Friday, December 06, 2013

Biblical Reflections On The Life and Death of Nelson Mandela

Pastor Mark Christopher

Like so many others in South Africa I awoke to the news of Nelson Mandela’s death. Understandably this is foremost on the hearts and minds of untold numbers around the world today, especially here in South Africa. Mr. Mandela’s death was not wholly unexpected. The 95 year old’s health had been declining over the last couple of years. Most recently he spent a number of months in the hospital in ICU under the watchful eyes of his medical caregivers, as he battled a severe case of pneumonia. 

Predictably, when I turned on my computer this-morning, I already had a couple of requests to respond to this world-grabbing headline. As a Christian I seek to try and make sense of Mr. Mandela’s death through the prism of God’s word. As a believer, while I sorrow with those who sorrow, I do not do so as one who has no hope. To this end, Mr. Mandela’s death provides the Christian with a number of opportunities: 

1. There is an opportunity to weep with those who weep and sorrow with those who sorrow. My heart and prayers do go out to Mr. Mandela’s family and to the nation of South Africa at large. May you sense the comfort and grace that only the God-of-all-comfort Himself can provide (2 Corinthians 1:4-11). 

2. As one reflects on the recent history of South Africa and the momentous transition that took place only 19 years ago, there is a wonderful opportunity to thank the Lord for using Mr. Mandela in the way in which He  did. When South Africa was on the threshold of a veritable blood bath and the precipice of civil war, Mr. Mandela served as an earthly peacemaker to bring needed calm and stability to what was a very tense situation. Instead of seeking revenge and vengefully ruling, he sought to build a bridge rather than erecting a barrier. Such a praiseworthy response is certainly worthy of our reflection, thanks, and gratitude! 

3. Much will be said in the next few days and weeks by the media and others regarding the life and death of Mr. Mandela. In this we should guard against the two primary extremes that will prevail: On the one hand there will be those who will lionize the man to the exclusion of God. In so doing they will venerate a life well lived beyond what is proper as they veer into what only can be described as idolatry and hero worship. The other extreme will be seen by those few who will use Mr. Mandela’s death to promote their brand of politics and ideology in contrast with Mr. Mandela’s Marxist-based views. One does not have to agree with another’s politics and worldview to mourn the loss of a life and extend comfort and compassion to those who feel that loss the most. Nor does one need to be a charter member of the Nelson Mandela Fan Club. In fact, the true test of one’s faith is evidenced when one can reach out in compassion in spite of any deep-seated ideological differences that may exist. It is the mind of Christ that should dominate our thinking as we weigh up the implications of an incarnational life (Philippines 2:3-11) as it applies to this situation.

4. When a dignitary of Mr. Mandela’s stature dies, it provides us with an opportunity as well as a reminder that ultimately God is sovereign in the affairs of this life. In Isaiah 6:1-9 when King Uzziah died after a 52 year reign, Isaiah was reminded of the glory, majesty, and holiness of the Lord he loved. Though Isaiah mourned the death of Uzziah, his focus was on the Living God of all grace and glory. As Isaiah would later record, “It is He who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers, Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain and spreads them out like a tent to dwell in. He it is that reduces rulers to nothing, who makes the judges of the earth meaningless. Scarcely have they planted, scarcely have they been sown, scarcely has their stock taken root in the earth, but He merely blows on them and they wither …” (Isaiah 40:22-24; cf. Daniel 4:34-35; 1 Timothy 6:15-16). In the end, regardless of the good any earthly leader may do, it is the Lord who turns the King’s heart like channels of water (Proverbs 21:1).  May we not lose sight of this exalted perspective. 

5. As with everything else in life, the death of Mr. Mandela should be viewed from a cross-centered understanding. In relation to this, there is a tremendous opportunity for Christians to share the hope of the ages, Jesus Christ and Him crucified and risen as He said. As the world is confronted once again with the fragility and brevity of earthly life an occasion is presented to share the life-giving message of the cross in the backdrop of an empty tomb! This is a time to point the hopeless and inconsolable toward heaven above and to remind them of what C.S. Lewis so well said, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in[Matthew 6:33]. Aim at earth and you will get neither.” 

6. Finally, the death of Mr. Mandela is another opportunity to remind ourselves as Christians of the vapour of this earthly life (James 4:14). This life will soon be past, even if we, like Mr. Mandela, should live to the ripe old age of 95. In light of eternity what is that? This life is meant to be a dress rehearsal for the life to come. Beyond this life there are no second chances, as the Rich man of Luke 16 testifies. Only what we do for Christ will last and reflect eternal worth and value. As such, there is another providential chance ceded to us to make the changes necessary and realign our priorities with those of a Christ-centered life, so that we can someday we can hear those eternally gratifying words, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant!” 

As we reflect upon the life and death of Mr. Mandela from the Christian horizon, the words of John Donne come to mind:

“No man is an island, entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.”