It’s particularly poignant to hear this reading from the Gospel of John during the Christmas season. Whereas, on Christmas Eve just a few days ago, Luke introduced Jesus at his birth, John introduces Jesus at the beginning of time. The other Gospels have a more linear world – first, God creates the world; he then speaks to the world through His prophets, culminating in John the Baptist; until we finally get to Jesus. But not in John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” John presents a vertical perspective – the descent of the cosmic savior. And I want to flesh this idea out a little.
Since the dawn of time, there has been a human fixation on outer space. Whether you consider it to be “the heavens” or “the void,” the cosmos holds an innate sense of wonder. Just take a drive out to the country at night and look at the stars. My nephew was camping this fall. He walked out of his tent and although no one could see him, everyone heard him cry out, “Oh wow!!” and it was obvious that he was just looking up. John Keates famously wrote, “What is there in thee, moon, that thou shalt move my heart so potently?” The final frontier invites the human heart to both marvel but also to strive. One of the earliest accounts of striving upwards is the legend of Icarus who, with his father, attempts to escape from Crete by means of wings made of feather and wax. His father warns him of hubris, warning that he not fly too close to the sun lest the heat melt them. You know how the story goes, of course: Icarus ignores his father’s instructions and, when the wax in his wings melts, he tumbles out of the sky and into the sea and drowns, sparking the idiom “don’t fly too close to the sun.” That is not the moral of my sermon.
Little has changed when it comes to our infatuation with the celestial realm. The 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 and man walking on the moon was all over the headlines this year, prompting lots of memories of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.
In 1961, the Russians were actually the first ones to put a man in space. Space at that time was still completely unknown, with all these lingering questions attached. Could it be reached? Could we survive space? But still, more existential questions: Could it be the hope of our future at a time when the world looked like a lost cause? Could we somehow shed our earthly shackles and access the divine? After the Russian cosmonaut successfully broke out of our atmosphere and into space and returned to tell the world of his findings, he said he discovered… that there was no God there. I think it’s interesting that, among all the discoveries and accomplishments that went into getting to space, they had to mention that. I think it goes to show how hungry we are to find God. The space race, you see, succeeded where Icarus’ attempt failed and still, humanity had not succeeded in accessing the divine.
Of course, you don’t need to be infatuated with space to know what I’m talking about. You spend all your resources, all your hopes and dreams on a mission, the thing you think will complete the puzzle of your life. The things for which you hope and strive – that job offer, your career, meeting your spouse, your retirement, the wellbeing of your family – while being good at least in themselves, these things will not give you direct access to God. In fact, using these things for the underlying purposes of getting access to God will likely leave you with melted wings, falling back into the sea. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with ambition or having dreams, but so often the race of human striving is a race to nowhere. And yet, striving is so embedded in our nature that we simply can’t seem help ourselves. Just look at the current space race between Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. Or just look at your own life. So where is there hope?
In response to Russia’s statement about not finding God, C.S. Lewis wrote an article called “The Seeing Eye” and in it he says this: “The Russians, I am told, report that they have not found God in outer space… Looking for God—or Heaven—by exploring space is like reading or seeing all Shakespeare’s plays in the hope that you will find Shakespeare as one of the characters or Stratford as one of the places. About the reaching, I am a far less reliable guide. This is because I never had the experience of looking for God. It was the other way round; He was the hunter and I was the deer.”
Jesus, you see, is the antithesis of Icharus, when, instead of man vainly ascending to the sun, the Son descends to man. The Creator visits His creation. Shakespeare embeds himself into his own play as a character. Later in John’s Gospel, Philip says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied” to which Jesus responds, “Philip, I have been with you all this time, and still you do not know me? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” Because of Jesus, we can see God, hear God, and know God in ways that were never before possible. We are given intimate access to God through His Son. Who hasn’t longed for that kind of connection? Wouldn’t it help to make some sense of your life, to know God? In Jesus, the puzzle of your life has been completed. If you want to know what God is like, what His interests are, what He cares about, look no further than Jesus Christ.
