This week, Nelson Mandela died at the age of 95. I doubt you could have missed the news coverage. Due to his advanced age and declining health, major media organizations had their remembrances largely completed and ready to go, so they were on the air almost immediately. I know that for some, Mandela was a controversial figure, and by his own admission, he was no saint. One of my favorite quotes from him goes, “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” Over the years, the more I learned about Nelson Mandela, the more fascinating, and really, appealing, I found him. You know the story of how he was born and raised in a relatively affluent family of tribal royalty, got involved as a young man in the anti-apartheid movement, and was imprisoned for life for his efforts. He said at the trial, “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and see realized. But,” he continued, “if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Mandela was in prison for some 27 years. Stories abound of his graciousness and kindness while in prison; he would receive visits from government officials and foreign dignitaries and make a point of introducing the guards assigned to keep watch on him; years later, he invited one of the wardens to his presidential inauguration. Due to increasing pressure internationally and unmanageable civil unrest at home, the South African authorities tried to get him to accept conditions such exiling himself from the country or renouncing violent resistance in exchange for his early release, and he repeatedly refused. Finally, the day that no one thought would ever come, came, and on February 11, 1990, the South African government released Mandela. After his release, he worked to make sure that South Africa did not disintegrate into civil war, but rather transitioned from apartheid to democracy peacefully. He remembered thinking, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” He reminded South Africans, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then your enemy becomes your partner.” He insisted that blacks and whites learn to live together, promoted the process of truth and reconciliation as the means by which that would happen, saying, “If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness.” And after being elected South Africa’s first black president, he stepped down after a single term, insisting that he did not want to be an octogenarian president, and that democracy and freedom must prevail.
I enjoyed getting to know other sides of Nelson Mandela in the media remembrances this week, more human sides. His quiet sense of humor appeals to me. After being elected president, he joked, “In my country, we go to prison first, then become president.” He said, “It is wise to persuade people to do things and make them think it was their own idea.” On NBC, Brian Williams interviewed Richard Stengel, who wrote several books about Mandela and spent a lot of time with him over the years. The interview recounted Mandela’s pragmatic side. Stengel remembers traveling around South Africa with Mandela, and whenever they would meet young children, he would ask them what they had for breakfast, wanting to know if they had enough to eat. Brian Williams recalled interviewing Mandela shortly after he was elected president, and he asked him what was his biggest, most important goal for the country, and Mandel replied, “Regular trash collection,” recognizing the practical realities of governing. Many commentators probed just what made Mandela who he was, what kept him grounded and down to earth and gifted with a self-deprecating sense of humor and committed to reconciliation and forgiveness. He said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies,” and “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” And maybe my favorite Mandela quote, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background or his religion. People learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
This quality, of turning anger and hatred into love, forgiveness and reconciliation, is I think ultimately what the world finds so appealing about Nelson Mandela. No one had more reason to be bitter, to want to lash out, to want to get revenge for everything that was done to him and his people, and no one I think acted with more grace, displayed more quiet courage and resolve, or set a better example of what it means to forgive, what it means to love your enemies as yourself. Mandela wrote in his book Long Walk to Freedom, “I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities and a thousand unremembered moments produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people. There was no particular day on which I said, Henceforth I will devote myself to the liberation of my people; instead, I simply found myself doing so, and could not do otherwise.” As I listened to, read, and watched all the remembrances about Nelson Mandela this week, and as I studied our gospel reading for this morning, I began to wonder if Mandela didn’t know a thing or two about repentance. Our reading opens with John the Baptist appearing in the wilderness outside of Jerusalem. John is a pretty extreme fellow. He wears clothing made out of camel’s hair, his own hair is a tangled mess and it doesn’t look like he’s ever shaved. He’s dirty and he smells, and if you look too close, you can see the wings and legs of the locusts he eats still stuck between his teeth. And even more extreme than his appearance are the things he says: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” He’s like those people who stand on street corners with a sign saying “The End is near!” in one hand and a bible in the other as they get in your face and tell you you’re going to hell unless you shape up, today. He’s the kind of person I’d go out of my way to avoid, crossing the street if I saw him coming toward me. But for some reason, as bizarre as he is, people do come. It’s hard to explain, but they must be looking for something, something they can’t find in Jerusalem. They’ve been to the temple, they’ve been to the rabbis, they’ve been to the priests in search of something, and they haven’t found it. They stream out of the city to listen to this crazy man in the wilderness. What he says speaks to them, somehow, even though he doesn’t have a lot of details. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Nothing about what the kingdom will look like, or exactly when it will come. So many people go out to hear John that even the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the Jewish elite, the folks who work pretty hard to be holy and are pretty sure they have things figured out go to take a look. John sees them coming, and he tells them point blank that they are dead wrong: all the things they think will save them, all of their piety and their following the rules and their hanging around in the temple will count for exactly nothing in the coming kingdom.
As hard as it is to explain, people keep coming, drawn to John, in spite of, or maybe because of, his bizarre appearance and his challenging words. And, they’re drawn out into the wilderness because of what John offers them: a chance to come clean, to stop pretending they are someone else, a chance to start over again. John offers to wash their old selves away, to clean them off in the river Jordan. This bath, this baptism, is John’s own invention: this isn’t something Jews did, this isn’t approved by the rabbis or the priests, this isn’t happening in the temple. You have to let yourself be drawn out of the city, out of the familiar, out of your everyday comfortable life. You have to go out into the wilderness, stand next to this bizarre, smelly, unpleasant man, and let him dunk you in the cold water. And somehow, when you come up, sputtering and soaking wet, something is different. Where before you saw only one way forward, now there are options. In fact, you can turn around entirely, go in a wholly new direction, free from your past, free from everything you are carrying but don’t really need, free from all those voices telling you how you don’t measure up. And that, I think, is the good news, the good Advent news of this distinctly un-Christmas-y reading. It’s good news because that is what repentance really is. It’s not about beating our breasts and wailing about what miserable sinners we are. Rather, repentance is about God’s desire to realign us in the way God would have us live; it is about God’s desire and God’s power to transform us into Christ’s image.
I say this is good news, but I’ll bet some of you have already seen the catch. The catch is that this story about John in the wilderness reminds us that God probably more often than not waits for us in our own wildernesses. Or maybe we’re just more likely to notice God when we’re lost in the wilderness. I think that’s when God set Nelson Mandela on his path, through his experiences in the wilderness of apartheid and his prison cell on Robben Island. Wilderness and repentance aren’t one time occurrences, and they’re not necessarily big momentous events, either. As Mandela wrote, “I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities and a thousand unremembered moments produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people. There was no particular day on which I said, Henceforth I will devote myself to the liberation of my people; instead, I simply found myself doing so, and could not do otherwise.” God works repentance on us, picking us up and setting us on new paths, little by little, day by day, in the wilderness moments of our lives.
Wilderness and repentance are the themes for this second Sunday of Advent. For most us, our wildernesses aren’t going to be as hard as Mandela’s; we probably won’t even have to deal with strange characters like John. Our wilderness may be as simple as the quiet moments we find in a busy day, the moments when the questions like “What is this all for, what does this all mean, why am I running so hard” aren’t drowned out by the noise of our lives. Our wilderness may come when we feel temporarily lost in a relationship with someone we love, or when we find ourselves in an unfamiliar and unwelcome situation. Our wilderness may come in the hard times in life, in moments of loss and heartbreak. However you experience wilderness, be awake to the possibilities that God is working out, be alert to the ways that God is picking you up and turning you around, be aware of the things God is washing away, the ways God is lightening your load. Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand. Amen.