The call from God that has brought thousands to witness Christ

Organisers and supporters of Christmas by the Lake are praying for fine weather on Saturday after recent rain has greened up its beautiful site on the shore of Lake Moogerah, just over an hour’s drive from Brisbane in Queensland’s scenic rim holiday area.

It’s only the second year a Christmas event is being held on the site of the well-established Moogerah Passion Play, staged this Easter for the 30th year running.

The play’s founder, Kosti Simons, won an Enduring Impact in the Arts Legacy Award at the Christian Media & Arts Australia conference on the Gold Coast in September.

Penny Mulvey gives Kosti Simons his Enduring Legacy Award at the CMAA conference in September.

On Saturday, he is playing one of the three wise men in Christmas by the Lake, a nativity and carol service with plenty of children’s activities. A ticketed event, it is being held partly as a fundraiser for the Moogerah Passion Play, which is free and attracts people from a wide swath of the country.

“Being Christian, we want to spread the kingdom as far as we possibly can, and this is one way of doing it,” Kosti tells Eternity.

“We also have such a beautiful site. It was a gift from the Lord. I had to wait for it, you know. It’s funny – the Lord gives you something to do, but he doesn’t always make it easy for you after that. I think he wants to know how faithful you are. That’s the secret to receiving a commission from him.”

“The cast get just as much out of it, probably a lot more, than the audience who come to see it.” – Kosti Simons

Kosti says there is no doubt that God pre-ordained the acquisition of “this beautiful bit of real estate,” which was only a ten-minute drive from his house.

While many people have been moved to return to church after seeing the play, Kosti believes the biggest impact is on those involved.

“The play has been a great blessing to many people over many years. We don’t put quite the same amount of work into the Nativity play because there’s a narrator who sits behind the microphone and speaks while people go through the motions.

“For the Moogerah Passion play, they have to rehearse for about six weeks. That’s quite a sacrifice. But I’ve always maintained that the play is there just as much for the cast. They get just as much out of it, probably a lot more than the audience who come to see it.

Kosti Simons as a wise man in Christmas by the Lake 2023

Kosti Simons, centre, is one of the three wise men in Christmas by the Lake 2023.

‘In the time that we’ve existed as a play, we’ve had five or six Christ figures. And the impact on each of these men has been really quite astounding. It’s an unforgettable experience when you take on the persona of Christ.”

Ray Whelan, who was the first to play Jesus 30 years ago, said he was scared stiff when asked to play the part. “It was very daunting but what an experience,” he said.

After being dramatically converted at Lourdes, Kosti walked barefoot from Paris to Santiago de Compostela in Spain in 1982. What he calls the most beautiful experience of his life took him 111 days, and he wrote a book about it afterwards called Footloose.

“I heard an interior voice say to me very clearly…” – Kosti Simons

Kosti and Carroll then lived happily in Spain for over a decade, and had no intention of returning to Australia until a call from God intervened.

“My eldest daughter had her first baby and our first grandchild. She was living in Ipswich at the time. So, of course, we had to return to see this wonderful creature that had suddenly come into the world. While I was here, I was praying one evening in the park, and I heard an interior voice say to me very clearly, and said it twice, ‘You must return to Australia.’ I knew what it was about. It was about the writing of a passion play, which I had been wanting to do for quite some time, and it was a wonderful feeling that I had when that voice came,” Kosti recalls.

“I looked up and dead ahead of me there was a star very low in the sky. I subsequently knew this star was Venus. And behind me was a full moon, which had come up. So the juxtaposition was extraordinary. In my heart, I knew I had to go to that star. And it was pointing in the direction of Boonah, so I knew that was where we had to be.”

Andrew Irving as the Christ in this year’s Moogerah Passion Play.

On his return to Spain, Kosti wrote the passion play in about three weeks, then immediately returned to Australia. He drove out from Ipswich towards the country town of Boonah with his daughter, looking for a suitable site for the passion play, which took three years to find – “but it was worth the wait.”

“We had friends from Norway staying with us, and I said to my friend Otto, ‘Let’s go down to the Caravan Park and have a cup of tea down there.’ When we got there, I pointed out a barbed wire fence, and I said to Otto, ‘The only place that I haven’t been around Lake Moogerah to look for a site for the passion play is through that barbed wire fence. Can we go and have a look?’

“So, that’s what we did. We crawled through the fence and we walked over the land. And it was absolutely magnificent. Everything that I wanted was right there. First of all, it had to be near power because it’s very expensive to carry power across country. It needed to be near a tarmac road because I didn’t want audiences driving 50km down a dirt road. The third one was that it needed a gully because I had written some scenes for a fishing boat. I needed the gully so we could have the stage on one side of the gully and the auditorium on the other.

“Another prerequisite was I wanted people to be able to look beyond the site and not see pylons or cars or buildings. In other words, I wanted people to be able to look beyond the stage and imagine themselves in the Holy Land 2,000 years ago. Finally, the orientation had to be right because we start at 5 o’clock and go into darkness, and I didn’t want the audience to be looking directly into a westerly sun.”

There were a few obstacles; first and foremost, Kosti had spent all his money building his house, and, second, he had no idea who owned the property.

“But I had met with the mayor at that time in Boonah. His name was Jim Pennell – a beautiful man. And he knew what I was after. So, I spoke to Jim and explained that I’d found the perfect site, but I didn’t have any money to buy it. He asked me a few questions and said, Oh, well, look, I’ll see you there on Sunday afternoon.’ So, he came over on Sunday afternoon, and we walked over the land. At a certain moment, Jim said, ‘Look, this land is zoned for recreation. There are two-and-a-half hectares here. And we might be able to do something for you.’ And Jim did; we got the land. That was the start of the Moogerah Passion play in 1993. And I don’t think we’ve looked back since then.”

Scene at the Moogerah Dam

However, God never gives an easy ride, and putting the passion play on every year has never been straightforward. Finding the right people to be involved is tricky, and maintaining the two-and-a-half-hectare site is always a stretch.

About the middle of this year, a council inspection of the site deemed that the acting shed – built by volunteers 30 years earlier – wasn’t safe to use. Other items on the site also needed to be fixed and maintained.

“That was a bit of a hit in the guts,” says Gwen Behrendorff, the media manager for the Moogerah Passion Play and Christmas by the Lake.

“But we were able to raise a bit of money, and we had a bit of savings, so we’ve demolished it. It looks a little bit naked without our acting shed and it’s a bit emotional to see it go. But Praise God that we now have that space to utilise and it’s just a matter of getting those funds that we need to build a new one,” she tells Eternity.

“So the plan and the hope is to use this Christmas event as a big fundraiser. All the funds from Christmas will be put towards getting that acting shed and fixing those facilities.”

Gwen, the marketing manager for Vision Christian Media, grew up around the Passion Play and first acted in it at the age of seven.

“My dad and my grandpa were there in the beginning. Kosti had a pretty big community around him, and Kosti knew my dad and pa from the church, so they were part of that community of 20 or 30 individuals who came and did a lot of the groundwork.”

Gwen says they are hoping for a crowd of about 400-500 on a site with a maximum capacity of 1500.

“We still have a lot of room to go. A lot of people will probably purchase on the day when they walk in. That’s what we found last year. This is our second year running it, so it’s new and fresh. The Easter play is something unique, whereas everyone does a Christmas event, so people might think, why do I need to go there? But we’ve got beautiful views, so why wouldn’t you want to go? It’s a great family day out.”

You can buy tickets for Christmas by the Lake on 25 November here, or at the gates, which open at 4pm.