December 6, 2020
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
In the very familiar passage I just read from the Christmas story, the angel tells the shepherds, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” You’ve probably heard that verse a gajillion times in your life but have you really heard that verse?
“I am bringing you good news of great joy,” the angel says, “for all the people.” All the people. Think about what that means. It means that this good news isn’t just for me personally, or for you alone. It is for all the people. The Webster dictionary defines the word “all” as “the whole amount, every member or individual component of,” which would suggest that the good news the angel proclaims is for every member of humanity.
This goes against how typical American Christianity talks about salvation. How many times have you been approached in the grocery store by someone asking if you have accepted Jesus as your Savior? In modern day America, the church has portrayed Jesus as a personal savior who extends his hand to you with an offer of entrance into heaven should you accept it. There is nothing, however, personal or conditional in the announcement of the angel to the shepherds. The good news the angel announces is for all the people and to make sure that we understand that the good news isn’t just for you or for me, the angel scatters plurals throughout the declaration. We can’t hear those plurals because the King’s English doesn’t differentiate between ‘you plural’ and ‘you singular.’ The Greek, however, does differentiate and so to hear the angel’s announcement as it was given, we have to turn to local dialects. If the angel, for example, had been from Alabama, it would have said, “For unto y’all is born this day a Savior.” If the angel were from Britain, it would continue, “and this will be a sign for you lot,” and an angel from New York City would finish, “Youse guys will find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” Every “you” in the angel’s announcement is plural because the good news of Christmas is for who? It’s for all the people.
In spite of the universal nature of the angel’s announcement, however, for centuries Christians have resisted the implication of these words to the shepherds. When we hear the angel proclaim, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people,” we mentally append, “for all the people except those who believe differently than I do, or for all the people except those of a different race or sexual orientation, or for all the people except those I judge to have sinned, or those who make me uncomfortable, or those who voted differently than I did in November, or those I just find personally offensive. The Good News of salvation isn’t for them.”
We hear the words of the angel every single Christmas but have we ever really heard the words of the angel? “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”
Our resistance to the radical nature of the angel’s announcement reminds me of that well-worn joke in which a man arrives at the gates of heaven and Saint Peter, holding a clipboard, asks, “Your religious affiliation?”
The man says, “Methodist,” and Peter looks down his list and says, “Go to Room 24, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.”
The man leaves and Peter asks the next person in line, “Religious affiliation?”
“Lutheran,” the woman replies.
Peter says, “Go to Room 12, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.”
The third arrival steps forward and Peter asks, “Religious affiliation?”
He says, “Episcopalian.”
Peter tells him, “Go to Room 11, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.”
The man, who has now heard Peter say this three times, says, “I can understand there being different rooms for different denominations, but why must we be quiet when we pass Room 8?”
Peter tells him, “Well, the Baptists are in Room 8, and they think they’re the only ones here.”
I’m sure you’ve heard that joke though perhaps with different groups in Room 8 because instead of Baptists, you could substitute Jehovah’s Witnesses or members of certain Bible Churches or fundamentalist Muslims or conservative Catholics. Even progressives who may not judge others on the basis of religious identity usually draw the line somewhere. Ask yourself if you are comfortable with the idea that God will save not only people who think and act like you but also will save the bigoted, the brats, and the cheats, the science deniers and the crackpots, the rude and the mean. What if you got to heaven and found out that you were rooming with a CEO who had once cheated all of his employees out of their retirement? Wouldn’t you run back out and say, “Hey, Peter, I think there’s been a huge mistake?” Is the good news of salvation really for all the people?
Perhaps it is our uneasiness with God’s abundant grace that has led some translators to fudge the last line of the angels’ announcement enough to give us a little wiggle room and close the door to heaven on those we find undesirable. In many modern translations, the host of angels concludes the announcement of Jesus’ birth with the words, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favors!” In other words, in this translation even if the good news is for all the people, only those who shape up and act in ways that God finds acceptable, we say, will be the beneficiaries of peace while the rest get tossed into the eternal dumpster fire.
It doesn’t work that way, though. The literal Greek of the angels’ final sentence just says, “on earth, peace among people, good will.” The Greek doesn’t clarify where good will fits in so translators add prepositions which support their own theological assumptions. Some translators have decided that the angel meant “peace among people of good will,” so that only people of good will receive the good news of salvation. No mean people need apply to heaven according to this translation. Other translators have said, “Peace among those whom God shows good will toward,” meaning that God has to like you before you will get into heaven. I think, however, that since the angel clearly announced in verse 10 that the good news is for all the people, it seems reasonable that the good will mentioned in verse 14 is also for all the people. Otherwise, verse 14 becomes a footnote in the small print attached to the previous declaration: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people, [see footnote in verse 14 — to be eligible for this good news you must be among those whom God favors, over 18, a legal resident of the region of Judea extending to but not including the Samaritan townships, and cannot be an employee, agent, or subsidiary of said God.”]
No matter how uncomfortable it makes us, the good news of salvation announced at Christmas was to be for all of the people, and according to the gospel of Luke, salvation would one day reach to the ends of the earth. The gospel shows us through the person of Christ that God’s saving grace is so encompassing that it includes dirty shepherds, the poor and hungry, the blind and lame, Samaritans, Gentiles, people of all nations and color, and even women for heaven’s sake. The gospel of Luke embraces the prophecy found in Lamentations which says, “For no one is cast off by the Lord forever.” (Lamentations 3:31) Our misguided belief that God is going to send some people to hell for eternity is based on bad translations and our own desire for vengeance. Because of Covid, the CDC says I can’t keep you here long enough to explain how the concept of an eternal Hell is unbiblical but you can go online and read my sermons from March 6, 2011 and October 28, 2018. For today, all you need to realize is that to believe in an eternal hell of suffering is to believe that God’s desires can be defeated. To believe in an eternal hell is to believe that God’s grace is not large or strong enough to bring even the most reluctant of us into God’s embrace. I’m not saying that everyone will take a direct path into reconciliation with God — there are an awful lot of us who may need some long time outs or a few do-overs before we are convinced that God’s way of love is better than our way of selfishness — but in the end, the gospel declares that no one will be left out of God’s saving plan because God is just that loving, God is just that persistent, God is just that determined to being every last pitiful one of us into the peace and wholeness of salvation.
“I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people,”the angels declared as Christ entered the world, and in the end, believe that God’s grace will be victorious.