Isaiah 11.1-10, Romans 15.4-13. Matthew 11.2-11
Which famous politician had a pop song written about him which went to number nine in the UK charts, was performed to a worldwide television audience of more than 600 million people and is reckoned by the New Statesman magazine to be one of the top twenty political anthems of all time? No prizes for guessing the answer if I tell you that the song's title was ‘Nelson Mandela’. It was written and first performed by The Specials in 1984, when the hero of the song was still being branded as a terrorist by the UK government.
At his second trial in 1964, Nelson Mandela famously said, ‘I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.’ Mandela wasn’t speaking lightly. He had already been in prison for more than a year and he was to remain there for another 26 years.
After his release he wrote that ‘real leaders must be ready to sacrifice all for the freedom of their people.’ No one could dispute that he had done just that.
‘There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested,’ he said, ‘But I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lies defeat and death.’
He was inspired by the Victorian poem ‘Invictus’, which I guess he must have learnt at school.
...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.
‘When people are determined,’ he once said, ‘They can overcome anything.’
Much later, he wrote, ‘I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.’
Even in prison he began trying to get alongside his captors, the better to understand them and to win their respect. ‘No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background or religion,’ he said later. ‘People learn to hate, and if they learn to hate- they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.’
‘If you want to make peace with your enemy,’ he also wrote, ‘You have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.’
And that is exactly what he did. When F W deKlerk, the out-going President of South Africa, lost the first democratic election to his ANC rival he said in his concession speech, ‘Mandela has walked a long road, and now stands at the top of the hill. A traveller would sit and admire the view. But the man of destiny knows that beyond this hill lies another and another. The journey is never complete. As he contemplates the next hill, I hold out my hand to Mr Mandela – in friendship and in co-operation.’
Nelson Mandela was to allude to that speech in his own autobiography, in which he also wrote, ‘The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall,’ and also, ‘Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.’
On the day he was released from prison he told the waiting crowd, ‘I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people.’ And at his inauguration as President he said, ‘The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us.’ That’s why he went on to set up a Reconciliation Commission rather than seeking revenge for all the sufferings of ANC members and the wider non-white population under apartheid.
In a television interview after his retirement he said ‘It is never my custom to use words lightly. If twenty-seven years in prison have done anything to us, it was to use the silence of solitude to make us understand how precious words are and how real speech is in its impact on the way people live and die.’
So what, apart from the coincidence that he died during Advent, is the connection between the life of Nelson Mandela and Jesus, the shoot that came from the stock of Jesse, upon whom rested the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord? What is the connection with the God of steadfastness and encouragement who wants us to live in harmony with one another in accordance with Christ Jesus? What is the connection between the founding president of a democratic South Africa and the man who became a servant of the Jewish people in order that both Jewish and Gentile people together might come to glorify God and be filled with joy and peace in believing, and abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit?
I trust that already, like me, you have begun to see lots of resonances between the life and achievements of Nelson Mandela and the message of Advent! Jesus exemplifies the leader who sacrifices all for our freedom. In Gethsemane he triumphed over his fears. In life and in death he was a humble, suffering servant. And he is the precious Word which can impact on the way everyone lives and dies.
Announcing Mandela's death, President Jacob Zuma said, 'Our nation has lost its greatest son. Our people have lost a father.' It seems to me that Zuma’s juxtaposition of fatherhood and sonship sets up an unconscious resonance with the Christmas story. At Christmas God the Father becomes incarnate, present with us as a human being, in God the Son. He is at once the Father of us all and a helpless baby. A little child becomes the one who will lead us into a new era of peace and reconciliation. Jesus is both one with the Father and yet the Father’s greatest son.
When Jesus talked to the crowds about John the Baptist he asked them why they found the Baptist so charismatic and attractive? Was it because he kept changing his message to suit the prevailing current of opinion? No, of course not! Was it because of his celebrity lifestyle? Again, no. It was because he spoke life a prophet, even if he claimed not to be one. And yet, however reverently Christians talk about John the Baptist they are also conscious that there was someone greater than he. Is it not the same when we speak of Nelson Mandela?
There has been a lot of hyperbole about Nelson Mandela as world leaders have fallen over one another to praise him. Barak Obama 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. He no longer belongs to us; he belongs to the ages.’
That Mandela was courageous and good is undoubtedly true. He has certainly been influential, because he is famous. But whether or not he is also one of the most courageous and profoundly good people we shall share time with on Earth, and whether or not he belongs to the ages is surely up for debate.
Again, though, if we apply those words to the Christmas story they start to make a lot more sense. Jesus has certainly been influential down the ages and he was not only courageous but he was indeed profoundly good.
I suspect the reason why so much hyperbolic language has been heaped upon Nelson Mandela is that our culture no longer finds a place for religious archetypes. World leaders ‘don’t do God’, as Alastair Campbell once reminded Tony Blair. So instead of patterning our lives on faith leaders like Jesus or the Buddha we’re encouraged to model ourselves on extraordinary individuals like Mandela.
When Mandela’s personal flaws are pointed out – his tendency to flirt with pretty young women, his complacency about colleagues who weren’t up to the jobs he gave them – people just say, ‘At least he was human, just like us, so it’s easier to identify with him.’
Actually, of course, if we’re looking for an archetype, an example to follow, the Christmas story is a better fit than the story of Nelson Mandela. Jesus doesn’t ask us to identify with him in his weakness, instead he identifies with us in our weakness. Nelson Mandela was remarkable in the extent to which he was able to forgive his enemies and show no rancour or bitterness towards them, but he and his colleagues were surely modelling themselves on the stories they had been taught about Jesus, who told his followers, ‘Forgive your enemies; do good to those who hate you.’
David Cameron called Nelson Mandela ‘a hero of our time’ and said that ‘a great light has gone out in the world’. But Christmas is a celebration of the true light, the light that enlightens everyone, the light of all people. This light shines on in the darkness, and the darkness can never overcome it.
Perhaps the strongest resonance between the life of Nelson Mandela and the Christmas story is his deep commitment to reconciliation. Soon after becoming President he went to a reception and walked around the room greeting everyone with a handshake. In the corner stood a rather dour, uncomfortable looking elderly Afrikaner policeman. This man knew that he was symbol of all the oppression which Mandela and his supporters had endured for so many years. He didn’t expect to be acknowledged, but instead Mandela stopped to thank him for all the work which the police force was doing to protect the citizens of the new South Africa. The man’s demeanour changed entirely as Nelson Mandela drew a circle which included him, and his fellow officers inside. Isn’t that also what Jesus does - in his birth, life and death? He reaches out to fallen human beings and makes a circle of God’s love which draws us in.
Mandela was determined to refashion apartheid South Africa in the image of the prophecy where the wolf lives with the lamb, the leopard lies down with the kid and the lion eats straw like the ox. He didn’t achieve that ideal, but he embodied it in his own life. That conviction, which he spoke about in his trial, about creating a free society in which all persons might live together in harmony and with equal opportunities is, of course, a Christian ideal. It is the world which the angels sang about at Jesus’ birth, a world where there will one day be peace and goodwill among all people.