A rod to strike the ruthless

Isaiah 11.1-10Romans 15:4-9; Matthew 3.1-12

“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” — Nelson Mandela

It is hard to think of any other retired head of state from around the world whose death would cause flags in Britain to be flown at half-mast. Nelson Mandela was an almost Messianic figure, whose mission in life was to abolish the system of apartheid and bring black South Africans to political freedom. Of him might Isaiah’s words have been uttered ‘his word is a rod that strikes the ruthless.’  So much  bloodshed was saved by his non-violent approach. Although the struggle for black South Africans was painfully difficult, South Africa was not torn apart by civil war.

Nelson Mandela’s life certainly made a difference to the lives of black South Africans and gave hope to countless others around the world.

St Paul’s words in his letter to the Romans also resonate with Nelson Mandela. 'May he who helps us, when we refuse to give up, help you all to be tolerant with each other, following the example of Christ Jesus.'

Mandela endured 27 years in prison on Robin Island, over a quarter of his life.  Reflecting on this later he said,

'It is in the character of growth that we should learn from both pleasant and unpleasant experiences.' 

He was not bitter about his experiences. He was not driven by a desire for vengeance. He was blessed with an air of serenity graced by a generous sense of humour. He joked that in South Africa they did things differently. There you go to prison first and then become president.

As with Mandela,  the denunciations of John the Baptist  led to his imprisonment, but unlike Mandela they were to cost him his life. Serenity and a sense of humour are not qualities that we might associate with John the Baptist.  John the Baptist was savage in his condemnation of Israel’s religious leaders, calling them a brood of vipers. One wonders why they came down to the river Jordan to be insulted. John the Baptist would have been something of a celebrity phenomenon in his day, somebody who drew crowds,  some came because they wanted to live better lives, and others came out of curiosity to see for themselves the fiery prophet, dressed like the prophet Elijah.

Maybe John did have something of a sense of humour, for when he talks of God raising children of Abraham from these stones, the words in Aramaic that John used are very close. From these abnayya, (stones), God can raise benayya (children). Maybe there is a further joke here from John;  perhaps ‘stones’ are an Aramaic euphemism  for things vital to the conception of children!

John exhorted the people to repent of their sins. Through the waters of baptism they were forgiven and redeemed. Usually they had to make sacrifices in the temple to achieve such forgiveness. Unlike Jesus, John was not condemned by the religious leaders for doing what only God could do in forgiving sins. For John this was no quick fix, no cheap forgiveness, baptism was not all-sufficient, ‘go and bear fruits worthy of repentance, ’ he said; show that you mean to live better lives.  Make a difference to the lives of others.

John pointed to the coming of the Messiah predicted by Isaiah. The coming of Christ has not seen the universal harmony, the recreation of the paradise of the Garden of Eden, that the prophet foresaw, far from it.  The freeing of South Africa from apartheid has neither brought harmony to that nation, the country has many problems, not least a high level of violence. But the abolition of the segregation of races was the most wonderful achievement. No one may say that one  race is superior to another.

A political cartoon once showed FW de Clerk and Nelson Mandela both driving a juggernaut marked ‘negotiations’, smashing through a roadblock marked ‘obstacles. ’ May the example of Nelson Mandela inspire us to pursue our goals, in accordance with God’s will, with our eyes set on the solutions and not blocked by the problems.  May his endurance help us to pass through our troubles, to be tolerant and forgiving, and to make a difference to the lives of others.