If you’re a sports fan this has been an amazing week! The Huskies, the Mariners and the Seahawks all had something big to celebrate. And in the midst of all this, former South African President Nelson Mandela died. We might wonder what Nelson Mandela has to do with celebration in the world of sports, but Mandela accomplished for the world of sport something that will never be matched by the Seahawks, the Mariners or the Huskies!
In 1995, South Africa won the World Cup of Rugby. Nelson Mandela, the man who had been imprisoned for 27 years by the white government of South Africa, was now the first black president of South Africa. In front of 65,000 rugby fans—all white–wearing the team jersey that had long been a symbol of racist power, Nelson Mandela congratulated the team captain and shook his hand. That’s the picture you find on your bulletin cover this morning.
On this second Sunday of Advent the prophet Isaiah paints a picture of the kingdom of God. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the fatling together…The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the snake, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the snake’s den.
When a black president rises to power and makes peace with those who hated him we get a glimpse of the kingdom of God. Nelson Mandela was a man who practiced forgiveness toward those who had imprisoned him. He worked for reconciliation with those who clung to power. He was a man who followed the Godly path described today’s psalm:
Let him defend the needy among the people, and rescue the poor. As a young man Nelson Mandela said that he was prepared to die for the sake of black South Africans who had been beaten down for centuries. Here is a man who was true to what St. Paul describes when he urges Christians to live in harmony with one another.
Nelson Mandela lived that Advent vision. For him, unity, harmony, reconciliation and forgiveness were not some pie-in-the-sky ideal, not some storybook tale. They were rules to live by. The life of Nelson Mandela is a reminder that signs of God’s kingdom are all around us, not only among the great but in the ordinary, as well.
For example, I opened the newspaper yesterday and found an article about a highway billboard that’s created a lot of controversy lately. It’s there in your bulletin this morning. There’s a company called SnoreStop that manufactures a device to help people cut down on snoring. Snoring can be a source of tension among couples, as we know! So SnoreStop’s hashtag is #betogether. That’s not controversial. What is controversial is the image. It’s a picture of an American soldier embracing a Muslim woman.
The reaction has been interesting. Some Muslims and some non- Muslims are outraged. It’s also true that many Muslims and non-Muslims are also happy about this ad! What could be controversial about bringing people together? What could be controversial about unity, harmony? What could be controversial about love? But in our world of us vs. them, wolves vs. lambs, we easily become distracted and forget God’s vision for the world.
Listen again to the images Isaiah uses: The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, the calf and the lion and fatling together. Isaiah’s vision of the kingdom of God is a world in which those who have power give power to those with less. Advent is the season anticipating a time when the creator of the universe comes among us and gives us power. In this vision, God is the wolf. God is the bear. God is the leopard. God has all the power. God holds all the cards. And yet, God revealed through Jesus gave up power, even though it meant death. Disciples of Jesus study his example, learn from his example, and follow his example.
What we know about power in the world is that those who have it tend to hang on for dear life. That was true for the government of South Africa. It was true for the religious leaders and the Roman Empire in Jesus’ day.
To be a disciple of Jesus means see clearly the ways in which we are lions, wolves, leopards—powerful creatures!–and how God might be leading us to share power with those who have little.
It’s not easy to live this way! All of us have been raised in a culture that teaches us in many ways to compete and to be afraid of losing what we have! The Mariners competed with the Yankees this past week for a prize ballplayer. The Mariners won, the Yankees lost. The Huskies paid millions to lure away the head coach of Boise State. The Huskies won, Boise State lost. And last Sunday the Seahawks won, which meant that New Orleans lost. Winners and losers. “Your gain is my loss. Your loss is my gain.” This message gets drilled into our heads and hearts a thousand times a day.
Some competition can be helpful but as we accept it as normal or even good we forget the heavy price we pay. In a world of ceaseless competition we become anxious, fearful, and mistrustful, and out of fear risk becoming selfish without even realizing it. In that case the things we crave most deeply as human beings remain out of reach: wisdom and understanding, says Isaiah. Abundance of peace, says the psalmist. And above all, writes
Paul, hope. Who among us doesn’t long for these things? But when did competition or worldly power ever bring lasting peace? When has “us vs. them” ever instilled lasting hope?
Last Sunday I challenged you to find some way to experience awe or wonder at least once during this season of Advent. Last Sunday you heard examples of how the natural world can be a source of new life and new hope. Stars and comets and galaxies—the things of nature—can restore in tired grown-up souls a sense of awe and wonder. How did it go for you this week? Any awe? Any wonder? This week, maybe ponder those human lives that inspire in you a sense of awe and wonder. Who do you know that represents a glimpse of God’s kingdom, where the wolf lives with the lamb, and the leopard with the goat, and the bear with the cow? It could be someone like Nelson Mandela. Or, it could be someone closer to home, someone committed to empowering those who have little, people whose lives are dedicated not just to charity but to justice and equality.
Dear friends in Christ, may this Advent season surprise us. May our eyes and ears and hearts be opened to signs of God’s grace, to awe and wonder at the power of forgiveness and love to transform the world. May we see signs of God’s kingdom all around us. And, may the Holy Spirit use us as ambassadors to the world for healing, peace and reconciliation.