Christmas cards come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and the covers portray various themes some Christian, but most quite secular– snow scenes, Christmas puddings, Father Christmas, presents and trees. Not surprisingly clergy tend to receive a high proportion of religious cards – mostly Madonna’s and mangers and magi. This year we had a card of a painting of five fat nuns on ice skates. Now I have nothing against ice-skating or of nuns (large or small); and it's highly commendable that these worthy ladies were exercising after eating their Christmas dinner. But why are they on a Christmas card? Strangely no one had signed the card – so I don't know who sent it! Perhaps it was Sister Wendy – I don't know! So next year, in my attempt to save the planet and to recycle things, if you receive a card showing five fat nuns on ice skates, you will know who sent it!
But (more seriously) what theme or idea best expresses the truth concerning the Incarnation – of God becoming man in the birth of Jesus Christ? Obviously light is a powerful theme (of the light shining in the darkness); another is of the sheer wonder and grace of God in condescending to become man; another powerful theme is that of glory, and that is our theme tonight – The glory of God.
INTRODUCTION-THE GLORY OF GOD
By way of introduction, may I share with you something of the preparation for tonight's sermon? It came to me from both the OT and the NT. First, from the OT. Over the past year I've been reading and studying the Psalms, and some months ago I was particularly struck by the opening words of Psalm 29:1-2.
Ascribe to the Lord, O mighty ones,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due to his name;
worship the Lord in the splendour of his holiness
Here are three great biblical themes of glory – worship – holiness. And the psalmist goes onto reflect upon the creator God; of the Lord enthroned above his people; and of the response of the worshippers in the temple who cried 'glory' – and majesty, and honour and praise! Of course for us too these themes of glory, and worship and holiness should also evoke from us praise and worship. They are expressed in the words of the Epiphany hymn – 'O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, bow down before him, his glory proclaim.'
Second, from the NT. Recently in re-reading the Christmas narrative in Luke 1-2, I was struck by what is not present in much of our celebration of Christmas, and so we miss what is at heart of the festival. Frequently we refer to the main players in the drama - to Zechariah and Elizabeth; to Joseph and Mary; to John the Baptist and Jesus the Saviour; to the shepherds and the magi (though technically they belong to Epiphany rather than to Christmas).
But it struck me, what about the angels and the angel Gabriel? What part do they play in the birth of Christ?
And what of the Holy Spirit who is mentioned six times in Lk 1-2? What part does he play in the birth of Christ?
And what too of the glory of God? How much is that expressed in the birth of Christ; and in our celebration of Christmas?
Look at the three references in Luke 2:9, 14, 20:
1 The shepherds in the fields (2:9) who saw the glory of the Lord, and were terrified. But they were reassured by the words of the angel 'Do not be afraid' (2:10).
Notice their holy fear before the glory of God.
2 The heavenly host (2:13-14) who appeared with the angelic messenger and who broke forth into a tumultuous outburst of praise. 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests.' (2:14).
Notice their assurance of peace within the glory of God.
3 The shepherds on their journey. 'The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen' (2:20).
Notice their response to what they had seen and heard; what they saw and heard provoked them into spontaneous praise and adoration. 'O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, bow down before him, his glory proclaim.'
So then in these three verses from Luke 2 we have some clear reference to the glory of God - Objectively observed – it was seen and heard. Inwardly experienced – in responsive praise and worship. What I wonder, is our response to the divine disclosure in the Incarnation, and expressed as the glory of God? Not as some idea or abstract theological doctrine, but as an expression of our heart-felt response to Almighty God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit whom we encounter in the Christmas narrative.
I wonder what sort of response do we make to the glory of God? Is our response one of owe and reverence? Is our experience one of peace and security? Is our response one of responsive praise and adoration? Think back, for a moment, over the past year can you recall times of owe and reverence? Peace and security? Praise and adoration? 'O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, bow down before him, his glory proclaim.'
Secondly, THE GLORY OF GOD IN SCRIPTURE
What does scripture teach us about the glory of God? Let's look at the OT and the NT:
1. In the OT
The glory of God is concerned with revelation – of God revealing himself and in making himself known. He who is invisible is made manifest.
The glory of God reveals something of God's essential nature and character and presence. It speaks of whom he is.
The glory of God evokes from human beings a sense of awe and wonder and worship. Before him we can but only fall down!
Now this divine disclosure might be very dramatic:
1 It could be through the creation. In his commentary on the Psalms John Calvin refers to the heavenly bodies 'preaching the glory of God like a teacher in a seminary of learning' (Ps 19:4 – Vol 1, p313). As you see the stars in the sky give glory to the divine teacher!
2 It could be through God's activity. In Psalm 29 ('the thunderstorm-Psalm') the divine disclosure is found in a great storm which shatters giant trees, and shakes the mountains and the forked lightening illuminates the skies. No wonder then that the response of the people was to shout 'glory'.
