Rev. Rosemary Webb
8th December 2013
My Long Walk is Not Yet Ended

Come on, get ready, Christmas is coming. We are being bombarded with adverts tempting us to buy gifts we do not really want, buy presents which the recipient often doesn’t really want – they smile sweetly and put it in a draw until they can decide what to do with it. And if we are truthful it is probably some bric a brac stall at a Christmas Fair. I know that sounds very cynical but I suspect that says more about Christmas to many people than the birth of God in poverty in a stable.

Throughout the Old Testament God was preparing the Jewish nation for the Messiah, he was trying to reassure them that however hard life was he would save his people.. Israel’s enemies had tried every way they knew to stop the House of David, they had suffered wars, slavery, there must at times to have seemed to be no hope. The line of the House of David looked extinct – the stump of Jesse looked dead, and yet it wasn’t, if you looked carefully there was still that flicker of life, of hope, in the stem. Isaiah knew the truth, he knew that God wouldn’t let his people, Israel, down, that salvation would come

The Gospel reading we have just heard is celebrating the deep faith of John the Baptist, not flamboyant faith, a humble but determined faith.

John made no attempt to pull rank over people, no mention of the fact he is Jesus’ cousin, no sign of power, just of a humble man, clothed in a simple woollen garment, calling us to repent. Perhaps his clothes were a sign that life is hard, that turning to Christ isn’t a promise of an easy earthly life, it’s a sign of something much deeper, something which has to be sought and held on to in the midst of chaos.

The Gospels give far less prominence to John the Baptist than the apostles. Yet John’s place in Christ’s ministry was foretold by Isaiah in Ch. 40 we have the words ‘A voice in the desert calling prepare a way for the Lord’. It was foretold throughout the OT that someone would come before Jesus to prepare the way, to announce the coming of our Saviour.

John was born to serve, just as his mother Elizabeth supported her cousin Mary when she learned she was to be the mother of God, So, John was there at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, there to help show the way forward by baptising him in the River Jordan.

But John is an example to us of how we should lead our lives. He wasn’t going to be intimidated by the Pharisees and Sadducees, he knew their commitment to God was based on what they thought was right not on the true following of God’s commandments.

Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him, not to see life in our terms but in God’s. Elizabeth may have been called by God to be the aunt of his son, but John’s service was truly humble, he was willing to give everything up, even his life, to serve God. John was a radical, he was prepared to suffer for the common good, he was prepared to stand up and be counted. He wasn’t going to be intimidated he was going to say what he believed, he didn’t mind ‘not going with the flow’. He didn’t move from what he knew was right because ‘that’s not what our religious leaders have been teaching us from olden times.’ He could see what was wrong and he was prepared to stand up and be counted.

John was showing us how to be true followers of God, it is the message you give not your appearance which counts. There was a poverty in John’s lifestyle that reflected his humility – he lived a very simple life and yet he was rich in spirit, he was strong in faith.

As I said John’s message was loud and clear, he knew what he was saying would make him unpopular, when the Sadducees and Pharisees came to him for baptism., he didn’t view it with pride, he criticised them saying they were coming not through faith but escape the wrath of God. As we know in the end he was arrested by Herod because he had criticised him and was indeed murdered.

The ideals of John the Baptist are high ideals, ideals we are called to emulate, but surely the death on Friday of Nelson Mandela brought the end to a life which was lived fearlessly. Nelson Mandela spoke the truth, regardless of who was listening of what the price was that he would have to pay. While in prison he said he would rather die than give up on his ideals.

We must never forget those long years spent on Robben Island, spent not because he was a terrorist, ( he only began to support armed conflict in his later years in prison when it appeared there was no other way), but someone who called for freedom, called for democracy. A lawyer by profession he fought for justice for all in South Africa.

The journey was as he called it a ‘Long Walk to Freedom, with endless persecution for non-whites, the dreadful massacres at Sharpeville and Soweto, the imprisonment of so many because they wanted freedom from oppression. And Mandela helped keep the candle of democracy burning in the dark, he never gave up hope.

But perhaps the things which finally made Nelson Mandela so great is that when after his release from imprisonment he called for understanding, he never called for violence against his oppressor, in many ways he treated them with courtesy. He didn’t call on the black majority to turn on the white minority, he just called for peace and justice.

When he was finally made the first democratic president of South Africa, he didn’t cling on to the role. After five years he passed the role onto a younger man. He didn’t see himself as someone who should stay in the role until he was too old. He didn’t think he was the only person who could govern South Africa, he stepped back for a younger person. That was the mark of the man.

We are reminded from the life and ministry of John the Baptist that the Christian way of living will not always be easy and that we may have to make tough decisions as we stand firm in our faith. We must always show true integrity be prepared to take up our Cross and follow Christ. As we prepare for Christmas these are the things we need to remember, not have we bought enough presents, as we prepare to welcome the Baby Jesus into our lives again.

Nelson Mandela ended his book with the words ‘I have walked the long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest…………. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.

Nelson Mandela you have now reached eternal rest.

Matthew 3:1-12