Sunday, December 25, 2016

Gloria in Excelsis Deo: Sermon for Christmas Day

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men on whom his favor rests!” (Luke 2:14). The angels sang those words that night, more than two thousand years ago – the first Christmas, when our Savior was born. Merry Christmas – a Savior is born, and he is Christ the Lord! Glory to God!

You know, the Bible is constantly talking about God's 'glory' – hundreds of times throughout the Bible, it talks about God's 'glory.' But what does that mean? What is 'glory'? In the Old Testament, the word they use for 'glory' basically means 'heaviness.' For something to have 'glory' means it's got real weight. It has importance. It has significance. It has value. It has gravity. It has a pull on us. What we glorify is what's important to us, what's central in our lives, what we're attracted to and impressed by. For God to have glory means that he's at the center of it all – everything revolves around him, everything is defined in terms of him. He's the top priority in everything.

The Bible also describes God's glory as shining, as being bright, as being like light. 'Glory' is beautiful. Glory is appealing, impressive, attractive. Kings have glory, in all their royal finery and fancy crowns. Nations have glory, in all their wealth and production. Temples have glory, in all their architectural marvels and gold and jewels. Angels have glory, in all their heavenly brightness like stars in the sky. But their glory is relative; it isn't central; it doesn't have the same rightful pull that God does. God has real glory, absolute beauty, absolute brightness. When God is central, when everything revolves around him and finds its rightful place, things nearby become clear, transfigured, brought to life.

The Bible talks a lot about God's glory and its brightness. Moses and the Israelites saw it in the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, and the burning presence that settled on Mount Sinai and then moved into the tabernacle (Exodus 16:10; 24:16; 40:34). The prophets looked forward to a day when that same glory would fill the entire world, drench the air and land and sea, suffuse every atom with God's obvious brightness and power (Numbers 14:21; Isaiah 6:3; Habakkuk 2:14). But the prophet Ezekiel actually described a vision. As God touched him, there in his land of exile, Ezekiel saw:

...a stormy wind come out of the north, and a great cloud, with brightness around it, and fire flashing forth continually, and in the midst of the fire, something like gleaming metal. And from the midst of it came four living creatures. … And the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning. And the living creatures darted to and fro, like the appearance of a flash of lightning. And over the expanse of their heads, there was the likeness of a throne, looking like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was the likeness with a human appearance. And upward from what looked like his waist, I saw what looked like gleaming metal, looking like fire enclosed all around. And downward from what looked like his waist, I saw what looked like the appearance of fire, and there was brightness around him. Like the appearance of the bow that's in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness all around. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. (Ezekiel 1:4-5, 13-14, 26-28).

That's bright! That's undeniable! And some day, that presence would fill the temple. Some day, that presence will fill the earth. Just as it once was in Eden. In Eden, God was central. In Eden, everything was in place around him, in living and vital relationship with him. And around God, there's life eternal; around God, there's perfect peace; around God, there's refreshment and joy and wonder, the riches of love and the fulfillment of every longing.

For some brief moment of time, in the infancy of our history, we tasted that – because we, and all things, gave God absolute glory. In fact, in some ancient Jewish writings, the reason the innocent Adam and Eve don't realize they're naked – the reason they can be unashamed – is because their bodies glowed in reflection of God's glory.

But then came a tempting serpent, whose envy rejected our place in orbit around God's glory. And that foul creature slithered through the garden, confronted the woman and the man beside her, suggested a different order, a different center of gravity. Why revolve around God? Why let him be our center? Why not glimpse a world we ourselves design, dictate, and decide? The know-how, the authority, is at our fingertips, hanging from a branch. We, too, can be important. We can be central to ourselves. Just take one bite – and so we do. And so we lose sight of God's glory. We trade his brightness for shame and fig leaves.

And ever since we were locked out of Eden for our own protection, our path to the tree of life blocked by cherubim with flaming sword, the human problem has been what the psalmist described: “They exchanged their glory,” the glory of God in their midst, “for the image of an ox that eats grass” (Psalm 106:20). Or like Paul said: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. … They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever” (Romans 1:22-25). And that's a big problem, because God tells us, “My glory I give to no other” (Isaiah 42:8) – God is absolutely central; that's the way the world is meant to be. But our world came unglued from its orbit, and the result was decay and death. And all our history is the story of how we've constructed our own little worlds to glorify things other than God.