3 Elsewhere the glory of God is materialised in terms of the cloud or shekinah – the radiance or presence of God among his people – leading them, guiding them, accompanying them. The cloud that led the people in the wilderness (remember the pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night?) (Ex 13:21). This was the shekinah, the cloud of the presence of the glory of God. The glory of God was seen by Moses on Mt Sinai (Ex 24:16-17). Moses saw God's glory, but not his face (Ex 33:20). The pledge of the divine favour then unseen by human eyes, was later to be revealed in the person of the LJC.
The cloud of the presence of God filled the tabernacle in the wilderness (Ex 40:34-38) and in the the first temple in Jerusalem. 'When the priests withdrew from the holy place, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord. And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled his temple' (1 K 8:10-11). Here was the very presence of God himself! But notice that though the cloud was present in the first temple, it was absent in the second. God had withdrawn his presence from them.
To summarise: The presence of the Lord was tabernacled among his people. Seen by them in the cloud, the shekinah And it evoked from them wonder and worship and praise.
2. In the NT
In the NT the glory of the God is made known in and through the person and work of Christ. In John 1:14 we are told that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (or the Word of God became flesh and was tabernacled among us). And John's testimony was clear: 'We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son full of grace and truth (Jn 1:14). And also in Heb 1:3 – 'The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being.' In other words the glory of God was manifest in Jesus; tabernacled in him, revealed in him. The glory of God was made plain in the Incarnation..
Now you may say, 'I can't see God, so what is he like?' 'Show me your God, and I will believe in him'! The answer is clear - Look into the face of Jesus! He reveals the glory of God. He manifests the glory of God.
Consider how the glory of God was made plain.
At the birth of Jesus it was seen by the shepherds (Lk 2:9, 20). In the ministry of Jesus by the various signs that he performed (Jn 2:11; 11:4, 40). And the glory of God was particularly evident on the Mount of the Transfiguration (Lk 9:28ff). The glory of God was displayed in Jesus' death and resurrection; and in his ascension, and will be evident too at his second coming.
To summarise: The presence of the Lord was tabernacled among his people and manifested in the person of Jesus. He whom we worship and adore.
And the NT also makes it clear that the glory of God is revealed in the church (2 Cor 4:3-6). It is revealed too: In the lives of its worshippers – including you and me! In our witness and mission (Rom 15:9) and service. In the worship of the church in heaven: 'Amen. Praise and glory, and wisdom and thanks and honour and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen' (Rev 7:12).
The glory of God is revealed to us in the person and work of the LJC. And Christmas we remember the glory of God revealed in the Incarnation, the birth of Christ.
No wonder then that the heavenly host praised God and sang, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests' (Lk 2:14).
That's why praise and worship should be our heartfelt response to the birth of Jesus. That's why praise and worship should be our heartfelt response to the Saviour.
Thirdly, THE GLORY OF GOD IN CHRISTIAN TEACHING
The theologians of old were clear about one thing. Those divines in the seventeenth century who framed the Westminster Catechism were right when they began with the question, 'What is the chief end of man?' and the answer they gave was crystal clear, 'Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever'. (Shorter Catechism). What of us?
'What is the chief end of man – of you and me?'
'Our chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever'.
Why are we here? What are we here for? To testify as individual believers? To witness as members of the church?
Yes, of course we are! But our primary purpose in coming to faith in God is not to witness to Christ but to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever. One of the Puritans (Thomas Watson) referred to Christian believers as 'God admirers'. He said, 'To glorify God is to have God-admiring thoughts; to esteem him most excellent, and to search for diamonds in this rock only'.
(T. Watson, Body of Divinity, p7).
And our response to God is clear. It is to be one of heartfelt praise and worship. Why? Because God loves us. God made us. God called us. God forgave us. God restored us. God provides for us. Yes, the heavens declare the glory of God (Ps 19:1) in the wonder of creation, in the sun, the moon and the stars. And we as God's creatures, we too are to praise and glorify him. And the glory of God is made evident in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ: whom we worship and adore! Our aim is not for self-glory, but God's glory. We are to glorify God by believing (Rom 4:20). By being faithful (Jn 15:8). By living a holy life (1 Pt 2:9). By standing up for the truth (Jude 3).
The challenge this Christmas tide is clear. How do we give glory to God in our lives, our homes, our place of work, and above all in our worship? And in the year ahead, we need to determine that as we come here week by week, that we truly worship the Lord and ascribe to him the honour due to him and the praise that he deserves. To prostrate ourselves before him and to echo the song of the angels: 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests' (Lk 2:14). In the year ahead, may I encourage you to look to the Lord, and to determine to live your life to the glory of God, so that whether it be in our work or our witness we may truly worship and praise the Lord and to glorify him and to enjoy him for ever.
'O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, bow down before him, his glory proclaim. With gold of obedience, and incense of lowliness, kneel and adore him, the Lord is his name. '