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:
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.
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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;
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.
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.
described seeing the earth rise above the moon as ‘the most beautiful, heart-catching
sight of my life’. His far
away home planet must, indeed have seemed good.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
Luke 2.14 (alt)
Biblical references from the Good
News Bible, unless otherwise stated
Hearing that seven weeks after church leaders from seven denominations (including my own @churchscotland) wrote the the Prime Minister with concern about #NoDealBrexit, @10DowningStreet has failed to respond https://t.co/5GZbgaeh5f
Church leaders sent letter to PM in July, asking for evidence that No Deal Brexit could be managed without putting at further risk the welfare of poorest families in the UK. In light of #Yellowhammer I've written to @Eleanor_SmithMP asking her to chase response @PublicIssues