It is Christmas Eve, 1968.
It has been a year of unprecedented pain for our world.
One of the worst years in the bloody Vietnam War – an unrelenting mess of violence, chaos and death.
It is also the year that North Korea captured the USS Pueblo, an unarmed US Navy intelligence vessel, in international waters. Kim II Sung’s underhanded guerrilla tactics risked plunging the Korean peninsula into another war, and the world held its breath in fear of a nuclear bombing.
And tragically, 1968 was the same year that the world mourned the assassination of the great civil rights activist and Baptist preacher Martin Luther King – shot dead outside Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. His murder led to a nationwide wave of race riots – and the chaos continued with the death of Robert Kennedy, gunned down just a few months later.
But as the year reaches its end and a weary world sits anxious, alone and afraid, there is one ray of light.
Bill Anders, Jim Lovell and Frank Bormon are aboard Apollo 8.
Apollo 8 is NASA’s first spaceship to break through the earth’s gravitational pull and sail across the dark waters of deep space. Thousands have given their time and some have even lost their lives in pursuit of a dream that many said could never be done.
But after traveling at speeds of over 38,000 kilometres per hour, Apollo 8 accomplishes the unimaginable, flying into space and within reach of the moon.
Remarkably, on Christmas Eve the three astronauts do something unexpected. As Apollo 8 orbits the lunar surface they turn their cameras on and broadcast live images to earth from the heavens above.
In that moment, over one billion people – then the largest television audience – huddle around TV sets in bars, shops and homes.
Men, women and children from Australia, the United States, China, Malaysia, France, the United Kingdom, together in their Christmas pyjamas with their eyes wide open witnessing something they’d never seen before.
And it is here, with the world watching in eager anticipation, that these three astronauts do something that takes everyone by surprise.
Opening the Bible, they each take turns to read from the book of Genesis.
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light: and there was light.’”
It was in this moment, Christmas Eve 1968, that we saw our world in a whole new way.
Together, for the first time in a long time, our eyes were lifted from the present challenges. We experienced the thrill of transcendence and were reminded that we are all part of something far greater than ourselves.
As we approach Christmas in 2021, we find ourselves united with our past and once more immersed in a sea of anxiety and despair.
Our world is still reeling amidst a global pandemic that has plunged us into a vicious spiral of chaos and confusion. Race riots, political division and war-torn countries have spotted news headlines, all against a backdrop of a year in which we have lost five million people to COVID.
Here, in my hometown of Melbourne (the most locked-down city in the world), we’ve seen hard-working Australians lose their jobs, churches and local businesses have closed their doors and our great city has been trampled by protests. Hailed the most liveable city in the world, we are now fractured and sick.
And yet this Christmas we too are not without hope. As the great author Victor Hugo once said, “Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.”
This Christmas, as we come out from lockdown and dust off our Christmas trees, set your eyes on Jesus.
As we “deck the halls with boughs of holly” we can thank God for the success of the vaccine which has prevented death and offered us a way out of the mess. We can sleep a little easier knowing that with the easing of restrictions we can begin to reunite with friends and family we dearly miss. And, for the body of Christ, we can rejoice, for the long-awaited return to physical gatherings. While some restrictions remain and there is unease about the longevity of a two-tiered vaccine passport economy, I praise God that we can once more see each other “mask to mask.”
But, as good as these gifts are, we – as God’s people – know that our ultimate hope comes not from the promise of earthly freedom or even the prospect of in-person gatherings.
Our hope is found in Christ alone.
At Christmas we set our eyes on the one “who is the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). The one in whom “all things were created, in heaven and on earth” (Col 1:16). The one who is “the head of the body, the church” and is “reconciling all things to himself” (Col. 1:18, 20).
In stepping onto the stage of human history, Jesus comes close and lifts our eyes to something far greater than ourselves. In entering this world, Jesus not only embraces our chaos and suffering, but drives a dagger into the heart of the serpent and pushes back the darkness with his light.
Recently, I was talking with my youngest daughter about COVID-19. She’s five and so half of her life has been marked by playground closures, social distancing and headlines of sickness and death. Cuddling on the couch, I asked her: “Lilly, do you think the coronavirus will ever go away?”
To which she replied in emphatic fashion, “No.”
“How come?” I asked with a smile.
“Because of sin!”
I said to her: “What do you mean? What does sin have to do with COVID-19?”
To which she rolled her eyes and said: “Dad! You should know this …”
And indeed, I should. Because, while the origins of this pandemic are somewhat of a mystery, we know there is no conspiracy when it comes to who is ultimately responsible for all division, disease and death.
In sin, our first parents swallowed a lie and plunged themselves (and God’s creation) into a sea of chaos and mess.
Author Don Carson, says,
“If God had perceived that our greatest need was economic, he would have sent an economist. If he had perceived that our greatest need was entertainment, he would have sent us a comedian or an artist. If God had perceived that our greatest need was political stability, he would have sent us a politician. If he had perceived that our greatest need was health, he would have sent us a doctor. But he perceived that our greatest need involved our sin, our alienation from him, our profound rebellion, our death; and he sent us a Savior.”
This Christmas we celebrate God’s great rescue.
Just as God spoke light into the formless void of this world at the beginning of creation, so the world sits in silence at the light of Christ.
He has lived a life we could not live – a life without sin – and he has died the death we should have died – the death for sin. In rising to new life, this same Jesus has secured victory over death and sealed his promise “to make all things new” (Rev 21).
This Christmas, as we come out from lockdown and dust off our Christmas trees, set your eyes on Jesus. Let the King of all glory carry your burdens and wipe your tears. Invite the suffering servant to heal your wounds and the great I AM draw you close. And let him, who was there when the stars and the moon were flung into the sky, lift your eyes to the glory of his kingdom that reigns now and forevermore.
Jesus is not only true news, but good news of great joy for all people.