Human Factor

December 6, 2009



Luke 1:68-79

68 ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.

69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us

in the house of his servant David,

70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,

71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.

72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,

and has remembered his holy covenant,

73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,

to grant us

74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,

might serve him without fear,

75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people

by the forgiveness of their sins.

78 By the tender mercy of our God,

the dawn from on high will break upon us,

79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the way of peace.’


Charisma. Nothing is more essential to effective and inspirational leadership, and you know it when you see it. This month, it will light up the screen in a new movie called The Human Factor. Well, it was originally called The Human Factor. Now it is called Invictus. They changed the title because there was an earlier film back in 1979 of that same title based on a Graham Greene novel about British spies in South Africa. The current Human Factor, now called Invictus, has nothing to do with the earlier film. It is based on a true story. Directed by Clint Eastwood, Invictus stars Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president.

Mandela “has a great charisma,” says tough guy Eastwood. Those are not the words you might expect from the gritty star of Dirty Harry, Unforgiven, and Gran Torino. Mandela “had the charisma to bring the country together,” says Eastwood, explaining why he chose to direct the film. “The unique way he does it is what this story is all about.”

We will get back to Invictus in a moment. First, let us look at the prophecy of a priest named Zechariah from the first chapter of Luke. A baby has been born to Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, a baby who will grow up to be John the Baptist. Luke tells us “his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy” (Luke 1:67).

Zechariah was filled with the Spirit. That is charisma, literally. The word “charisma” means “divine gift,” and Zechariah uses this gift of God to deliver a prophecy about John the Baptist and Jesus.

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,” announces Zechariah in his charismatic moment, “for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them” (v. 68). The priest rejoices because he senses that God is making a bold and decisive move to enter human life and to establish his kingdom, a kingdom based on grace and love.

He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,” says Zechariah. That is what Jesus is—a mighty savior.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High,” Zechariah explains to his son. Of course, the infant John does not understand a word of it, but the prophecy is not only for John. It is for all God’s people. Zechariah tells us what John is: The prophet of the Most High. “You will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins” (vv. 76-77).

Mighty Savior, prophet of the Most High--these two little boys remind us that God rarely works alone, but usually through a human factor. The births of these two babies are signs to Zechariah that God is alive and well and working to save his people from their enemies and from the hand of all who hate them (v. 71), and the result of this divine intervention will be that “the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (vv. 78-79).

The point of the coming of these two children is “to guide our feet into the way of peace,” but peace does not exist in a vacuum. It also requires the Human Factor.

Eastwood’s new movie tells the story of how Mandela worked to unite his racially and economically divided country in the mid-1990s. Mandela had been elected the country’s first black president in 1994, after spending decades as a leading opponent of apartheid, the white government’s official policy of racial segregation. Because he opposed apartheid, Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years, but in 1990, he was released. Four years later, he was president. However, South Africa had major problems. The country was still racially divided. The economy was in deep trouble. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Our economy is in deep trouble, and we have deep racial and ethnic divisions.

In 1995, South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup Tournament. Rugby was a white man’s game, and the South African rugby team was entirely white, even though the country is 80 percent black. The team also had a symbol — a leaping gazelle called a “springbok” — that reminded most black South Africans of the country’s racist history.

So in 1994, there is a black president of a mostly black country with a white team. After 27 years in prison, you might think Mandela would not look favorably on these players, but you would be wrong.

Mandela showed up at a press conference wearing a rugby jersey and cap with a springbok on it. He said, “These are our boys now. They may all be white, but they’re our boys, and we must get behind them and support them in this tournament.”

The next day, Jacobus Francois Pienaar, the coach of the Springboks, took his team to the prison where Mandela had spent nearly three decades of his life behind bars. The coach said, “This is the cell where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. He was kept here for 27 years by the racist policies of our government. We tolerated his imprisonment for all those years, and yet he has backed us publicly. We can’t let him down.”

But the Springboks were seeded ninth in the tournament and nobody expected them actually to win. Australia was the power in Rugby. Australia had not lost a game that year. Well, the tournament opened, and the Springboks played beyond everyone’s expectations. In fact, they made it into the final game. Australia had already been eliminated. The final was South Africa vs. New Zealand. Strangely enough, the New Zealand team was called the All Blacks, even though they were all white also. It was a tough game. The lead changed hands several times. President Mandela was in the stands, wearing a Springbok jersey. During a timeout, he brought a South African children’s choir out of the stands, and they led 65,000 people in the singing of a black African miner’s song.

