Sermon for Christmas Eve
2018 was a fairly good year for grammar, with a few notable exceptions. Twitter, obviously. But there were also problems in higher grammar, as any fan of the Oxford comma will tell you. That’s the so-called “optional” comma before the word “and” at the end of a list. There are people suggesting that it’s no longer fashionable or necessary. As a long-standing fan, I am disappointed that we did not settle the debate once and for all this year. Clearly, there is only one right answer. The Oxford comma is necessary, appropriate, (comma) and elegant. And besides, without the proper use of commas, you can really get yourself into trouble. Say you want to post something on social media about the holidays, maybe a cozy photo of kids icing Christmas cookies while a cute puppy looks on. You might say something like: “This time of year, I love baking, children, and puppies.” But if you post that without commas, you’ve just told the world that you bake children and puppies which makes you super creepy. So, be careful out there with your commas.
Commas have always been tricky. You might not know that Christmas Eve contains one of the greatest comma dilemmas of all time. It’s one of those great debates that we have not quite settled once and for all. Maybe we can settle it tonight.
There is a comma issue at the center of the Christmas story. In Luke’s gospel, you’ll recall that the angel of the Lord tells the shepherds those good tidings of great joy about the birth of a savior. It’s wonderful news so far. But when the heavenly host join in, they sing their way right into a grammar issue with profound implications. In the King James version, they sing, “Glory to God in the highest, on earth, peace good will toward men.” We can assume that men here means all people, from the scruffy shepherds that night to all of us.
However, the oldest manuscripts of Luke’s gospel read a little differently. The peace and good will toward men come with the additional tricky phase: “whom God favors.” This troubled translators early on. What if the gospel, the good news about Jesus, is only for the humans God actually likes? They worried that this added an unfortunate condition on God’s grace, potentially leaving out all kinds of people based on some divine criteria we don’t really know. It would be like saying that the glad tidings about the Christ child might be for the person sitting one pew over tonight, but not for you, depending on what God thinks of you. That version would have us all trembling in our boots, not knowing where we stand – hardly a cheerful Christmas message. So, people started to take that last part out. They felt better about saying “peace and good will toward men, period.” But when they did, they missed something essential about Christmas.
Now, I’m not blaming the translators. They meant well, and they didn’t have Wikipedia. And to be fair, they were slogging through an old Greek manuscript written in all capital letters without a single stroke of punctuation in the whole thing. But I do think there is a more faithful translation. Instead of leaving out that tricky qualifier about those whom God favors, all they had to do was add a comma, a pause. Hear the difference. “Glory to God in the highest, on earth, peace good will toward men, (comma) whom he favors.” A properly placed comma means good news for men, and now the whole category of humanity can be described as favored by God. That’s the power of punctuation. The glad tidings are that God favors the whole lot of us, no matter how lovable or sinful or weird we may be. And out of that love, without condition, God decided to be with us, Emmanuel. With a little attention to grammar, it’s starting to sound more like Christmas.
Of course, we’ve had trouble with commas before, given the ways we try to add our own pauses and qualifications to the story of God’s favor. It started at the very beginning, when God created the world and called it good. We agreed that the world was good, but we added our own pause, a kind of improperly placed comma in creation. We quickly got off course from the way things were meant to be. So God sent God’s son into the world on a starry night, and the angels sang. We agreed that a baby was good, but in our off-coarseness we couldn’t quite accept the unconditional grace of God becoming one of us. The baby grew into a man, complete with miracles and wisdom the world had never heard before. Yet once again, we couldn’t accept the message of God’s favor. Cue another pause in that story of grace, this time in the shape of a cross. Three days later, in the greatest expression of God’s favor yet, Christ rose from the dead and all was forgiven.
Yet even still, we hesitate to accept that fundamental story of goodness. We constantly debate over who counts as favored, over who’s in and who’s out. The world’s headlines are full of tribalism and violence and fear because of it. We somehow keep forgetting that comma in the angels’ song. We cannot seem to see others who are different than ourselves with the same grace with which God sees them.
And, we also hesitate to apply that fundamental story of goodness to ourselves. It can be surprisingly difficult to accept that we, too, are ones whom God favors. It is far easier to assume that we have wandered too far, and that any pauses in our own lives are evidence of that distance. Any struggle, be it with health or happiness, our relationships, instability of any kind, or fear and anxiety – we can take any struggle as a sign that we’re on some other side of a dividing line, separated from God. We worry that what we have done or left undone in our lives will be grounds for God putting the pause on us. But that is only how conditional humans think, not how God’s grace actually works.
Whatever brought you here tonight, perhaps you need the angels’ song. Their song of peace and good will came down from heaven into a troubled world on that first Christmas night. Our world still needs that assurance of peace and goodness. The thing about heavenly songs is that they are always much more true than the conditions we try to put on them or the temporary situations in which we find ourselves. And heavenly songs are also strategic. The Christmas song came to ordinary and imperfect people, to shepherds in a field and to an unknown family without hotel reservations. If the baby had been born a king, we’d never have known for sure that God came for the likes of us. We’d worry that God only came for the powerful or the pure, or to the people the next pew over who somehow manage to make fewer mistakes than we do. But the baby came in order to draw the whole world to himself. It’s right there in the angels’ song.
It is a joy on this holy night to sing carols together, to say our prayers for this world that God loves, and to cherish the news of our savior. Whatever pauses you have in your life, whatever pauses we know in this troubled, wonderful world, they pale in comparison to the angels’ all inclusive song at the first Christmas. Tonight the good tidings of great joy are for you and for all people, (comma) God’s favored ones. Merry Christmas.