On behalf of the Congregational United Church of Christ I once more want to welcome those of you who are our guests here this evening, whether you are visiting with family or friends or have found your way here on your own. And I invite everyone to the reception downstairs after our worship—it is always a wonderful occasion. I hope that you are finding this a place of warmth on a cold night and a place of joy as we celebrate the birth of Jesus and hear again the amazing good news that God has come to us, crying in the night as a newborn child.
We call this the incarnation—announcing that in Jesus the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. This is such an incredible affirmation that we usually only say it once a year under cover of darkness! God takes on human flesh, bridging the great chasm between the human and the divine. In this human being, Jesus, we see a Creator who relates to us creatures as one of us.
There is more to our message at Christmas, however. God’s pleasure is not just with us but with all creation.
God’s pleasure is not just with us but with all creation.
An event that took place fifty years ago this evening helps us tease out the implications of that affirmation.
In late December of 1968 a gigantic Saturn 5 rocket sent three human beings outside of earth’s orbit for the first time—sent them through space and, ultimately, into orbit around the moon. Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders—they were once heroes and household names—were on board Apollo 8.
They went as part of that great Sixties’ enterprise of exploring the moon—and in the process these three astronauts helped us all discover the earth.
In the vast, cold, darkness of space they did what no one in all of history had done before. They entered lunar orbit on December 24. They looked out and saw earth-rise—our blue planet swaddled in white clouds coming up over the horizon of the moon. William Anders snapped what has become the iconic photo. I showed it to the children a few minutes ago.
As they broadcast to the earth from their orbit around moon on Christmas Eve 1968, showing a rapt nation their wondrous photo, James Lovell said: “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.” And reading from Genesis, they told us, not something new, but something that scripture had been telling us for thousands of years—“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…and behold, it was very good.”
That Christmas Eve in space fifty years ago might be more important for us in our time than is was a half-century ago. From the great distance between the moon and the earth, we are invited to see what is so often missed in our Christmas celebrations: this is an occasion of good news not just for us but for all creation, even for “fields and floods, rocks, hills, and streams,” all of which, the carol tells us, sing for joy.
We can see once more that the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us loves not only human beings, but this earth, our home. The good news of Christmas calls us to care for this earth, to tend it, to be stewards of the earth even as our very human actions imperil the well-being of life on this planet.
James Lovell had it right, didn’t he? We often forget just what we have here back on Earth. We take this planet, our home, for granted. We take one another, our human family, for granted.
But this night—and in the coming day—we call on our senses so that we might once again come to our senses. We light candles and sing and maybe even dance. We deck the hall and the tree. We give and receive. We let the smells of food and drink trigger memories that have gone dormant. In this room and in the rooms of our homes, in hospitals and battlefields and prisons, surrounded by family and friends or alone, we remind ourselves once more that the very Ground of Being who created all things loves this watery, blue planet, loves all that is on this earth, and, yes, loves us—human beings created in God’s very image.
We affirm that although we have blurred that image almost beyond recognition, God came to this world, born as one of us, in human form. In the child announced by glorious angels and found by simple shepherds God becomes incarnate—taking on human flesh, human life. We announce a God who takes on the limitations of earthly, fleshy existence.
If God can embrace flawed human flesh, so too, God will embrace our flawed human lives. That, of course, is good news. All the ways that we don’t measure up, all the ways that we have failed, all the ways we have, well, sinned—God embraces them—and embraces us with a forgiving love that calls us away from past regret into the future.
God loves human and earthly things. God has come to us in human flesh that we might love our time and our world all the more. And in loving family and neighbors, in welcoming strangers, in caring for the earth, we might glimpse the eternity that carries us all.
God did not and does not leave this world alone.
God does not leave you alone.
In these days may God
renew our wonder
renew our joy
renew our hope
that we may love one another and love this blue planet, this earth, our home.