Twenty seven years is a long time. It is long enough to go from being a child to becoming a parent, or from being a parent to becoming a grandparent. If you are lucky, twenty seven years is long enough to pay off a mortgage, build a business or travel the world.
But what would spending twenty seven years in captivity do to you? Twenty seven years away from your family, in a confined space where you cannot make simple decisions for yourself, such as what to eat or when to wake up. And if you were also mistreated during those years, forced to do hard labour, urinated on, mocked and beaten, how would you feel once released from prison?
What if you were imprisoned in the first place, not because you had murdered or harmed someone, but because your political views and actions were opposed to a regime that sought to oppress its people?
My guess is that most of us would spend those twenty seven years plotting our revenge. We would mentally escape the physical hardships by imagining the harm we could bring to our oppressors once we were freed. Plotting insults to match those we endured, dreaming of violent acts to assuage our anger.
We know from the many recent obituaries and from the speeches made at Nelson Mandela’s Memorial service, that as a political prisoner, Mandela spent his twenty seven years in captivity dreaming and plotting to bring his people to freedom, not through violence, but through peace and reconciliation.
Mandela described his faith as one of the greatest motivating factors in his work, and his story echoes the cost of God’s true love for us shown in Jesus. That Mandela invited one his former jailers from Robben Island to be an honoured guest as he was inaugurated President of South Africa in 1994 is testament to how deeply and personally he lived his faith.
At Christmas we celebrate how God came to earth as a baby, a baby born in degrading surroundings who grew to be a man who was rejected, beaten and humiliated. In that little baby, God came to save us through love and reconciliation.
In Jesus, God comes to absorb the very worst of humanity. He subjected himself to the most evil behaviours man can demonstrate. But just like Mandela, Jesus did not seek revenge, did not fight and did not seek recourse in violence. He came to show people that there is a better way. He demonstrated God’s love for us and his forgiveness. He came to reconcile his people to their heavenly father.
By giving us the gift of Jesus, God breaks the cycle of insult for insult, violence for violence, conflict against conflict.
We give presents to each other at Christmas in recognition of the gift God gave us, Jesus Christ. This Christmas, as we also mourn the passing of Nelson Mandela, let us think about gifts that we can give each other that do not cost money. Gifts of generosity and love that Nelson Mandela personified; a reflection of the greater story of Christ. Is there someone in your life to whom you could stretch out the hand of hospitality? Is there someone whom you can forgive for a past ill, someone whom you could stop insulting, or someone who you can love whom you have hated before?
I pray this Christmas, that you will welcome the gift of Jesus and share his love and grace with others.