Sunday 8th December 2013
(following Nelson Mandela’s death on Thursday 5th December)
Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa said,
“Although we knew this day was going to come, nothing can diminish our sense of a profound and enduring loss”
Barack Obama, President of the United States said,
“We’ve lost one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this earth”
Nelson Mandela died this week and the world has been paying tributes to him, both as a leader of his people and as a human being.
I found myself thinking about the life and work and death of Nelson Mandela and holding those thoughts alongside my thoughts about the life and work and death of John the Baptist 2000 years ago.
I’d like to share with you some of my thoughts which are still in the process of developing and so might seem a bit rough round the edges!
This will seem obvious but as I watched news coverage it was clear to me that we cannot understand the world’s reaction to the death of Nelson Mandela unless we understand his life and set it in its rightful historical context.
Nelson Mandela was a prophet speaking out against the evils of apartheid and the oppression of native black Africans by the powerful white regime. His voice was heard by those oppressed people who looked to him with hope and the belief that life could be better, that freedom was attainable and the white regime could be overthrown.
In the same way, we cannot understand the story of John the Baptist and the impact he had on the people of Israel unless we also set that in its historical context.
John the Baptist was a prophet, speaking out against the evils of the world around him. His voice was heard by the oppressed people of Israel whose country had been forcibly occupied by the Romans and who suffered under their harsh and unforgiving rule.
The people of Israel longed for freedom and John was telling them that it was time to prepare the way of the Lord, the Lord who would bring them that freedom and establish a rule of justice and peace.
Nelson Mandela was imprisoned because he was not afraid to speak the truth to power. He was not afraid to say to the rulers of South Africa “Apartheid is wrong, just plain wrong” and that it must change.
John was imprisoned and then executed because he was not afraid to speak the truth to power. He told Herod that what he had done in marrying his brother’s wife was wrong, just plain wrong, and for that he paid first with his freedom and then with his life.
Men and women who are leaders, prophets or figureheads have a public identity and represent their people. But they are also individual men and women with their own personal stories about their families, their childhood, the development of their thoughts and beliefs and their struggles with pain, loss or injustice.
Nelson Mandela was a freedom fighter who once said that violence was a justifiable way of overthrowing the white government of South Africa and obtaining freedom from oppression for black Africans.
This week the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said,
“(Mandela) was the father of his people, a man of vision, a freedom fighter who rejected violence. He set a personal example for his people in the long years he spent in prison.”
Somehow during those 27 years behind bars Nelson Mandela came to believe in change through reconciliation, forgiveness and peaceful negotiation.
We know very little about the early life of John the Baptist and how he came to fulfil his destiny as the one who would prepare the way of the Lord.
But we do know that his words of prophecy were addressed both to the whole people of Israel and to individual men and women who came to hear him speak.
He told them that it was no good believing that because they were children of Abraham they were right with God. They had to live their lives in accordance with God’s commandments:
Nelson Mandela lived as a black African leading his people towards freedom from apartheid.
John the Baptist lived as a Jew leading his people towards reconciliation with God in preparation for the coming of the Messiah.
But in the end Nelson Mandela, John the Baptist and supremely Jesus himself spoke words of eternal truth to all peoples and all nations.
Nelson Mandela tells us that justice and freedom can be won through a costly process of negotiating for a peace and reconciliation with total honesty and painful forgiveness.
John tells us today that we need to be living our lives in accordance with God’s commandments. He tells us that:
- those who have plenty of clothes and food must share with those who have nothing;
- those who deal in financial matters must not extort money from the poor;
- those who hold power must not be greedy or bully or blackmail others.
Jesus tells us that God’s message of peace and reconciliation, love and mercy, truth and forgiveness cost him his life but it was a price he was prepared to pay and in the end his life proved more powerful than death.
David Cameron said this week “A great light has gone out in the world”
But we know that the true light of the world shines in the darkness and the darkness of this world never has and never will overcome that light.
May Nelson Mandela rest in peace,
may light perpetual shine upon him
and during this season of Advent
may we prepare ourselves
to greet once again the new life and light
that will be born in our world and in our hearts
this Christmas Day.