Tutu and Other Prophets Emphasize Hope in God’s Promise and Our Response

Year C Matthew 2:13-15 and 19—23

Sermon to Pohick Church 1-2-22 by Rev. Dr. Lynn Ronaldi

Even when the world doles out its worst – including genocide and apartheid—the prophets persistently preach hope in God’s grace and in humanity’s potential.

Matthew’s gospel takes great pains to describe Jesus’ birth as the fulfillment of prophecy. When a monster like King Herod threatens to thwart God’s plan of salvation by murdering newborns, Matthew insists that God is in the process of defeating evil, freeing his children, and fulfilling his promises.

In today’s grisly story of the massacre of the innocents, Matthew points to God’s steady protection and to Joseph’s faithful obedience. Even as potential disaster threatens the infant Jesus, Matthew says ancient prophecies are being fulfilled.

From the beginning, Jesus’ earthly journey is marked by God’s promises and human resistance. Jesus is living evidence of God’s promises. Jesus’ very existence is a consistent irritant to those in power. But the messianic mission will not be thwarted. Matthew emphasizes this by indicating the fulfillment of prophecy:

First, Matthew describes Joseph’s obedience and the Holy Family’s flight to and return from Egypt. He is making an obvious connection to Moses, who led the Israelites’ flight from Pharoah and return to the Promised Land. Matthew cites Hosea 11:1, indicating that Jesus embodies Israel. Jesus is the recipient, bearer and fulfillment of God’s promises of freedom and restoration.

This echo reverberates even more powerfully in Matthew’s next prophetic fulfillment. In Jeremiah 15, cries of anguish over an infanticide prophesy the anguish over Herod’s massacre of the innocents. Matthew’s parallels to Exodus and the execution of Jewish male infants at the hand of Pharoah are striking. And in both cases, the prophets insist that God prevails.

Prophets tend to hold onto hope in the innate goodness and potential of all God’s people who are, after all, created in God’s own image. Prophets clearly do expose evil and demand repentance. They also consistently point to hope in goodness, and in the potential for transformed hearts.

A leading prophet of the last century, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, died last week. Like other prophets, Tutu’s relentless hope in humanity has transformed hearts. His persistent efforts at reconciliation have inspired real change.

When asked about the dark days of apartheid or about other oppression in the world, Tutu would frequently refer to Scripture:

We are prisoners of hope. We must always, always hope. And if we don’t hope, then there is no possibility of change in our hearts, and no possibility of change in the world.”

To understand Tutu’s fierce hope and unextinguishable joy, we must return to the dark era of South African apartheid. Apartheid is defined as “cultural genocide.” During that era, fear and despair permeated life. Townships where black people lived were set on fire. Corrupt police and army ruled the streets through violence.

That’s when a small clergyman, The Rev. Tutu, arrived on the scene. In the 1990s he walked through the streets of those burning townships. He confronted corrupt police and calmed angry crowds. At mass funerals he condemned the apartheid state, while appealing to reconciliation and peace. He risked both the ire of the corrupt white officials, and the anger of black people thirsty for revenge.

After the fall of apartheid and the first all-race election in 1994, Tutu’s prophetic ministry continued. He chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The TRC unearthed atrocities of the past in shocking detail. Families heard how loved ones were tortured and killed by apartheid’s machinery.

Through it all, Tutu insisted on looking for the innate goodness in people, and believing in their potential to be transformed – even those considered monsters.

A black psychologist appointed to the TRC, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, tells the story of encountering one such monster of apartheid. She was challenged by Tutu’s determination to believe in the goodness and potential of humanity.

The “monster” was Eugene de Kock, a former colonel in the South African police force. He confessed to more than 100 acts of torture and murder of black activists. His nickname was “Prime Evil.”

Pumla was prepared to condemn Eugene to hell, but when she looked into his eyes, she saw remorse. She suspected there was “a little boy crying out inside of him.” So she decided to reach out to him. With her help, he sought forgiveness from many families.

Pumla said, “I was looking for hope, really. If this man, who everyone sees as the ultimate of evil during the apartheid era, can feel remorse and reach out, then there is a lot of hope for this country.”

Asked to comment on Pumla’s actions, Tutu said, “It took a lot of courage. Just physical courage sitting in the same room. She demonstrated a very deep faith in the goodness of people.”

Describing the acts of yet another apartheid “monster,” Johan Kotze, Tutu wrote in his Book of Forgiving: “Mr. Kotze remains a child of God, with the capacity to become a saint…”

Whenever he looked at those deemed “monsters,” Tutu realized that if his circumstances were different, it might have been he himself committing atrocities. “I have said before that given the same set of circumstances, under the same pressures and influences, I may have been a Hitler or a Kotze. (insert a King Herod). I would hope not. But I will not label anyone beyond redemption…”

In other words, Tutu recognized both the human tendency to wound and hurt out of fear, as well as the human potential to be transformed out of love.

Every day, you and I are faced with the possibility of being wounded and hurt. We may find ourselves the target of lies, betrayal, gossip, or prejudice. Some we love may reject us, some we trust may cheat us. It’s part of living and loving and being a member of the human family – on both a personal and global level. As individuals or as a race or nation, we may be harmed. It is not deserved. Yet it happens. So how are we to respond?

As Matthew and the prophets insist: God has promised fulfillment of his purposes. It is what we do now in response to injury and evil that matters.

We can ponder the meaning of Christ’s birth and light shining on the darkness of oppression and evil. With the indwelling Holy Spirit, we are empowered to practice what Jesus embodies: the path of reconciliation.

Tutu writes of a fourfold path to forgiveness and reconciliation:

*          Telling our stories to retrieve dignity

*          Naming the hurt

*          Granting forgiveness, while not forgetting

*          Either renewing or releasing the relationship.

In the face of monstrous acts of evil, Desmond Tutu, among other prophets, persistently point to the fulfillment of God’s plan and promises. They hope in the innate goodness of people, and in our potential for transformation.

As the darkness of racism and division cloud our horizon, we are called neither to despair in humanity, nor to blame the “monsters.” Instead, we are called to hope in God’s promise.

We are prisoners of hope. We must always, always hope. And if we don’t hope, then there is no possibility of change in our hearts, and no possibility of change in the world.”

As Archbishop Tutu reminds us, to hope is to respond in love. We are called to reconcile with all God’s children. Love is the only power that can defeat fear and evil and transform our world. And this process of transformation begins not with “those monsters,” but with us. Amen.