Old High St. Stephen's, Inverness

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Category: Christmas

An unwelcome child: sermon for Epiphany, 6 January 2019

The Magi Journeying James Tissot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Scripture Readings: Ephesians 3:1-6

Matthew 2:1-18

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

They have haunted our Christmas imagination for centuries. They still haunt our Christmas cards, our carols (of course), our crib scenes. As if first century Bethlehem were not exotic enough for us, they turn up in their rich robes, their fancy camels, with the fragrance of another sort of East about them:

We three kings of Orient are

Bearing gifts we traverse afar

Field and fountain, moor and mountain

Following yonder star.[1]

Not the dusty east of poor Palestinian peasants under Roman occupation, but the spice-laden Persian east, the Aladdin east of our Western imagination- turbans, colourful robes, vast palaces, sultans, minarets and genies, astrology and magic and smoke and mirrors. We do not even know, really, if there were three of them, or even if they were all male, or whether or not they travelled on camels. They are unlikely to be kings, though they were probably advisors to kings. The Bible calls them wise men- magi (we get the English word magic from that word). Much of what we think we know about them comes is, simply, the accumulated imagination of two millennia.

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A visitor to our Good Earth: sermon for Christmas Eve 2018

Scripture Readings:

Genesis 1.1-9 (Authorized Version)
recording from Apollo 8 TV broadcast, December 24th, 1968[i]


Luke 2.1-7

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

Our Old Testament reading is from Genesis chapter 1- part of the creation story. We are going hear it in a recording taken from a television broadcast made 50 years ago tonight. We hear the voices of Bill Anders, Jim Lovell and Frank Borman:

That was the astronauts of Apollo 8 speaking in a live television broadcast in Christmas Eve 1968: exactly fifty years ago. They were the first human beings ever to travel to the moon. They did not land on the moon- that happened just a few months later. Their mission was to prepare the way for the subsequent moon landing. They were a practice run- the first to leave the orbit of the earth, the first people ever to see the far side of the moon with their own eyes, the first to go into orbit around the moon.

They were tasked with photographing the moon for possible landing sites. At one point, however, astronaut Bill Anders spotted something else out of one of the windows: ‘Oh my God, look at that picture over there!’ he exclaimed. ‘There’s the earth comin’ up. Wow, is that pretty!’ He had spotted earth rising over the horizon of the moon: a semicircle of colour, its blues and greens contrasting with the uniform greyness of the moon, and the inky blackness of the sky. He took the photograph you are looking at now.

The Apollo 8 astronauts had gone to explore the moon, but Bill Anders’ ‘Earthrise’ picture was the most famous image they brought back. There was nothing in the flight plan about taking such a photograph- if it had been an unmanned mission, a computer would never have thought of taking the picture. It took a human eye to see the beauty of the earth hanging in the sky. They had gone to explore the moon, but came back with a new way of looking at the earth.

The Apollo photographs of the earth gave the emerging environmental movement boost. They show our planet as we had never really seen it before- a small speck of colour in a vast darkness, an oasis of life in a lifeless void. It is all we have. For all our divisions, we all of us share this ‘blue marble’, our island home in space. If we damage or destroy it, then we literally have no future.

For their earlier TV broadcast, the astronauts had been given very little guidance on what they should do or say. So they chose to read from Genesis: ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth’. The ancient poet of Genesis could never have imagined his words might be read by people orbiting the moon to an audience of millions back on earth. Yet this ancient, majestic words seemed like the right choice for that Christmas Eve, of that turbulent year of 1968. It was the genius of the Hebrews to understand that there could only really be the one God, and that God was the creator of heaven and earth.

In their different ways, the Earthrise picture and the account of creation in Genesis speak to us of the wonder and mystery of creation. For some people, these pictures of the earth in space make us seem quite insignificant in the vast cosmos. Not so the Biblical poets. In Psalm 8, a poet observing the night sky pondered humanity’s place in it all:

When I look at the sky, which you have made,

at the moon and the stars, which you set in their places —

what are human beings, that you think of them;

mere mortals, that you care for them?

