Saturday, December 26, 2020

Gloria in Excelsis Deo: A Christmas Sermon

Glory to God in the highest!” The song rolled, in melodic streams, through the air on every side 'round shaken shepherds one cold night in fields that had suddenly become the breach between earth and heaven. What does that mean – 'glory'? The Bible always seems to be talking about 'glory.' In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word here more literally suggests 'heaviness.' For something to have 'glory' means that it's got real heft, real weight, real importance and significance. It has value. It has gravity. It has a pull on us. What we glorify is what we consider significant and weighty in our lives. We glorify what we orbit, what we're attracted to and impressed by. So for God to have glory means that he's objectively at the center of it all. Everything revolves around God. Everything is defined in terms of God. God is the top priority in everything. Therefore, God has glory.

The Bible also describes God's glory as shining, as being bright. Glory is beautiful. Glory is appealing, glory is impressive, glory is attractive. Kings have glory, and they show it off with their royal finery and fancy crowns. Those things, expressions of their social importance, themselves become glory. Nations have glory, in all their wealth and production. Temples have glory, in their architectural marvels and expensive materials. Angels have glory, in their heavenly brightness like the stars that dot the night sky. But the glory of all these things is relative, not 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 God and finds its rightful place in his system, then things nearby become clear, they're transfigured, they're brought to life.

And so the Bible goes often to that theme: God's glory and how bright it is. Moses and the Israelites saw God's glory in the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, and then in the burning presence that settled atop Mt. Sinai, and finally in the brightness that invaded the tabernacle (Exodus 16:10; 24:16; 40:34). The prophets waited for a day when that same glory would fill the whole world, drench air and land and sea, suffuse every proton and electron and neutron with God's obvious brightness and power (Numbers 14:21; Isaiah 6:3; Habakkuk 2:14). The prophet Ezekiel had a vision. Remember what Ezekiel saw? When God found him in the 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. … 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 1:4-28)!

Can you imagine seeing that, like Ezekiel saw that? To actually come face-to-likeness with God's glory? Some day, that glory-presence would fill the temple. Some day, that glory-presence will fill the earth, just as it once did in the Garden of Eden. In the garden, God was central. In the garden, everything was in place around God, in living relationship with God. And around God, there is life eternal. Around God, there is perfect peace, and refreshment and joy and wonder, and the riches of love, and the fulfillment of every longing.

Yes, for some brief moment of time, in the infancy of our history, we tasted that – because we, and all things in the earthly creation, gave God absolute glory. In fact, in some ancient writings, the reason why Adam and Eve, are innocently oblivious they're naked is because their bodies had robes of light, reflections of God's very own glory for his earthly images to wear around as part of our very existence.

Then came a tempter with a hissing envy. That foul creature slithered in, confronted the woman and the man beside her, suggested a different center of gravity. Why revolve around God? Why let God be our center? Why not glimpse a world we ourselves could design, dictate, and decide? The know-how and power would be at our fingertips, hanging from this tree. We too can be important. We can be the center of our own stories. Just take one bite, this serpent says. And we do. And we lose sight of God's glory. We trade his shine for shame.

The fig leaves our fingers weave give place to the skins of God's mercy. Still, we get locked out of the garden, for our own protection, lest we succeed too fully in ruining our destiny. Our path to the tree of life is blocked by cherubim, living creatures with a flaming sword. The human problem ever since has been as the psalmist called it: “They exchanged their glory for the image of an ox that eats grass” (Psalm 106:20). Paul weeps: “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's blessed forever” (Romans 1:22-25). And that's a big problem. God himself shouts, “My glory I give to no other” (Isaiah 42:8). God does not consent to our orbiting a double-star. All gravity must be his, all beauty must mirror him. The world was meant to center on God. But our world came unglued from its orbit, and the result has been decay and death. All our history is the tragedy of how we've constructed our petty little worlds to glorify everything we can find but the one true and living God.

For this question has always been the great contest of human history: What defines everything else? What is at the center? What's most impressive and valuable to you, what's most beautiful to you, what is the ultimate organizing principle of life for you? Adam and Eve were tainted, poisoned, when they made themselves their own organizing principle. And we often follow their lead, in one way or another.

