Sermon by The Very Reverend June Osborne DL
Isaiah 11 v 1-10
Matthew 3 v 1-12
If the media coverage of the last few days is anything to go by no-one who ever encountered Nelson Mandela forgot the experience. And that’s not only because he was a political celebrity and right at the heart of the anti-apartheid struggle. It has to do with something about the manner of his living.
My closest sighting of him in the flesh illustrates that. In May 2000 the English legal system decided to make Nelson Mandela an honorary silk: this lawyer who had exercised his legal skills in very insalubrious conditions in Johannesburg 40 years earlier and had – as he was fond of pointing out – a criminal record, was invited to be a Queen’s Counsel of the English Bar. The setting was as grand as you can make it in the Palace of Westminster, with the Lord Chancellor and his acolytes dressed to impress in tights and ermine. It just so happened that Paul, my husband, was also being made a QC at the same ceremony and so we were doubly excited. Our children at that stage were 10 and 8 years old and they joined other small offspring in front of the adults on benches. When Nelson Mandela entered the room in an unassuming suit I don’t know whether he was aware of upstaging the Lord Chancellor and the setting but everyone’s interest was on this man who had become a global icon for challenging the racial discrimination of his country.
What he did next was in a way so very simple but spoke of the measure of the man. He went to talk to the children. In this leisurely conversation, as he ignored the protocols and the twitching stewards who’d failed to get him to his seat, he asked my daughter “Do you want to be Prime Minister?” and when she replied “No” he quickly responded with “Why not?”
“Why not?” I wasn’t close enough to hear her reply but the force of the encounter was in the question. Did she not want to be Prime Minister because she thought she lacked the skills or she knew that girls don’t, by and large, inhabit powerful roles? In which case I’m sure he would’ve boosted her confidence. Or was it that she didn’t want to be Prime Minister because she didn’t have a vision for change. Perhaps he was asking her whether she dreamt of a better world. Because anyone who does dream of a better world inevitably has to ask themselves what part they play in it, whether or not that’s as Prime Minister.
The two readings we’ve just heard on this second Sunday of Advent are about judgment and hope and dreaming of a better world. They offer us a prophetic religion which has at its heart the longing for God’s way of things to triumph in our daily life and in the South Africas, the Afghanistans, the Syrias and the Salisburys.
Both Isaiah and John the Baptist talk of God’s judgment in the dealings of human society. As the Precentor pointed out last week we’re going to hear a lot of St Matthew’s gospel this coming year and Matthew will bring us back to the theme of judgment time after time. There is salvation and damnation. There are those who act on Jesus’ words and those who ignore them. There are sheep and goats. In the kingdom of heaven there are good fish which you keep and bad fish which you throw away. Matthew says:
“So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Jesus said to them ‘Have you understood all this?’ They answered ‘Yes’”
Well good for them because I’m not sure I understand even a tiny part of the story of God’s judgement. But what I hear from Isaiah and from John the Baptist is this.
That judgment is a good thing. None of us want to live in a world without moral distinctions. We may disagree, and we do, about the source of those moral definitions but rarely do I hear a case made for treating all behaviour as morally equivalent. So when South Africa developed systems which treated their white citizens as superior, dividing unequally the privileges available, then the world was confident in saying ‘wrong’. It didn’t matter how sophisticated the argument became for apartheid or whether some decent people, including some churches supported it, the moral verdict was that it was a wicked system.
Judgment is part of God’s promise to us for the future. Whether that be our future in this world or the next, the world order which God desires is characterised, not only by wisdom and understanding but it also has a searing commitment to the truth being revealed. Isaiah says that the Messiah who will save God’s people will judge with righteousness and equity, striking the ruthless and killing the wicked. Now I think it’s hard for us to balance that severe image of wickedness being dealt with alongside the peaceable kingdom where nothing shall be hurt or destroyed. Yet surely the reason judgment is good news for us is that it comes both with truth and with mercy and forgiveness.
So our life is under the scrutiny of right and wrong, God will deal with us in His mercy and as we rely on the forgiveness of God then our hope will be renewed. We can hope in what lies ahead for us in the judgement of eternity.
Although I have no idea what religious loyalties really mattered to Nelson Mandela it does seem to me that this is exactly the pattern of his life and explains why he made such an impact.
- He knew himself well enough under God’s judgment to manifest humility and truth mattered to him.
- He proclaimed the power and importance of forgiveness. One of the most remarkable interviews I saw on television this week was with Pik Botha who, as Foreign Minister in the latter days of the apartheid regime, had to defend racial segregation to the global community. The interview shown now included his admission that he and his fellow politicians had been gravely wrong. It was clear that he was able to publicly repent in that way because the society created in South Africa had given him the kind of space which only the assurance of acceptance and forgiveness establishes.
- Mandela, Madiba to his people, was a person who renewed hope. Hope is rather like courage. You get into terrible trouble if you drain the reservoir dry. Without any hope we despair and lose who we are in the world. So it’s important to keep looking for places where hope replenishes itself, and that usually means having an active faith.
John the Baptist, stood in the tradition of Isaiah’s vision of God’s kingdom, and he urges us to hold fast to an active and prophetic religion. That means promoting the practice of faith in all spheres of our life so that what is broken can be mended and we can flourish as God’s creatures. If we fail to live by prophetic religion then we risk religion becoming a poisoned well or a mere palliative escape. Our religious experience needs to transform the world in God’s name, and what we have to do is to make sure that we aren’t idle in our faith. Of course there are temptations to choose the kind of faith which soothes rather than heals. Of course we face some enormously powerful systems where we’re intimidated into thinking that we can do nothing. Yet a faith which fails to shape the realities of our immediate world is essentially idle. A faith that does nothing means nothing.
We have before us in the celebration of Nelson Mandela’s life the most extraordinary example of how a single life can make a difference. So let us not be idle in our faith, let us somewhere make a difference.
Sermon by The Very Reverend June Osborne DL