John 13 : 1 – 17
Mark 10 : 40 – 52
You will understand when I say that I have approached this service with a fair amount of trepidation. What does one say to the country at such a time as this, and of course the burning question is, “Is there a word from the Lord?”. I, of course have had to think long and hard about this and found my thoughts returning again and again to the passage from Proverbs 29 : 18. You are perhaps more familiar with the words in the old Authorised Version, and so those are the words that I shall use for the text today:
Prov. 29 : 18 “Where there is no vision the people perish; but he that keepeth the law, happy is he”.
2019 is of course the 25th birthday of what we refer to as the ‘new South Africa’, or ‘the Democractic South Africa’.
For interests sake I looked back at what I wrote in our church magazine in 1994. In February 1994, just before those famous first democratic elections, I wrote the following:
‘This will of course be one of the most momentous years in South African history. No one can really tell us how it is all going to pan out, or how the year will go. All that I can encourage you to do is to hold on to God. Jesus is the same ‘yesterday, today and tomorrow’, and while the ship of state goes on its storm tossed way, our Lord remains the only true and constant rock. Remain constantly in Jesus, keep your hand in His and trust Him for the days that lie ahead’.
In May 1994 after those famous elections in April 1994 I wrote the following:
‘The period of the elections was a momentous time, and we give thanks to God that all went off peacefully. From all around the country we are hearing people refer to it as a miracle. God’s hand was certainly upon us, and we give thanks to Him. The great challenge that now lies before the whole country, and this is where the Christians of this country can really help, is to find reconciliation between our people’.
The question is how have we fared in these last 25 years? Perhaps the answer is fair to middling.
But the passage from the Book of Proverbs challenges us, in that if God performed a miracle in our land, and amongst us, in a peaceful transition of power in 1994, where do we stand today in 2019. And the answer to that is not such a good one.
It seems that we are always sailing though troubled waters these days.
There is tension in the land, amongst our people, on many issues. Perhaps the two that jump up most glaringly into our faces, though there are many more deep seated causes, are the issues of the service delivery, state capture, and the horrific outburst of xenophobia that we have seen. But the writer of Proverbs takes us deeper than that. Read Ch 29 again and there are many dire warnings there about misrule and mismanagement that ultimately poison the fabric of society and so lead to the decay of the fabric of society and ultimately lead to the breakdown of society. It is against these things that the writer of Proverbs is protesting, and then ultimately comes to the point where the fabric of society breaks down, and he cries out “Where there is no vision the people perish !”.
There it is. Our great dream of 1994 stands in danger of being lost and consumed in the dust of a degenerating society.
As Christian people, as followers of Jesus, we must protest. We believe that God has a better way, a better plan for our people.
We live in a beautiful sunlit land. How ironic that Alan Paton should begin his most famous book, ‘Cry the Beloved Country’, with those immortal words, “The hills are grass-covered and rolling and they are lovely beyond the singing of it”. T.V. Bulpin began his book ‘Natal and the Zulu Country’ by writing, “There is curiously elusive charm to the nature of the fair land of Natal. It was this medley of hills and valleys which the great Chief Shaka made into the kingdom of his Zulu people …… a place so wistful, with piquant charm, endearing on sight to man, stirring his blood …… to possess so lovely a prize……”.
I first grew up at the end of the blue haze of the Soutpansberg mountains and watched the sun set in a blaze of glory behind them each day. Then I moved to the great Tugela valley, below the massive Msinga mountain, where the valleys were set ablaze with the flowering aloes towards the end of each dry winter.
It is true, we live in a beautiful land. But peace amongst our people ! Is that our elusive dream ! Are we bound for a racial Armageddon ? Or is there something better ? Will God reveal His Kingdom amongst us, and bring us peace, is our constant cry. “Where there is no vision, the people perish”. What has happened to this great dream that we had of a rainbow nation, a land of peace and harmony where our people lived together in good neighbourliness ! That is of course the great picture of the Scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments, the picture of the great peace, the Shalom of God, the Kingdom of God, even here on earth amongst our very selves now.
But the greatest dreams of all for peace were articulated by the ancient prophet Isaiah, and we have his dreams and poetic words in Isaiah 11 : 6 “The wolf will live with the lamb. The leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together, and a little child will lead them. V 8 – 9 The infant will play near the hole of the cobra and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea. V 12 He will raise a banner for the nations ……”
I don’t think that I am alone in my dream of racial reconciliation and of peace for our nation and our continent. I think that we all have that dream, that hope, that longing. I think that dream is born in us out of our great love for this beautiful continent of ours. I think that in some strange way, despite our history of wars amongst ourselves, that somewhere deep down inside ourselves we don’t actually deeply hate people of other races and persuasions. I think that even although it has not been openly said, or openly declared, some primitive instinct tells us that we all belong here, we know that somehow or other we all belong here on this southern tip of our great continent, because despite our dramatic history, somehow or other we have managed to survive, and we have not torn ourselves apart, as so many other nations have done. Somehow or other God has stayed our hand from mutual and total destruction and I can only believe that that is for a purpose. In think that God has a reason for us all being together and that there is something that He wants to do in us and through us. Or else, why did our clock stop at five minutes to twelve, just before we tore ourselves apart in our own racial Armageddon, before we descended into hell and destroyed ‘Our Beloved Country’. But the question is, can we dream like that ? Can we indeed hope for that reconciliation ? Is there any reality here ? Is this indeed a hope of the Kingdom of God ? Or is this just political fabrication ? The answer to that question is that this was indeed part of Jesus’s great hope as a sign of the Kingdom, and that indeed it is part of the Kingdom of God.
