He was growing in depth, whereas” [says Tutu,] if he’d been released very much earlier, “he … would have emerged as someone bristling with anger and resentment, [which] time apparently lost. It was a time of incredible growth. And then God must have a kind of special kind of… sense of humour.”

“When you heard some of his utterances before going to jail on the subject of violence, for instance, you are aware that a transformation happened. That he was not the fire-eater 27 years later that he had been…”

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And Archbishop Tutu makes this very rich comment: “But I think what happened to him in prison was… that suffering can do one of two things to a person. It can make you bitter and hard and really resentful of things. Or as it seems to do with very many people–it is like fires of adversity that toughen someone. They make you strong but paradoxically also they make you compassionate, and gentle. I think that that is what happened to him.”

He transcended what had happened to him.

While he was still in prison, he overcame what was being done to him. He absorbed it, and changed it into something else. He refused to let it define him, as it would have defined him if he’d become bitter, filled with rage and hate and the desire for retribution on those who’d treated him like this.

And then, he was released.

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And he was released out into a South Africa in which millions of people were filled with rage, with anger because of what had been done to them, and their families, and their neighbours. And perhaps it was only someone in Mandela’s position who could have any hope of saying “However angry you feel, whatever righteous indignation possesses you now, if you let that define you, if you act on that, you will only perpetuate, even escalate, the violence and injustice. And maybe it was only someone who had been in Mandela’s position who could say to terrified white people, who feared for their lives and everything their lives had been about, “I am stepping away from what has been. I want to be reconciled to you…”

What Mandela did that, to my mind, points a Christian most unequivocally to Christ is that he created the circumstances in which people could step away from what was holding them all captive in a cycle of oppression, and fear, and anger, and injustice.

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And it turned out that people on both sides did want to step away from the future that many deeply pessimistic commentators had assumed was inevitable.

It certainly didn’t solve everything. If you thought that that image of the lion and the lamb we saw a few minutes ago was a bit twee and sugary-sweet, well, so did I! We live in the real world, and the world as it actually is.

The Frontline interviewer, John Carlin, asked Archbishop Tutu the same question my friend asked me.

“Do you see him as a, forgive the heresy, Christ-like figure?”

No, I don’t think it would be a heresy. There is no harm in saying [that], because our Lord wanted us to be Christ-like. Christ-like doesn’t mean not having faults. It means that you do actually have a capacity to draw out the good that is in others. You make people slightly better than they would have been without your influence. It is helping people to move away from what would have been the normal reactions and responses that are destructive and move them in a direction where those forces are transmuted, and they become forces for good. So I wouldn’t be appalled that you say he is Christlike …

In that sense, neither would I.

But there’s a sense in which the figure Nelson Mandela cuts on the stage of human history reminds me very strongly of someone else.

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His life, as a journey from anger and despair to an unshakable belief in reconciliation and acceptance, is a total change of mindset, of thinking and believing and living which the New Testament calls “repentance”. His message was of the need to face the past honestly, the truth of what we were, so as to be freed of it and accept the future that comes from God.

He presages, and announces, the coming of the future, then steps from the stage. 

Yes, it’s someone else Nelson Mandela reminds me of….

We sing hymn 208: On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry/Announces that the Lord is nigh.

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Truth and reconciliation.

How can you have reconciliation without truth?

How can you even fully understand the need for reconciliation, without facing the need for the truth to be told, to be brought to light and seen for what it is?

Out of Nelson Mandela’s authoritative call, based on his own experience, and the weight of twenty-seven years of his life spent in prison, came the recognition by millions of people that they deeply desperately wanted reconciliation. To achieve it, one side would have to lay aside anger and history, the other power and fear.

But something else was needed. There emerged the recognition that there was much painful, difficult truth that would have to be unearthed, brought to the light of day, and faced. What had been done to people – and what people had done. Some terrible, horrible things. And there began a process, which bore the name of the body which steered it, the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”

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The actual unfolding of the process has had its critics, and it’s for historians to debate and establish what its achievements actually are. But the intention to seek the truth, and face it, and the real measure of success, are at the root of what helped transform the situation and the prospects of South African society.  

Have a look at this next slide, and smile! It’s the lion lying down with the lamb again, but the lamb is thinking  “Baa, I still don’t trust him!” and the lion, who obviously hasn’t lost his taste for sheep-meat, is reflecting “Arrrr, why do I have to be alive now…?” This isn’t the Kingdom, it’s an uneasy peace with much still wrong with it. But it points to something beyond it.

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It’s silly and dishonest at best to pretend that we can bring about an ideal world, or, even worse, to pretend that it some way we have done. The South Africa Mandela leaves behind faces huge problems, and many dangers. It isn’t the Kingdom. But it is, thanks to Mandela, something to do with facing difficult truth and overcoming it.

John the Baptist is all about truth, and a lot of it is difficult:

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?  Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.

Now “repentance”, we said, means a radically new way of thinking, understanding and living. It means embracing a coming truth, and living it as the truth now! It means turning to face the coming Kingdom, the new order of things which will be God’s order.

“Produce fruit in keeping with repentance!” says John. Face what you were, and are, and become something different. Be reconciled – accept this reconciliation, this chance to square your living and being – with the coming Kingdom of God.

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But the people who are listening to him don’t think they need that. They don’t think they need this radical facing-of-what-they-are. We’re good people! We’re God’s people! Have been for generations. For aye. We are the people! We’re in. It’s the people who are out who have to worry…

And John says:

And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 

That’s how serious this is!

Truth. There’s no escaping it, only a putting-off. And not facing it, putting off facing it, is potentially catastrophic.

Because that means that we take the world the way it is so seriously, that we shut the door on the transforming God. We give up on the world the way it should be. We settle for things as they are. We tie ourselves to a present tied to the past, to failure, and injustice, and hopelessness.

And when what is new comes, we aren’t ready, can’t respond, can’t say yes to God’s yes to us.

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Think how much of Jesus’ teaching is about that. Ten foolish bridesmaids who aren’t ready for the wait for the bridegroom. Their lamps go out. They go off to look for oil – and they aren’t there when he comes.

Christian faith takes this pattern from the Baptist, who appears in the desert, and says “Get ready! Turn your mindset, and your living, round!” The Baptist who points to Jesus and says “There he is! There’s your man! There’s the future coming now!”

But when you think about it, isn’t that what the angels said to the shepherds, and the Wise Men learned from the star? “Here comes God’s New Thing. Here comes the Coming of the Kingdom…”

Nelson Mandela wasn’t a saint, and didn’t claim to be. He was a very great man, a man of forgiveness and reconciliation. He was a man who reached into himself, and found what we can only say God put there.

And he was unquestionably the man who pointed South Africa to the truth about itself, and said “You can’t live like this any more!” And then, he pointed South Africa to a possibility that even old hands, journalists, political commentators, politicians, hadn’t seen, couldn’t imagine.

For us, for faith, these possibilities, these impossible possibilities, are of God, and themselves point to God.

Because for us, for faith, all such possibilities, all such hope, points to the coming Kingdom. The Kingdom which, in Jesus, is beginning to come.

Note:

(1) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/mandela/interviews/tutu.html

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Responses

  1. Reblogged this on Sky Pilot .


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