It was a great time here with everyone last night thinking about the Lord’s coming and worshiping him for his love. Here are the study notes:
The Good News of the Glory of God
Two things I ran into in the last month or so combined to point me to what i thought we should look at together during this Christmas season.
First: I recently read this quote in an article, from a book called Living with a Wild God, by an atheist in her 70s named Barbara Ehrenreich. She uses this book to recount some experiences she had while she was a teenager, experiences which were of a decidedly spiritual nature. She remains an atheist, but felt the need to publicly talk about these experiences. They happened when she was a teenager, and this is the most vivid of them I read:
At some point in my predawn walk—not at the top of a hill or at the exact moment of sunrise, but in its own good time—the world flamed into life. How else to describe it? There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive…merger with “the All,” as promised by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, and one reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe fire really closely without becoming part of it. Whether you start as a twig or a gorgeous tapestry, you will be recruited into the flame…
Of course, like I said, Barabara Ehrenreich is a semi-famous atheist who is not about to say that this experience has anything to do with God, especially not the God of Christmas. I don’t know what she experienced that day on the hill. But there’s no reason it couldn’t have been the God I myself met, in a slightly less visual but no less tangible encounter. I know of many friends who would report very similar experiences—and all of them have since let God fully and personally introduce himself to them as someone even greater than a living fire. It just strikes me that a universe where such a being exists is immediately, infinitely better than the cold, empty and thin universe of the atheists. But thinking it’s better doesn’t make it true. That’s why we look to the pages of the bible, which is chock-full of reports from people with similar experiences. My experiences, the recorded experiences of hundreds and even thousands in the bible, and the experiences of many of my friends all testify to something which sounds incredible in our day: We are not alone in the universe. We are being addressed by someone huge and consuming.
Second: A few weeks ago Pastor Joe read this verse on a Sunday morning here at church.
1 Timothy 1:11
… according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust.
Now that’s only a half-sentence, but he made a comment about the grammar of the verse which sent my mind down a rabbit trail. He pointed out that the verse is just as easily translated:
“…the gospel [or, the good news] of the glory of God.”
Paul says his message was about the good news about God’s Glory.
Tonight I want to talk about this “glory” and why it is such good news, and how Christmas is all about this message of glory. So first, let’s define glory. What do we mean when we say “glory”?
I was recently speaking to a class of first graders, trying to come up with ways to describe the concept of glory to them. Here’s what I landed on:
- Something so big it makes you dizzy
- Someone so important it makes you shy
- Something so bright it’s hard to look at
If I was speaking to adults, I think I’d add these two as well:
- An experience so personal it’s unnerving.
- Someone so present it’s sobering.
As I mentioned, many times in scripture we see people having experiences like, and even greater than, the one Barbara Ehrenreich describes. For instance, here’s what happened with Moses and more than a million people in the desert of the Sinai peninsula:
In the morning…there was thundering and lightning, and a thick cloud on the mountain; and the sound of the trumpet was very loud, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was completely in smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire. Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. And when the blast of the trumpet sounded long and became louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by voice.
And then a few chapters later they recount this as well:
Then Moses went up into the mountain, and a cloud covered the mountain. Now the glory of the LORD rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day He called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. The sight of the glory of the LORD was like a consuming fire on the top of the mountain in the eyes of the children of Israel. So Moses went into the midst of the cloud and went up into the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.
