Saturday 7 December 2013

Nelson Mandela & John the Baptist - Sermon for Advent 2 - 2013 - 8th December

It would be impossible to preach this weekend and not make some reference to the death of Nelson Mandela. The world has quite literally stopped in its tracks since the sad but inevitable news of his death was announced and indeed we have now seen days of saturation coverage of his life and his legacy.

There are some, albeit it a minority, who look at him in a less favourable light and see him as a terrorist rather than a freedom fighter. It is very hard for us to judge that at this distance and indeed the time that has passed since his active involvement in the armed struggle before his imprisonment makes it even more difficult. However it is undeniable that since his release from prison he confounded all those who doubted his character by seeking not revenge but reconciliation. He sought to unite the people of South Africa of all colours and creeds under one flag and do away with the remnants of Apartheid. He was not about settling scores and indeed had to campaign hard within the ANC and elsewhere to stop others going down this road.

          A few of his own words after his release demonstrate this commitment to peace and love as the way forward for South Africa:

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

          There is no doubting that South Africa is a better place for having had Nelson Mandela make his mark on it but it is a work in progress. There is still a huge amount to do. It is still a very dangerous and crime ridden society. I had occasion to drive from Johannesburg airport to the border with Swaziland a few years ago on a trip to Swaziland and the poverty that was visible on the roadside was very disturbing. Mile after mile after mile of corrugated tin shacks almost on top of one another (each about 100 feet sq) stretched out of the eastern suburbs. My companions and I were warned under no circumstances to even consider stopping on that road as hijacking was not uncommon. The contrast with the modern city we had just left was dramatic to say the least.
Apartheid may have gone but there is still a significant division between the haves and the have-nots. There is still a large amount of tribal tension and violence and the scourge of AIDS has left its mark disproportionately on the poor and disadvantaged. So Nelson Mandela did not live to see the total fulfilment of his dreams for a new, just and prosperous South Africa. That is in the hands of others who will have to take personal responsibility for making the dream a reality. They cannot rest on his legacy or things will fall back into chaos and conflict and a wonderful opportunity will have been wasted.

          There are remarkable parallels between the story of Nelson Mandela and John the Baptist. Where Mandela took the first steps toward the complete freedom of South Africa and all its peoples John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus to bring God's Kingdom closer to Earth. He (John the Baptist) saw many wonderful things in his life and ministry and had the extraordinary privilege of baptising Jesus but like Mandela he did not see the end of the journey, for that work is ongoing and you and I are also charged with working towards its realisation.

In this light perhaps the most significant passage in the Gospel today is where John the Baptist addresses the Pharisees and Sadducees:

‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

This is not just advice to the Pharisees and Sadducees but also to us - we cannot rest on our laurels or the legacy of others - We have personal responsibility for our faith and for our relationship with God. And the implication of that is that we are called to participate in the work of building God's Kingdom on Earth - bringing God's justice and peace and love to all peoples.

Part of that work is in South Africa where there is still a need for God's love and justice and peace among a people who have begun the journey but who like us have not reached its end. As long as there are those who hunger or thirst, who are sick and suffering, lonely and lost and have nowhere to lay their heads at night, whether that is on the streets of Dublin or Johannesburg there is work to be done and we are the only ones who can do that work. We are Gods eyes and ears, his hands and feet and it is through us that he can and will bring justice, love  and peace to all his people. So today we pray for South Africa as it mourns Mandela but we pray especially that all of us who are created in his image will respond to our personal calling to be workers for the increase of the Kingdom on Earth.