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Sermon for Christmas Eve: Words, words, words (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

My sister, among other things, is a historical textual critic. In case you don’t know, historical textual critics glean information about a text based on information like its age, where it came from, and the context in which it was written. Textual critics work with all kinds of literature, but my sister happens to work with ancient religious texts - like the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible. She knows a lot about language, and she understands the importance of words – how they can be used for good or for evil.

Tonight, we heard a series of scriptures that are well-known to us. I’m pretty sure some of us could recite the gospel by heart, having heard Luke’s story about Jesus’s birth many times. But if you recited it aloud you would be forgiven for getting tripped up in a couple of places - because some of the words of that very familiar account have changed – all because of the work of people like my sister. Now, there may be a few of you secretly booing and hissing these changes. There is a reason there are so many jokes about Episcopalians and light bulbs. Change is difficult, not just for Episcopalians, but for anyone who is asked to question their long-held beliefs. My mother likes to tell the story of a special church meeting about the (then) “new” 1979 prayer book. When the topic of revising the Lord’s Prayer came up, a small voice from the back of the congregation was heard loudly protesting, “What do you mean they’re going to change the Lord’s Prayer? I just learned the old one.”

It is certainly easier not to learn new prayers or contemplate changes in our scriptures. And I know there are times when we are so exhausted and despairing that we can’t think too much about what we are saying. We just need to let the comforting words of our liturgy wash over and cover us like a warm blanket. But if we do this every time, we are preventing ourselves from learning, growing, and becoming closer to God. That’s because scripture is no different than other literature. It can be interpreted in ways that advance humanity, increase our intelligence, and improve our ability to empathize and cooperate with one another – or it can be used to exclude, provoke, and sow discord. That’s why we have to keep trying to get it right.

As Episcopalians, we believe that our Holy Scriptures were written by human authors inspired by God. The Bible was created over a period of approximately fifteen hundred years and has at least forty different authors. Its stories were part of a long oral tradition - told over and over again before finally being written down. Its writers were influenced by the circumstances and moral dictates of their times, and they described God using words their people could understand. So, it makes sense that the more we know about the language and history of the people who wrote our scriptures, the more we can broaden our understanding of the meaning of scripture.

Sometimes that comprehension hinges on just one or two words. In today’s readings, those words are “the people.” We find them first in today’s passage from the prophet Isaiah, who tells his listeners to prepare the way for “the people” that God will save. He is addressing the Israelites, who have spent the last seventy-years in exile after having disobeyed God. It is these people who are first told that they are “holy” and will be “redeemed.” Although we too can find hope and joy in these words, we must recognize that we are not the only recipients of God’s love.

Luke’s gospel is written for the followers of Jesus. His words assure us that all people can be restored to relationship with God – that God cares so much about humanity that she sent a portion of himself to live with us and like us. The incarnate God – a divine being living in a human body – would suffer, from birth, the painful, terrifying, and embarrassing nature of the human condition.

The story of Jesus’s nativity is one of the most well-known of Christian narratives – the tale of a young mother giving birth in a lowly place followed by the arrival of angels to herald the news. Each year we tell it again: And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’”[1] But wait. That’s not what was read tonight – because it’s been changed. That change is the result of the work of textual critics, who have long argued and labored over one crucial question: for whom is God’s peace intended?

The debate centers around one difficult to translate word: eudokia. In the King James version of the Bible, eudokia is translated as “good will,” but, based on readings of other texts, scholars have more recently suggested that a better translation is “among those he favors.” This may seem like a small change, but its implications are big. That’s because for those who lived in the Roman Empire, “peace” was defined not as serenity but only as the absence of war. It was obtained not by understanding or agreement, but by force. For this reason, Augustus Caesar, keeper of the Roman peace, was hailed as a savior -the Lord of enforced harmony. This is not the peace the angels promised to the shepherds. God’s peace is not bought, earned, or enforced with violence. It does not belong only to those of good intentions. The angels “are not announcing that peace is at hand for those who have pleased God,”[2] but rather for anyone God wants to give it to. In this updated version of the story, our access to salvation is not based on anything we are or do. It is given solely at the discretion of God. Our job is to accept the blessings that God bestows on us and to give thanks. It seems simple; remembering to be grateful for the knowledge that there is something greater – something better than ourselves. It is not hard on a night like tonight, when we are constantly reminded that God is here, and God is good. The hard part is bringing that wisdom and thankfulness into our daily lives.

There is a section in C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair, in which one of the characters, Jill, is brought by Aslan (God) into his country to be given a task. He reminds her that it is important that she not forget the signs he gives her to help her on her way. But as Jill gets farther and farther from the presence of God her thoughts become murkier and more confused and she is frequently distracted by the cares of the real world. Finally, she is overwhelmed by her troubles, becoming unhappy, uncomfortable, impatient, and unwilling to admit that she has forgotten what God wants of her. In this state, she makes an almost fatal error – one which is not resolved until she is honest with herself and her companions – and together they can once again see clearly.

Like Jill, God has given us signs – and words - to help us on our way – and like Jill we lose our sense of their meaning if we cease to repeat and examine them. That’s why praying is a critical part of our tradition. It is why we must follow the example of Mary by taking the words of our Holy Scriptures into our hearts, to consider, ponder, and savor. Hark! The herald angels sing! Christ is born again, bringing words of hope, joy, peace, and love to all the people. Hear them, treasure them, and carry them home in your hearts. AMEN.

[1]KJV, Luke 2:13-14. [2]Charles M. Wood, (2010), in David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (eds)., Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4, Advent through Transfiguration, [Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, Kentucky], 120.

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