The question of human history, the question of our lives, has always been: What's at the center? What's most central to you? What defines you and everything around you? What's most impressive to you, most valuable to you, most beautiful to you? What is it that attracts you and is the ultimate organizing principle of your life? Adam and Eve were tainted, poisoned, when they made it themselves. We often follow their lead. Maybe we build our lives around money – define ourselves in terms of what we have or what we can get or what we wish we could get. Maybe we build our lives around the work we do – define ourselves as an occupation.

Maybe we build our lives around power – define ourselves in how much we wield or want. Maybe we build our lives around pleasure – devote ourselves to savoring it, jumping from one experience to the next, whether wholesome or unwholesome. Maybe we build our lives around safety and security – define ourselves as potential victims, devote ourselves to staying comfortable and protected by whatever means necessary.

Maybe we build our lives around a hobby – some pursuit that dominates our time and energy, something we most enjoy, be it hunting, fishing, racing, reading, knitting, or anything else. Maybe we build our lives around a cause, like politics – we define ourselves by our views, by our commitment, we see everything in light of that cause, we give it our heart and soul.

Maybe we build our lives around a relationship – we define ourselves by some other person. It could be some celebrity to whom we're devoted, or a leader, or a mentor. Or it could be a parent, a spouse, a child – someone who becomes the be-all and end-all to our lives, the practical reason for our being (which proves especially damaging when we're separated from them by distance or death). Or maybe we build our lives around some notion of our identity – some definition of ourselves by race, by nation, by desire, by experience, by condition of health or wealth, by profession or confession. Maybe we build our lives around morality, or even religion – but ultimately, it all comes down to us dictating the center.

When we imagine God owes us, or that we can earn his favor, or that we set the terms for our relationship with him, or that we decide what's fair or what he should do, we've placed ourselves at the center and given ourselves the glory. That's the human story. And it's not a happy story. Like the prophet says: “Give glory to the LORD your God before he brings darkness, before your feet stumble on the twilight mountains, and while you look for light he turns it into gloom and makes it deep darkness” (Jeremiah 13:16). Isn't that a picture of our world? We read the news, or we look at our own lives, and we see the traces of tragedy.

We're looking for light. We're trying to build a safe world where we won't get hurt, where we can enjoy ourselves and what we love. But we're unanchored from the real source of light and warmth. We're free-floating in space, and nothing we come across has enough gravity to give us real stability. Everything falls into gloom. And we so often don't know where to turn, and our feet stumble.

And because we don't know where to turn or what to do, because we aren't all revolving around the same God, because we don't share the same vision, we pull apart or crash into each other. We have disharmony with heaven, and we have disharmony on earth. We see it at the Tower of Babel. We see it in our power struggles. We see it in war. We see it in disease. We see it in death. And we even see it in the mundane moments of our lives. If only there were a way out of the darkness. If only there were the possibility of peace on earth.

And that's why Christmas is so important. Because long ago, it was foretold: “There will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. … The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone” (Isaiah 9:1-2). And the same prophet then explains that the only way this can happen is for a certain Child to be born, a certain Son to be given, the one who rules as Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). The dawn of God's glory – that's what we're here to celebrate this morning.

Out in the midnight fields, the shepherds were people like any of us. Their lives revolved around simple things. Maybe they were all about the sheep. Maybe they were all about the pay, meager though it was. Maybe they were all about the families they had back home in town. Maybe they were all about longing for a better life. But that night, something changed. Suddenly, someone was standing there with them, right in their midst, an angel of the Lord.

And what's more, “the glory of the Lord shone around them” (Luke 2:9b). The only other time that word gets used, 'shone around,' it's when Paul talks about what happened on the Damascus Road. Brilliant, life-changing, heart-converting light – the exposure of everything, the unveiling of truth, the beauty of God himself – comes crashing into their lives. They see the brightness Ezekiel saw. The fields all around them are suddenly swarming with the holy flame that lit Mount Sinai, the dense and radiant cloud that packed the tabernacle.

