God with us

On July 20, 1969, fifty years ago this past summer, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the Apollo Lunar Module  “The Eagle” on the moon.  Today we recall with nostalgia and awe the courage and heroism of Armstrong’s and Aldrin’s accomplishment.  They were space cowboys; they were the cosmic Lewis and Clark.  But for a moment, imagine how isolated and lonely their experience must have been.  They were, more than virtually any two people had been or have been in the history of humanity, alone.  The two men were sixty miles below Michael Collins and the lunar orbiter, which was their only way home.  And they were 238,900 miles from the blue-green marble of earth.  They had no way of knowing whether the Eagle’s rocket boosters would successfully escape the lunar surface and return them to the orbiter.  Everything around them was desolate.  Nothing lived.  All was dark.  Can you imagine the claustrophobia?  Can you imagine the creeping, persistent impulse to panic?  Can you imagine feeling so alone?  How would you react?  How would you respond?

Image result for the eagle on the moon

Before stepping out of the Eagle and onto the moon’s surface for the first time, Buzz Aldrin did something remarkable.[i]  He radioed back to NASA these words, “I would like to request a few moments of silence…and to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours, and to give thanks in his or her own way.”

No one on earth except for Deke Slayton at Mission Control knew what Aldrin did next.  High above us and three days away, on the cold and barren moon, Buzz Aldrin unpacked a small chalice, a wafer of bread, and a vial of wine that had been blessed in advance by his home church in Houston, and he administered Communion to himself.  In his book Magnificent Desolation, Aldrin says, “In the one-sixth gravity of the moon the wine curled slowly and gracefully up the side of the cup.  It was interesting to think that the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the first food eaten there, were communion elements.”

Why would he do such a thing? In the most isolated place humanity has ever dared to go, on the dark and desolate surface of the moon, Aldrin needed the assurance that he and Neil Armstrong were not, after all, alone.  Aldrin needed to know that even there, on that crater-ravaged and brutal place, God was with them.

That is, after all is said and done, what tonight is all about: The Incarnation.  It comes from the same root as carnivorous and carnal.  It has to do with the body and embodiedness.  Tonight, as the babe is born in the dark, dusty, and dangerous stable, it means that God is born into our embodied world, that God is with us.

Since the dawn of humanity until our present day, people have wanted God to be for them.  In war, in politics, to prop up our beliefs both petty and grand, we all want God to be for us.  We want God to be on our side.  But the whole sweep and trajectory of Holy Scripture is about God’s insistence, and the people of God’s slow learning, that God is not for us, but with us.  And that is infinitely more important.

When the Israelites escape Pharaoh only to find themselves lost and alone in a bleak wilderness, God appears with them as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.[ii]

When the king of Babylon stokes the furnace, binds Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and throws them into the fire, the king’s advisor looks into the furnace and says, in wonder, “I see four men there, unbound, walking in the middle of the fire, and they are not hurt.  The fourth has the appearance of God!”[iii]

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When the shepherds are out in the fields at night, gripping their staffs and straining their eyes in the darkness to fend off wolves from the flock, the heavens open and the angel of the Lord appears and sings, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people: for unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”[iv]

Again and again in Scripture—again and again in life, from the earth to the moon—at the moments when we are the most isolated, the most lonely, and the most afraid, God appears and says, “Do not fear, for I am with you.”

Indeed, the greatest human dilemma is not mortality but isolation, and salvation itself is not ultimately about where we go when we die, but with whom we travel while we live.  It is not about escaping the darkness, or the wilderness, or the fire; it is the saving grace of knowing that when we encounter any of these God encounters them with us.  It is about, as that most unexpected of messengers Buzz Aldrin understood, communion with God.

