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Christmas Eve Sermon: Twin Theaters

December 21, 2009

Luke 2:1-20

I grew up in a town with only one movie theater and with only one screen.  When you went up to the box office, you would say “I want a ticket,” and you wouldn’t have to say which movie you wanted to see, because there was only one choice.  If you didn’t like the movie they were showing, you could always stay home and watch T.V., which wasn’t all that great because we only got one channel, except if you lived in town, and then you got two or three channels.  I think that’s why I learned to enjoy reading so much.

To call it a theater, though, is not completely accurate.  I’ve been in many theaters.  I’ve been in the Warner Grand, and the Bishop Theatre made the Warner Grand seem like the Superdome.  The original Bishop Theatre was really more like a large living room.  It didn’t have to be that big because not many people in my small town were interested in seeing the one movie that was offered.

But then one year came the announcement that the Bishop Theatre was going to become the Bishop Twin Theatre.  That’s right, there were going to be two screens, and you could choose which of the two movies you wanted to see.  The screen capacity was going to be doubled!  We were thrilled.  Of course, what they did was build a wall right down the middle of the theater and put a movie screen on each side, so the actual size of each theater was smaller—but there were twice the number of screens!

And still today, if you’re traveling north through Bishop on highway 395—on the left—just past Joseph’s Bi-Rite Market, you’ll see the Bishop Twin Theatre, with its two movie screens, showing two films you probably don’t want to see.  But now the people have satellite dishes, so you never have to read a book.

*     *     *     *     *

Our story tonight reminds me of a movie theatre with two screens.  Except in this theater, the screens aren’t the same size.  One is gigantic, the IMAX of the ancient world, and the other is tiny.  One screen is reserved for all the best, first-run movies, all the blockbusters, the 200-million dollar projects from all the top studios.  That part of the theater has plush seats, top-of-the-line surround sound, red velvet curtains and art deco craftsmanship.

The other screen is reserved for rejects from the Sundance Film Festival and old black-and-white classics that only appeal to film buffs.  The screen is small.  Springs are popping out of the stuffing in the seat cushions.  The floor is sticky with the accumulation of spilled soda and popcorn.  The sound and the projector usually work properly, but sometimes there are long delays while the employees fight with the old equipment.

The Emperor Augustus gets to play on the big screen.  His very name tells us he is magnificent.  The word “august” means to inspire awe and reverence.  It means he is worthy of respect.  (Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Edition [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984], 92.)  So Augustus and his massive census project go on the big screen with the co-stars like Quirinius the governor.

All the hotshots and the grand events of world history appear on that big screen in the plush side of the theater.  If you are an important person or if you are interested in the significant happenings in the world, you go to the fancy theater.  But off to the side, down a long dark hall past the men’s room is the other theater.  When you first go over there, you’re not even sure you are going the right way.  You wonder if you aren’t headed toward the supply closet.

The further down the hall you go, the more the noise and frivolity of the people on the fancy side start to fade away.  But there are the double doors, and unlike the other theater, there is no doorman here to open the door for you.  When you first go inside, you realize how small this place is.  There aren’t many people watching the movie here, and they don’t seem to be particularly well dressed.  But there is a film showing on the screen.

While the people on the other side of the theater are having a raucous time and are enjoying the red carpet experience of seeing and being seen, there is a film playing here in the quiet darkness.  It’s a film featuring an unknown actor named Mary and her husband.  This movie was made in a simple style with few special effects, and when the baby is born on screen, there is hardly a stir from the audience.

The next scene is a cold, quiet outdoor shot.  Some shepherds are sitting around a small fire.  Sheep are bedded down all around on the hillside.  For the first time, the theater suddenly explodes in light.  The image on the screen hurts your eyes.  It’s an angel.

The angel shares a simple message.  First, don’t be afraid.  Second, there is good news.  A child has been born, and this child is to be called Savior.  As a sign you’ll find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.  That’s all.  There is no need to look for anything more spectacular than that.

But then the shepherds, right there on the hillside, get their own spectacular light show.  A whole chorus of angels appears and serenades them by praising God.  “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”  Yet as soon as they are finished, they vanish.  It is quiet again.  The sheep loll back to sleep, and everything goes back to normal.

The shepherds, though, decide to see about this strange news.  They get up and start into Bethlehem to discover this baby, wrapped in ordinary clothes and sitting with his mother.  While they are walking through the night, over on the other screen, in the fancy theater, you know there is lots of high drama going on featuring very important people doing very important things.  But the shepherds just continue to walk along quietly.

Our understated, under budget film continues with what must be a very awkward conversation between the shepherds and the child’s parents.  It is a conversation about signs and angels and a promise about a Messiah.  This is amazing and confusing news, particularly since this is the sort of news that would normally be revealed in another part of the theater.  Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

Then the shepherds go on their way without even leaving a gift.  Not a single angel had appeared over the manger.  There was no flash of light or alleluia chorus.  Mary and Joseph and their new son are left alone with the animals in the quiet and the dark to think about what has just happened.

On the big screen down the hall, there is still a lot of light and noise and expensive special effects.  The handsome leading man and the gorgeous leading woman continue to dazzle the audience with their talent and their beauty.  And not a single one of them has any idea what has just happened in the dark, dingy theater next door.

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