Scripture Readings: Genesis 3:8-19; 22:15-18. Isaiah 9:2-7; 11:1-9. Luke 1:26-38; 2:1-16.
On December 21, 1968, three astronauts launched from Cape Canaveral atop a Saturn V rocket. It was only the third manned Apollo mission, following the deadly Apollo 1 lauchpad fire and the successful Apollo 7 Earth-orbit flight only two months earlier. The original plans for Apollo 8 called for another Earth-orbiting mission to test the lunar and command modules, but when it became apparent that the lunar module would not be ready, a more ambitious goal was set. Apollo 8 was to boldly go where no human being had been before—into the orbit of the moon.
It had been a tumultous year, and humanity was in need of hope. The Vietnam War continued to wage abroad. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot dead in Tennessee on April 4th. In June, Robert F. Kennedy was shot and killed. Each of these events led to protests and division within our country.
Apollo 8 was tasked with orbiting the moon, but the biggest “discovery” of that journey had nothing to do with the moon. On December 24, 1968, the three astronauts had become the first humans to witness the rise of Earth from lunar orbit. Suddenly, three men saw with their own eyes, and the rest of us saw through photography, an image of earth that had previously only been known to God. The heavens and the earth were put into perspective for the first time. Humanity began to grasp the fragility of our common home and its place within the vast universe.
From their rocket ship, propelled into space by a repurposed weapon of war, these brave astronauts saw with their own eyes the entirety of humanity, with its wars and divisions, and every known living thing.
As the Apollo 8 crew commenced their television broadcast that day, Christmas Eve, viewers around the world saw a black-and-white image of that “earthrise” as William Anders, James Lovell, and Frank Borman read words that had taught about the place of humans in the cosmos for thousands of years. They broadcast what they thought to be a message for all humanity: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…”
The ancient Hebrew scribes knew far less about the earth than the scientific knowledge of the 20th century did. Along with other ancient peoples, the imagined the earth as flat, covered by a dome called sky with two great lights—one to lighten during the day, and a lesser light for the night. Yet, under the inspiration of God’s Spirit, they knew that it was God who had created all that exists. It was God who created humanity to shepherd the creatures of the earth.
The writer of Psalm 8, aparently an avid star-gazer, penned these words out of the same convictions: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”
The Apollo 8 astronauts, if they had picked up on their corresponding Psalm, surely would have said, “When I look at the earth, the work of your fingers, from miles above the moon, floating in the expanse of space in a metal tube—what are human beings you are mindful of them? How great is your love that in this vast expanse of space, you would care about humanity?”
Those astronauts, reflecting on our place in the universe and reciting the wisdom of Scripture 50 years ago today, saw the stage on which the whole narrative of Scripture had played out.
It was on this floating blue and green sphere that humanity had been created from the dust, and where Adam and Eve had hiden from God in shame, knowing that they had done the one thing God had told them not to do. It was to one man on this earth that God promised that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through him.
It was to the descendants of Abraham, deep in the darkness of geopolitical turmoil, that Isaiah declared that “the people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Isaiah experienced only a taste of the signifance of these words, but he knew that with God was peace for the world. “The wolf would live with the lamb, the leopard would lie down with the kid…and a little child shall lead them.”
This was God’s promise for the earth; that life-filled marble floating in space.
That promise endured over thousands of years, through times of war and peace, and became a promise for the whole world because of one child, born to a poor, young family from Nazareth—a village not much large than Eldersville.
In fulfillment of the promise to Abraham and the words revealed to Isaiah, an angel of the Lord came upon Mary and told her that, because she had found favor with God, she would conceive and give birth to a son named Jesus. She told the angel, “Here am I, servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word,” in blind faith and trust that God was faithful.
That son would be the “wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting father, and prince of peace” for people of every tribe, tongue, and nation that were otherwise separated by hatred, violence, and disagreement.
Because of the whims of the Emperor, the King of the Universe was born in Bethlehem among the animals and palced in a feeding troth.
At his birth, the angels once again came onto the scene—appearing to shepherds. These watchers of sheep would be the first to see the lamb of God that would take away the sins of the world.
We gather in the candlelight on this, the holiest of nights, because we know something of the significance of this story. We come here, as family would descend upon a couple as they welcome a new life into the world. We know what this birth means to us—forgiveness of sins, the presence with God among us, and eternal security in God’s loving embrace.
But as we think tonight about that voyage into space to orbit the moon 50 years ago, our perspective should broaden. This birth is not just for us. The birth of Jesus Christ in Nazareth was and is for this whole earth. Through this child, we have become part of this 4,000 year story of God’s work among humanity.
As John 3:16 tells us, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son that everyone who believes in him may not perish but would have eternal life.”
On December 24, 1968, the world was reminded God made this world and called it good, as Christians celebrated the child born for the people of this earth. Around 6 months later, as astronaut Buzz Aldrin landed on the surface of the moon in the fragile lunar module with Neil Armstrong, this promise was carried a quarter million miles from earth.
Aldrin read “I am the vine, and you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me.” And, as we will do in a few moments, he gave thanks for the gift of bread and wine and received the body of Christ broken for him and the blood of Christ shed for him. Aldrin later recalled, “at the time I could think of no better way to acknowledge the Apollo 11 experience than by giving thanks to God.”
Apollo 11 had gone to the moon on behalf of all humanity, and Aldrin commemorated that moment by remembering the one who had given his life on behalf of everyone on this fragile planet filled with life.
“For God so loved the world…” that he humbled himself and lived among us as a fragile human child. God continues to love this world, and as the spiritual attests:
“He’s got the whole world in his hands,
He’s got the whole world in his hands,
He’s got the whole world in his hands,
He’s got the whole world in his hands.”
Thanks be to God for this gift, given to us for the whole world. Let’s sing in celebration, #246 “Joy to the World.”