I preached this sermon at St. Lydia's the first week of Advent. The theme of the week was "Beginnings" and the text was God making the stars in the heavens: Genesis 1:1-5, 14-19.
My friend Tim is an agnostic
but he has a daily practice that I think is something akin to prayer.
Every morning over his coffee, he visits a website called
“Astronomy Picture of the Day,” which is run by NASA.
Though you wouldn’t really think it was run by NASA to look at it.
The site looks like it’s from about 1995.
Across the top it says, “Astronomy Picture of the Day,”
and then there’s a subheading that reads:
Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.
And then there’s a picture of something, somewhere in the universe,
something completely mind-boggling,
and a description.
At a weekend away with friends in October,
a few of us gathered around Tim with our morning coffee or tea
and took a look at the picture of the day.
It was a photograph of what’s quaintly called a “star nursery” —
a place where stars are being born.
This is Eagle Nebula.
It’s a huge cloud of cosmic dust
where stars form out of compressing hydrogen and helium.
These columns of dust that you see are light years long.
And the nebula itself,
though it located comparatively close to us on a neighboring arm of our galaxy,
is 7,000 light years away.
So, you know what that means, right?
It means that the moment we captured an image of this nebula,
it was already 7,000 years old.
Because that’s how long it took the light, reflected off this nebula,
to reach us.
7,000 years ago
Europeans had just figured out how to make a plow.
Mesopotamians were kind of figuring out the wheel.
And the stars we see in this photograph were being born.
Mind blown, right?
Yeah, mine too.
A close up of the Eagle Nebula
I do not work at NASA.
I would probably not like to work at NASA.
But I wonder if I did work at NASA, my sense of my place in the world,
my sense of my own problems and their proportions
might feel just a little bit…smaller.
In the arc of time, we are so very small.
And in fact, reading our passage from Genesis next to these images,
the ancient Israelites’ conception of the heavens:
the sun, the moon, and the stars,
seem sort of adorably self-centered.
Like most people, the tellers of this story place themselves and their world
right at the middle of everything.
All the heavens revolve around us!
The sun and the moon are here to give us light and allow us to see!
If only they had known what lay beyond that dome of the sky they imagined.
Tonight is the first week of Advent.
Advent is a season that’s sort of hard to explain.
We could say that it’s the season that helps us prepare for Christmas,
but somehow, that makes it too small.
Advent is not getting ready for a baby to be born in a manger,
although that is a part of Advent.
Advent is preparing for the whole cosmos to shift.
Advent is waiting for that moment when God comes and dwells among us:
moves from the infinite of time and space,
the vastness of a universe that is so large
it takes light thousands of years to cross it,
to the particularity of flesh and blood.
When God, like a star being born,
compresses herself into something as small and fragile and earthy
as you and me.
Into a Christ who breathes and weeps and bleeds.
And that act of indwelling ricochets through all creation:
forward and backwards in time.
That act changes everything about our past
and everything about our future.
Horatius Bonar, pastor of the Church in Scotland,
(and winner, by the way, of the “Best Name Award”)
wrote about Advent,
Come, and make all things new,
Build up this ruined earth;
Restore our faded paradise,
Creation’s second birth.
Advent is our chance, every year,
to start all over again.
To make a place for this Christ
who descends again and again to rescue us.
Advent is a new beginning,
but, I have always found,
beginnings always have endings hidden inside them.
Recently, I have felt a little lost in my life.
It’s not that anything is terribly wrong,
or that I feel that I’m on the wrong track, particularly.
It’s more a feeling of…suspension.
Of being suspended in something that I don’t quite understand.
There’s a sense that I’ve lost my bearings a little bit,
and my compass has gone wonky.
A lot of different directions seem like they could be good…
but then, how do I really make any choices?
Last week I was at the clergy retreat
with all the other church leaders from our Synod.
“How are you?” people kept asking me.
“How are you doing?”
I wasn’t quite sure what to say.
At one point I think I actually told someone,
“I’m not sure.”
She smiled uncertainly and moved on to talk to the next person.
Years ago, some friends and I spend a weekend camping up in Vermont,
way up in the middle of nowhere.
It was August, and we camped by a lake.
One evening my friend Michael and I went down to the lake,
him to smoke a cigarette and me to take a swim.
It was so dark —
there was no light anywhere, except for the stars hung in the sky,
reflected, almost perfectly, on the surface of the water.
I did what you do when you’re alone at a lake in the woods in the dark of night:
I took off all my clothes and waded in —
the ripples moving out around me in circles,
the water still warm after heating all day in the sun.
In the middle of the lake,
I floated on my back,
and stared up at the constellations above me.
There were SO
above me and around me,
and each star was reflected in the water.
In the darkness, it was easy to lose track of where the sky ended and the water began.
In the arms the cosmos
I was suspended in darkness,
just as I had been before I was born.
Did you know that all of us are made of stars?
Everything on earth is made of the carbon and elements that are made
when a supernova explodes.
And floating there where the sky meets the earth,
I understood that I was formed of stardust and one day would return to dust.
In the dark,
there are no directions.
And if it hadn’t have been for my friend Michael
smoking his cigarette on the shore,
it was possible to imagine that I would have been lost forever in the water
and never find my way to shore.
In the beginning,
when God created the heavens and the earth,
the earth was a formless void,
and darkness covered the face of the deep,
while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.
Beginnings mean darkness,
mean being suspended
in a place where you’re not quite sure anymore
which way is up, and which way is down.
Which way is sky and which way is water.
In the beginning, perhaps even God didn’t know what she was going to make.
But the wind swept over the face of the waters,
and that wind was from God.
You may not be sure which way is up,
and which is down.
But here is what you can trust:
that though the void may be overwhelming,
there is always wind,
and that wind is from God.
Here is what you can trust:
That the God who made a vast universe,
who hung the stars in the heavens
and set the galaxies spinning
is not only concerned with big things.
God is light years big,
but chose to compress herself until she was so very small,
that she might gestate silently
in the womb of a woman who no one would have cared to remember.
No one, that is, but God.
This is a faded paradise. That’s true.
But because of love,
the incarnate love,
of a God who draws near,
and draws us
to something more, something greater…
because of that
we are never without the chance
We share the sermon at St. Lydia's. What is beginning in you in this season? I'd love to read responses through the comments here on the blog.