Sunday, January 15, 2012

God’s Favorites
Isa. 61:1-4. 8-11; Lk. 2:14[1]
“Playing favorites” never has a positive connotation. Whether it’s in the home or at work or among friends, when you start “playing favorites,” someone gets special privileges and someone gets passed over. It can wreak havoc in any context, creating strife at work, hard feelings among friends, and painful humiliation in the home. There’s really nothing good you can say about playing favorites. Anybody who has raised children knows a little something of the challenges of playing favorites, and I think this is especially true for those of us with blended families. In a blended family, it's important never to “play favorites” with your kids. In a blended family, you can't view them as “your kids” or “my kids”; they are “our kids.” Of course, it doesn’t always work out that neatly. But we do our best to avoid “playing favorites,” because it can destroy the very fabric of a family.
I think “Playing favorites” is something to be avoided in just about every situation involving human relationships. And yet, it would seem that at the heart of the Christian message is the idea that God plays favorites![2] It would seem that the story of the Scriptures is that God chooses a family to bless in a special way above all other families. God chooses a people to liberate so as to be unique above all other peoples. God chooses a nation to honor as a favorite possession treasured above all other nations. It sounds like God is “playing favorites”!
In fact, the phrase at the heart of our Christmas celebrations, “Peace on earth, good will toward men,” is a prime example of this problem. As I mentioned last week, the best evidence we have is that it should actually read, “Peace on earth to men of good will.”[3] As one translation says it, “peace on earth” is for those “on whom God’s favor rests” (Lk. 2:14, NIV). Again, that sounds like God is “playing favorites.” It sounds like the good news of peace on earth is not for all people, but only for God’s favorites.
But I think it’s important at this point to ask on whom does God’s favor rest. Does God’s favor rest on just the few, only the chosen, only the righteous? That idea is not consistent with the strange Kingdom of Heaven we’ve seen and heard about in Jesus’ parables. In fact, it’s not even consistent with the Angels’ announcement of “peace on earth” itself. It was made to shepherds, the ultimate outcasts in the Jewish world of that time. It seems to me that the announcement of “peace on earth to all whom God favors” (Lk. 2:14, NLT) precisely to those who would seem to be the most disfavored of people indicates that it’s God’s peace for all that is the promise of Advent. It’s God’s good will toward the whole human family that the Angels’ Christmas declaration is talking about![4]
It’s the same message of the prophet Isaiah: in our text for this week, the prophet Isaiah announces “the year of the Lord’s favor.” This is shorthand for the “year of Jubilee,” the time when all debts were cancelled and all property sold or mortgaged was returned to the original owners. Isaiah reminds us that in “the year of the Lord’s favor,” God comes to set right everything that has gone wrong, which make it possible for all people to thrive.[5] It’s a time when God’s grace defines life for all people.
But Isaiah reminds us that this also involves “the day of vengeance of our God.” To some extent, God’s coming to set things right involves an element of “judgment.” But as we have seen many times, from the perspective of God’s grace “judgment” is never simply punishment. We might envision it as “preparing the way for the Lord,” as making straight what is crooked in order that it may be set right.[6] It is a matter of restoring us all to the people we were meant to be.[7] And it extends ultimately to all humankind—just and unjust, righteous and sinful alike.[8]
It seems to me that we all long for that kind of acceptance; acceptance that is complete and unconditional. Any kind of “playing favorites” hinders that. I know, because I’ve been on both sides of that game, and I’ve seen how much harm it can do. I’ve been the favored child, and I’ve experienced the false sense of privilege and entitlement that goes along with that. I’ve also been the disfavored one, and I’ve experienced the humiliation and the pain of being rejected. So to me, the suggestion that God would somehow “play favorites” and inflict that kind of experience on a single solitary person is appalling in the extreme.
But that is not the good news of the gospel! The good news of the Christmas Gospel is that Jesus has come so that now God’s favor rests on all people alike, with no exceptions! The Angels’ announcement means that it is now the “year of the Lord’s favor;” it is the time when God’s grace defines our lives—all our lives. The joyful message of the angelic choir, “peace on earth to all whom God favors,” is that now we are all—with no exceptions—“God’s favorites.”

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/11/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] And this, despite the fact that the Bible claims several times that God doesn’t “play favorites” (2 Chron. 19:7; Acts 10:34; Rom. 2:11; Gal 2:6; Eph. 6:9)!
[3] Cf. F. Bovon, and H. Koester, Luke 1 : A commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1-9:50, 91.
[4] Cf. Fred B. Craddock, Luke, 36
[5] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 311, “Righteousness is the rightness that makes for life and shalom.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 121.
[6] Cf. Christopher R. Seitz, Isaiah 1-39, 192; cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God, 243-44, 255.
[7] Cf. Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, 367, where he points out that “vengeance” in Isa. 61:2 refers to restoration; cf. The Inclusive Translation, “day of vindication.” See also Isaiah 10:20–27; see also Jeremiah 30:1–9; Micah 5:7–15; Zechariah 8:1–8; 12:1–13:6; 14:1–21.
[8] Isaiah 2:2-4; 25:6–10; 45:20-25; 52:7–10; 66:18, 23; see also Micah 4:1-3; Jeremiah 3:17; 16:19.

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