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December 8, 2013
The Rev. David Minnick
Sunday, 8 December 2013
Text: Isaiah 11: 1-10, Matthew 3: 1-12
As we gather this morning, we have the opportunity to hear, learn from and respond to three different calls to hope and peace today. One is old, one is very old, and one is relatively new.
It’s been said that when it comes to motivating horses, two things work. For some, it’s the carrot; for others, it’s the stick. That lesson may sum up in an image, the contrasts between today’s Scripture lessons. Both Isaiah and Matthew are writing what they believe to be good news for hurting people. Isaiah writes for the people of the southern kingdom of Judah, feeling threatened by their neighbors, the Assyrians. Isaiah senses that, while their fears of military might are sound, their sin and lack of faith in God are ever greater threats to their wellbeing. So he writes to them the language of poetry, of hope-filled images of the promise of peace. Of a chopped down tree, striving to continue living, and sprouting shoots from the core of the stump. Of animals long predators of one another, now living together in harmony and without threat or violence. Of a time and place where an innocent and vulnerable child can play in a place of great danger and threat. No wonder it inspired the classic painting “The Peaceable Kingdom.”
Matthew writes for 1st century Jews, seeking to convince them that the Messiah had indeed come. And today, we hear him tell of John the Baptist, whose message of hope is much more stick than carrot. A rich image, of threats and warnings; of eternal promises and condemnations. John’s words are harsh, telling even those Pharisees and Sadducees who come seeking baptism, to go back and live lives worthy of repentance first, then return. Imagine being so far off the forgiveness scale that you need to go live a good life long enough to qualify for repentance. It stands in marked contrast to Isaiah’s hope-filled images.
If there is one thing we have certainly learned in the long history of humanity’s search for the divine and the eternal, across the centuries and cultures, there is no one size fits all. And so the good news comes to you today both as a carrot and as a stick. Which is more likely to prompt from you the response Jesus seeks to hear?
The images of Isaiah and John the Baptist are rich images, full of metaphors and poetry, the language of hope. This is the language that pushes past defenses, overcomes analytical minds and finds its target in our hearts. And the hope that God offers, as a carrot and as a stick, through both Isaiah and John the Baptist, is a lasting hope, in the power of God beyond all things; to those who are inspired by lofty visions as well as those who look within and recognize their need to change, repent, turnaround.
And one of our greatest hopes, is to live in a land and time of peace, both peace among peoples and nations, as well as peace in the deepest corners of our heart. And we hear these promises, and this call, in a time of such unsettledness. Wars continue to plague our world, and likely will continue to do so, until wise ones find the ways to share the blessings we have and respect one another. Quite close to home, the violence that is so much a part of daily living in many parts of our world, scarred us dramatically lasts December 14th in Newtown. And the anniversary of that horrific day stands before us as a powerful reminder of our vulnerability in a world where violence and evil seem to come out of nowhere. Whether it is a community as deeply scarred as Newtown or in our homes, the sanctuary for our families and ourselves, where every August, we are reminded of the nightmarish horror that the Pettit family knew, so very close to us, several years ago.
In our time, do we dare talk together, do we dare even dream about peace in our lives and in our world, and not look to the incredible witness of Nelson Mandela? The world lost one of the most transformative persons in our history this week. Tributes have been abundant and endless, and really not even enough. Mandela’s life and witness serve as such a vivid reminder of the wonder of the journey, and of the ability of one person to change themselves, a nation, and the world. Born into tribal royalty, Mandela was blessed to receive an education, a luxury for very few in his native land. Growing in knowledge and in opposition to the brutal injustice of apartheid, of which he was a victim, he at first sought to follow and promote the path of non-violent change. After some successes and then tragic failure at Sharpesville when 69 unarmed protesters were killed, he rejected that course and advocated for armed struggle as the avenue for social change. When those efforts led to his imprisonment, he spent 27 years, over one quarter of his life, on Robbens Island. Freed at last in 1990, as the world waited to hear how he would respond, he spoke of the need for forgiveness and moving ahead. He modeled this by including among his security staff some of the very guards who had previously imprisoned him.