Yet you made them inferior only to yourself;

you crowned them with glory and honour.

You appointed them rulers over everything you made;

you placed them over all creation:

sheep and cattle, and the wild animals too;

the birds and the fish

and the creatures in the seas.[2]

Our faith tell us that we do matter. For this planet is God’s gift to us. God calls on us to nurture the earth, to ensure the waters are clean, to ensure that preservation of the multitude of species on which our lives- and that of future generations- will depend. The Bible is not so far from the modern environmental movement as it reminds us of our responsibilities to creation.

Frank Borman, the mission commander, ended the Christmas Eve broadcast from the moon with these words:

[F]rom the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas- and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.

Bormann later described seeing the earth rise above the moon as ‘the most beautiful, heart-catching sight of my life’[3]. His far away home planet must, indeed have seemed good.

As Genesis said: God created the heavens and the earth, and God saw that it was good. And God showed again his love for this good earth when a child was born to Mary at Bethlehem. For in the child in the manger, the maker of the earth and the moon and the stars comes to his good earth, comes to be born as one of us, comes to live and die alongside his creatures on this good earth he has made.

Yet hatred and war divide humanity the inhabitants of this good earth. In our rivalries, we forget that we have this in common- we all have to share this third planet from the sun. We have the capacity to destroy life, either instantly in a nuclear exchange or an accident; or slowly, as we continue to destroy forests and the oceans and allow species which took millions of years to evolve to go out of existence in decades. We have used the technology which sent men to the moon to investigate the land, sea and atmosphere of the earth ever more carefully. Satellites can show us shrinking ice caps, rising sea levels, and climate change which threatens us all, yet we are loathed to do anything about it.

And yet, somehow I am not entirely pessimistic, for unto us a child is born. A child who is born in very humble circumstance, to an ordinary peasant woman and her carpenter husband. A child whose message would inspire many people to a love their neighbours, and to care for the world around them. And yet a child who is also forgotten, or pushed to one side- they had no room for him at the inn.

Science and technology can teach us a lot about our planet and the universe which contains it. But faith tells us that this seemingly insignificant planet of ours once received a visit from beyond, from one whom we can be inspired to put our trust, for his life and death tells us that the Creator God loves us.

As we’ve heard, the Bible begins with the words, ‘In the beginning, God…’ The Gospel of John, attempting to explain who Jesus is, begins with the words which reflect the start of Genesis:

In the beginning the Word already existed; the Word was with God, and the Word was God. From the very beginning the Word was with God. Through him God made all things; not one thing in all creation was made without him.

The Word, through whom the heavens and earth was made, has come to us in the child of Bethlehem. Perhaps the Word has also visited other planets, to bring to life forms we can’t imagine the good news. For it is good news, for this good earth, and for all its people: we are not forgotten, we are not unimportant, for the Son of God the creator has walked among us. And, as John’s Gospel says, he is

‘the light [which] shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out’.

Ascription of Praise

Glory to God in highest heaven,

and on earth peace to all in whom God delights!

Amen.

Luke 2.14 (alt)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2018 Peter W Nimmo

Notes


[1] https://youtu.be/t3LIvb1Nzak

[2] Psalm 8.3-8

[3] Barbree, Jay. Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America’s Apollo Moon Landings (p. 221). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.

Ding Dong Merrily Old High- celebrating the Inverness Christmas Lights Switch On

Following the Christmas Lights Switch on this Sunday, join us for a family carol service!
A short service for young and old, featuring carols old and new, and a message for all as we get ready for Christmas.
6.30pm at the Old High Church, Church Street (just follow Santa!)
Ding Dong Poster

Bethlehem today: the Christmas story retold

Bethlehem

 
From our Watchnight service- the people of Bethlehem today tell the Christmas Story and what it means to them. Click on the picture to watch the film.
 

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