Their natural response was to “fear a great fear” (Luke 2:9c). How could they not? The center of gravity had suddenly shifted. Their world had lurched from one end to the other. Everything they were all about – it suddenly paled, blanched, grew dim. What they once thought was beautiful and bright, now they saw it was just a shadow. What they once thought was central and important, now they knew it was peripheral and mundane. Nothing matters as much as what's suddenly all around them. And that can be very frightening, to suddenly find your world unfamiliar, to be confronted by something bigger and grander than your safe little world.

But the angel tells them that there's another response. The opposite of fearing is seeing – seeing that this is the way the world is meant to be, this is how the world is meant to look. This bigger, grander, brighter glory is where we were meant to live. It's our long-lost hope and home. We were always meant to have God at the center, to have everything defined in relation to him, to share by grace in his life and light and love, to be wrapped up in his presence and in harmony with all things. If the shepherds can see that, then there's nothing to fear.

And what the angel says next is pretty incredible. He literally says: “I evangelize you.” Have you thought much about that – how the angel is an evangelist? And what an evangelist! But that is what evangelism is all about. It's no wonder some people are scared of being evangelized, or find it distasteful – at first, the shepherds did. The angel confronted them with something profoundly disconcerting, discombobulating. But yet the message was good news. The angel's gospel was a cause for great joy, to be set free to see and experience the world in a new way, to live a new life available to all people, the kind of life that comes from God being at the center (Luke 2:10).

And the angel tells them that the good news that sets them free is that, right there in Bethlehem, new life has entered the human scene, in the form of a little baby: the long-awaited Messiah, the Lord, the true King of Glory. He's a Savior, someone who will rescue them from all their fears, from all their sins, from the smallness and coldness and darkness of their little worlds, and from everything they used to glorify, everything that drew them in and entranced them – even themselves. He's a Savior from their obsessions, from the weight of their grief and sorrow and anxiety and lostness, from the distraction of their pleasures and comforts, from all their religious and political opinions, from their pride and envy and fear, from the idol-factory in their restless hearts. The Messiah, the Lord, the Savior is born – for them... and for us – to be our King of Glory (Luke 2:11).

The shepherds are left to wonder how they could ever approach him, how they could ever encounter him, how they could approach the King of Glory. They're just shepherds. They're poor. They're unclean. They have no status, no credentials, nothing that should give them access to the Messiah. In the social order of things, they're as far away from the Messiah as you could get – or so they think. But the angel tells them that when they find him, he won't be in some palace. He won't be in a great castle. There won't be bouncers. No security patrol. There's no dress code. They'll find him in a simple peasant house, surrounded by a family's livestock. And he'll be dressed like one of their own kids (Luke 2:12).

The glory of God came to earth, wrapped in human flesh and blood, and more than that, wrapped in our poverty, our simplicity, our weakness. The eternal Word, older than Adam, older than atoms, was spoken in infant coos amidst our smells and messes, our dirt and grime, our sweat and tears. He stepped into our frailty, our humble estate, into our nakedness and shame, to cure us. He would show us what a truly God-centered and God-immersed human life looks like – one that's entirely about the glory of God, one that defines everything in relation to God, one that's entranced by God's beauty and centered on God's gravity and filled with God's life. And by his life, by his rule, by his obedience and faith even to the point of the cross, this Word-made-flesh would make it possible for us to be God-centered and God-immersed, too. He would save us from ourselves and all our lesser glories. And he comes to us where our deepest darkness and gloom is.

That's what the angel told the shepherds. And then in a flash, the angel was joined by hundreds or thousands, the army choir of heaven, as if the stars in the sky had all crashed to earth (Luke 2:13). And in the glow of the glory of God, these bright stars of the night all sang in unison, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men on whom his favor rests!” (Luke 2:14). What a song! What a summary! That, right there, is what it's all about. From the top down to the bottom, God's glory is ultimate, absolute. In the highest place, to the highest degree, God is what it's all about.

What is most central? God! What is most important? God! What has the most weight and significance? God! What is most true? God! What is most beautiful and bright? God! What defines the lives of the heavenly host? God! What defines the lives of all creatures here below? God! In whom do we live and move and have our being? God! Where does our faith rightly anchor, what fulfills our hopes, where do we find love and belonging, where's our true treasure and our solid strength and our comfort and consolation? God!

