Sermon for Evensong at St Mary’s on the Second Sunday of Advent, 8th December 2013
1 Kings 18:17-39, Matthew 3:1-12

I’m not a very good guide to celebrity baking contests, although apparently I use the same bread-making machine as the Prime Minister. Elijah’s roasting contest with the prophets of Baal is a spectacular story, from which we can certainly draw a message that God backed up the prophecy of Elijah by performing a substantial miracle.

On the second Sunday in Advent, which today is, we are focusing on the prophets, and starting to look at John the Baptist. There are a lot of parallels between Elijah and John. Moses and Elijah, the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, were of course said to be ‘transfigured’ with Jesus later on in the Gospel (Matt. 17), and John the Baptist’s message was ‘Repent’ – μετανοιειτε in Greek, which means literally, ‘change your minds’.

So much of the New Testament involves changing one’s mind: the word I think of in this context is ‘counterintuitive’. The whole of the Sermon on the Mount is counterintuitive. Turn the other cheek: go the other mile – or in St Ignatius’ prayer, ‘Render to no man evil for evil.’ This week, the person who springs to mind, when we talk of those kind of counterintuitive standards, is of course Nelson Mandela.

Counterintuitives abound when you talk about Nelson Mandela. He was perhaps the greatest world leader in the 20th century – but for 27 years, he was imprisoned as a terrorist. Quite a lot of the politicians now joining in the the chorus of praise for him have in the past condemned him as a terrorist. I suppose that the answer is that it depends on your point of view. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

Can you imagine what it must have felt like when he walked out of jail free, after 27 years? Not only was he free, but he was walking more or less directly into government and into the presidency of his country. The ideology which had locked him up, which he had fought, apartheid, had been utterly defeated.

So often, when there has been a mighty struggle – even a struggle to the death – the victors exact terrible vengeance. Indeed, in the passage immediately after our Old Testament lesson, when the fire of The Lord consumed the burnt offering which Elijah had prepared, the people fell on their faces and sang, ‘The Lord indeed is God’. Elijah said to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.’ And they seized them, and killed all of them, all 450 of them. It was terrible vengeance. I’m tempted to say that 27 years in jail must have felt far worse to Nelson Mandela than it felt for Elijah having a celebrity bake-off with the prophets of Baal. If anyone might have been expected to inflict victors’ justice on the defeated parties, it would have been Nelson Mandela.

It was a very bizarre coincidence that on the very day that Nelson Mandela died, a new film, a biopic about him, simply called ‘Mandela’, opened in London. In our Spiritual Cinema, we had a very good film called ‘Goodbye Bafana’, which was about the way in which a hard-bitten Afrikaner prison guard, James Gregory, who was appointed to be the warden of the prison on Robben Island, because he could speak the Xhosa language, which Mandela and his fellow-prisoners spoke. He was supposed to eavesdrop on them for the government.

Gradually he became more and more influenced by what he saw and heard. He and Mandela became very good friends. He evolved from a narrow-minded bigot to be a sensitive, humane critic of social injustice. Nelson Mandela seemed to inspire everyone he met.

One of his greatest friends, of course, was Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Nelson Mandela was certainly a Christian. He was educated in a Methodist school, and some people think that he was a Methodist. Other people believe that he was a Jehovah’s Witness. He definitely was a Christian.

Nobody is very sure. But one thing that was very well-known is that he was very good friends with ‘the Arch’, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. With Archbishop Tutu he conceived the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as a way of dealing with the excesses of the apartheid era, and the inhumanities which had been shown by both sides in the struggle. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission brought together people who had hurt other people and people who had been hurt.

The offenders had to confess the truth and accept responsibility for what they had done. In some cases they received an amnesty, but in many others they didn’t. The real work of the Commission was not as an alternative to the justice system, but to bring the communities together in reconciliation.

Again, how extraordinary to think that the people who had suffered under the apartheid rule, where they were clearly not treated as being fully human, were invited to meet and forgive their oppressors. ‘Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous’.

The whole story of Nelson Mandela, the greatness and generosity of his heart, is so reminiscent of the teaching of Jesus, and of the preparation for that teaching, which John the Baptist gave: μετανοείτε, repent, be reconciled.

So often people dismiss the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount as being Utopian, impractical: no real human being could keep up that level of business, they say. People say, when it comes down to the hard choices in life, the Sermon on the Mount just isn’t practical. And yet, it looks as though Nelson Mandela really did do it; for him, the Sermon on the Mount was a reality, and he carried out what Jesus recommended.

For Nelson Mandela it really wasn’t an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth. He really did turn the other cheek, and he really did go the second mile. He put up with his unjust incarceration. He didn’t complain. He even made friends with his jailer.

For John the Baptist, the coming Messiah was going to sort the wheat from the chaff, and he was going to chuck the chaff into the ‘unquenchable fire’; but when Jesus came, he wasn’t a fire-breathing horseman of the Apocalypse – he was a baby: a helpless baby. Counterintuitive again.

So our second Advent signpost points to the Prophets and to John the Baptist, and invites us to adopt his message: μετανοιειτε, change your minds, repent.

Just think: if Nelson Mandela had not pursued the path of forgiveness and reconciliation, would he be so revered today? Certainly he would have been recognised as a great leader – but would he have been called the greatest leader? He didn’t stand up for himself. No Nuremberg trials for South Africa.

And so we pray, with Nelson Mandela, that wherever there is conflict, there will be reconciliation. That will, truly, prepare the way of the Lord.

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