You all know the Christmas story, especially as Luke tells it. We usually hear it every year. So I’m not going to talk about it tonight, at least not directly.
Last week as I was beginning to ponder what I might say tonight, I was still trying to process all the images and speeches I’d heard during the mourning for Nelson Mandela. One of the things I heard that struck me was, “We’ll never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again.” The other went something like, “With all the babies being born in the world today, I can’t help but wonder if one of them will be the next Nelson Mandela.”
As my husband and I were talking, we came to the conclusion that there were at least two other great leaders of the 20th Century: Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. And that set me thinking more about what they had in common or not, why they were the first ones I thought of instead of, for instance, Winston Churchill. Well, Churchill was a great war leader, the sort you’d want to have once you are in a war, but the other three were great leaders who chose NOT to use violence to solve their problems. Non –violence is not a new idea, but has seldom been put into practice, especially on a large scale like they did.
It’s all rather amazing – a Hindu from India, a black Christian preacher from the American south, and a black man from a tribe in South Africa who became a Methodist, but was most probably a follower of his tribal religion all his life.
So think for a moment about what they had in common:
- They worked for justice, particularly on behalf of an oppressed group of people.
- They used non-violent opposition and civil disobedience to demand change.
- They spoke the truth to power.
- They wanted economic and political justice as well as social justice.
- They seemed unafraid of the consequences of their actions.
- They largely refused the rewards of fame.
- Two of the three even granted women full equality.
- They willingly went to jail, endured slurs, insults, physical punishment and even death.
- They refused to take revenge, even when they had the chance to do so and personal reasons to want to.
Does this remind you of anyone else????? Doesn’t it sound like Jesus? And we must not forget the thousands of other people who did the same, whose names we may not know, but who stood with these leaders in their fight for justice.
Many of you can remember the TV news from the Sixties. Martin Luther King didn’t walk the bridge to Selma alone. There was a whole crowd who followed and stood their ground when confronted by fire hoses and dogs ordered to attack them. And they weren’t all black people or all poor people or all clergy people.
When Gandhi died, Nehru said “the light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere.” And what is it that we celebrate tonight but the return of the light to the world, the light of Christ, which is also the return of hope, isn’t it? – hope for the world to become better, kinder, safer.
Gandhi said, “I do not want to leave a sect after me. I have simply tried in my own way to apply the eternal truths to our daily lives and problems. . .truth and non-violence are as old as the hills.” I don’t think Jesus wanted to leave a sect after him either. He wanted to show us the truth and teach us to live in a new way.
Isn’t it amazing that only two out of these three men were assassinated? And only one was killed as a young man. Given the amount of violence we see around us, it seems miraculous that two of these men lived into old age. Jesus didn’t last nearly as long, but then he lived in an Empire that used violence most casually. Still given the times and the situation, how amazing is it that the Christian church arose out of his short life?
There have been saints and martyrs in every generation, so let me ask again, how many potential Gandhi’s, King’s, or Mandela’s are born each year – or decade – or century? After all, there’s never been any scarcity of oppressed people for them to lead! I wonder how many of them just don’t make it to adulthood?
If we feel that we are unable to change the conditions that hold people in oppression, especially in other countries, are there things we can do to make sure more children around the globe survive to adulthood? Of course. But we should always keep in mind what Martin Luther King said. “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
As we celebrate the birth of Jesus this Christmas Day and thank God for his life among us, let us also be mindful of the possibilities of other great teachers, other potential saviors of their people, being born among us. They are not divine, but they are children of God like us and their presence among us reinforces the lessons that Jesus taught:
- Love God
- Love your neighbor
- Love your enemy
- Do not seek vengeance
- Do no violence
And let us also pray for such children that they may live long enough to fulfill their potential and become beacons of light, whether to their families, their communities, their nations or to the entire world. This world needs more leaders like this. We need their example, their passion for justice, their humility and their courage. We need to see how real people in trying circumstances can use the lessons Jesus taught to create significant change in the world.
The baby Jesus, born 2000 year ago in a manger, did not destroy the Roman Empire nor drive them out of the Hebrew homeland. Instead he taught his disciples how to live in a new way and to spread that message for and wide. That message, as understood by Gandhi, MLK, and Mandela, empowered them to set their respective people free without resorting to violence.
This realization, coming as it did in the midst of Advent darkness, in a world of what seems to be continual strife, and in a week when I was down with a dreadful cold, did feel like a light breaking forth. It gives me such great hope for the future. If the 20th Century, which brought us nearly continual war, the atom bomb, and the Holocaust, could also bring us three great leaders who exemplified in so many ways what Jesus taught, then truly there is hope and light will continue to shine in our world.
Go forth tonight and be part of that light in the world. Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly, knowing that God goes with you, always. And if you listen closely, you may hear him whispering to you, “Do not be afraid; for see, I’m bringing you good news of great joy for all people.” AMEN