The charismatic leader John the Baptist is a lone prophetic voice, who by the River Jordan, nourished the shrivelled roots of what became the resurrection people of our Lord Jesus Christ. His ministry was highly charged, with its disturbing warning of judgement and calling for national repentance. It was much more political than some of the previous prophets, foretelling that the tree of the Herodian regime would be shaken with an axe [Matthew 3.10]. Because he lived in the desert, ate harsh food and wore the clothes of rejection, he appeared to be like Elijah the Prophet, whom Queen Jezebel had described as the ‘troubler of Israel’. The Jewish historian Josephus said that John the Baptist was ‘a good man who bade the Jews practise virtue, be just to one another, and pious toward God, and come together by means of baptism’.
The funeral of another ‘troubler’ of the political status quo, the ‘troubler of apartheid South Africa’ is taking place today. His second African name, Rolihlahla means ‘stirring up trouble’. Some also translate this as meaning ‘the one who shakes the tree’. Mandela spent 27 years of his life incarcerated, sleeping on the floor, with a bucket for a lavatory, forced to do hard labour in a quarry, allowed one visitor a year for 30 minutes, and to write and receive a letter once every six months. Far from silencing him he became a voice in the wilderness, and something of a mystery. As a result, his presence in that Robben Island jail became a beacon of hope, while South Africa battled with its inner demons. Prison can crush the spirit and while John the Baptist was in prison in Machaerus he appears to have lost his faith. “Are you the one who is to come?”[Matthew 11.3] he asks hesitantly of Jesus, unable to contain his doubts in the darkness of his prison cell.
Mandela too had doubts and many dark moments when his faith in humanity was sorely tested. He began his long walk to freedom on a sunny day in February 1990. I wonder at the thoughts and crushing weight of conflicting expectations that were weighing on his slender frame. He had started a journey that was daunting; how to unite a divided, angry and fearful nation. Many expected some fiery winnowing-fork-wielding-Messiah. Instead his message was of reconciliation and forgiveness. What extraordinary prophetic insight Mandela’s mother had in naming her son, ‘the one who shakes the tree’. Did she see his potential to bring an end to oppression and inequality? Mandela became a political firebrand and was never a saint but neither was he the devil that his opponents made him out to be. One cannot fail to bring to mind, especially at this time of the year, another mother whose song, the Magnificat, we celebrate at Evensong. Ultimately Mary’s son shook a different kind of tree, when Jesus took his long tortured walk to Calvary.
The message that John the Baptist brought was that Israel needed to go through a time of penance and purgation in preparation for the “Coming One’. In Advent, we need to listen to the vox clamantis. The vibrating wind that ruffles our tangled thoughts, like the reeds. The inner voice that upsets every expectation. What are our expectations for Christmas? Celebration is important. Of course it is. But singing carols and eating mince pies is not enough. We need to set aside the soft robes of Santa Claus and open ourselves to the true gift of Christmas, the loving, healing life that God is offering.
My ‘tree’ was shaken last week. I was chatting with the ‘fish lady’, as one does, other customers waiting patiently in the queue by her van, when I discovered that she and her husband are going to forgo present giving this Christmas. Instead they will give the money they would have spent on each other to a local children’s charity. Now there is nothing unusual about this. Lots of us take this option, particularly when the choosing of a present is going to be difficult, like for my big sister, for example. But what shook me was when she revealed that on Christmas Day they will travel down to Dundee to volunteer in a soup kitchen.
In casual conversation she had spoken to me in God’s power. I was shocked not because they were doing a generous thing, I knew she and her husband were regular supporters of many good causes. I was shocked because I had never thought of spending Christmas in this way.
Just then, the face of the ‘fish lady’ shone with the light of Christ.