Jesus Himself declared, during His dealings with the faithful centurion, “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west and will take their places at the east with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matt 8 : 11)
And John the Divine, in that mystical vision of his on the Island of Patmos, declared (Rev. 7:9-ff) “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands”. A great picture of peace and reconciliation amongst the peoples. And here again we have that great dream – a vision of peace and reconciliation. But again, let’s ask, is this just part of the dream of the world to come, or is it meant for the here and now ? Is this really a part of the mission of the church in this fallen world in which we live, or not ? And Paul is quite clear that it is.
In Galations 3 : 28 he wrote:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise”.
And again in Colossians 3 : 11
“Here there is no Jew or Greek, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Sythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all”.
So this is more than a dream that we have, that evaporates like a dream at the breaking of the new day, or the mist that lifts during the heat of the day, or is dashed to pieces by the racial hatred that we see around us. This is in truth a very part of the gospel that we have to declare. This reconciliation is part of the great hope of the Kingdom of God that we have to make known to all flesh. So we can dream, but we can also know that our dream is indeed part of the very fabric of the Kingdom of God. And now let us dream, and let us old a fantasy out in front of our eyes.
Imagine that you are in a dream and in that dream you see God holding out a hand of cards to you and telling you to take one. And on the first card you take you see Abram as he still was in Ur of the Chaldees, and you hear God calling to him to leave his home and to depart on a journey that would take him to the promised land, and then you hear the voice of God calling to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations, and that he would be blessed in order to be a means of blessing to others.
Then in your dream you hear God telling you to take another card. And on that card you see the map of Africa, and then in your dream you begin to see the movement of nations. And you see people trekking down by stages from central Africa until they come to rest at the southern end of the continent. And then you see others coming from the west and the north and they come by sea until they too came to rest at the southern end of Africa. And then behold others arrived from the east and found their home here too. And then you awoke from your dream and you looked around and it was so ! And imagine if you heard in your spirit again the words of Genesis, “and God saw that it was good”. How would you deal with such a dream ? Would you simply dismiss it and return to your old ways, or would it make you think ? Would you ponder, and think that that was just fantasy, or would it stir something in your spirit and make you look around you and see if you could see the hand of God in all of this. Is our subcontinent just an accident of history ! Or is it just a result of forces beyond our control ? Or is it possible, just possible, that maybe, somehow, within the economy of the God and the Lord of history and of all the earth, that He has gathered together here, at the foot of this great continent, in this cradle of mankind, people from every nation, tribe, people and language. Do we find ourselves at the tower of Babel ! Or might this just perhaps be an enacted parable of the Kingdom of God, a sign of the Kingdom, part of God’s plan for mankind, part of the proclamation of the possibilities of the Kingdom of God in a broken and bleeding world. Are we to fight amongst ourselves interminably, or will we stop and listen and perhaps hear the word of the Spirit, whispered in our ears, “this is the way, walk ye in it”.
Why is it that we all find ourselves together here, all mixed up, and living together at the southern end of this great continent, this crossroad of east and west, north and south ?
Why is it that with all our dramatic and tragic history of Boer and Briton fighting each other, of Black and Black fighting each other, of Black and White fighting each other, that somehow or other the clock stopped at five to twelve, and we heaved a great sigh of relief and looked around to see what there was left over. Why have we not been torn apart as other nations have been, and why has civil war not wrecked our land and left us with a history of mutual annihilation and genocide and only smouldering ruins. Just maybe, with the patriarch, we too can say, “The Lord is in this place”. Maybe God has spared us for a reason. Maybe He has work for us to do ! Just maybe He wants to make us the heralds of the gospel of peace. Maybe, just maybe, He wants the dream of peace and reconciliation to be declared as part of the good news of the Kingdom of God. Maybe we can dream of peace and reconciliation and the spreading of the Kingdom of God.
And so I dream.
Paul has a devastating passage on this in Ephesians Ch 2 : 14
“For He Himself (i.e. Christ) is our peace and who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier (or the middle wall or partition), the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law ……His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross by which He put to death their hostility”.
Paul of course was writing to the Jews and Gentiles of his day, but I have no doubt that if he had been living in Southern Africa in our day and age he would have written exactly the same words. Of that I have no doubt.
“Where there is no vision the people perish”. We read that peculiar incident from Mk 10 where Jesus asks blind Bartimaeus what he wanted Jesus to do for him. Surely it was obvious, Bartimaeus wanted his sight back. But Jesus wanted to hear Bartimaeus say that. He wanted to see Bartimaeus reach out to Him in faith. He wanted Bartimaeus to exercise his faith in Jesus and show that he believed that Jesus would restore his sight.
So with us. Do we believe that if we reach out to Jesus in faith He will restore our vision again. There lies the great challenge for the church in our land today. Will we cry out to Jesus to restore us the vision of peace and harmony and reconciliation and Shalom and the Kingdom of God in our land.
That we might do. But what about John’s account of the last supper that Jesus had with His disciples, the washing of the feet.
Therein lies the great test for our people. Will we wash each other’s feet ? After Jesus has washed His disciples’ feet He says to them in John 13 : 14 “Now that I your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet”.
That is the most challenging of all, for we love power and wealth, and position, but Jesus shows us the way of servanthood, that will ultimately lead to peace.
“Where there is no vision, the people perish”.
But God has made a better way.