From the time of his release from prison to his death on Thursday, Mandela modeled and spoke of the need for forgiveness, if any were ever to know peace. He hired those who had previously imprisoned him onto his staff and when he was elected president four years later, called others to serve among his advisors and staff in creating a new South Africa.
In South Africa, people of color love soccer, or football, as their favorite sport. Some of those with roots in India or England, show an interest in cricket. And white South Africans are passionate fans of rugby. And so, when the apartheid restrictions were lifted, and the world championship matches for rugby were hosted in South Africa for the first time, all the world was watching. The final match was between the heavily favored team from New Zealand and the South African championship team, the Springboks. On the day of the final match, when Mandela showed up for the championship match, wearing a Springbok jersey with the number of their white captain, the crowd was unified, chanting his name for a long time.
Mandela found so many ways to witness, promote and achieve reconciliation and peace within a nation that many assumed was a powder keg ready to explode. When he finally become President of a free South Africa, he hosted a special lunch for all the former first ladies of the nation, welcoming into his home, those who had been part of the government which had imprisoned him for so long. Weeks later, PW Botha, who resisted any and all conversations about apartheid when he was president, was invited by Mandela to come visit. As soon as Botha arrived, Mandela broke all tradition, which called for visitors to humbly approach the sitting president, and walked out to meet and greet Botha. It was an action seen throughout the world that showed the redeeming powers of forgiveness.
One of the ways Mandela sought to unify South Africa in the years after the end of apartheid was the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Headed by his friend and colleague, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the TRC headed up a series of hearings throughout the country. The rules were simple. Any white policeman or army officer who faced his accusers, admitted his crime and acknowledged his guilt, was forgiven. No further punishment was administered. Many complained that this was much too easy for those who had inflicted brutality on others for years. But Mandela was insistent that South Africa needed healing more than justice in those days.
The stories told about these hearings are amazing. Brutal and horrific crimes were acknowledged by those responsible. One of the most memorable stories is told about a police officer named van de Broek. He told the TRC of how he and other officers shot an 18 year old boy, then degraded his body in ways I will not detail here, before immolating him. Eight years later, they returned to the same house, falsely arrested the boy’s father and similarly killed and immolated him in front of his wife.
After van de Broek acknowledged these crimes, the courtroom was silent as the victim’s family was asked if they wanted to speak. The elderly widow was asked what she wanted from this officer, who had brutally slain her husband and her son, beyond his confession. She said she wanted him to go and gather up the dust from the spot of the fire so that her husband could be buried. And then she added, “Mr. van de Broek took all my family away from me, and I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like him to come visit me and spend the day with me so I can be like a mother to him. I would like him to know he is forgiven by God and that I forgive him too. I would like to embrace him today so that he knows my love is real”
A spontaneous chorus of Amazing Grace filled the courtroom as the elderly woman walked toward the defendant. Unfortunately, he never heard any of it, as he, fearing the worst and overwhelmed by her ability to forgive him, fainted in the courtroom. (Yancey, Rumours of Another World, pp. 223-224)
I believe that the spiritually mature in faith, can find inspiration and draw wisdom, from any number of sources. The vision of the peaceable kingdom, the warnings to repent in one’s own life in order to believe more deeply, and the transformative witness of others, like Nelson Mandela and the elderly widow I just spoke of.
As Christians, drawing on the power of God to redeem Jesus’ horrific death on the cross, we are always looking for the way to redeem any suffering or struggling within the human condition. Just as Jesus’ learned to hear God’s voice and know his way after his time in the wilderness, Mandela made his time in Robbens’ Island redemptive by sorting out clearly who he was and how he would choose to live each of his days.
And so on this Sunday, as we remember God’s call to us to live in peace, let us be mindful that this refers not just to the peace between people and nations, but peace within our own hearts. For the person at peace with him/herself is much more capable of hearing God’s voice, sensing God’s calling and following in faith.
I want to conclude today with one of the sources of this inspiration, this peace, for Nelson Mandela--the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley.
Out of the night that covers me, Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be, For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance, I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance, My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears, Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years, Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.
May God bless us each, in these days of Advent, to find our inspiration in the carrot, the stick or the witness of Nelson Mandela that we remember in these days. Thanks be to God. Amen.