One of the things about the Anglican lectionary with which some people feel really unhappy is the practice of ‘filleting’ or cutting out verses or paragraphs, usually because they are not ‘nice’. The church has an amazing ability to want to make everything lovely, so verses about dashing children’s heads against the rocks aren’t quite the sort of thing we want to read during Evensong. Christmas is a great time for this, being the time of ‘peace on earth, goodwill towards men’ (or, as the text actually says, ‘goodwill to those on whom God’s favour rests’, which is a very different thing.
Today’s OT reading is a song of praise to God for all his goodness to Israel, for his kindness in choosing them and saving them. He has recognised in them a people who will be faithful to him, and he has been good to them through good times and bad. When things went badly for them, he felt their distress and acted in their favour. He truly is a great God to them. It doesn’t take much to see why this passage in chosen in the aftermath of Christmas, when we celebrate again the kindness of the God who has felt our distress, chosen to step into our world and save us, acted for our salvation, and invited us into relationship with him. But then the compliers of the lectionary, in their wisdom, stop there, rather than going on to verse 10:
Yet they rebelled
and grieved his Holy Spirit.
So he turned and became their enemy
and he himself fought against them.
It seems to me that this is one of the central dilemmas of preaching and living the Christian faith: we do try to make it a lot nicer than it actually is. Today in my cathedral (well not mine, just the one I go to) they will be celebrating the martyrdom of Thomas a Becket, martyred in 1170). Yesterday was the celebration of the Holy Innocents, the ‘collateral damage’ children slaughtered by Herod around the time of Jesus’ birth. I have rarely found churches who did anything about this festival: after all it kind of spoils the mood of Christmas a bit, doesn’t it?
But the truth of today’s passage is a truth which runs deeply through the biblical record at all levels: God’s kindness demands a response. The reason there is still not peace on earth or goodwill to all is that human beings have chosen war and cruelty instead. God can be kind to us until he is blue in the face but unless we respond positively to him it will be worth nothing. And perhaps we need to hear that particularly during the time of greatest sentimentality, and resist the temptation to make the good news nicer than it actually is, or God kinder than he actually it.