Christmas Eve, 2011
There is something undeniably palpable about Christmas Eve night.
You can just tell, you can just sense that ... it is different from other nights.
You first notice it at about 4:00 in the afternoon, as the Sun begins to set. Winter light has a special and discernible quality to it at the end of the day. Long shadows spread out across the landscape,and the last rays of the sun’s departing light are seen now only as they make the tops of the trees to glow.
Even in Augusta,the temperature begins to drop noticeably,as winter air, deprived of the warming sun, quickly cools and the sky darkens. The first stars begin to appear, poking holes in the darkness as one poet has written; and soon the sky is filled with a seemingly uncountable number of stars.
The nearest star to us, is Alpha Centauri, which is actually three stars that appear as one to the unaided eye. It is 4.37 light years away from the sun. A light year, I’m sure you will remember, is roughly about 6 trillion miles. So, it would take the space shuttle, which orbits the earth at 18,000 mph, 37,200 years to travel one light year.
I love looking at the night sky and like the carol from the Appalachian mountains . . . I wonder as I wander out under the sky -- wondering what it was like for those shepherds out in the fields, keeping their watch a sweeping horizon spread before them, a huge dark blue canopy overhead filled with stars, maybe a bright moon, light from their small campfires dotting the hillsides ... smoke curling, wafting skyward, with a stillness and quiet one can hear.
On any December night, you can imagine that night, 2000 years ago by our counting, perhaps two days ago by God’s, and if you pause for a moment, you can almost hear the angels sing . . . Glory to God! Glory to God! Glory to God in the highest!
It is easy enough to see how the psalmist, or anyone for that matter, might look up at the heavens and write: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what is man that you are mindful of him, mortals that you care for them?”
The universe is so astronomically huge and time so, well, long . . . infinity so incomprehensible . . . as to be simply unbelievable. It bedazzles the mind. Just trying to comprehend it makes your head hurt.
Now, there is nothing that is as readily accessible to every person as the night sky, and nothing, other than perhaps the vastness of the open sea, that so puts one in mind of the smallness, the nothingness, of human beings.
How could we possibly matter in a universe that is so astoundingly large ... or so old? Yes, the scope and complexity of the universe challenge the meaningfulness of our lives, as they mock our imagined sense of importance.
Look at the night sky and you will inevitably, at some time, wonder who you are ... wonder what is the point of all this? and wonder is there a god out there?
And just as soon as the sheer size of the cosmos overwhelms us and convicts us of our smallness, almost simultaneously, it also reveals an intelligence, a creativity, a purposefulness and an attention to detail and integrity that is equally startling.
Science has revealed to us a number of unique, unlikely, exceptions to the norm, odds astronomically against them happening, sorts of things ... without which you or I, or anyone else would not be here tonight, or ever. They are the unique circumstances that make life possible on our planet . . . like the rotational speed of the earth, or the 23̊ tilt of the earth on its axis, or the amount of water in the oceans,
Now take something close at hand, like the moon, for example. We would not be here if it were not for our moon. Roughly 25% the size of our planet, we are the only planet in our solar system with a moon big enough in relation to the earth to positively affect our planet. Why is that? How did that happen?
If we did not have a moon the size of our own, the earth would loose that little 23̊ tilt it steadily maintains as it orbits the sun at 67,062 mph.
Mars, without a lucky moon like ours, wobbles anywhere from 0̊ - 90̊ on its axis. Because of this, the Martian polar ice cap moves all over the place. Without the stability that the moon provides, the earth would wobble and even tumble, playing havoc with our climate. The earth could begin to careen around the inner solar system like a drunken sailor.
Just a 1̊ alteration in the tilt of the earth a long, long time ago changed what we know today as the Sahara Desert from lushness to desert, and set off a mass migration of people.
Without the moon, our planet would turn much faster on its axis, so that our days would only be 6 hours long, making our planet much too cold for us.
The moon is a big player in the set of unique circumstances that allow life to exist on, as far as we know, our planet alone, in all the universe.
