Readings: Isaiah 11: 1-10 Romans 15: 4-13 Matthew 3: 1-12
“Let there be justice for all.
Let there be peace for all.
Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.
Let each know that for each the body, the mind and the soul have been freed to fulfill themselves.
Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.
Let freedom reign.
The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement!
God bless Africa!”
Once there was a people deeply divided. Black people, coloured people, Indian people all had different histories in South Africa but all were oppressed and kept in humiliating servitude, White people increasingly feared for their future and the day when the oppressed would rise up against them and were determined to keep that day at bay. Black people longed for their liberation; white people feared that any small change would mean the end of their world as they knew it. So the resentments grew, the oppression became heavier, and there could only be a terrible eruption of violence and retribution.
The eruption never happened. Many people contributed to this miracle but as the years go by the miracle is laid more and more at the feet of one who has become the iconic father of a united South Africa, Nelson Mandela whom we mourn today. You will have recognized the words from his inaugural speech as the first president of a democratic South Africa. With his passing we are somehow taken back to those heady days of the 1994 elections, the emergence of the rainbow nation united in forgiveness and hope, epitomized some months later with the winning of the rugby world cup. You will all have shed some tears, I am sure, as have I, not only at Madiba’s passing but at the scenes of the outpouring of love from all the people of our land, united momentarily once more. Just for a moment we have become again the rainbow nation.
Perhaps as you heard those wonderful words from Isaiah today you made some connections: the coming of a Messiah on whom the spirit of the Lord rests, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and power, the Messiah who will restore the fortunes of the poor and who will usher in a time of peace, a time and a country where all will live in harmony and “they shall do no hurt, no harm, on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.”
But let’s be realistic here. Nelson Mandela himself said, please don’t treat me as a saint, nor even as one trying to be a saint. The spirit of the Lord may indeed have rested upon him. He was a man whom imprisonment had tempered and mellowed, he was a man who could remarkably get alongside those who had been his oppressors – who can forget his visit to take tea with the aged Betsy Verwoerd, or the way his former prison guards became those among his greatest admirers. But he was a man, not a messiah. By all accounts he could also be dictatorial and short tempered. He was a politician with an eye on how best to achieve his political goals. As with all truly great men and women, – and he was certainly there among the greatest – a time of idolization will turn in due course into a time when writers will describe the feet of clay. I think he was warning us about that. A man. Not a messiah.
And the Day of the Lord, the time of peace and harmony, has not yet fully dawned. In fact the dawning of that new sun is still only a glimmer on the horizon. The euphoria of the transition into the rainbow nation, though temporarily reignited, has to a large extent evaporated into corruption, nepotism and disillusion. We in South Africa are not yet on the holy mountain of the Lord and we are no doubt in for a rocky election campaign once the period of mourning us over.
Soon we will be hearing again the South African equivalents of John the Baptist in the gospel passage from Matthew today; “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the coming wrath.” We will be hearing criticism and insults. And of course there is, and there will be, much to criticize and condemn.
There have been suggestions that we have seen the passing of a generation the likes of which will not be repeated, of which Madiba was almost the last: Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Albert Luthuli, magic names to which some might like to add Helen Suzman, Peter Brown, Alan Paton though this might be contested. Apart perhaps from Desmond Tutu the famous names are gone. We are left with more humble stock. Our leaders seem now to be smaller people.
Of course, we see those great names from the past now through the glow of rosy coloured spectacles. They too were surely flawed and human. So come back with me, if you will, to those words again of Isaiah. Isaiah is also remembering the great names of his past and especially the greatest of them all: David, King of Judah, father of Jerusalem. A Mandela figure of 3000 years ago. David too was certainly seen through rosy coloured spectacles, his shortcomings and sins forgotten and forgiven, and only his glory remembered with nostalgia. Like us, the Isaiah and the Jewish people felt they were now in the era of lesser men. Isaiah had many criticisms of the rulers of his day, who seemed to him like perhaps our present rulers seem to us.
