Uncomfortable people – terrorists or saviours, threat or promise?

Advent 2 – 2013

Matthew 3:1-12

Marian Free

 In the name of God who is not always comfortable and benign and whose prophets are sometimes harsh and uncompromising. Amen. 

Over the past two days our airways and our print media have eulogised Nelson Mandela and rightly so. His was an extraordinary life and he belongs with the great men and women of history. That said, not everyone shares that view. When we were in Cape Town a few years ago our tour guide expressed disgust that “that terrorist” was regarded as a hero. In Fact, for most of Mandela’s early political life he was considered a revolutionary and a troublemaker. He was a leader of a banned organisation that incited people to revolt against the government. People in South Africa and abroad were divided in their opinions of him and of his means of achieving his goal. For many, he was a respected figure, working for a just cause, but for those who supported apartheid he was considered a dangerous activist who was determined to bring down a legitimate government.

In his autobiography: A Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela takes full responsibility for the decision of the African National Congress to use violence in the struggle against apartheid and when the Government invited the ANC to the negotiating table Mandela refused to lay down arms as a pre-condition for the talks.  He was anything but a comfortable man.

I raise these issues to remind you that it is not always easy to make wise judgements about uncomfortable people – especially when they challenge our complacency, confront our values or threaten the stability of our way of life.  Sometimes it is only with the benefit of hindsight that we understand how easily we are deceived. Hitler – an upholder of law and order – turned out to be a monster. Mandela – a law-breaker – turned out to be a nation’s “greatest son, father of the people.” (Jacob Zuma)

John the Baptist was an uncomfortable and uncompromising person. Despite that people flocked to him from miles around. No doubt he unsettled both the religious and political leaders of his day. Those in authority are suspicious of people who can draw a crowd and nervous about the level of their influence they can exert.

Perhaps this is why the Pharisees and Sadducees ventured into the wilderness to see John and ostensibly to be baptised by him. These unlikely partners in crime would be curious to see what John was doing and teaching. Perhaps they thought they could learn something from him, in particular how they could gain the support of the people. Alternately, they might have been seeking information that they could use in order to discredit him and to regain the deference of the people. Whatever their reasons, it is clear that John saw right through them. He did not believe that they had come to repent or to learn from him. He accused them of shallowness and of duplicity. “You offspring of vipers,” he says. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

For John, it is not enough that they came out into the desert. Nor is it enough that they sought baptism. He was aware that if the Pharisees and Sadducees were not prepared to radically change their lives their baptism would have achieved nothing. Their feigned respect for John the Baptist was meaningless if they had not responded to his message and allowed their lives to be transformed as a result. John was confident that they could no rely on their heritage or their position, only a change of heart would ensure that they retained the privilege of being children of Abraham.

It is easy to be like the Pharisees and Sadducees and to live our lives on the surface, relying on our respectability and our superficial goodness. We can stand at a distance and admire and respect the John the Baptists of the past and the Nelson Mandelas of our time. However to dive into the depths of our being and to root out all that is ugly is a much more challenging and unwelcome task. Not many of us have the nerve to abandon our comfort zones and to allow ourselves to be radically changed. It takes courage to look deep into our souls and it takes a great deal of moral fibre to go against the flow, to associate with uncomfortable and challenging people and, with them, to stand up and be counted.

We do not honour Nelson Mandela by filling our Facebook pages with quotations and photos or by speaking in hushed and reverent voices about his achievements and his legacy. The best accolade that we can give him is to endeavour from this day on to recognise and to confront injustice; to rid our hearts of all bitterness and resentment; and to pray for the wisdom to discern when a person who makes us uncomfortable is a threat or a promise.

John the Baptist issued both threat and promise. He challenged the establishment and promised the coming of one even greater. He announced the judgement of God and provided a means to escape it. He saw through the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and Sadducees and honoured the openness of the people and their willingness to change.

If we do not wish to be censured, if we are sure that we are not the offspring of vipers, it is important that we hear John’s accusations, that we examine our motives for what we do and do not do, that we do not seek to protect what we have but to do what is right. Only an openness of heart, a self-critical attitude and a true understanding of the righteousness of God will help us to know right from wrong, good from bad, hero from terrorist. May God give us discernment, clarity of purpose and an openness of heart and mind, so that we might recognise the prophets among us, respond to their challenge and with them prepare for the coming of our God.

[1] Jacob Zuma commenting on Mandela’s death.


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