"Bette Midler Was Wrong"

Christmas Eve, 2004

Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Taneytown, Maryland, Pastor Nicholas Brie

A store owner in a small town had a large sign in the window reading: "Mary Christmas." A tourist called the owner's attention to the error and asked, "Hasn't anyone told you about it before?" "Oh, to be sure," replied the owner. "Many folks have. But when they come in to tell me, they always purchase something before they leave."

I considered putting it on the outdoor sign board, wondering how many folks would stop in to tell us it was incorrect. Of course, we have nothing to sell, only to give away-the gift of love in our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. The actual meaning of the name, Jesus, is: the one who saves. So, through Jesus, we give the gift of love-love, the only thing that will save us all.

Recently I asked a little boy what he wanted for Christmas. "Two Teddy bears," he said. "Why two," I asked. He replied, "So I can share."

The wonderful thing about sharing the love that comes to us in Jesus is that as soon as we share that love it is replaced. We don't need any more than the love we receive. As soon as we share it, we have just as much again to share.

A stranger arrived at a church on Christmas Eve to talk to the pastor. "Pastor," he said, "I've been floating around long enough. Could I join your church and settle down?" "Why, yes, of course," the pastor replied. "Let me just ask you a few questions to find out how much you know about the Bible and religion." Since it was Christmas Eve the pastor naturally started by asking, "Where was Jesus born?" The man answered, "In Pittsburg." The pastor shook his head and the man tried again, "In Philadelphia?" Again the pastor shook his head, and not wishing to embarrass the man any further he said, "Jesus was born in Bethlehem." Quickly the man declared, "I knew it, I knew it, I knew it was someplace in Pennsylvania."

Well, we don't have to wonder about where Jesus was born. We know, today, that Jesus is born in our hearts, not just a Christmas, which reminds us of the fact, but born in our hearts every day that we let him enter in. Just as we sing in a Christmas Carol, "…where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in."

Jesus was also called Immanuel (spelled with an "I" or an "E," one being the Greek spelling, one the Latin). And, as Matthew tells us in his Gospel, Immanuel means "God with us."

Sometimes we don't feel like God is present with us at all. Sometimes the harsh realities of life leave us feeling disconnected from God. Make us feel as though God is somewhere far off, not always reachable. We feel there's a gap "between what is and what should be, between what we long for and what we experience." Often this gap seems so profound, so deeply personal, that people experience depression.

Recently I read an article by Daniel B. Clendenin, the tile of which I used for my sermon, "Bette Midler Was Wrong." In the article he expressed some things I have felt for a long time, plus a feeling about a song which Bette Midler made popular, which I, like he, really like. In the song "Bette Midler captures this deeply human but ambivalent sense of longing. From a sanitized "distance," life feels safer and better than what we experience up close and personal. The song is "From a Distance." I quote it now.

From a distance,
The world looks blue and green,
And the snow capped mountains white.

From a distance,
The ocean meets the stream,
And the eagle takes to flight

From a distance,
There is harmony,
And it echoes through the land.
It's the voice of hope,
It's the voice of peace,
It's the voice of every man.

From a distance,
We all have enough,
And no one is in need.
And there are no guns,
No bombs and no disease,
No hungry mouths to feed.

From a distance,
We are instruments,
Marching in a common band,
Playing songs of hope,
Playing songs of peace,
They are the songs of every man.

From a distance,
You look like my friend,
Even though we are at war.

From a distance,
I just cannot comprehend
What all this fighting's for.

From a distance
There is harmony,
And it echoes through the land.
And it's the hope of hopes,
It's the love of loves,
It's the heart of every man.

God is watching us,
God is watching us,
God is watching us,
From a distance.

"Such is life at arm's length, or at the dramatic 'distance' between human longing and our experience of reality."

It's the chorus of that song that has always bothered me. Everything about the song I feel deeply, but the chorus, the last line of the chorus, spoils the song for me. It puts God at a distance. We need to experience God "up close and personal," not at a distance. We need to feel some sort of resolution to our longing so that our hope is not based on wishful thinking. The song tells us that God is watching us, not up close, but from a distance. From afar. From way off in heaven somewhere. Almost unreachable, untouchable. Watching us from a distance.

"The truly Good News at Christmas is that that Bette Midler was wrong. Whatever else our Christian God is, he is NOT a distant or detached God." We celebrate that fact at Christmas: Immanuel-God with us. God came to us in human form, in the form of a very vulnerable baby, and came to us under circumstances that were less than hospitable; born in a very difficult setting, not warm and cozy or friendly, but in a cold barn, midst the smell of stale and stained hay. Yet he came to us even under those circumstances because he wanted us to know how much he loves us. Wanted us to know he experiences our harsh realities. Wanted us to know he was reachable, touchable. Wanted us to know we are worth loving, no matter what it took to prove that to us- Immanuel. We are worth loving.

"God is not silent, aloof or remote. The "Distant God" is a sad relic from 18th century ideas, which held a firm belief in God but then relegated him to the status of absentee landlord who never meddled in human affairs. In the Gospel from Matthew, when Matthew searched for a way to bring the essence of the meaning of that first Christmas, he reached back 700 years to a single verse, a single word from Isaiah 7:14: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel. And then Matthew translates that word for his readers: 'God with us.'

"In that single Hebrew word, Immanuel, God with us, resides the essence of what Christmas is about, what Christians believe happened at the birth of Jesus. God took on human flesh and entered our world to embrace and redeem us. Whether we feel his presence or not, he is near us. Even though we all stumble in many ways, he is near us. Nothing we say or do could draw him closer or drive him away. Regardless of what we have done or left undone, said or left silent, God is near to us.

Confident of God's nearness, for each of us individually, but also for all the world, Christians should be the ultimate optimists. We believe that God's nearness signals a world of positive possibilities as we share the love of God, strengthened by Christ in our heart, empowered by the Holy Spirit.

A good Christmas prayer for this year comes from the words of a Christmas Carol by Phillips Brooks, one of the country's greatest preachers of 1800's. "O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Immanuel."

Bette Midler was wrong: God is not at a distance, because God is with us, Immanuel.


Read more sermons by Pastor Brie 

(quotes from "Bette Midler Was Wrong," an article by Daniel B. Clendenin)