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The James Webb Telescope and the Audacity of the Incarnation

Updated: Dec 20, 2022

If you only have 12 days to celebrate the incarnation, the James Webb Telescope is a good place to start. My son Joel came downstairs yesterday at 8 AM in the morning, exclaiming,

“I just got the best Christmas present!”

He just witnessed the successful launch of the James Webb telescope online. The James Webb telescope is the successor to the Hubble telescope, and it’s designed to peer into the farthest reaches of outer space. I watched as Joel showed me the recap of this launch which had been decades in the making. He narrated the engineering feats that led to the lift off and the disengagement of the first and second stages of rocket. He pointed out how the cone over the actual satellite peeled off once the rocket was beyond the atmosphere, and talked about the gravitationally neutral place where the satellite would come to rest as it whizzed around in space taking pictures of galaxies so distant that to look at them is to go back in time to 200 million years after the Big Bang.

I watched in amazement as the engineers in the control room in French Guyana monitored the rocket’s progress at each stage of launch after so many years of dreaming, and found myself crying when they cheered as the final stages were accomplished. A Christmas present, indeed.

The launch brought me back to the words he heard on Christmas Eve, from the Gospel of John:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John situates the birth of Jesus at the very beginnings of the universe. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth.” As the James Webb telescope looks out into space, it is essentially looking back to the dawn of time. It reminded me of the audacity of the incarnation—that a tiny baby has implications for the entire cosmos.

The gospel of Luke that we heard on Christmas Eve situates the birth of Jesus in the political realm.

Luke says that Jesus’ birth happened in the year of Quirinius made the census, when all Jews had to return to their ancestral hometown‘s to be registered so that they could be appropriately taxed by the Roman government. I googled Quirinius to find out more about him – he was appointed governor of Syria, which at the time, like Judea, was under Roman rule. Quirinius had been tasked with carrying out the census in both Syria and Judea. Quirinius must’ve been a big deal of the time; he was one of Rome’s regional representatives. But my Google search turned up only a few references from history.

It leads me to think once again about the unlikely nature of the story of the birth of Jesus, who was born to peasants from a backwater town in a forgotten area of the Roman empire. It is Jesus’ name that is remembered throughout history—not the big deals of his day. He is the one history remembers because despite his humble beginnings and violent end, he is the one that changed the course of history.

Against this cosmic and geopolitical backdrop, Luke tells a very simple story, on a personal scale.

Today’s gospel tells the story common to anyone who’s had a 12-year-old boy living in their house:

12-year-old boys seem to know everything. I remember my own brother at this age, spouting facts and figures and sometimes filling in the gaps when he actually didn’t know the material but surmised what must be the correct answer. There was an educational kids’ show on television at the time called Wombat that we watched. One day my dad confronted my brother about some presumed fabricated detail that my brother was trying to pass off as fact, when my brother blurted out in self-defense:

“I didn’t make it up -- I heard it on Wombat!” It was so ludicrous that the saying stuck, and anytime someone in our family wanted to defend their information, we’d say, “I heard it on Wombat!”

Jesus as a 12-year-old boy surely had a lot of knowledge. But he met his match when he was brought to the temple in Jerusalem for the Passover. Jesus would have celebrated his Bar Mitzvah by this point, and was old enough to sit at the rabbi’s feet and discuss theology with them. His attention was rapt. He was so absorbed in the Scriptures and the discussion that he completely lost sense of time.

The caravan of travelers including his parents began to head back home. With so many other friends and relatives, Mary and Joseph did not notice that Jesus was not with them. And again it is such a common story—because in the days before cell phones, we had to arrange meeting places with our children should we get separated. And there were always those harrowing moments when the child did not show up at the appointed time and we parents were led to wonder, did something happen?

Jesus answers his parents understandable concern with the now famous quip, “Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Jesus was probably alluding to his special relationship with God the Father, but to my ears, it sounds a little like, “I heard it on Wombat!”

Luke’s narrative in his first two chapters of the Gospel incorporates stories that have happened over and over again in families around the globe -- women giving birth, old people celebrating, interactions between parents and children. And so for me the story of Christ’s incarnation is not just a one-time event when God entered human flesh and lived among us in Jesus. It is also the miraculous way that God continues to show up the ordinary lives of ordinary people.

We believe in the preposterous notion that one tiny baby made a difference for the whole universe, and that God cares about each individual human life, and, in fact, all life. The incarnation is as miraculous as a telescope a million miles from the earth taking satellite pictures and sending us back images from the Big Bang. It is as miraculous as holding a newborn infant in one’s arms. It is as miraculous as a boy child thinking he’s a man, his parents ready to tear their hair out with worry, and their relief when he shows up safe and sound. Jesus came for all of this, and also for the time when he would not return to his mother safe and sound.

If you only have 12 days to celebrate the incarnation, this is a good place to start: your every day life.

Jesus is present, lifting up the common and the extraordinary as part of God’s plan. Celebrate that Christ is in your life, join with the cosmos that sings the praise of the Savior who has come for you

and for the whole creation.

Pastor Julie, 12/26/21

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