A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va.
December 15, 2013.
In the last week or so, the world has mourned the passing of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president. In the days after Mandela’s death, dignitaries from all over the world eulogized Mandela, including such diverse voices as President Obama, Ted Cruz, Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama, and Queen Elizabeth II. Some sixty heads of state attended the funeral, and throngs of people, not just in Africa, but all over the world, mourned Mandela’s death. Karabo Lediga, a media worker originally from a poor township north of Pretoria, South Africa, voiced the sentiments of many in Africa and beyond: “We grew up as youths knowing about him, our mothers taught us about him. Because of him we grew up in hope.”
As we observe the third Sunday of Advent and reflect on the virtue of hope, I pondered over these questions: “What makes a leader so universally acclaimed? How does one person inspire so many with hope?” In every generation, people have hoped for righteous rulers and leaders. Psalm 72, our first Old Testament lesson this morning, is a psalm of King Solomon, describing the reign of a righteous ruler. Solomon himself began with great promise and hope, but after his death, the kingdom divided into two and began a downward spiral. In our own lifetimes, we’ve seen too many leaders begin with great promise, campaigning on the themes of hope and change, only to end disappointingly. In our own lifetimes, we’ve also seen too many self-serving leaders, using their positions to enrich themselves, using their power to oppress others. It is rare to see a leader with the characteristics Isaiah wrote about in our Old Testament lesson this morning: a person who embodies a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a ruler who judges rightly the needy and decides justice for the poor. So, when a person like Nelson Mandela comes along, who seemed to embody many of the characteristics of a just and righteous leader, many are inspired and given a provision of hope.
Mandela and his people suffered under the injustice of apartheid, a system of racial segregation in South Africa enforced through legislation by the ruling minority National Party from 1948 to 1994. He spent his life working for a dream where the black majority would no longer be oppressed by the white minority in South Africa. Mandela’s fight for justice pitted him against those who had great power, and he paid a high price as a result. He was jailed twenty-seven years, during which he was not allowed to attend the funerals of his mother or eldest son. But he stayed true to his convictions when he said: “Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all. Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.”
What was remarkable about Mandela was that he never expressed hatred or vindictiveness toward those who wanted to maintain apartheid and who threw him in prison. He once said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” Recalling the day when he was freed, he 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.”
When Mandela was elected the first black President of South Africa, he did not use his newly found power to retaliate against the supporters of Apartheid and his predecessor F.W. de Klerk. Instead, he oversaw the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate crimes committed under apartheid by both the apartheid government and the African National Congress, the party that Mandela led. Appointing Bishop Desmond Tutu as its chair, the commission invited victims of gross human rights violations to give statements about their experiences, and perpetrators of violence to give testimony and request amnesty from both civil and criminal prosecution. The commission sought justice not through punishment but through reconciliation and restoration. Since then, over twenty countries have established truth and reconciliation commissions to deal with past crimes and atrocities.
I know that this sermon is not supposed to be a eulogy to Nelson Mandela, and I’m not trying to put him up on a pedestal. Mandela himself said, “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” Mandela was just a man, and he was not without fault. But I find it interesting at how his life resonated with so many people. Perhaps he is an illustration, albeit a flawed one, of the kind of leader the world is hoping for, the kind of leader Isaiah prophesied.
For Isaiah, this leader would come from the stump of Jesse, King David’s father, whose line goes all the back to Judah. For us Christians, this leader came in the person of Jesus Christ, a descendant of King David. We believe that the Spirit of the Lord – the Spirit of wisdom and understanding – rested on Jesus. We believe that Jesus was the innocent Lamb of God, slain by the sinful, oppressive powers of the world. We also believe that Jesus will come again as the Lion of Judah, described in Revelation 5:5, to judge the living and the dead for the purpose of, I believe, reconciliation and restoration, and not punishment and damnation. Jesus is the lion and the lamb, and all nations will be drawn to him and the peaceable kingdom that he will fully bring.
At present, that peaceable kingdom is still a dream. At present, South Africa is still mired in deep inequities and challenges. Sure, we certainly won’t find in South Africa Isaiah’s unimaginable vision of a peaceable kingdom of wolves living with the lamb, leopards lying own with goats and lions eating straw like oxen. But in 1962, when Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment, who could have ever imagined that Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk would be co-awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1993 for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime? In fact, many of Mandela’s friends urged Mandela not to accept the sharing of the prize with his oppressor. But Mandela believed that reconciliation was not an easy thing, and that even F.W. de Klerk can be forgiven and embraced. At his acceptance speech, Mandela praised de Klerk as his “compatriot and fellow laureate,” who “had the courage to admit that a terrible wrong had been done to our country and people through the imposition of the system of apartheid.” He praised “the common humanity that bonds both black and white into one human race.” In his speech, de Klerk emphasized the “change of heart” from both sides. Isn’t that in some ways the wolf living with the lamb? Isn’t that a signpost to the peaceable kingdom that Isaiah hoped for?