When the Springboks took the field, they were unstoppable, and they won the World Championship. What happened next has been called one of the greatest moments in the history of sports. As the president of the host country, Nelson Mandela presented the world cup to Francois Pienaar, and for the next 24 hours, whites danced with blacks in the streets of South Africa. For the first time, they saw each other as fellow citizens of a multiracial country.

By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (vv. 78-79). This line from Zechariah’s prophecy came true in the unlikely setting of the 1995 Rugby World Cup Tournament. Rugby is one of the world’s roughest games, yet through a rugby game, the way of peace appeared.

It required a gift of God and also the Human Factor. People had to decide that they wanted peace.

We can take this Scripture and story to heart as we prepare for Christ’s coming during this Advent season. This is the time of year to reflect on the rich mixture of divinity and humanity that came to earth in Jesus. It is also the time to discover what his life can teach us about the way God can work through each of us.

Jesus shows charisma, the gift of God — but also humaness. After all, he was fully God and fully human. Both are essential for walking in the way of peace, and both can be present in us, as well.

Notice, first of all, that Jesus honors the Human Factor in everyone he meets. “Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters,” says the letter to the Hebrews. “He had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God” (2:11, 17). Jesus does not despise the humaness of the people he meets but honors everyone as a fellow child of God.

So did Nelson Mandela, when he said of the Springboks, “They may be all white, but they’re our boys, and we must get behind them.” So did Francois Pienaar, the coach of the South African rugby team, when he said that because President Mandela backed them publicly, “We can’t let him down.”

Jesus also knows that divine gifts such as charisma require community. Jesus himself needed John the Baptist to be “the prophet of the Most High” and to “go before the Lord to prepare his ways” (Luke 1:76). The priest Zechariah needed a community to hear his Spirit-filled prophecy and respond in faith. President Mandela needed Francois Pienaar; the Springbok coach needed Nelson Mandela, and both needed a nation of blacks and whites who willing to support the team together.

Finally, the combination of charisma and the Human Factor leads us to a new way of living together in the world —Zechariah calls this new way “the way of peace” (v. 79). Peace is not simply escape from the hands of those who hate us, or rescue from our enemies or a period of time in which we are free from violence. Peace is a way of life in which we serve God without fear, “in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (v. 73).

The way of peace is not simply the absence of conflict. It is the presence of holiness and righteousness and justice. This means being devoted to God and in a right relationship with God and with each other. Holiness and righteousness and justice are the qualities of a life of peace; or put it this way, a life of peace is marked by harmonious relationships, both human and divine.

Clearly, the way of peace is not easy to achieve, and life in South Africa has had its share of violence and turmoil since that day of celebration when the Springboks won the World Cup. But we Christians continue to pursue this way. We do it best by following Jesus, who is the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6).

Sometimes the world is so violent and so evil that we are tempted to give up, to give up on the prince of peace. We grow tired and cynical, but there are signs of hope.

Who, thirty years ago, would have pictured a world without the USSR, without the threat of all-out nuclear war? That seemed a hopeless dream. It happened. We talk about “what we hope for” in terms of what we hope will come to pass, but we could think of it another way. A life of hope is a more powerful and more joyful way to live. Despair presumes it knows what will happen next. But who, two decades ago, would have imagined that the Canadian government would give a huge swath of the north back to its indigenous people, but they did. Who in 1980 could have imagined that the imprisoned Nelson Mandela would become president of a free South Africa? He did.

People sometimes do better than anyone thought they could, and we need to give them credit for that.

Nelson Mandela said, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” That is the secret. When we start working together toward a common goal, we become not blacks and whites or rich and poor, but friends.

Is that possible? Is peace really possible? Mandela also said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” Everyone said it was impossible for the South Africans to give up apartheid without a civil war, but they did. Everyone said that then President Jimmy Carter could not make peace between Egypt and Israel, but he did, and the Camp David Accords, signed in 1978 are still in effect 30 years later.

Jesus recognized that God works through people to achieve his goals. In his honoring of the Human Factor in everyone, we discover how to love and respect each other. In his commitment to community, we learn that our gifts from God are most powerful when they are shared. And in Jesus’ life of holiness and righteousness and justice, we see an example of what it means to live in right relationship with God and with each other.

Jesus is our mighty Savior, but he reaches out to us and makes a connection through the Human Factor, which he shares with everyone on earth — young and old, male and female, black and white, American and South African.

Jesus is behind us and supporting us, as we walk the way of peace. “We can’t let him down.”



Clint Eastwood: The Human Factor,” video clip on The Fan. November 4, 2008.


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