Tomorrow we will read from the prologue to John’s Gospel, where we are told that, from the very beginning, “the Word was with God and was God…[and that] all things came into being through him.”[v]  In other words, even if there had been no Fall—even if Adam and Eve had never eaten of the proverbial fruit and redemption wasn’t necessary—there would still have been an Incarnation.  Christ would still have been born.  The Incarnation, Sam Wells says, is the very reason for creation, and in all of scripture the word “with” is the most important word.  “God with us” is the very heart of the Gospel.[vi]

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On this holy night, the Incarnation reaches its fullest expression, as the God through whom all things were made enters flesh and is born among us.  In his life he will himself experience darkness, and wilderness, and fire, and on the cross he will encounter the only isolation and loneliness in human history that exceeds the barren surface of the moon.  All so that we never need fear, that we are never alone, that we know God travels with us.

I don’t know what darkness you bring with you this evening.  I don’t know the wilderness through which you travel or the fire that you face.  But I do know that this night—this very hour—Christ is born; that in a few moments we will, like Buzz Aldrin two hundred thousand miles away, take Christ into ourselves; that the Incarnate God is with you, from the beginning, on this holy night, and always.  For that, thanks be to God.  Merry Christmas.


[i] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2012/sep/13/buzz-aldrin-communion-moon

[ii] Exodus 13:21

[iii] Daniel 3:25

[iv] Luke 2:10-11

[v] John 1:1-3

[vi] Author’s lecture notes from a presentation by the Rev. Dr. Sam Wells at Trinity Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas September 17, 2016.

What are you waiting on? (And how will you wait?)

Though I feel sure it will shock and surprise many of you, despite my innate refinement, I was not born or raised in an urbane place like Houston.  I am from the northern tip of the Arkansas delta, a rural place marked mostly by agriculture, and even more so in the 1970s and 80s than today.  In high school, I served as the courier for my father’s small town law practice, and among my daily rounds I always spent time transacting business for the firm at Security Bank in Paragould.  Security Bank provided loans to farmers, of course, and one late spring afternoon I found myself waiting in the lobby across from a farmer with whose family my family went to church.  The farmer knew me, and I was the other person in the lobby for him to talk to, so he began to tell me about his crop.  I don’t recall whether there’d been too much rain or not enough, or whether we’d had one of our periodic droughts or a late spring frost.  All I remember is that disaster loomed.  The farmer’s crop, he said, was about to fail even before it had started to grow.  Even so, the farmer was not on the edge of despair or panic.  I got the sense that he had been in this very situation before, and perhaps often.  He had about him a centeredness and a calm.  And yet, paradoxically, he also quivered like a coiled spring.  The farmer said to me that, if the bank would partner with him, he could replant soybeans and still make a crop.  And clearly he was ready to do so at whatever moment grace was extended.  He waited, but his waiting was an expectant, energetic one, ready to cooperate with his fellow man, the elements, and (knowing he was a churchman) his God to midwife the fruit of the earth for another season.

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I got the sense that he had been in this very situation before, and perhaps often.

And so, here we are in the middle of Advent, that season of waiting.  It behooves us to ask three questions, I think: 1.) In what kind of world do we wait, 2.) upon what are we waiting, and 3.) what should the character of our waiting be?

To the first question, the evidence with which the world outside these walls bombards us these days includes 24/7 Christmas tunes on the radio; television commercials of surprise gifts (preferably expensive cars with gigantic red bows); Hallmark movies; and Precious Moments, doe-eyed nativity scenes, all designed to put artificial Cheshire cat grins on our faces.  But we know deep down, if we are willing to admit it, that these are Potemkin villages of Christmas cheer.  They are a thin façade that masks that world as we know it.  It is a world writ large, like the world of that Paragould farmer thirty years ago, in which disaster looms, and the season of Advent bravely acknowledges that.  Tish Harrison Warren offers, “To practice Advent is to lean into an almost cosmic ache: our deep, wordless desire for things to be made right and the incompleteness we find in the meantime. We dwell in a world still racked with conflict, violence, suffering, darkness. Advent holds space for our grief, and it reminds us that all of us, in one way or another, are not only wounded by the evil in the world but are also wielders of it, contributing our own moments of unkindness or impatience or selfishness… The believer and atheist alike can agree that there is an undeniable brokenness to the world, a sickness that needs remedy. Whether we assign blame to human sinfulness, a political party, corporate greed, ignorance, tribalism or nationalism (or some of each), we can admit that things are not as they should be — or at least, not as we wish they were.”[i]