(Exodus 19:16-19 and 24:15-18)
And just to add one more, the prophet Ezekiel reported this experience, which happened to him while he was sitting by a river bank after he had been taken into exile (this is recounted in Ezekiel chapter 1). He said:
There by the river, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God. I looked, and a whirlwind was coming out of the north, a huge cloud with raging fire engulfing itself; and brightness was all around it and radiating out of its midst like the color of amber, out of the midst of the fire. And out from the inside of it came four things that looked like living creatures. They kind of looked like people, but each one had four faces, and each one had four wings. The soles of their feet were like the cows hooves. They were like the color of polished bronze. Human hands were under their wings They didn’t turn when they went, but they all went straight forward. They each had four different faces–the face of a man, the face of a lion, the face of an ox, and the face of an eagle. And they looked like burning coals of fire, like the appearance of torches going back and forth among the living creatures. The fire was bright, and out of the fire went lightning. And they were running back and forth looking like a flash of lightning. But that’s not all. Next to each one was a wheel on the earth, or something that looked like a wheel within a wheel. And their rims were so high they were awesome; and their rims were full of eyes. When the living creatures moved, the wheels went beside them, and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up. And stretched out over their heads was a surface like an awesome crystal. When they moved, I heard the noise of their wings, like the noise of many waters, like the voice of the Almighty, a roar like the noise of an army; and a voice came from above the surface that was over their heads, where I saw something like a throne. It looked like a sapphire stone; and sitting on the throne was someone who looked like a man. And from what looked like his waist and upward I saw, what looked like the color of amber with the appearance of fire all around within it; and from there downward I saw, what looked like fire with brightness all around. Like the appearance of a rainbow in a cloud on a rainy day, so was the appearance of the brightness all around it. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD.
So when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard a voice of One speaking…
Then, in the gospel of John, we have this crazy twist in the story. John says that a divine person named “the word,” who turns out to be Jesus himself, “became flesh and lived among us, and we beheld his glory.”
Which brings us back to 1 Timothy 1:11. Paul says that Christians preach the good news of the glory of the blessed God. God’s Glory is Good news. Or you could say, it is good news that God is glorious. Or, it is good news that there is such a God, and that when you encounter him, you encounter something which can only be described as Glory. The fact that God is supremely glorious is good news, in fact, it’s the best news you could ever here. And the fact that Paul says encountering God’s glory is encountering the presence of the most blessed being in existence makes it even better.
Why? Because it means the universe is made, directed, and cared for by a being who is supremely glorious. Just imagine the opposite—a universe created, directed, and cared for by no one. Or, by someone who is corny, small, petty, insignificant and not-compelling. Or by someone who is powerful but dark, selfish, emotionally turned inward, and small of character. No, the universe in inhabited, every square inch, by Someone who is awe-inspiringly glorious.
Now, that could be bad news for creatures like us, because we are non-glorious. Compared to God, we humans are small and petty, dirty and stingy, and non-compelling and weightless in our character. So if it is true that the universe is inhabited by this supremely glorious one, what if he just despises our smallness? What if he sees our failings and detests them? What if he just wants us to go away? What if he doesn’t have time for the non-important? What if he’s too bright to care about the lightless?
This is what Christmas is all about. On the first Christmas, God showed us that his glory is not simply hugeness, brightness, power or importance. The Apostle John wrote in his account of Jesus’ life that God’s glory was most clearly shown when he did something that shocked everyone. He showed that his glory was also, maybe even primarily, the glory of his character. This is what Jesus was—the ultimate display of love, mercy, bigness of heart, generosity, humility. God took on human flesh, and came and lived among us. He was a real human for more than three decades, this is how he displayed his glory in our world, in our history, in a way we could look right in the face.
The glory of God is a huge, living sun you may encounter in some experience like Barbara Ehrenreich had, but it is the glory of someone with such a glorious heart, that he decided that to walk around in a human body was not beneath him. And what did we see when he came to be born and live this way? That he would serve us, and die for us, and in fact—would do the ultimate act of “manning up” and take responsibility for something that wasn’t his responsibility—He took our sin on himself when he didn’t have to; He died when he was the deathless one; and He did it all on our behalf, in our place, in our stead—this is the glory we beheld. The infinite, eternal sun of burning glory looked out of human eyes and showed us the love in his heart with concrete, human actions. As one writer said: “Flesh is clearly not the means by which the glory of God is concealed in the man Jesus, but the means by which it is revealed before the eyes of all. The flesh is the medium of the glory and makes it visible to all people. By means of the incarnation God has visibly appeared among humankind” (H. Ridderbos, The Gospel of John).
When he did this, he interpreted the whole world, all of human history, every tear and cry of pain, every hope that won’t die in our hearts, every swell of love we feel for another person—all of it, he tells us what it truly means. He lived and died to show us how critical it is for us to understand evil and the human sin that unleashes evil into our world every day. He showed us how much we need to see our own sin as the most pressing issue we each need to deal with. And he showed us how huge God’s heart is that he would make a way for us to simply turn away from what we could never run away from, or pay back ourselves.
