Readings: Matthew 11: 2-11; James 5: 7-10
Preacher: Ruth Martin
Today a human being who changed attitudes on a truly global scale will finally be laid to rest. Millions of people have tuned in to the mourning of Nelson Mandela, hundreds of thousands have turned out on the streets and in celebrations of his life, and yet more will be at the funeral and lining the route to his final resting place today . What or who have we tuned in to see?
Three times in our Gospel today Jesus says about John the Baptist, to the crowds that followed him, What did you go out to see?
Firstly, What did you go out into the wilderness to see, a reed shaken by the wind?;
John the Baptist was no reed shaken by the wind, he was steadfast, and his steadfastness continued, even from his prison cell. John was so excited about Jesus and steadfast in his hopes, that he sent a stream of questions to him from prison; Are you the One?
Mandela during his many years in prison, re-educated himself into a man of peace and reconciliation, and remained steadfast to those principles even when, on release, he had the chance of power, of revenge. Mandela said,
‘I have walked that long road to freedom; I have tried not to falter; I have made mis steps along the way…but I have discovered that after climbing a great hill one only finds that there are many more hills to climb’.
We too, will make mis steps but we can still be steadfast in our journeys towards being the people God wants us to be -by tuning into God, and for turning out for God as we are today in our worship.
This Advent season, when we examine the darkness of the world and anticipate the light coming into the world is an opportunity for us to be open to God about our own mis-steps, to know that God is with us, alongside us through the Spirit of the One for whom we now prepare to celebrate a human, messy birth.
Secondly Jesus says of John to the crowds ‘What then did you go out to see….someone dressed in soft robes? Look those who wear soft robes are in palaces!
Nelson Mandela remarked of his enemies in the apartheid era, that they looked beautiful outside with their beautiful clothes, but were evil within. John the Baptist must have looked very wild on the outside in his camel hair clothes preaching in the wilderness, and in our Gospel today he is in prison, imprisoned by the government of his day, but as Jesus tells us, he was spiritually beautiful on the inside.
During the last week the most powerful rulers of the world, kings, queens, presidents or prime ministers, gathered in South Africa many in their beautiful soft robes to salute the legacy of a man who was, like John, and also Jesus, judged a criminal by his own government because of his views .
Some of them at the celebration of his life last week were amongst the richest people in our world: beautiful clothes, beautiful smiles. Yet, we might be tempted to speculate, what about the beauty on the inside?
To tune into God for ourselves is to recognise we have those less beautiful and dark corners in our hearts and lives and to turn out for God is to know where the dark corners are, and to ask God to help shed His light on them, something which needs to come before we jump to judge the hearts of others. Nelson Mandela recognised this too, saying
‘I realised that unless I changed myself I could not change others’.
Then a third time Jesus says, What then did you go out to see?….yes, a prophet and more than a prophet’…. ‘truly among those born of a woman, no one has risen greater than John the Baptist ‘
John is a transition figure for us, beyond a prophet, a messenger called to prepare the way. John knew who he was and also who he was not, we remember John saying that one would come the thongs of whose sandals he was not worthy to untie.
Mandela too was also aware of who he was and who he was not
He said ‘I am not a saint, unless a saint is a sinner who keeps trying’
Mandela also had a certain humility, standing for just one term of Presidency, and refusing to yield to the temptation of revenge when in power
And for us, how can we tune into God and turn to God to open our hearts and become the messengers of Christ in our own times?
First we have, as our scriptures say, to repent of our sins. The Judgement of God is an Advent theme that is distinctly uncomfortable.
Second, we need to give ourselves space and time to reflect. One of the problems we probably all say to each other at this time of year is not to be distracted by the frenzy of buying things. All of us in this church today know that here today, is when we can stop, and think, and pray, and we can feel the presence of God.
Finally we might have the courage to make some changes.
We all here have the privilege that our own walk with God continues and today, as each day, we can start afresh with God.
-As our reading from James says, be patient, stand firm, and as an example of patience in the face of suffering take the prophets …..
The lessons to learn from the life of Nelson Mandela is not that he , or John the Baptist, or anyone else -except God’s son- was perfect , but that we are called to walk the road of life with a faith which goes beyond self, and reaches to others even at a cost to ourselves
So if we are asked, what did you to go out and see in our lives of faith? That God is among us and we can play our own part to bring God’s light into those places where the light and love of God is so desperately needed in our world, and in the hearts of ourselves and those we love, and especially those we need to love more. Amen.