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Sermon Archives

A Global Broadcast

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Mon, Dec 24

Many of you know and some will remember what happened 50 years ago this very night, on December 24, 1968. (Kids, don’t tune out yet! You might find this pretty cool!) Three astronauts – Air Force Colonel Frank Borman, Navy Captain James Lovell, Air Force Major William Anders – sent a message from Apollo 8 as it was orbiting the moon. They were the first humans ever to leave the earth’s gravitational field, the first to see the dark side of the moon, the first to enter into a lunar orbit, where they circled it 10 times. They were also the first to see the Earth from afar as a whole planet. The view was captured in that stunning “earthrise” photo that has been appearing on front pages and in newsfeeds all week. One journalist at the time called it “the most fantastic voyage of all times.”

Some of you may also remember gathering around your TV’s, watching a video broadcast from Apollo 8. At about 9:30 pm, three hours from now, the footage aired to over a billion viewers worldwide. Colonel Borman began the broadcast with an explanation of what he was observing out of his window and what viewers were seeing for the first time: the pock-marked lunar surface with all its seas and craters. He went on to describe the moon as “vast,” “lonely” and “forbidding.” “It would not appear to be a very inviting place to live or work,” he added. Captain Lovell chimed in that the “vast loneliness of the moon is awe inspiring, and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.” To conclude the broadcast, they took turns reading the opening verses of Genesis. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth...” A few years later, they were sued by a disgruntled atheist but we don’t need to get into that tonight! Before signing off, one of the astronauts made a joke about Santa Claus!

I watched this amazing broadcast online last week and would invite you to do the same, maybe even later tonight, maybe even at 9:30! What surprised and moved me almost as much as the report from Apollo 8 was what Walter Cronkite mentioned just after the astronauts ended their transmission. He said that following the broadcast, CBS’s “60 Minutes” would air a special Christmas Eve interview with Coretta Scott King, and her family, and also with Ethel Kennedy, as they each prepared to celebrate their first Christmas without their husbands. It’s hard to imagine what that juxtaposition must have been like, watching those broadcasts in immediate succession, as the tumultuousness of1968 came to an end. First, from a rocket in space that conveyed the wide-angle, celestial, transcendent vastness of the universe. Then, from a holiday decorated living room, zooming in on the intimacy of a human family, and widow’s heart and its infinite capacity for grief, love and hope! Sitting stoically, even gallantly, on her sofa, Mrs. King responded to Mike Wallace’s questions. She said it wasn’t going to be a happy Christmas, for her family, nor for many families given the struggles of the time. But, she continued, that didn’t mean that they would sit around and “bathe in grief.”  She affirmed her faith. She spoke of the Christmas spirit of giving, of “giving unselfishly” in life and death as her husband did, for therein was “hope for redemption.”

Before we circle back to our Christmas Eve readings, I want to share one more tidbit, this one again from NASA. Kids, are you still listening? Earlier this very month, December 1, 2018, NASA successfully touched down its Insight Lander— and not on the surface of the moon, mind you, which happens to be a mere three days space flight and 239,000 miles away, but on the surface of Mars, a full 6 months and 300 million miles away! And, much like that never before seen footage of the earthrise, NASA released a never before heard recording taken from the Red Planet. No astronauts on board this time, but there were recording devices, a camera to be sure, a seismometer that will record Marsquakes, and another instrument that was able to capture, get this, the sound of the wind, on Mars! Kids, have you ever heard the sound of a Martian wind? You can find it online, too! You need some good speakers or headphones to pick up the low rumbles, but there are different settings and speeds at which you can listen and so you can actually hear the wind blowing. On Mars! Listening at my computer earlier this week, I was utterly transfixed with almost childlike wonder. I set the recording to repeat, and repeat, and repeat. One of the principal investigators of the Insight Lander project said the following, “To me, the sounds are really unworldly...They do sound like the wind or maybe the ocean kind of roaring in the background. But it also has an unworldly feel to it.” Agreed!

So, here we are at Christmas Eve, hearing the quintessential ‘we’ve heard it all before’ story, amen?  But imagine, if you will, that first night! Not a few weeks ago on the Red Planet. Not 50 years ago in the lunar orbit. But over 2000 years ago in a small town on the outskirts of a desert. Imagine, then too, a never before heard sound, a never before seen light breaking the silence and darkness of a pitch-black night. So many of our stories on this most holy and silent night point to the stars and night skies, to celestial beings and heavenly bodies. What’s more, the story itself is of a great, great proclamation, a broadcast unlike any ever witnessed! It announced that God’s love touched down and was born here, right on this tiny blue marble! It announced that the immense grandeur and infinite beauty of the universe was being poured into the tiny, tender and vulnerable flesh of a human child!

