We are getting closer to Bethlehem. What is pointing the way on our journey? That is one of the ways I begin to tell the Godly Play Advent story to our children I often share on Thanksgiving weekend during Holiday Church School. I begin at the beginning, talking about the prophets – who showed us the way so long, long ago. The wooden card I show simply shows an Advent wreath with one candle lit, and a carved hand, with a finger pointing the way. The way to Bethlehem, the way to discover the promise to be born, the promise of God living among us.
What does it mean to be shown the way by prophets?
These past few weeks we’ve continued on the journey with our readings from Matthew alongside the prophet John the Baptist. John’s proclamation is like fire – white hot and directed toward those who came near him. He was zealously hurried, knowing what must be done. John knew Jesus as the One.
But the months have gone by since John was preaching in the Judean wilderness. He’s now in jail, where through his cell bars he asked his friends, “Is Jesus the Messiah, or should I keep waiting?” You see, Jesus wasn’t acting the way everyone thought the Messiah would act. John is locked in a cell, full of doubt, wondering what the whole Jesus experiment is really all about. He is left questioning everything: “What is my role in this? Was I wrong?” What he’s really thinking is this: “Jesus isn’t the Messiah.” John’s been pointing to a revolutionary that will turn the world upside down and put down the world’s oppressors. And Jesus doesn’t seem to be doing that.
Jesus responds to John not with an answer, but a statement, “Tell John the blind receive sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, good news is brought to the poor.” And then he asks, “What then did you go out to see? A prophet?”
How would you describe a prophet? How do they speak? What is their role in the world today?
Many people say we do not have any prophets in the world today. Perhaps, like John, we are looking for something else. But I don’t think we have to look far.
Advent is the perfect time to look for the prophets among us. Advent reminds us to wait. Advent points to peace, hope and love in ways we do not expect. Advent is about paying attention to the voices that come to us in many forms.
By this time now, Nelson Mandela’s body has been laid to rest after a 10-day state funeral period. His life was very much like John the Baptist’s. Mandela was a forerunner of a powerful life that has come and is still coming. Like John, he left a number of safer paths – tribal kingship, choices for life in other countries, work as a black lawyer in South Africa, for the work of preaching that the time for freedom was coming to his subjugated people. His speech became a threat to the powerful, who put him in jail as a criminal. That the police and the politicians did not kill him was miraculous – whether it was an act of God, a triumph of the people who cherished his name and his teachings, or his own monumental spiritual survival.
We can hear John’s despair in today’s reading. Mandela felt despair and doubt while jailed for 27 years. Yet he emerged from prison with a huge capacity for joy, even including his jailers at his presidential inauguration. At the time, President Bill Clinton asked him, “Didn’t you hate them?” Mandela answered, “Yes, but I realized if I hated them I was still their prisoner, and I wanted to be free.”
I watched a “google hangout” led by CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Friday that included Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. They both described this man as one who practiced his religion and gathered strength in adversity from his beliefs, inner conviction, and being taught what is basic human nature that comes from God – affection. As His Holiness stated, “Forgiveness comes from our mother’s affection, mother’s milk that courses through our blood – an inner conviction of love and non-violence.”
Tutu shared that Mandela had “the ability to show to others that we are all equal in the eyes of God. Our station in life doesn’t determine who we are or what we can do.” He was a person who cared and had such an urgency of reconciliation in all that he did. They both shared other examples of other forerunners who showed the way – Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. All of these men, Tutu and the Dalai Lama included, show us the way to Bethlehem. They show us the way of the Good News that we celebrate in the birth of Christ.
Being a prophet isn’t easy. The letter to James gives us a reminder, “As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” (5:10). It is not just in words, but also in actions.
We have seen all the videos following Mandela’s death – the people singing and dancing in the streets, world leaders praising his life and leadership, the flash mob of the Soweto Gospel Choir posed as grocery store employees and customers before breaking out into an a cappella version of A-sim-bon-an-ga (We have not seen him), a song written by musician Johnny Clegg in 1987 as a call for Mandela’s freedom during his incarceration.
As Isaiah says, “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” (35:10)
The prophets are pointing us toward Bethlehem. They point toward love, the greatest of gifts that God gives to us. Nelson Mandela once said, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must 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.”
As we journey to Bethlehem, what can you point toward?
A sermon preached at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church on December 15, 2013.