Perhaps we build our lives around money – we define ourselves in terms of what we have, or what we can get, or what we wish we could get. Or maybe we build our lives around the work we do – we define ourselves as an occupation before all else. Or maybe we build our lives around power – we define ourselves by how much we wield or want. Maybe we build our lives around pleasure – we devote ourselves to savoring it, jumping from one experience to the next, be it wholesome or unwholesome. Maybe we build our lives around safety and security – we define ourselves as potential victims, we devote ourselves to staying protected whatever the cost. Maybe we build our lives around a hobby – some pursuit that dominates our time and energy, like hunting or fishing, like running or racing, like conversing or consuming. Maybe we build our lives around a cause, be it political or otherwise – we define ourselves by our views, by our commitment; we see everything in light of that one lens, we give it our heart and soul. Maybe we build our lives around a relationship – we define ourselves by a celebrity, or by a mentor or hero, or by a parent or spouse or child, making them the practical reason for our being. Maybe we build our lives around some notion of our identity – we define ourselves in terms of race or of nation, in terms of desire or experience, by condition of health or wealth, by profession or confession. But in the end, it always comes down to us dictating where the center will be, glorifying that center by our volition.

Whenever we imagine that God owes us, or that we set the terms for our relationship with him, or that we say what's fair or what he should do, we've begun to reconstruct the center, we've given ourselves the glory. That's the human story, and you can look out your window many days and realize that it isn't a terribly happy story. It gives us holocausts and bombings, gives us malice and greed, gives us lunacy and heresy; it addicts us to what can only birth misery. Like the prophet Jeremiah said, “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). Can you think of many better lines to summarize 2020?

See, 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've long since come un-anchored 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, nor does anything else radiate enough warmth and light to sustain us for a lifetime, let alone eternity. Everything we find falls into gloom. Everywhere we venture is a path on the twilight mountains. We don't know where to turn. No wonder our feet so frequently stumble.

And because we don't know where to turn or what to do, because we aren't all revolving around the same trusty center, because we don't share the same God and the same vision, we pull apart or crash into each other. Our orbits are erratic and conflicting. We have disharmony with heaven and disharmony with earth. We've seen this at the Tower of Babel. We see it in our war and our wrestling. We see it in disease and in death. And we see it in the mundane moments of our lives. What we need is a light in the darkness, and the hope of peace on earth!

And that's why Christmas has proven so important. Long ago, 'twas foretold through the prophet Isaiah: “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 9:2). And the same prophet then explains that the only way this will happen is at the birth of a certain Child, a sacred Son given to all humanity, the One who will rule as Prince of Peace, who will be an Everlasting Father to the wayward sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, the One who will give us wonderful counsel, the One who will fill all things as Mighty God (Isaiah 9:6). The dawn of God's glory on a frozen-over earth lost in space – this we celebrate this morning!

Out in those midnight fields, those shepherds were people not so different than any of us (Luke 2:8). Their lives revolved, in practice, around simple and ordinary things. One was all invested in the sheep, morning, noon, and night. Another was in it for the pay, meager though it was. One more was all about the family waiting for him back home in town. Still another was all about dreams of a different life. Perhaps one was sneezing and coughing in the fields, fighting off an infection. But that night, something changed. Another figure joined them – no human born of earth, but a dweller of the far sky above the stars, sent as a messenger: an angel of the Lord.

What's more, Luke tells us, “the glory of the Lord shone around them” (Luke 2:9b). The only other time in the Bible we hear that verb, it's when Paul remembers the Damascus Road where the same glory 'shone around' him and changed his life. So this is brilliant light, this is heart-converting light. This light of glory unveils all truth, this light of glory exposes everything, this light of glory is the beauty of the Most High, and it comes cascading and crashing into their mud-bound lives. On every side, the shepherds see the same brightness Ezekiel saw. The fields outside Bethlehem are suddenly swarming with the dense flame that lit Mount Sinai. The dense radiance that packed the tabernacle like a cloud is pressing their skin. Each hair on their heads is lit by the sacred glow.