In fact, through Jesus, you will even find that God’s main interest – the thing He cares about more than anything – is you.
And yet, as John says, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” When God came down, it was so far from what we expected – a helpless baby instead of a cosmic savior – that we didn’t recognize Him and we received Him not. The one who descended to us, you see, was lifted up again, but he was not lifted up in glory. For the very hands that created the stars were nailed to a cross. And it was all done, so you could have access to God, not through your achievements, but through the Cross on which Jesus hung. As one of the great Christmas hymns proclaims, “His the doom, ours the mirth; when he came down to earth.” Contrary to what we expected, access to God is not through strength, but weakness. Not in your far-off hopes and dreams, but in the places in which you feel alone, scared, tired and guilty, are, in fact, the places where God finds you and where you find all of God’s mercy.
It brings to mind the Psalmist’s words, “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?” Of course, the answer to this question is found in the Gospel of John, that “God so loved the world.”
If everything I’ve mentioned has failed to connect with you, watch the episode “Moondust” of Season 3 of The Crown. I’m spoiling the script, but the drama of the episode is too powerful to spoil. And it’s a little long, but bear with me. Here’s the setting: it’s 1969 and Prince Phillip is enamored with the three astronauts of Apollo 11. To him, they represent men of action, men who are making a difference in the world. He’s glued to the television for eight straight days watching the moon landing and the trip back.
At the same time, a parish priest, Dean Robin Woods (what a name!), has asked to use an abandoned building on the grounds of Buckingham palace as a retreat center for burned out clergy. Phillip grants these priests a building to use, but the thought of these men sitting around talking about their weaknesses makes him furious. It seems pretentious and self-pitying, a far cry from the “men of action” he so admires. To the group of priests he says, “What your lot needs to do is get off your backsides, get into the world and bloody well do something! That’s why you’re all so lost!” He’s making an argument that there’s something imperative in all men to make a mark. That action is what defines us as people.
Phillip invites the astronauts to Buckingham Palace and there’s a lot of buildup because he’s completely idolized these men. When he finally meets them, he’s disappointed to find that these astronauts, while very polite, are nervous to meet him, and suffering from head colds having reentered Earth’s atmosphere. “I don’t know what I was thinking,” Phillip says later. “I expected them to be giants, gods. In reality they were just three little men, pale-faced with colds.”
He returns to Dean Woods and the collection of these priests to confess that his anger at them is misdirected frustration during a personal crisis that he’s undergoing. For a while, he’s felt like a prop, like there’s no substance in his life. He has an inability to find calm, satisfaction or fulfillment. He’s exercising compulsively, but it’s a race to nowhere. On top of that, his mother, a woman of great faith, has just died.
Phillip confesses that he’s lost his faith. “And without it,” he says, “what is there? The loneliness and emptiness and anticlimax of going all that way to the moon to find nothing but haunting desolation, ghostly silence, and gloom. That is what faithlessness is,” he says, “as opposed to finding wonder, ecstasy, the miracle of God’s creation, God’s design and purpose.” He then says, “I’m trying to say the solution to our problems is not in the ingenuity of the rocket or the science or the technology or even the bravery of the men. No, the answer is in ‘here’ (his heart) where faith resides.” In a great act of humility, Phillip says, “And so, Dean Woods, having ridiculed you, I now find myself full of respect and admiration and not a small part of desperation as I come to say “help me.” This moment of vulnerability would develop into a lifelong friendship between Dean Woods and Prince Phillip and the center for faith that the two men founded is still serving after 50 years.
I have one more illustration for you. Right before Buzz Aldrin stepped out of Apollo 11’s Eagle lunar module, overwhelmed by anticipation, he took communion. He got special permission from his church to bring up the sacraments so, during an hour-long period of downtime, he invited everyone back in Houston listening in on the system to give thanks in their own way and then he took the body and blood of Christ, knowing that it was shed not just for the world hovering outside his window, but for him. You see, Jesus did not die for the cosmos. He died for you. And through him your access to God is infinite. As the Apostle Paul writes, because of Jesus “Nothing can ever separate us from God’s love…. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Amen.