Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Fruits of Repentance

The second and third Sundays of Advent focus a spotlight on someone who at first seems to intrude on our societal preparations for Christmas: John the Baptizer.
Every few years someone in whatever church I happen to be serving will react to the words from the third chapter of Matthew: "’Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.  This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'…Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.  But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruit worthy of repentance.’”
“It’s just not very Christmassy!” one individual huffed, “Christmas is about love, and family and caring for each other.”  “All that business about sin and repentance is so negative.” another opined, “We want something uplifting, something that warms our hearts.”  “After all, Christmas really is for the children.”
The objections appear to be based on the assumption that all we need to prepare for Christmas is a little more time, good weather, carols, a sunny outlook and maybe some nice cookies with a well-mixed eggnog.  Perhaps they have a point if the goal is simply to get from finishing up the Thanksgiving dishes to the stockings on Christmas morning.  By that light, Christmas is to provide a warm moment of family cheer in the midst of winter’s cold.
Missing, however, is any grasp of why we celebrate Christ Mass, the words we contract to produce Christmas.  Christ Mass celebrates a moment when the barely imaginable happened: the moment in our world’s time when our Creator entered our time and space to begin setting right the mess a misguided humanity had made of the world.  The wisdom of our spiritual forebears concluded that such a celebration required a time of discipline and preparation to get ready.  As the carol has it, “Let every heart prepare him room.”  And to whom might we turn for a no-nonsense call to such preparation, but John the Baptizer.
John is rough and he doesn’t care if he steps on toes.  He calls out self-deceit and bad behavior (the latter will finally cost him his life).  He knows the ways we deceive ourselves, and how that has consequences beyond anything we might intend.  He is aware of how our notions of right and wrong bear an uncanny resemblance to the things we want to do ourselves, and how our criticisms of others are too often based in our personal likes and dislikes.  Beyond all that John tells us that unless we can let go of such things, and turn away from them (that’s the meaning of “repent”) we will be utterly unable to properly welcome the King, no matter that the King arrives as a baby.  John is the King’s Herald, sounding a note of warning, yes, but also a note of hope and excitement that the long-awaited royal arrival is imminent.
Jesus, it’s worth noting, began his public ministry with a virtually identical call: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  But does anyone really listen?  Has this call to confront the darkness in our hearts and minds changed anything?  If it has there ought to be some signs of such change.  There ought to be visible fruit as evidence that such repentance happens. 
I was turning all this over in my mind last week, when it suddenly came to me that we were all witness to the results, the fruit, of such inner change.  The death of Nelson Mandela stimulated memories of a time when change came about in a way virtually no one who was familiar with the sorry history of the twentieth century predicted.
During most of the last century South Africa grew into one of the most oppressive societies in world history.  By the 1960s the policy of racial separation known as apartheid was firmly in place, with the minority white regime exercising absolute domination over the majority black population, as well as sizeable Asian and mixed racial minorities.  It was for standing in opposition to apartheid that Mandela went to jail in 1963.  In the years that followed the grip of apartheid strengthened, and conditions in the black townships grew worse.  Observers of the conditions generally assumed that if change ever came it would be violent, with the black majority taking revenge against their oppressors.  Nonetheless international pressure on the South African government increased, with economic, cultural and athletic boycotts cutting the country off from the rest of the world.  Part of this pressure included calls for the release of Nelson Mandela.
He was released in 1990, during a time of escalating civil strife.  At the moment of his release the world held its breath.  Had he called for revolution, the worst fears of many might well have been realized.  Instead, Mandela joined negotiations with President  F.W. deKlerk to abolish apartheid and establish multiracial elections in 1994, in which he led the African National Congress to victory and became South Africa's first black President.  His administration focused on dismantling the legacy of apartheid through tackling institutionalized racism, poverty and inequality, and fostering racial reconciliation, the latter with the close assistance of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  What happened during Mandela’s imprisonment to enable him to emerge as both a hard-nosed politician determined to tear down the structure of apartheid, and an advocate of national unity and reconciliation, who would share a Nobel Peace Prize with former President de Klerk?
The answer is that within the prisons on Robben Island, Pollsmoor Prison and Victor Verster Prison there grew a process of discussion and mutual support among the prisoners.  Self-examination, and internal renewal was a part of these gatherings.  Mandela, who came to faith as a youth in the Methodist Church, attended church services.  Unsure at the time of imprisonment about whether violence might be necessary to abolish apartheid, he came to envision another way.  As reported by Michael Trimmer on the British website Christian Today, he learned to speak Afrikaans in the hope that he could reach out to the guards and convert them to his cause, and at the moment of his release, Mandela once again remembered the importance of internal renewal ahead of external change. "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."
In 1998 he addressed the 8th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Harare, Zimbabwe, saying in part:
You have to have been in an apartheid prison in South Africa to appreciate the further importance of the church.  They tried to isolate us completely from the outside. Our relatives could see us only once every six months. The link was religious organizations, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and members of the Jewish faith. They were the faithful who inspired us.  The W.C.C.'s support exemplified in the most concrete way the contribution that religion made to our liberation.
What does John the Baptizer have to do with the life and witness of Nelson Mandela?  In his life we see the fruits of what happens when someone heeds John’s call, and prepares for the work to which God is calling.  John’s call to personal examination, reflection and repentance, voiced earlier by the prophets of Israel, and later in the ministry of Jesus, is a call to take seriously the wrong in the world, our own complicity in it, and the good news that in the coming of the King, God makes a way to lay it all behind, to be transformed ourselves and, if we allow it, to be part of the renewal of the world itself.
So listen to the King’s Herald.  Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God, and be reminded that the baby we shall meet in Bethlehem, weak and helpless as he is, is also the Alpha and Omega – the manner of his coming is itself a testimony to our need for preparation.
Howard MacMullen
© December 2013
For more on the faith of Nelson Mandela, visit:

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