Sunday, 15 December 2013

When heavenly bodies come in handy

Advent 3 year A Sermon

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so the mountains would quake at your presence—Come down…come O come Emmanuel… come down…

and be with us

We begin today with Isaiah’s mind bending vision...
…the tearing of the very fabric of reality… as we think we know it……….

 the breaking in of God to time and space.

At this time of year we celebrate the coming of God’s future toward us…God’s self-revelation… in birth of Jesus…
The season of Advent…is all about what’s coming

And we listen once again to Isaiah’s powerful plea…
that God, ‘would tear open the heavens and come down…
for the faithful are waiting…’
Reflecting his trust in God’s faithfulness and

in God’s freedom
to act outside the limitations of time and space…

Jesus baptism slide
And our Christian faith stands fast…doesn’t it…
on the conviction God did act in time and space…
in the conception and birth…and in the life and teaching of Jesus

 the very Word of God…capital W…
chose to be subject to frailty and death…
in solidarity with all creation…

Why? Not only to show us how much we’re loved
but how to live…for the well-being of all Creation.

And our faith stands fast on the assurance that Jesus’ death was not the end 
of the story…
The resurrection…the appearing of Jesus to many following the crucifixion…
signals the advent of our future…
So we can always view the future in hope… God’s coming …God’s breaking in…
 to time and space
is the fundamental revelation of the Gospels… [pause]

But when our cynical non-Christian friends… dismiss Jesus’ story as irrelevant for
 today or a myth…how can we be confident in the Gospel recordin Matthew
Mark, Luke and John…How do we know these writings have any historic 
validity…written as they were
 almost two thousand years ago…

Well, I’m here to tell you today... we have much to learn from the Gospel record
That these ancient biographies …simply can’t be discarded in such an ignorant way. 
For the next two Sunday’s I’m going to explain why we can rationally trust…
in the historicity of these ancient texts. [pause]

Jesus birth slide
The orthodox Christian view…is that the birth of Jesus…
is the very hinge of history…the before and the after… the division of our calendar…

into BC and AD.

And within this lies a profound claim. But, can it actually be substantiated? 

Certainly the secular world doesn’t think so. Even in the church some have abandoned 
the idea that God became human… and walked among us.

Yet… there are many…even learned scientists
who believe there’s enough evidence…
to allow us to put a lot of faith in the Gospel record. Faith to see us right though 

Advent and beyond…into 2014…
 as we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Gospel
in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Tallon slide
A friend of mine, Professor Jeff Tallon of Victoria University was awarded the 
Rutherford medal for his work in physics… and this year jointly awarded the 
inaugural Prime Minister's Science Prize for outstanding achievement in science.
This companion of the New Zealand 
order of merit took over the pulpit in our church on day…to offer his own scientific understanding of the truth of the Gospels.

Jeff expresses great sadness over media coverage given to skeptics when Christians are about the celebrate the birth of Jesus …particularly people who claim Christmas 
was founded on a pagan feast…and that there were no Magi,
that there was no slaughter of infants…and Jesus never born Bethlehem.

It disturbs him the public is constantly told…stories of Jesus birth are historically
 inconsistent fables…just myths…
that developed among early believers… years after the events happened.

As a scientist…Jeff’s sadness comes from a very real conviction that everything he’s studied…of the events around Jesus birth… confirms an underlying objective reality…
and fills him the deepest sense of the sacred and Divine.

In fact…what Jeff and other scientist have discovered
is that the skeptics view…is the one rooted in ignorance and mis-information. 

That’s a strong claim isn’t it?

But I find Professor Tallon’s evidence… not only fascinating but reassuring…

that we we must always approach the Gospel stories with an open mind…
because our understanding… 
can only ever be… partial and incomplete.

Today technological advances can help resolve apparent difficulties… 

so even the most hardened skeptics
have to wonder…just who was the child Jesus,
born at Bethlehem in Judea?
Today with Jeff’s permission…I’m going to present what we now know from historic 
research and the science of astronomy …wonderful information… to share with your
and cynical friends… and even to strengthen your own faith.

First… all that Pagan Feast stuff…is rubbish.

Modern astronomy slide
Why? Because today through the science of astronomy
we can actually reproduce… where the stars and constellations were…

at any given time in history

When scientist’s like Jeffrey Tallon search for the most likely contender for the Bethlehem star…they actually do find a star… that ‘stood over Bethlehem’… when viewed 

from Jerusalem looking south… just as Matthew’s gospel tells it.

A star… astronomers say…that reached its zenith and the full extent of its

 retrograde motion…precisely on the 25th
of December. And what’s even more exciting is…
in that very year…the Jewish feast of Hanukkah
fell on twenty five December. So, the actual date
we celebrate Christmas has nothing to do with a pagan feast

Dessert slide
It’s more likely to be… the day the Magi arrived…
having crossed the vast desert to the east…to visit the new Jewish King the stars had predicted…and they found Jesus …not in the stable where he was born…but just 

as the Gospel of Matthew describes…at the family home…fifteen months or so 
after Jesus’ birth …
when Jesus was a toddler…a child…as Matthew says.