If that is the world in which we wait during Advent, then what are we waiting for?  Yes, the babe in the manger, but is the purpose of the nativity really a gauzy, eggnog-laden warmth?  No, not ultimately.  Both the remembrance of the first Advent and the anticipation of the second, when Jesus will return (we believe in hope) to make all things new[ii] mean that light will ultimately shine in every darkness: In the world’s darkness, and in the darkness that sometimes encroaches in your own heart and in mine.  And that light will not be a candle’s flicker in the night.  It will be a quasar, a light that both blinds us and grants us new sight.  It will be a light that redeems all that is wounded and broken in this world, both the things done to us and the things we have done.  That’s not sweet nostalgia; that’s world-transforming, shadow-fleeing, light up the heavens powerThat’s what we’re waiting for.  (Isn’t that what you are waiting for, even if you’ve rarely acknowledge it?)

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And so then, how should we wait?  Do we retreat into our bunkers in the midst of threat and pain?  Do we resign ourselves to the meantime, and sit numbly by while hoping for the coming of the Lord?  Do we give in to the darkness and allow it to roam our hearts, causing us to further contribute to the world’s pain with our own words and actions?

St. James today gives us the image of the farmer, who knows from long years the vicissitudes of the field.  The farmer is patient, because he knows first hand the contingencies he faces.  At any moment, there may be disaster.  But his patience is not fatalistic or resigned.  He is never complacent.  Rather, the farmer quivers to act, always ready to plow, always ready to sow at the first glimmer of sunlight or first drop of life-giving rain.  The farmer’s waiting is expectant, ready at every moment to spring into action, cooperate with God’s grace, and contribute to a fruitful crop.

Jesus himself today tells us what this kind of Advent waiting looks like for the rest of us.  John the Baptist’s disciples come to Jesus and ask, in essence, “How should we wait?”  And Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

In the meantime between the first and second Advent, as we who are the Body of Christ get ready to celebrate once again the birth of the Christ child in the manger and in our own hearts, and as we await the coming again of Christ in glory, we are to wait upon Jesus in exactly this way.  Our waiting is an expectant one, an active one, a cooperative one, a waiting that quivers like a coiled spring, ready to respond to grace whenever we see it: to ourselves do no less in a darkened world than be the nascent light—the candle in the darkness—that gives sight to the blind, voice to the voiceless, and good news to all those for whom the news of late has been disaster.  That is who we are to be; that is how we are to wait.


Copper the beagle puppy

Some of you know that in the Thompson household we have a new beagle puppy.  If you’ve ever wished to see incarnate joy in the world, get a beagle puppy.  There is nothing better.  When I come home and she sees me, either from her crate or at the top of the stairs, her waiting upon my approach is profound.  She, too, quivers like a coiled spring.  She waits upon my step or my word, ready to give actuality to the potential energy coursing through her little hound dog body.  And when I take that step or say that word, the release of joy in her almost knocks me down.

That, too, is not a bad parable for Advent.  In place of our culture’s superficial Christmas cheer that seeks to anesthetize us to the world’s pain, our waiting—our quivering Advent waiting—is to be that of a deep joy that doesn’t deny pain and sorrow but knows that they do not have the final word.  It is a waiting that plows the ground, that plants the seed, that trusts in God’s good grace, and that prepares the world for the day when Christ will come in light and power and joy will be complete.

What are you waiting on, and how will you wait?


[i] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/30/opinion/sunday/christmas-season-advent-celebration.html

[ii] Revelation 21:5