Their natural response was to “fear a great fear” (Luke 2:9c). How could they not? The center of gravity had abruptly shifted in the night. Their world had lurched from one end to the other. Everything they were all about – it suddenly dimmed, paled, blanched. All they once deemed beautiful and bright was nothing but shadow; all they once thought central and important was peripheral and mundane. Their universe had vomited its innards to the outside, and what once was beyond the cosmos had broken through the skin into the heart of all things. It can be mighty frightening, to suddenly find your life unfamiliar, to be confronted by something bigger and grander than your safe little world. So they feared a great fear.

But this angel – and I wonder if he bore the flaming sword that warded our parents from the garden – he tells these scared-stiff shepherds there's another response. The opposite of fearing is seeing – seeing, that is, that this is in fact the way the world is meant to be and look. This brighter brilliance, this grander glory, is where we all were meant to live. This is our long-lost hope and home. We were always to have God at the center, to define everything in relation to God, to share by grace in his light and life and love, to be wrapped up in him and in harmony with all things. It's only through sin's inverting presence that we've acclimated to the alien atmosphere of dead chaos. If the shepherds can see the rightness of this glory, no more shall they fear their great fear.

So the angel reorients them. And then he says a more profound word by far. Our English Bibles explain that the angel brings good tidings. Literally, this messenger from beyond the sky declares, “I evangelize you!” Can you imagine that – how this angel is an evangelist? Yet this is what evangelism is all about. No wonder many in our world are terrified to be evangelized, no wonder they find it so distasteful and upsetting and loathsome to themselves. So did the shepherds! This angel confronted them with something profoundly discombobulating. And yet the message was good news, a report meant to bless them with hope and immense joy. They would be set free to see and know the world a new way, to begin living a new life available to all people – the kind that comes only from being re-anchored to God at the center (Luke 2:10).

This cosmic herald then explains that the good news that sets them free is that, right there in Bethlehem, in that very town they're outside, new life has entered the human scene, in the form of a tiny baby, a few pounds of skin and muscle and blood and bone. This is the long-awaited Messiah, the true King of glory. He's a Savior to rescue them from all their fears and faults, from all their sins and wrongs, from all the smallness and coldness and darkness and deadness of their little worlds. This Savior will rescue them from the avaricious clutches of everything they used to glorify, everything that once drew them in and entranced them – even from themselves. He's a Savior from their obsessions, a Savior from the weight of their grief and sorrow and anxiety and lostness, from the distractions of their comforts and consolations, from their broken political and religious and customary opinions, from their pride and their envy, from the idol-factory churning away in their restless, godless hearts. The Messiah, the Lord, the Savior has been born for them, born for us, to be our King of Glory (Luke 2:11)!

Hearing this, those shepherds are left – though only for a moment – to wonder how they could ever approach a King of Glory. They're just shepherds, after all. They're poor. They're unclean. They're nobodies. They've got no status, no credentials, no passport of access to the Messiah son of David, much less to the Child of Prophecy. In the social order of the world, they're as far away from a Messiah as you could get – or so they think. But the cosmic herald, the angel, tells them that they won't find him in some palace, not in a great castle. There will be no bouncers, no security patrol, no dress code, no social distance. They'll find him in a simple peasant house, surrounded by a family's livestock, and he'll be dressed no differently than the shepherds' own kids (Luke 2:12).

The glory of God had come to earth, wrapped in swaddling clothes, wrapped in our flesh and blood, wrapped in our poverty and simplicity and weakness and frailty. The eternal Word, older than Adam, older than atoms, was spoken in infant coos and gurgles amidst our smells and messes, our dirt and grime, our sweat and tears. The Word of God entered our humble estate, our nakedness and shame, into the likeness of sinful flesh, to cure us. He would illustrate what a truly God-centered and God-immersed human life would look like – because he'd live one. He'd live a human life entirely about the glory of God, a life defining all things in relation to God, a life entranced by God's beauty and anchored by 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'd save us from ourselves and all our lesser glories. And he meets us, not atop a golden spire, but in the gloomy valley and the twilight mountain where deep darkness rules.

