January 2019 - Dwelling Spaces

Thursday, 3 January 2019

Christmas Eve - Earthrise

Image result for earthrise photo apollo 8
Photo credit: Apollo 8 astronauts with NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter data

Fifty years ago tonight, Christmas Eve 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 did what no human beings had done before, in their tiny space craft they orbited the moon, seeing the far side of the moon for the first time, and then they saw the earth rise over the horizon. This is the photo they took. Thanks to space exploration we have become used to seeing the earth from space, but just 50 years ago this sight of the fragile earth rising made people catch their breath and wonder at creation.

In the last of their 10 orbits of the moon the crew of Apollo 8 did a live television broadcast to earth watched by over 1 billion people. I find it extraordinary and moving to watch this (link below) and hear the astronauts ask for God’s blessing on all on earth. There is particular power in these words being spoken on Christmas Eve as we remember that God’s way of blessing the earth was to be born a baby in Bethlehem. In chapter 3 of John’s Gospel we learn that it was because of God’s great love for us that Jesus came to live amongst us, to die for us and to show, by rising from the dead, that even death cannot separate us from the love of God. Borman, Lovell and Anders (the three crew of Apollo 8) speaking much later about the mission spoke about how they had tried to work out what to say on their TV broadcast with little success when one of their friends wives suggested starting at the beginning. And so they read out the first 10 verses of Genesis 1 - the first 10 verses of the Bible - a reading that became part of space history. 

The Bible starts with these words: in the beginning - God. In the beginning - God. Before anything was made that has been made, Christians believe that God was. In fact the very name of God - Yahweh - is I am who I am, the one who is without beginning and end. But God doesn't just be, God speaks and acts. And tonight's readings from Hebrews (1.1-4) and Johns Gospel (1.1-14) tell us more about God's speaking and actions. In the beginning - was the Word. John as he writes is taking us back to before the creation, back to what is recorded in Genesis 1.  To understand where we've come from we go back to the beginning.  In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made and without him nothing was made. And the word became flesh and made his dwelling among us - literally pitched his tent.  

This is an extraordinary claim, that God who spoke that blue Jewel we call earth, that we call home, into existence would give all that up to be born a fragile baby on a fragile planet. Why should we believe something so incredible?

I know that believing this is part of my job as a vicar (!) but the longer I have thought about this story the more convinced I am that this is the only story that makes sense of the world we see around us.

There are only two options about our existence. Everything came about by chance or everything was created by a higher power. Now of course everything is possible, but for me the probability of chance producing our beautiful planet with the right conditions for life seem so small to be unrealistic. Even if I accepted that it is possible for the ecosystem to bring forth the plants, animals and intelligent humans, I would have to believe in the survival of the fittest, and if I believe that then it is a mystery why we would ever be kind, or would choose to love and to set ourselves aside for the sake of others.  Because when we do that, it's not survival of the fittest, it is letting someone else take advantage of you. But the world I see in all its brokenness is a world where people are good and kind, where each of us long to be loved and accepted. Where we believe in right and wrong. And these are not pointless, they are the things that give our lives meaning. 

And that is partly why I believe a higher power created everything, and I have come to believe that higher power is God the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and that tonight we remember the extraordinary moment in the history of our planet when God was born as a baby, in a stable in an insignificant town in an oppressed nation. 

When I saw the readings for tonight I smiled because at the very moment we remember that Jesus arrived in the blood and mess of human birth in the dirt of a dark stable, we have these astonishing readings from John and the author of Hebrews as they try to do what no human words can do – try to paint a picture of what it means that this same baby is God.

The Hebrews passage where we have four verses is actually one sentence in Greek. Like the author doesn’t want to pause with the excitement of who Jesus is!  The author tells us that God has spoken throughout history in the words of the prophets, but now in Jesus we hear God direct because when we see Jesus we see God.  Jesus radiates God’s own glory, is the exact imprint of God’s nature, and he upholds the universe by the words He speaks.  When we see the earth rise above the surface of the moon, that is the work of Jesus Christ, and when we remember that there are 7 billion of us living on that tiny blue planet, all equally loved by God, it is mind blowing.

And yet, here we are at a stable in Bethlehem remembering that this is the promise God has made – to be God with us.  With us in our weakness, vulnerabilities, in the mess of life and death.  When we see earth as those astronauts did we realise how fragile we are in comparison to God, and how easy it would be for God to crush us or control us.  But the story of Christmas reveals who God really is, God’s offer of love comes in a way that forces no-one to believe and offers everyone the chance to turn away.  The reading from John’s gospel says although the world was made through him, the world did not, does not, know him. 

So this is the story of Christmas, it's a love story. God loves you and created you with purpose. God offers all who believe the opportunity to become children of God. This is an unconditional love that says: I love you, will you love me?

I hope your answer today will be yes.  

If you want to listen to the Apollo 8 Christmas Eve broadcast of the Genesis 1 reading here is a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6vvNxhlP1jA