Benediction Online

Saturday, December 28, 2013

What did the angels sing?

I don’t think I’ve missed a single Christmas in church. I missed Easter when I was eight years old and had chicken pox, but even in my young adult years when I thought there was no place for me in church, I went to a service every Christmas. So I know the readings and the carols pretty well.  So I know that the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” But not tonight. The translation we use these days for the Gospel we just heard has them singing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” “Peace among those whom he favors.” What kind of a blessing is that?

Does it mean that if you had a big fight with your spouse on the way here and you’re feeling far from peaceful that you’re NOT one of those God favors; or that people living in Juba, the capital of South Sudan where civil war is threatening to break out, are clearly not God’s favorites? That the way to know if God likes you is to see how peace-filled your life is?

I don’t think so. We’re not here to celebrate the Prince of Peace who brings peace to those he particularly likes. We’re here to celebrate Emmanuel – God with us – God with all of us, no exceptions.

So did the angelic choir mess up, sing the wrong notes, get the words wrong?

I took a look at the original Greek and found that this phrase is not easy to translate directly into English. As you know, that sometimes happens with languages, words don’t map exactly one to another. Like when you say “I’m sorry” in Spanish: lo siento doesn’t translate directly as the English “I’m sorry” – it’s more literally “I feel it.”

In the same way the angel’s chorus doesn’t make good English, “Glory in highest and on earth peace to humans with whom he is well pleased.” It’s a little difficult to tell whether the Greek means “peace to those few humans who God likes” or “peace to humans who are all favored by God.”

I think we have to decide how to read it by considering what else we know about the character of God. Is God more likely to have a few favorites or more likely to favor humans as a species?   I’m going for humans as a species because there is abundant evidence in the scriptures that God loves all beings and has given humanity a special role to play in the salvation history of the cosmos. To be sure there is also some exclusionary language but the broad sweep of the Gospel message us that God loves all of us, every one. So, we can translate it, “Peace on earth to humans whom God is just crazy about.”

We’ve been hearing this for years. Perhaps you haven’t heard it every Christmas of your life as I have. But you’ve heard it enough times. You know what the angels sing; “Peace on earth goodwill to man.”

Yet the funny thing is, that most of us go on behaving as though it applies to someone else. Most of us go on living as if God is mad at us. As if the people whom God favors are someplace else, or are better than us in some way.

And let’s face it, there are Christians who behave like that’s the truth, like God only likes a limited selection of people, specifically the ones who think like them. And they think that if we understand how mad God is at the rest of us that we’ll choose to be like them too.  But that’s not what the Gospel says. God breaks through the God-human barrier. God incarnates in baby-flesh and the first thing She says to us is “Peace.” “Peace, to all of you earth-beings whom I love to pieces.”

What a difference it might make in our lives if we really believed that - if we really believed that God loves each one of us absolutely and completely, and longs for us to be friends with God and with each other. How differently might we treat one another if we truly saw each other as God’s beloved. How differently would we respond to our inner voices of anger, contempt, and self-criticism if we knew that God loves us more than we love or have ever loved anyone or anything.

God comes to us and says “Peace”. More than two thousand years ago in earth time, and we still haven’t got the message. We still make anxiety and fear, criticism and division, fighting and war. We still “kill people who are killing people to show that killing people is wrong.” We still cause suffering among both humans and animals in order to have inexpensive gourmet food. Anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental illness in this country, effecting almost 1 in 5 people.[1] More than 30,000 Americans die each year as a result of gun violence alone.

God comes to us and says, “Peace.” The love of God is like a great safety net which will never leave us or desert us. With that safety net under us we no longer need to be afraid. We no longer need to worry. It doesn’t mean that everything will be hunky-dory. That’s just not the way of this world. There will be times of pain and suffering. Times of confusion and times when everything falls apart. But underneath there is always God’s voice saying “Peace.”

The shepherds were not the only ones in Bethlehem that night. Yet it seems that they were the only ones who were still enough to hear the angels singing. God’s voice is often a quiet one because God never forces himself on us. We have to listen under the noise and the fear of our world to hear that gentle loving voice saying “Peace - peace to you whom I love to pieces.” And when we take the time to listen for it, when we take the time to allow that peace and love to transform our own lives, then it becomes a gift which we too share with our world. Then we can take the risk to say no to escalating conflict with our neighbors, our friends and our family and we can send love and peace through prayer to the situations and places where peace is fragile.

For God’s peace is never fragile. It is the strongest thing there is.
Remember the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to humans whom God is just crazy about!"


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