“The voice of one crying in the wilderness” . If ever there was an appropriate week to hear those words it is probably this one, when the news has been dominated by the death of Nelson Mandela. His “wilderness” was the prison cell on Robben Island where he spent 27 years of his life, but even from there his voice was heard, his presence was felt. Like John the Baptist, he called for radical change, for justice, and for repentance, and great crowds listened, eager for the message.
Amongst the many people interviewed this week in the wake of his death, I caught a brief contribution from Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, and something he said struck me as particularly interesting. “”Most politicians represent an interest group, a community of people who vote for them and whose interests they serve. Nelson Mandela was different; he represented a community that did not yet exist, a community he hoped would come into being.“ South Africa is far from perfect now, of course but, at least in part that community Nelson Mandela hoped for has become a reality, a community where black and white work as equals, where there has been reconciliation rather than an endless search for revenge. It was something many thought was impossible; they had never known it before and they couldn’t imagine it ever being so. Mandela’s genius and his gift was his ability to see , proclaim, and most importantly to live something that didn’t yet exist, to live forgiveness, to live hope, which meant that others could live those things too.
John the Baptist was doing the same thing as he preached in the desert to the crowds who came to see him. “The kingdom of heaven has come near”, he cried. Like Mandela, it was as if he could see something on the horizon which others hadn’t yet spotted, a new possibility for their lives that they had never imagined. The future didn’t have to be the same as the past, he told them – indeed it certainly wouldn’t be. What mattered was that they were ready to embrace that new beginning when it came. “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” he said. “Make it possible for God’s peace and justice to take root, by living justly yourselves”. And people flocked to him.
They were eager to hear the good news of this coming kingdom. What did they think it would be like? Many would have in their minds the words of the prophet Isaiah which we heard today – Isaiah was one of the most read, most quoted books of prophecy at the time. “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid…” he said. Isaiah was writing when Israel was in exile in Babylon, but he looked forward to a time of righteousness and justice, of prosperity and safety, just as John the Baptist did, a time when a new community would be built which would cross the barriers that had separated people from each other, when even the animals lived in peace.
Both Isaiah and John, like Nelson Mandela, knew at first-hand how cruel the world could be, how much suffering human beings could inflict on one another – they had no experience of a world of peace - but despite this, they believed that things could be different. Suffering gave birth to hope in them, rather than the cynicism which we might expect, and hope gave them the strength to keep going when they felt like giving up.
Another great modern prophet, Martin Luther King once said that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I think that is true, but I also think that it is important to say that it doesn’t bend that way all by itself. It is the readiness of people like him, like Mandela, like John the Baptist, like anyone else who lives aright in the midst of a twisted world which causes that arc to bend. It is the actions – small or great - which each of us takes which make the difference.
This was the message which those who came to John for baptism were responding to.
They didn’t come out to protest or to campaign or to demand that others did something to sort the world out. They came, we are told, to confess their sins, to acknowledge their part in the mess of the world. They came because they realised that what they did really did matter. They came to receive the forgiveness of God for the times they had failed, forgiveness that would enable them to go out and try again, rather than giving up in despair.
Or at least, that is what some of them came for. It is clear though, that for others , there was a different agenda entirely as they made their way out into the desert. John denounces a group of Pharisees and Sadducees who come to him, members of powerful religious movements in Judaism. He calls them “broods of vipers”. He doesn’t mince his words. It might not seem quite fair to us – or polite. They are, after all, apparently asking for baptism just like everyone else, but what John says next gives us a clue to what the problem is.
“Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” he asks. That’s the key. These are people who are running away from something, not towards something. They have had privileged positions. They shape the religious landscape of Israel. They have a lot – a lot of power, of money, of influence – but that means they have a lot to lose as well. If change is in the air, they know that it might not be to their good. They can see trouble coming – threats from Rome, civil unrest, religious tensions and perhaps an uneasy suspicion that God might have something to say about the way things are too. They want John to tell them that it is all going to be ok. They want to find some sort of secure position in a protected enclave, where things can go on as they always have, and they can keep their place at the top of the heap as the people who make the rules. Change might be coming, but not to them, not if they can help it.
I am sure that many of them were good people, sincere people, but when you know that reform threatens your own position it is hard to want it whole-heartedly. White South Africans in the apartheid era faced the same challenge. Justice for all meant that those in power would have to give some of it up, and that goes against every human instinct for self-preservation. Nelson Mandela apparently said that one of the things which encouraged him to feel that his dream might become reality was when he walked out of prison and saw that amidst the crowds cheering him on there were many white faces, people who were prepared to support him even though it would almost certainly mean a loss of privilege for them.
John the Baptist knew that God’s kingdom couldn’t be a place of separation where the favoured few could hide from all the rest. It had to be a place where people learned to live with those who were different from themselves, where wolves could live with lambs, and lambs could live with wolves. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” he says. If you want to be part of this kingdom you have to live it. “Be the change you wish to see” as the modern slogan puts it.
This is true of nations. It is true of churches and communities. It is true in our personal lives too. This Advent, as I said last week, you will spot a theme of “Home” running through a lot of our services and activities. One of the challenges we all face as we try to make homes, whether those are the bricks and mortar places we live in with our families or the homes we make of our communities, churches and nations, is that they are never simply ours. Even if you live alone there will be people whose lives are tied up with yours, friends and family with opinions and needs, people you feel responsible for and people who feel responsible for you. If you share your home with others, that will be even more the case. When a couple moves in together, when a new child comes along, or an adult child comes home having flown the nest, when elderly relatives comes to live with you there is often an awkward stage of adjustment. Whose home is it? Who sets the tone, makes the rules now?
The same thing is true on a larger scale too. Who do our churches, neighbourhoods and nations belong to? Who is entitled to claim them as home? ” Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you,” said St Paul to the Christians in Rome, a mix of people from Jewish and Gentile backgrounds who were struggling, and evidently failing, to live together peacefully. Every generation has to face these tensions. Living with difference is one of the most basic struggles we face in a crowded world, which is why inclusion is so basic to Christian faith.
Nelson Mandela dreamed of, suffered for, worked for “a community that did not yet exist” in Rowan Williams’ words. This week as we celebrate his life and mourn his passing, we give thanks for the seeds of peace which he sowed in the nation he gave his life to. But we should also remember that we are all called to this task too; to imagine a community that does not yet exist, the kingdom of God, a kingdom where all are welcome. We are called to live it into being by welcoming one another as God has welcomed us, so that we can make this world he has given us into a home for all humanity. The voices that cry in the wilderness cry out to us too – “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”