So the Glory of God would be good news in and of itself—like anything big and beautiful always is—it always makes the world a better place just by existing. As the biggest, and most beautiful, it would already be the best news. But it’s even better news for humans than that, because the Glory of God doesn’t simply crush us and sweep us aside—first it invites us in. The Bible tells us over and over again that God created us so we could see, revel in, and actually share God’s glory. We are the one part of the universe who God wants to share himself with. He promises us that we’ll be glorified ourselves, and that we will exist in blessedness forever. The only thing that can keep us out of that future is if we cling to small, dirty things that keep us from the God’s glory. God’s glory shows us that all of our sin and guilt is horrible and dark, but the good news is that God’s glory took on human flesh so he could free us from all that dirt and offer us forgiveness for all our guilt.
So Christmas is all about that moment in time—there was God’s glory—born as a little baby, crying in the dark. Our thinking was so upside down that we would have missed it, unless he spent his whole life showing us who He was. And he did. And those first followers said: “We saw his glory. And this is the best possible news.”
There is a God. He is the most blessed being in existence. He shines with a weighty glory beyond comprehension—and he loves to stoop down to human people, and gather us up into his glory. That’s the meaning of life. That’s the point of the universe. That’s the true nature of reality. If you miss this, you miss everything. If you ignore this, you misinterpret everything.
If tonight, as you sit here, you’ve never turned to God and turned away from your sin—let this be the moment. Believe the good news of the Glory of God—that the world was made by someone too glorious to imagine and that right now his presence fills the universe. And believe the good news of the glory of God that came to us in Jesus Christ. Embrace his message, his teachings, and this new possibility of becoming friends with the glorious God.
Now, for those of you who, this is all pretty familiar, but not…compelling–If you know these things, but they don’t move you at all, can I ask why? Do you believe this God is here with us now? Or at your work? Or at school? Or at your apartment? If so, can I ask you why that reality wouldn’t be the most engaging truth you know? There’s one potentially disturbing passage in the bible that explains why this could happen to someone (it’s 2 Corinthians 4:3-6). The Apostle Paul writes:
If our message is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, which keeps the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, from shining on them. For we’re not preaching ourselves, we preach Christ Jesus the Lord. For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to bring to light the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
In other words, if I hear about Jesus, or if I’ve learned about him in the past, and it seems not very interesting to me, not the kind of thing I could put all my life into, then it’s only for one reason—when the current spiritual ruler of this world is blinding the eyes of people who don’t believe Jesus so they don’t see how he displays the most desirable thing in the world—God’s glory. This enemy of God doesn’t want people to see Jesus for who he truly is, so what he does is throw up a whole world of distractions. Whole cultures built on creating distractions from the glory of God, including imposter God’s with counterfeit glory. Counterfeit heavens. Imposter messages which promise people things they long for. A big world carnival of distraction. And the rich of the world are in the most danger cause if they work hard enough they can go get that stuff.
So if when I think about Jesus he seems like a duty, or a chore, or something a few clicks below a football game or a night out with friends or a good movie or maybe he just can’t compete with bigger things like a certain lifestyle I want to achieve…he’s just not something that could capture my heart and thoughts and talents…If that’s what I see when I think about Jesus—then I’m among the group of people who’s eyes are still blinded by the world’s current spiritual prince because we don’t believe. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve heard the message. What matters is—does Jesus excite you because you see God’s glory in this humble, courageous man and his death on your behalf? Are you excited about seeing him when he comes back in full glory to bring all the glory to the earth in a visible, undeniable way?
If not—please don’t leave tonight without crying out to God to remove your blindness.
And Christians—let’s always let the end of December remind us of the awesome truth of the personal, present, glorious God, and our glorious, blessed future with him forever.
When he was born he was called “Immanuel—God with us.”
Before he left he told us, “I am with you always.”
When he returns the word is, “God will be with them.”
Which is why on his last night of earthly life, before he went to his execution, he prayed, “Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world.” (John 17:24)
And this is forever.
Merry Christmas, everyone.