Rev. Dr. Scott Herr

“Midnight in Bethlehem”                                                                   Please Read:
A Sermon by the Rev. Scott Herr                                                       Gospel Birth Narratives
The American Church in Paris, Christmas Eve, 2011             Titus 2:11-14              

“Midnight in Paris” is a wonderful work of cinematography released this year and directed by Woody Allen. I thought since he was kind enough to put the American Church in his film for a few seconds, we could mention his film in our service for a few seconds!  If you haven’t seen it, I won’t give it away, but the scenery of Paris is stunning! The plot… well, it had potential! It’s a romantic comedy starring Owen Wilson as a would-be novelist dreaming about the past. He magically goes back in time and meets people like Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso… These people are famous today, but then, they were outsiders on the margins of society… Sort of like the characters in the story we remember tonight…

Every year at Christmas the Church goes back in time to enjoy “Midnight in Bethlehem.” We play re-runs of Christmas to remember the story. We need to because over the centuries Christmas has become domesticated and detached from that first noel.  An example is the Tokyo Golden Christmas Tree! Did you read about that? In the Ginza district a jewelry store teamed up with flower arrangement artist Shogo Kariyazaki to create a 2 million dollar Christmas tree made out of 26 pounds of gold.[1] But even a 2 million dollar Christmas tree, or the spectacular lights at Galleria Lafayette or the Place de Vendome don’t compare to the mysterious glory of the first Christmas story. So we need to remember and recall some of the original characters…

There were the prophets, the visionaries who never saw their dreams come into reality… Like the prophet Micah (whose name means, “Who is like Yahweh?”). 28 centuries ago Micah told how from the little town of Bethlehem shall come one who will rule like a shepherd. He will feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God... and his sheep will live secure to the ends of the earth. He shall be “the One of peace.” 

And Isaiah spoke of a baby born to a young maiden, a child “born for us, a son given to us…” And he is named “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.... a king who shall give endless peace.” There is no other reference to this King in the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s a mystery to whom Isaiah was referring… But on this night, we read these texts because it seems to connect with the plot developing in Bethlehem.

Luke begins the story with references to key political figures of his day.  “Make no mistake about the historicity of these events,” is what Luke is hinting. The dream is becoming real! There is tension in the texts set between the reality of the sheer force of the Roman emperor and governors, and the power of God paradoxically revealed in the powerless peasants of Palestine… Joseph and Mary are on the road, travelers from Nazareth in the north of Israel to the southern town of Bethlehem of Judea. They are poor, and there is nowhere for them to stay, except for the stable. As James Carroll wrote in an article this week, “This family is utterly dispossessed. If Mary, Joseph and Jesus are at home with animals, that is because society has expelled them. The holy family are refugees…”[2] Matthew picks up on the details of King Herod, the local tyrant who is threatened and like so many rulers resorts to deception and violence to defend himself. The scene less easily captured in all of our lovely Christmas cards and carols is the slaughter of the innocents, Herod’s genocide in Bethlehem to be rid of this newborn king…

No drama would be complete without the intellectuals, the seeking scientists of the time interpreting the cosmology of their day. These wise men are important as they are the first gentiles to bow down and worship the newborn King. This King is for all people…

My favorite supporting role stars are the shepherds, who hear the angel chorus. Luke writes, "And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.  An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified!" (2:8,9).  These shepherds are the last people that should be the first to receive angelic announcements of Christ’s birth… They were homeless, filthy and considered ritually unclean by the religious folk of the day. Shepherds were social outcasts, not even respectable enough to give testimony in a court of law. Nonetheless, the angels first appeared to them with the tidings of great joy!

And like the shepherds, we are disoriented and surprised by the message in the midst of our day-to-day lives. The cacophony of news of wars, of terrorism, financial market meltdowns, of cancer and loss, the hardship of all the burdens in this life makes it hard to hear again the angel’s voices. And yet… like those shepherds we dare still to proclaim this good news of a great joy for all the people, because of the lead character, the star of Midnight in Bethlehem, Christ the Lord. 