But they clung to hope, that one day, from the root of Jesse, a shoot would arise, a new David. The shoot from the stock of Jesse is a theme which runs tyhrough all of our readings today. Remember, Jesse was the father of David, and so the metaphor of a shoot from the stump of Jesse meant just that, a new David, a new and greater king. That is what John the Baptist means too, when he talks about “making straight the path for the Lord”. It’s another quotation from Isaiah, the vision of Jerusalem restored as the mother city of the world, the city to which all roads will lead. And did you notice that Paul in the reading from Romans today picks up the same tune: the root of Jesse will spring up, he says, the one who will arise to rule over the nations.
The root of Jesse will spring up. The Gentiles will hope in him. Well, lets change gear at this point. I want to take you to the opening words of that Romans passage today. “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope”. Today used to be called Bible Sunday because of the old collect for the 2nd Sunday in Advent, “Blessed Lord, who hast caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning…”. The Liturgical Committee has changed that old collect and I am not sure I wholly approve (I am old and I don’t like change) but the new collect, which we read together earlier, says “God of timeless grace you fill us with joyful expectation.”
The Scriptures are a long saga of euphoria and disappointment. The people of Israel are led into the promised land – and all too soon they have forgotten God who led them there and fallen into paganism. David comes as a great King, but within a generation the kingdom has divided into warring factions, eventually to fall to the might of Babylon. The people of Judah come back from their Babylonian exile to rebuild their kingdom but it doesn’t last. The Maccabees resisted the empire of Alexandra the Great but the Herodian kings soon became fellow travellers of Greeks and Romans.
Rulers continually fail. The people endure. The scriptures encourage. The hope persists. We live, as the collect says, in “joyful expectation”. A shoot will spring up from the stock of Jesse. “Cometh the hour, cometh the man”. And no, that quote doesn’t come from the Bible – I think in fact it comes from something a Pommy batsman said to Dudley Nourse in a cricket match between England and South Africa – but never mind that! It fits what I want to say. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Nelson Mandela came at the right hour for South Africa, just as we might say of Winston Churchill in the dark days of the 1940as for England, or of Abraham Lincoln in the battle against slavery in America. The right man for the hour. A shoot from the stock of Jesse.
We are right to mourn his passing. We are right to celebrate the importance of his life for us all in what he called this beautiful land. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. And no, this is not the final hour, the dawn of that day of the Lord that Isaiah prophesied. We are not yet in the visionary future that Isaiah painted. Or let me rephrase that. We both are not and yet we are. For you and I have double citizenship. We are already citizens of heaven. We are already in the kingdom of that one king who truly came as the shoot of Jesse, whose birth we will soon be celebrating, the kingdom in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither black nor white, neither ANC nor DA, neither boss nor worker. We are seeing glimpses of that kingdom in the mourning scenes you are seeing on your television and your newspaper. The Witness yesterday had a lovely photo of a young white woman weeping in the arms of a black friend who was hugging and comforting her. We live with one foot in the kingdom of heaven.
But we live also in the world of real politik. The world of human hopes not yet realised, The world of disappointment and disillusion. We cannot yet say that the inspirational words of Madiba at his inauguration have come fully true: “Let each know that for each the body, the mind and the soul have been freed to fulfill themselves.” There is still terrible and growing poverty. There are the broken promises of education. Children are not enabled to reach their full potential. There is the scandal of Nkandla. Once December 15th has come and gone we will be back into all of that. But God sends the right people at the right time.
And the Scriptures are encouraging us. Despite the constant failures there are always new beginnings. The shoot from the stock of Jesse has come; Jesus has brought into being the Kingdom of God in which with one part of us we already live, and that reality sustains us while we live in the other part, the part still caught in disappointment and disillusion. We are sustained by the vision of Isaiah, which came true in Christ and which needs to become fully realised in our day-to-day world. We live in constant hope. That is what it means to be a Christian, to be a person of hope. God will send the right person at the right time, to lead us back onto the straight road leading to the establishment of the new Jerusalem. Nelson Mandela was the right person for the right time. He enabled reconciliation rather than revenge. For a little while South Africa caught the vision of the new Jerusalem. There will be another right person when the time is needed. The vision will not die. And each of us can play our part in keeping alive the vision, the hope, the determination that we shall live in peace and freedom
Let freedom reign.
The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement!
God bless Africa!
And what better way to end than in the words of Paul: May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.