A Message from Apollo 8

A year or so ago, I was sitting in a church in Kansas, listening to the Reverend David Hodges deliver a sermon about a period of time when, much like today, the world seemed to be plunged into a prolonged winter of discontent, full of chaos and discord.

I’ve been thinking about this sermon since the beginning of Advent, the liturgical season we are in now. Advent, of course, is when we await both the birth of Jesus Christ and the return of God to this world, a season of hopeful expectation of something new, something anticipated, something not yet arrived.

The same sense of anticipation that we experience in Advent is woven into the text of Genesis 1, which tells us that God creates the world by breathing ruach, or spirit, over the formless void of the universe:

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. (KJV Gen. 1:1-2)

In just these 39 words, we have an intensely compelling story, particularly when we recall that in ancient times,”the deep” represented chaos and the threat of the unknown.  The earth without form that exists prior to God’s action is a fearsome place, disordered and lacking all of the rhythms and repetitions that give our lives security and certainty. Yet within the turmoil of the formless void, there is also the promise of birth, of creation. The Reverend Rebecca Wright once described this pre-creation state as being one of suspended animation, likening it to a brooding bird that, within its motionless body, holds the quiet anticipation of a new beginning.

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In the sermon I heard in Kansas, the year was 1968, and the world must have seemed to be sliding back into the chaos of the deep. The VietNam War was raging. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been gunned down only a month after delivering a prophetic speech in which he said that upon his death, “I’d like for somebody to say… that I tried to love and serve humanity.” Robert Kennedy had been assassinated. The USSR had invaded Czechoslovakia. Student protests in France and in Mexico, at different times and for different reasons, had turned deadly. Chaos played out on the nightly news, and if there was ever a time for questioning the existence of God, 1968 was the year.

But on Christmas Eve, something extraordinary took place 118 miles above the Earth. Inside the capsule of Apollo 8, Frank Borman, the Commander, William Anders, the Lunar Module Pilot, and James Lovell Jr., the Command Module Pilot, opened up the Bible.

Looking down on the Earth far below, where virtually every corner of the globe was experiencing some form of violence and hope was in short supply, the Apollo 8 astronauts read the opening verses of Genesis, and reminded the world that we had experienced chaos before, and from this chaos, God’s Spirit had moved to create something wonderful.

I wasn’t alive when Apollo 8 became the first manned spacecraft to orbit the moon, but I’ve carried this story with me since hearing it in Kansas. It captures a moment in time when an unexpected and much-needed reminder pierced the turmoil to assure the world that God has the power to subdue chaos, calm fears, and bring order out of disarray — not only in the world, but in you and me.

As we wait in the still anticipation of the Advent season, looking forward to the arrival of Jesus Christ and the promise of God’s return, this story reminds us that no matter what discontent and discord we may be experiencing now — as individuals, as a community, as a people — the possibility of greatness is ever present, ever possible, and ever promised.

Listen to the men of Apollo 8 here and wait, this Advent season, in hopeful expectation.