Distance. Christmas 2018

Born in 1979, I grew up with the image of Planet Earth from space. I was grown up before it was pointed out to me that that image is something pretty new. Of all the humans who’ve lived and died, no one ever saw an image of the planet Earth until fifty years ago — exactly fifty years ago, December 24th, 1968.

Of course everybody’s seen parts of it. You can climb a mountain to see more of it. You can follow the International Space Station on Instagram and see big expanses of it from orbit... but it’s still a piece you’re seeing. To really see the Earth, you have to go a whole lot farther away. There’s something a little funny about it, really. Apollo 8 went to get a closer look at the moon, but maybe its greatest contribution was to give us a farther look at the Earth.

And that’s what many people talk about when they talk about the image sent home from Apollo 8 fifty years ago tonight. It awakened a new sense of smallness, of oneness. Like: that’s us, that’s all of us. That’s the whole thing. It’s a big molten rock with a hard mostly wet shell floating in the black, and we’re all there. It’s been called the most important environmental image ever taken for the same reason: maybe, from this perspective, it’s not quite as big and indestructible as we always naturally felt it was.

There only three human beings not captured in the frame were the photographers in their tiny capsule. The image that so affected others by photograph, they were seeing with their own eyes. Frank Borman said, "It was the most beautiful, heart-catching sight of my life, one that sent a torrent of nostalgia, of sheer homesickness, surging through me. It was the only thing in space that had any color to it. Everything else was either black or white. But not the Earth." Jim Lovell had similar thoughts, calling it an "oasis in the big vastness of space."

Anders, Lovell, and Borman looked upon that fragile island oasis in the void and transmitted a message home. Their broadcast on Christmas Eve was then the most-watched in history. Never had so many people been listening to any human voice. Imagine them looking across the void at the little blue marble on which lived all humanity, being the first people to address all humanity from somewhere else… and of all the things they could say to the Earth they chose this:

"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. And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. 
 "And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.
 "And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.” And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close, with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good earth."

We had to get far away to see for the first time who we are and where we live. We’re not so far. The distance is so tiny between us. We’re in this together, all of us, this human family. The story of fifty years ago tonight is a story of a new perspective, and sometimes a new perspective makes all the difference. It was so fitting that Genesis was read by these three astronauts who were the first human beings to see us all... from a perspective just a tiny bit closer to God’s.

I find that pretty profound, if you can’t tell, but it’s nothing compared to the perspective shift whose anniversary also falls tonight. Not fifty, but two thousand eighteen years ago, when the Eternal Creator God came… not a tiny bit closer, but all the way, to inhabit ours. The One Who summoned the stars into being with a word, now looks up at them through the astonished, unfocused eyes of a newborn baby.

God is all-knowing, so it doesn’t really make sense to speak of Him seeing something “new.” And yet, there is something amazing and new, here, even for God, isn't there? Call it a new way of seeing? God has visited His people, He has dwelt among us. He walked this world, our world, this small world, this good world. He came close. He didn’t want to just see us as a tiny speck floating through His vast universe; He wanted to be with us. He knows perfectly all the things you can only know from a vast and distant perspective; of course He does, He’s God. But knowing God is watching us from a distance doesn’t help when the biopsy comes back and they ask you to sit down and they close the door. A God who sees all from afar isn’t who you’re looking for when your heart is broken. A God watching from above isn’t much comfort when you’re standing by a casket over an open grave and it’s time to walk away and nothing about that is okay.

All these thoughts about perspective brought to mind a song I remember from when I was a kid. The 1991 Grammy Song of the Year was From a Distance, a recording by Bette Midler. I remember it really well, probably because I hated it. The lyrics explored how that distant perspective shows that we’re all in this together, we’re one family. But it also speaks of what you can't see from a distance: our struggles, our heartbreak. The song crescendos to this conclusion: “God is watching us… from a distance.”

That’s not wrong. It’s just not all.

Nominated for the 1996 Song of the Year was what’s left out of that picture: the question it leaves unanswered, crushingly unanswered. What if God was one of us?

Tonight is the anniversary of the answer to that question, the closing of the distance. God is one of us. And in those times when it matters most, when nothing else helps and nothing makes sense, this is God’s answer. In times like that people sometimes look for an answer from above, and sometimes we're angry and frustrated or even lose our faith when it doesn’t come. But in times like that no answer from above could help; we need something better than that.

There can only be an answer from one who descends, who walks with, who enters into this life we’re trying to figure out.

And that’s the answer we get. God, Who sees us all, entirely and eternally on our little oasis in the black, became one of us. He did what someone who loves you does when you’re trying to get through something alone: He jumped into it to go through it with us. He did what someone who loves you does when there are no words: He stood beside us. He did what someone who loves you does when you need saving: He showed up. That’s our God. His name is El Shaddai, “Most High,” but His name is also Emmanuel. Our God is God with us and we are not alone.


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