There’s an ancient Jewish philosophy that holds that God created the universe and humanity because God was alone. Recall the astronaut’s experience of vast loneliness of dark side of the moon. Recall the null and void and wind-swept depths that Genesis tells us existed before creation, a vast emptiness but for maybe a low-pitched rumbling like a Martian wind. And consider that God created us, and gave us Jesus, all because God was searching for relationship, seeking out a way of embodying Love, maybe even earnestly desiring to experience those infinite expanses of grief, hope and boundless joy that only a human heart can hold!

An unworldly feel, indeed!  I imagine that’s what it felt like to see and hear it for the first time, as with Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and Magi. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” Good and otherworldly news, albeit right there in the grittiest, earthiest, most humble of mangers. Great and unworldly joy, like something new and never before seen or heard, like parents hearing the very first coo and cry of their newborn!

Do me a favor and turn to your neighbor and say: it’s a been a long year!
It’s a been a long year!

Turn to your other neighbor and say: it’s been a very long year!
It’s been a very long year!

So was 1968. Vietnam. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. But also somehow that vision of the earth rising! Like 2000 years ago, those who had lived in the darkness had seen a great light. They received a great proclamation! A global broadcast! A message rooted in unworldly wonder and in otherworldly joy that comes as a gift from God, transcendent and immanent, heavenly and earthly.

Now, do me another favor and turn to yourself! Ask not, “What do you want for Christmas this year?” Ask, “What do you need at Christmas this year?” And allow me to venture a guess of what might be on the minds of many of us.

Turn to your neighbor again and tell them, I need good news!
I need good news!

Turn to your other neighbor and tell them, I need great joy!
I need great joy!

Well, you came to the right place! Like hearing the low rumble of Martian winds, like seeing with one’s actual eyes the earth rising over the moon, what a miraculous and wondrous perspective our Christmas proclamation holds and offers! It’s all about good news and great joy and you don’t have to do a thing but to open your hearts to receive. From creation’s splendors and God’s ongoing, never-ending love comes a new birth, comes a new meaning of Joy that is given as a gift by God!

When I was on NASA’s website, a portal of scientific data and truth, I couldn’t quite believe it was real. It seemed far more like science fiction! When we’ve been reading the Bible tonight, a vessel of spiritual data and truth, we too may wonder if it’s real. We too maybe can’t quite believe the joyful tidings that are given to us this and every Christmas! A peace, love, hope and joy that the world cannot give! A message of oneness of neighbors, forgiveness of enemies, a mission of justice! The photo of that earth rising may bring tears of grief as much as of awe to us at this point, knowing how fragile this one world we share has become. Yet, Christmas, more than any other day, invites us to recall that at once wide-angle view of the universe, and at the same time, the most adorable - as in ‘come let us adore him’ - close up of the Christ child! This isn’t merely about what we believe or what we don’t. Christmas isn’t an intellectual exercise. No, Christmas is an experience – an experience of sheer wonder, and wonder, according to Rabbi Heshel, is the beginning of all true religion! An experience of wholly inspirited, profoundly embodied, full-throated, wondrous, sing-out-in-thanks-and-praise that God’s love is real in Creation, in Christ, and in that divine, candle-flickering spark within and between each of us!

Allow me to close by sharing a slightly excerpted version of the traditional Christmas Proclamation, which has been broadcast in churches, especially Catholic ones, for at least five centuries:

“Today, the twenty–fifth day of December…
unknown ages from the time when God created the heavens and the earth…
several thousand years after the flood…
twenty–one centuries from the time of Abraham and Sarah;
thirteen centuries after Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt;
eleven hundred years from the time of Ruth and the Judges;
one thousand years from the anointing of David as king;
in the sixty–fifth week according to the prophecy of Daniel;
in the one hundred and ninety–fourth Olympiad;
the seven hundred and fifty–second year from the foundation of the city of Rome;
the forty–second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus; while the whole world was at peace;
Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal…, desiring to sanctify the world by his most merciful coming, being conceived by the Holy Spirit, and nine months having passed since his conception, was born in Bethlehem of Judea of the Virgin Mary.
[This] is the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.

The Christmas Proclamation! Prepare your hearts to receive this good news even now and to rejoice in it. Hold that candle in childlike wonder of the warmth and light and power of God’s love it represents. And then get ready...at the end of the service, tonight, to sing out, to proclaim it and to repeat its sounding joy to the world! Amen.

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