The peaceable kingdom is Isaiah’s vision that all of God’s creatures are intended to live lives together. Before the fall, God’s original creation did not include predators and the hunted. Instead, Genesis paints a portrait of all creatures living in harmony and feeding on every green plant for food (Genesis 1:29). Isaiah calls us to imagine a day when that harmony and interdependence is restored. This harmony will not merely exist within the animal kingdom where the wolf and the lion live together. Perhaps we too hope for a day when we see that the lives of the rich and the poor, the weak and the powerful are all intertwined and interdependent. The apostle Paul used the image of the body to make the same point, when he said, “If one part of the body suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). Mandela once said, “A Nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
The season of Advent is a time of a provision of hope from God, a time of active waiting for God’s purposes for the world to be revealed and made a reality. Advent is a time for the body of Christ to actively live as a people of hope, a hope that is based on our just and righteous Lord. Advent is a time of active anticipation, when we are invited to be living signposts and pointers of the peaceable kingdom that Jesus will usher in.
The signs of this peaceable kingdom are everywhere . . . if we have the eyes to see. Consider a modern-day example of the wolf and the lamb living together. In many communities, we see real estate developers buying up low-income properties and evicting the residents in order to build high-end housing. That’s the world we live in, ordinarily. Yet several months ago, Bob Badgett and I attended a Habitat for Humanity meeting at Sunrise Community here in Charlottesville. Habitat purchased this former trailer park and developed it into a mixed-income, mixed-user community with sixty-six homes and a neighborhood center; in other words, a community where people of all incomes and people of all backgrounds can live as neighbors. It is the first mobile home park in the country to be redeveloped without resident displacement. Habitat is now working in the county to transform Southwood Mobile Home Park along the same lines. Habitat is a provision of hope to the residents of these communities, and it is always looking for churches and individuals to partner with them.
Imagine a world where the leopard will lie down with the goat. Last Wednesday night, we had a Skype conversation with Tanya Parks, who, together with her husband Jon, are CBF field personnel ministering among the Roma gypsies in Slovakia. For years, the dark-skinned Roma people have been discriminated against in Europe, displaced from their homes, and scapegoated for society’s ills. The Parks are there to teach English and to show the love and hope of Christ to the Roma people. A couple of weeks ago, a young Roma man, who attends the same church that the Parks do, found a wallet on the street. Even though he and his family were struggling financially, instead of taking the money, he turned in the wallet to the police to be returned to the owner. That incident made the local news and provided a positive portrayal of Roma people. That to me is a signpost of God’s peaceable kingdom. Your contribution to our CBF Global Missions Offering will provide administrative support and supplies that the Parks need to continue their ministry.
Imagine a world where the cow will feed with the bear, and no one goes hungry. Many of you participated in collecting “Christmas Dinner in a Bag” so that those who may be hungry may have a nice meal this Christmas. What you may not know is that one of our Sunday School classes is working with Love-Inc. to provide food for a Christmas dinner to a family where a disabled mother is caring for an 18-yr-old son severely injured in an automobile accident. In addition to food, that class will stock that family’s pantry and buy gifts for all the children. That class is also collecting contributions to the local food bank. I also learned that a church family is looking for a place to serve dinner on Christmas day. These are expressions of a provision of hope inspired by the example of our gracious Lord.
Finally, imagine a world where children and young women will be able to live and to play safely, even near a viper’s nest. Recently, I received an email about the pending launch of The Arbor, the first safe house in Virginia for Latina women who are foreign-born survivors of sex trafficking. Last Monday, church members Bill and Judy Smith invited me and several other pastors to meet with a couple of board members of the Arbor. The Arbor hopes to house its first clients in Charlottesville in 2015, and to help victims heal and provide employment skills. That’s a provision of hope pointing to God’s peaceable kingdom, and feel free to contact me if you want more information.
The Spirit of the living God is on the move to provide hope in our community and in our world. What other provisions of hope do you see in your life, in your family, community and place of work? During this season of Advent, may we see and join in what the Spirit of God is doing, and may we be a signpost of God’s peaceable kingdom, even as we actively wait for the coming of our Messiah. Come, Lord Jesus! Amen.