So the angel told the shepherds. And then, in a flash, the angel was joined by hundreds, by thousands, by the grand army choir of heaven, as if every star in the sky had suddenly collided with earth's atmosphere in their grandeur (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! From top to bottom, God's glory is ultimate and absolute. In the highest place, to the highest degree, God is what it's all about. What's most central, most important, most significant, most true, most beautiful and bright? God! God defines the lives of the heavenly host, God defines all creatures here below. In God we live, in God we move, in God we have our being. In God does our faith rightly anchor, in God is our hope fulfilled, in God do we find love and belonging, in God is true treasure and solid strength and consoling comfort. God is the glory of all glory.

And in a world that recognizes that, tastes that, experiences that – a world filled with those whom God esteems for so esteeming him – there and only there, then and only then, is there peace on earth. In a world re-centered rightly, there's a wholeness, a completion, a unity and harmony that can turn back the clock on the curse and can lower the sword of flame. Here alone is good news, here alone is great joy, here alone is peace on earth – in a new God-glorifying world, a world that poked its face into ours one chilly night in the little town of Bethlehem.

The angels hide. The light fades from eyes, but not from hearts. The shepherds go. They ask where the village midwife has been. They find a house. And through the door, with ox and sheep and donkey, they meet a burly carpenter and his glowing lady and a tender newborn, swaddled, resting in the manger (Luke 2:15-16). Strong and silent Joseph welcomed them in. Mary thoughtfully introduced them to her Son. In that feed trough, the shepherds saw the Child whose pudgy little fingers had made the earth, whose little feet had once thundered in heaven's inner sanctum, whose cries inspired the angels' tune, and behind whose thin eyelids lived the saving Light into which even seraphim, cherubim, thrones, and dominions dare not gaze lest they be consumed.

Those shepherds relayed their good news to Joseph. They told their joys to the Virgin who bore God. They said it to all those in the house. They shouted it in the streets of the town. Then they made their way, stunned and giddy, back to the fields, the same fields where they'd been tending their flocks before (Luke 2:17-19). But they could not go back to life as it once was. They returned “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:20). And I'd like to think they kept singing the angels' song: “Glory to God in the highest!” The song they'd heard, they did not keep to themselves. They were forever changed. They had seen glory, they had beheld beauty, they had met the true center of it all. And through the hope that this Bethlehem Baby brought, they surrendered their lives to God's gravity. Their lives, I pray, became more what they were meant to be.

The hands of this Baby beckon us to enter a world of glory. We're summoned to a bright new creation with God at the heart, where redemption in Christ and power in the Spirit set us free to glorify God as the shepherds did. If you follow Jesus King of Glory, you've already got a toe in the door. The new world has broken in, but we see that much remains old. Much has not yet fallen into Christ's resurrection, has not yet been brought to life in the life he now has forever. The world around us, even the world in us, yet groans for the glory of God in us to be revealed when Jesus returns to heal, to comfort, to resurrect, to rule.

And so you have a choice. Will you sing the angels' song? Will you sing it with your voice? Will you sing it with your heartbeat? Will you sing it with your hands and feet? Will God define you, motivate you, inspire you, captivate you? Do you walk where his favor will find you? Do you share good news? Do you cheer for great joy? Do you live out, best you can, peace on earth?

Maybe this Christmas season, you realize you haven't really trusted Jesus, that God hasn't been your center. Do not miss out on great joy! Turn from lesser things. Don't miss out on the glory of God. Or maybe you realize that you've been giving God some glory, just not in the highest. If that's you, there's a deeper joy and comfort to be found. Be like the shepherds. Go to where Jesus is. Behold him and hold him. Adore him. Find healing in him, find hope in him, spend time with him. Take him with you in your heart and your life wherever you go. Or maybe you do give God the glory, but you've forgotten how good news is meant to be shared. Angels told good news. Shepherds told good news. Now it's your turn. Go tell it on the mountain. Go tell it in the valley. Just tell it. Just taste it. Just live it. May all we say or do be for the praise of our glorious God, who sent us his Son, a Savior. In him, God has blessed us – every one. Glory to God in the highest! Amen, and amen.

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