This babe, born of Mary, still captures our hearts and minds. The mystery... The miracle still fascinates us. As G.K. Chesterton noted, “A mass of legend and literature, which increases and will never end, has repeated… that single paradox; that the hands that made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle. Upon this paradox, we might almost say upon this jest, all the literature of our faith is founded…When that contrast between the cosmic creation and the little local infancy has been repeated, reiterated, underlined, emphasized, exulted in, sung, shouted, roared, not to say howled, in a hundred thousand hymns, carols, rhymes, rituals, pictures, poems, and popular sermons, it may be suggested that we hardly need a higher critic to draw our attention to something a little odd about it…”[3]

The story we tell is indeed odd. But somehow over the centuries continues to ring true amidst the ambiguities and perplexities of this world. The incongruity of the gospel seems to fit all of the paradox and pain of our lives, no matter what our culture, class or creed. There is goodness here in the baby’s cry that broke the night almost two thousand years ago. There is beauty and truth.

As we read in the letter to Titus, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all…”

But unlike the movie “Midnight in Paris,” this savior born in a manger will not allow us to remain wrapped in our own personal fantasies. This baby calls us out of ourselves! I saw a button in a shop that made me laugh: You can stop narcissism… It’s funny because of course we need the characters of the long ago story, and the living Christ today to draw us out of ourselves. We need community, family and friends who will remind us that our lives have meaning, that we are a gift, that we are loved. We always need someone to come down and meet us where we are.

My wife Kim and I were in Italy a few weeks ago to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary, and we went to the coast for a day to relax. As we were walking along the shops, we saw a poster that described the Christ of the Abyss ("Il Cristo degli Abissi"). In 1947 Dario Gonzatti, the first Italian to use scuba gear died just outside of the harbor of Fruttusoso. A friend of his commissioned a 2.5 meter tall bronze Christ statue to be placed in the water near the spot where his friend died. So at a depth of 17 meters in the clear waters off the Italian Riviera, divers and fisherman can see this statue of Christ down in the depths. The Christ is looking up and has his arms outstretched as though waiting to hold someone. And it struck me: here is the Christmas  message! God has gone all the way down – even into the depths of hell – to rescue us. The message of Emmanuel is simple: You are not alone. I am always with you. I will give you peace. 

Interestingly, the Jewish community is celebrating another miracle event with lights. This year, Christmas falls exactly in the middle of the Jewish festival of Hanukah. Hanukah means to “rededicate.” It’s the festival of lights, recalling the miracle when the lamps of the temple burned for eight days when there was only fuel for one day.  The miracle was the 7 days of light after the first day. The people lit the light without enough. God provided what was needed.

Before the closing credits of Midnight in Bethlehem scroll up in our mind’s eye, I imagine that there is a “to be continued” boldly declaring that this movie is not over! And so I propose that we light our candles (this night in Paris!), rededicating our lives to the one who came as Mighty God in the unlikely form of a babe in a manger. It didn’t look like enough then, and for some, to be sure, it doesn’t look like enough now. But this child changed the world, and He can change your life too, for his kingdom has no end. You can’t hold him in your arms, but you can quietly hold him in your heart. Like those first shepherds who received the good news of a great joy and came and worshipped the Lord, they went out and shared with others all that had been told to them. They went back to their shepherd lives, miraculously changed…glorifying and praising God.

May it be so for you this Christmas!

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen…

[1] Mariko Lochridge, O Christmas Tree, How Costly Are Your Branches, Reuters, published November 24th, 2011.

[2] James Carroll, “Refugees in a manger”(The International Herald Tribune, Wednesday, December 21, 2011), 7.

[3] G.K. Chesterton, "The God in the Cave", The Everlasting Man CW2:301-303, excerpts.