December 8, 2013
St Stephen Lutheran Church
Pastor Maurice Frontz
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
As most of you with any access to a television set, a computer, a radio, or a newspaper
will have known by now,
Nelson Mandela died this past week at the age of 95.
He began his political career as a revolutionary
against the apartheid government of South Africa
which kept whites, known as ‘Afrikaaners’ in a superior place
and deprived black-skinned South Africans of their civil and human rights.
From 1962 to 1990, Mandela was jailed by the apartheid government
for crimes against the state of South Africa.
In 1990, when he was set free from prison,
he led not a violent revolution, as he had espoused in the past,
but instead a peaceful revolution,
negotiating with the white government of South Africa to end apartheid
and beginning a peaceful transition to a democracy in which all South Africans could participate.
When he became President of South Africa in 1994,
instead of retaliating against those who had kept him in jail
and the anti-apartheid system in place,
he reached out to white South Africans,
including them in his cabinet.
He oversaw the formation of a ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’
which investigated crimes in the apartheid era
both by the pro-apartheid government
and the African National Congress,
and which extended pardons in exchange for truth-telling.
At his death, both blacks and whites in South Africa
celebrated his life,
and the current president of South Africa said,
‘We have lost our father.’
Certainly the life of Nelson Mandela bears much reflection.
But I speak of him today not to eulogize him
but to illustrate a truth:
Nelson Mandela, upon his release from 27 years as a political prisoner,
understood that there was but one way forward
for his country and for himself:
that was the way of forgiveness and reconciliation.
He, and the Black majority of South Africans,
could not be satisfied with simply gaining control of the nation,
and replacing the minority as the group in power;
there needed to be a revolution in their hearts as well.
As he famously said,
“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.”
Because he gained the knowledge of this truth,
he was able to shape a South Africa
that is today at prosperous and at peace.
Think of the alternative:
continuing violence, terrorism, and struggle,
which we see in so many parts of the world,
and which simmers in other places, including in our country.
This is why Mandela is being mourned as a hero today,
not because he came out on the winning side,
but because he made sure that the victory was not simply for his own people,
but for all South Africa’s people.
Two thousand years ago,
there was another man who called his people to repentance.
He said that there was no alternative to an inner transformation,
because God was coming in power.
This man we remember especially in Advent,
and we know him as John the Baptist.
He did not lead a peaceful revolution,
but he was put in jail.
Unlike Mandela, he did not come out as a hero,
but was executed in jail.
Yet while he was free,
John the Baptist preached a message of truth and reconciliation;
not just with fellow human beings,
but with God himself.
His message was that those who would be on God’s side when he came in power
must confess their sins and that they would receive God’s forgiveness.
He assured them that God was coming to save his people.
And yet when the Pharisees and Sadducees came for baptism,
John was uncompromising.
This is no way to gain adherents,
to call people coming to you ‘a brood of vipers.’
But John could see that here were people coming out to receive baptism
that were not prepared for an inner transformation.
They wanted the outer washing,
but would not submit to a through and through cleansing.
They trusted that since they had Abraham as an ancestor,
their place in God’s future was assured.
John called them ‘brood of vipers’
not simply to condemn them, but to warn them
not to put their trust in their own righteousness,
but in God’s ability to change them.
He understood that God was not interested in your race,
but in your heart.
And yet is it only the clean heart that can receive God?
It is the heart that believes that it is not yet fully cleansed,
but can pray with the sinful King David,
‘Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.’
This kind of heart God can work with.
This is the preparation for Christ’s advent,
an awaiting of God,
a casting aside of pride and self-congratulation
and an embracing of humility and expectation,
waiting with a heart that expects God to work,
a heart that seeks God’s bringing forth of good fruit.
In the Small Catechism,
Blessed Martin Luther asks:
What then is the significance of such a baptism with water?
‘It signifies that the old creature in us with all sins and evil desires
is to be drowned and die through daily contrition and repentance,
and on the other hand that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up
to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.’
And so no one is exempted from the call to repent,
even those who have repented before.
This is important, I think,
because we are apt to think of repentance
as something that we should do after only the most serious sins.
A murderer, perhaps, ought to repent; or a terrorist;
or an adulterer, or a child molester,
or an embezzler, or a slanderer.
Ordinary, decent folks like us need no repentance.
Moreover, I think that most of us feel that we are somehow exempted
from seeking God’s inner transformation.
We may believe that we are too old,
or perhaps we think we are too young
or perhaps we believe we are too busy.
Those who have been in the church a long time
may think they’ve done enough repentance over the years.
But Luther’s teaching reminds us that repentance, or turning around toward God,
is never over,
but is constantly seeking God’s will at this moment in our lives,
whatever that moment may be.
Repentance is not an isolated event in the Christian life,
it is the Christian life.
Being open to God’s inner transformation,
that he might conform our lives to Christ’s,
is a daily call and a daily prayer.
So as the world celebrates Nelson Mandela
and his transformational embrace
of reconciliation and forgiveness for a nation,
we in the Church celebrate with them
and we point to John the Baptist’s call for transformation.
We desire for God to transform us
that we might be salt and light in the world,
proclaiming and living out the good news of Jesus Christ,
the Gospel that brings all people of every race, nation, and clan
within the reach of his saving power.
Let us be people who hear this call,
for he who has come is coming still,
and we live by his Spirit
which he has given us:
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD,
the spirit of joy in his presence.