And in a world that recognizes that and tastes that and experiences that, a world of those whom God esteems for so esteeming him, there and only there, then and only then, is there peace on earth – a wholeness, a completion, a unity and harmony that turns back the clock on the curse and lowers the sword of fire. Here alone is good news, here alone is great joy, here alone is peace on earth – in a new world that glorifies God. A world that, on that chilly night over two thousand years ago, poked into our world in the little town of Bethlehem.

And so the shepherds go. They ask around town for where the village midwife has been. They find the house – a simple peasant house, just a couple rooms. And they go in, and there through the door, with the ox and sheep and donkey, they meet a carpenter and his sweaty wife and a little newborn, all swaddled and resting in a feed trough (Luke 2:15-16). There they found the Child whose pudgy fingers made the angels, whose little feet once thundered in heaven's sanctuary, whose mewling voice wrote the song the angels sang, and behind whose tender little eyelids lived a saving Light on which even angel eyes dare not gaze.

And after sharing the good news with Joseph and Mary and all those in the house and around town, the shepherds went back to the fields (Luke 2:17-19). But not back to life as usual. No, they returned, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:20). And I'd like to think they went forth singing the angels' song: “Glory to God in the highest!” They didn't keep it to themselves. They didn't go back to life as usual. They were forever changed. Their lives from that day forward were more and more about God. They'd seen his glory, seen his beauty, seen that he's at the center of it all – and through the hope that this Baby in Bethlehem brought them, they let God reorganize their lives they way they were meant to be.

What this Child, this Baby, this Life means is that we're invited to enter a world of glory. We're summoned, we gain access, to a bright new creation with God truly at the center, where redemption through Jesus Christ and power through the Holy Spirit set us free to glorify God, like the shepherds did. If you believe in Jesus, if you follow him, you've already got a toe in the door. The new world has begun – already. But the world isn't all new – not yet. We see that, whether we like the looks of it or not. The world around us, even the world in us, is still groaning for the glory of God in us to be revealed when Jesus comes back to heal, to comfort, to resurrect, to rule.

Meanwhile, we have a choice. We have a toe in the door, at the very least. As we wait for Jesus to bring the kingdom's fullness, will you take another step? Does your life look like the angels' song? Is it centered around the God of glory, who made himself known to us in Jesus Christ? Is that what defines you, what motivates and inspires and captivates you? Do you receive his free favor, his grace? Do you share the good news of great joy, and do you live out, as best as you can, peace on earth?

This Christmas, you have that choice. Maybe you're realizing that, for you, you don't actually have a toe in the door yet. You're realizing that you haven't believed after all, that you don't trust Jesus, that God is nowhere near your center. If that's where you find yourself, don't miss out on the great joy. Come find me after the service, or talk to your neighbor in the pew who does believe. Turn from lesser things; don't miss out on the glory of God.

Or maybe you believe in Jesus but you realize that, in practice, God isn't the one you're glorifying most. You give him some glory, but not in the highest – your life isn't centered around him, motivated by him, captivated by him. Maybe even this day, for you, isn't centered around him and what he's done in Christ and in Christ's people, the church. If that's where you find yourself, there's a deeper joy and comfort to be found. Be like the shepherds – go to where Jesus is, behold him, adore him, find healing and hope in him, spend time with him, and take him with you in your heart and your life wherever you go. If you aren't sure how to do that, how to find deeper joy in a God-centered life, again, come find me after the service, or talk with one of the many mature believers around you this morning.

Or maybe you do give God the glory, your life is centered around him, but you realize now that you've forgotten good news is meant to be shared. If that's where you find yourself, don't keep it to yourself. It's for all people, not just you. The angel told good news. Then the shepherds told good news. Now it's your turn. And this is the time of year when people are most ready to hear it. Don't waste that time. Go tell it on the mountain, if you have to; go tell it in the valley; but above all, go tell it and live it. May all we say and do be for the praise and glory of our glorious God, who sent us his Son, a Savior, Jesus Christ the Lord, born this day for us. In him, God has blessed us, every one. Glory to God in the highest. Amen.

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