So, where did our moon come from? At the height of the Apollo moon missions, it was realized that the prevailing theories about the origins of the moon did not work, that the math and evidence would not support these theories. As a result, one astronomer asked: Why are we going to the moon? It should not be there. But it is. Why? A mere accident or something else?
The accepted theory today is that, early in the earth’s development, it was struck by something the size of Mars, which came hurtling through the solar system, colliding in a glancing blow with the earth, gouging out a chunk of earth debris that became our Goldilocks moon . . . not too big, not too small, but just right!
And, by the way, the moon is leaving us . . . moving out of its earth orbit at the rate of about 1.5 inches per year. In some couple of hundred thousand years
it will leave earth’s orbit. I don’t think I’ll be here to see that.
Well, in response to the questions we’ve been raising here tonight – like the questions of meaning, purpose and identity that come from looking at the night sky –or the questions that science raises as it reveals the unique, exceptional, unlikely facts, without which there would not be life on our planet, well, in response to all these questions and more, the astounding claim Christians offer is that there is a God who does indeed care about us. Deeply. He has made each of us on purpose and for a purpose. We matter to him and the clearest, most definitive expression of this claim that God cares is that God himself, the Creator of the unbelievable universe,
would unbelievably come among us,literally pitch his tent with us, by becoming one of us in Jesus Christ.
The child born in Bethlehem is conceived as a result of God’s own initiative, God’s own agency. Nothing else, save the help of a young Jewish woman who responded to God,“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your Word”; nothing else, made him to be flesh and blood, only the love and will of God made it so.
Now, if you believe God created this universe in its great expanse with its mind-boggling exceptions . . . with all of the unlikely factors necessary for you and me to be here tonight, and even though they scientifically established facts, they are nonetheless unbelievable!!;
If you believe God started it all, then is it really all that great a stretch to believe that the same God entered into time, space, history in a unique, unbelievable event known as the Incarnation or simply as the birth of Jesus?
It is a birth that expresses God’s steadfast love and intent to redeem, restore, and set right, all that is amiss. To do for a lost and confused humanity what it is incapable of doing for itself, mainly and namely saving us from the disastrous, cumulative consequences of our collective human failures.
Madeline L’Engle writes of this night that the transcendent, beyond our comprehension, Creator of the Universe is “cribbed, cabined, and confined within the contours of an infant.” As this child, God takes upon himself our humanity and all our human situations in order to redeem them, to bring meaning, purpose, and hope to us and to our lives through his own transforming and self-giving, sacrificial love.
Martin Luther referred to it as the Great Exchange. He wrote “Lord Jesus, you are my righteousness, I am your sin. You took on you what was mine; you set on me what was yours. You became what you were not, that I might become what I was not.” and this is, what we know, what we call, the Gospel -- the Good News of God in Jesus Christ for all people.
Is there any better time than tonight to greet the One born for you ... to welcome and invite him into your life, not only as your constant companion and good friend,
but as Lord of your life?
That is to say, as the One on whom you constantly think, as the One whose own example you attempt to initiate, as the One whose mind you strive to know, and as the One to whom you give your own life in response to the giving of his own life for you?
Is there any better time than tonight to take that leap . . . this leap of faith, to believe and trust in God? It is a big step but not so great, or so unreasonable, or as intellectually untenable as many would have us think. A missionary martyred in Ecuador before his death put it just a bit differently as he wrote in his journal: “It is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”
The universe is filled, filled with so many unbelievable, incomprehensible things. The several factors which allow us to exist on this planet are themselves unique, exceptions to the norm and beg for explanation and in that way they hint at the unique and exceptional way that God will answer all the questions that really matter by making himself known to us in Jesus Christ:
God from God
Light from Light
True God from true God
Begotten, not made
Of one Being with the Father
And we have seen his glory, glory as of the One and Only who came from the Father full of grace and truth.
Thanks be to God. Amen.