So when we approach Jesus birth as an historical event…
when we overcome our concern…about the so-called mythology surrounding it…
we discover the world has a lot to learn…

Another uninformed criticism… of the historic reliability of the Gospels
is that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John didn’t try to keep the eyewitness stories 
of Jesus’ life in the order they happened…Chronological consistency has always
 been an important criteria
for determining the reliability of scripture.

But if the Gospel accounts are consistent
with independent scientific observation
of what occurred…we can be more confident in the gospel record…

and strengthen our faith as well. [pause]

Because they followed the movement of the stars…
the Magi were obviously astronomers and astrologists… … and it was their science…

that led them to an encounter with Jesus…and our science of astronomy points to the
 visit of the Magi… exactly when we celebrate Christmas.

Crucifixion slide
And Professor Tallon adds…there’s another fascinating way to check the 

accuracy of the biblical record
and that’s to work backwards to the date of Jesus’ birth
from Jesus crucifixion.

We can do this…by putting three events together
recorded independently of the Gospel witness…
by Roman and Jewish historians living in the first century.

The first event is Pilate’s Procuratorship of Judea…
between 26 and 36 AD. We know John began baptizing during Pilate’s time in office…

so that narrows the beginning of Jesus’ ministry down to 29 or 30 AD.

And we know the trial of Jesus had to be after 31 AD…
because that’s when Pilate executed
his anti-Semitic mentor, Sejanus, to appease the Jews

And we know Jesus death had to be before 34 AD
because that’s the latest possible date for Paul’s conversion.

How do we know this about Paul’s conversion?
Well, the book of Acts tells us… after 18 months in Corinth, Paul was

 indicted under Gallio, Proconsul of Achaia.

An existing archeological inscription…says Gallio was proconsul only between January 
and August 52 AD. So, Paul had to leave for Corinth no later than 50AD. And Paul’s letter 
to the Galatians tells us…this was seventeen years after his conversion…and that brings 
us right back to…
wait for it…late 33 or early 34 AD…a year after Jesus’ trial.

So all these independent events… help us verify the time of  Jesus’ trial… and all those 
events recorded in Roman and Jewish records… can be found in Luke’s gospel too…

Moon slide
Finally we return to our modern science of astronomy
to settle the date with certainty.
Celestial bodies…sometimes come in very handy.

Did you know the Jewish Passover always occurs
on the full moon closest to the spring equinox? And since Jesus was crucified…

on the day the Passover meal began… we know there will have been… 
a full moon rising.

Josephus…the 1st century Jewish historian…
recorded that Jesus was crucified on fourteen Nisan
in the Hebrew calendar.
John’s gospel tells us it was a Friday.
And we know 14 Nisan only fell on a Friday
in the year 33 AD.

Professor Tallon’s final blow to the skeptics…
relates to Peter’s speech at Pentecost only seven weeks after the Resurrection… 

Recalling the crucifixion…
Peter quotes the prophet Joel

Moon slide with words
‘The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon into blood before
 the day of the Lord comes.’ [pause]

On the evening Jesus was crucified
to begin the Passover meal…the head of every Jewish household

 would have looked toward the rising moon. And what they saw that day on 14 Nisan…
what the science of astronomy tells us they saw

was the moon…rising in eclipse
lying fully in the Earth’s shadow… and blood red…
for half an hour.  [pause]

Blank moon slide
Earlier at mid-day…for around three hours
the sun… was darkened.

Joel’s prophetic vision…was given substance
on the very day of Jesus’ crucifixion…14 Nisan
in the Hebrew calendar…our April 3rd…33 AD. [pause]

So… we’ve established a reasonable and rational time frame for Jesus’ public
ministry and execution…

Working backwards from this…we can look again
at the accuracy of gospel stories of Jesus birth
Take for example… Matthew’s record of Herod’s slaughter of infants…
to prevent a threat to his throne.

Well… Josephus records… that right before Herod died …
he had two Rabbi’s burned alive… and on ‘that same night … there was 

an eclipse of the moon’.

Today we know on the 9th of January 1 BC
the moon was in total eclipse…and eighteen days later Herod died

poised to perpetrate another massacre… of infants
Josephus compares it to the slaughter in Bethlehem. Herod’s motive…
so ‘there would be weeping in Israel when he died

Only a month before Herod died…the Magi had said good-by to him from

his palace in Jerusalem…
where he’d pointed them toward Bethlehem…under the star that had

reached the zenith of its retrograde motion.
just as Matthew’s gospel says,

And remember that day was the beginning of Hanukkah
the Jewish holiday when gifts are always exchanged. [pause]

Next week we’ll explore just what the night sky looked like that year as the 
Magi traveled to meet the new born king of the Jews… they read about…in the stars.

Tallon slide
Professor Tallon is always keen reminds us that in the end
we come to God through faith…not logic.
And I heard his voice break as he came to the end of his talk saying

And in faith before this Jesus
I surrender all my intellectual pride
and bow the knees of my heart and my mind
to him in worship…’

Let us do the same as we approach the table of our Lord.