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Glory, Grace, Gratitude

 

Psalm 29:9

 

“…and in God’s temple all cry ‘Glory!'” (Ps. 29:9)

I was only eight years old when Elizabeth II was crowned. My family didn’t own a television set, and so I was sent to a neighbour’s to watch the coronation. Some parts of the service (such as the archbishop’s droning) didn’t excite me. But there was one part that did: the appearance and stately movement of Elizabeth herself. While I didn’t have, as an eight year old, the vocabulary I have now to describe the event, I can none the less recall so very clearly the impression that Elizabeth made on me. She exuded substance; there was a gravity about her, a weightiness, a force, an authority — substance. Her appearance reflected all of this, for her appearance radiated splendour, magnificence, stateliness, honour. The authority and substance that she was herself; the splendour and honour that she radiated: these together elicited from her subjects obeisance, homage, respect, even awe. The event of Elizabeth’s coming forth as sovereign was simply glorious.

The sovereign God is eversomuch more glorious. The Hebrew word for glory is kabod. Kabod means literally “weightiness” or “substance.” There is in God a weightiness, a density, a solidity, an opacity — substance — as there is nowhere else. Because God is all this, his appearance, his splendour, is weighty too. His splendour is awesome; his appearance is startling. He surges over men and women and weighs on them until they are breathless even as his splendour startles them speechless. As speech begins to return to them they can only stammer at first, then blurt as they grope for words, then speak normally as they recover from their visitation of glory.

God’s glory is God’s presence apprehended. But God’s presence is the presence of him who is more solid than anything we can imagine. God’s presence is the presence of an ever-so-dense substance whose authority is unarguable. Such a presence apprehended has to leave us awed. We can only fall on our face and render him obeisance, homage, honour, the only response the glory-visited will ever render.

 

I: — Moses cries to God, “Show me your glory!”(Ex. 33:7-23) God replies, “I will make all my goodness pass before you; I will proclaim my name before you.” Actually the two assertions are but one, for God’s name is his nature, and God’s nature is his goodness. “I will make all my goodness pass before you”; “I will proclaim my name before you”: these are one and the same, spoken twice as promise and guarantee of the one glory of God soon to be apprehended. Moses has to go to a cleft in the rock and have the rock prop him up on both sides. For in the moment that God’s glory passes by, Moses’s knees will flop like a rag doll’s; he’ll stagger like a man terribly drunk; he’ll fold up like a boxer who has taken a terrific punch to the solar plexus. Moses goes to the cleft of the rock, supported on either side as the glory of God surges over him. Is it an experience just for the sake of an experience? Is it pointless sensationalism? Is it merely the equivalent of a hallucinogenic trip? Never. In the wake of God’s glory, his presence apprehended, God renews his promise to an ungrateful and wayward Israel; God renders Moses his spokesperson; through Moses God insists that Israel is to make no compromise with paganism; any suggestion of idolatry should find the people horrified; every vestige of adoration given anywhere but to him is to be shunned. For God’s glory, unmistakable, is also undeniable.

Five hundred years later the people of Israel, having ignored Moses as much as they heeded him, are in exile. Jerusalem, their prized city, is in ruins. Having failed to repudiate idolatry in any form at any time, they are now stuck in Babylon, living among people who are nothing but idolatrous all the time. (Let me assure you, parenthetically, of a truth that courses through scripture: God unfailingly punishes sin by means of more sin. The worst consequence of sin is always more sin — by God’s ordination.) The people are crushed on account of their undeniable guilt, and despairing on account of their unrelieved bleakness. Then God’s glory overtakes Ezekiel. Ezekiel falls on his face. God says to him, “Stand up, and I will speak with you.”(Ez. 1:28) Says God, “I am sending you to an impudent and stubborn people. Still, you must speak to them the word that I give you. And whether they hear or refuse to hear, they will know that there has been a prophet among them.”(Ez. 2:4) Ezekiel speaks the word he’s been given. It cuts like a knife. Like a knife? Like a scalpel, for this word performs surgery, a heart transplant, to be exact. Those who hear and heed the prophet’s word will have their old heart of stone — hard, lifeless, inert — removed; they’ll be given a new heart of flesh, a heart that pulsates with the rhythm of God’s own heart.

Seven hundred years later still (1200 years after Moses) some shepherds are guarding sheep on a hillside when the glory of God prostrates them. Once again the unspeakable weight of God, apprehended in his splendour, has overwhelmed men who couldn’t find a rock-cleft to prop them up. They think themselves undone when they are told, “To you, sinners, a Saviour is born this day; a great joy for all people everywhere.” And in that moment it seemed that the heavens shouted, “Glory to God in the highest, and shalom among men on earth.”(Luke 2:11)

No doubt someone here today wants to complain that I’ve spoken only of episodic incursions of God’s glory visited among a handful of individuals in unusual circumstances. But where are we twentieth century types? After all, we are ordinary people in ordinary circumstances. So where are we in all this? We are precisely where the apostle John was when he exclaimed, “The Word of God became flesh and camped among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, the glory of Father and Son alike.”(John 1:14) We — you and I — have beheld his glory, or at least we should have!

 

II: — We who have beheld God’s glory in the lingering of Jesus Christ among us; who are we? We are creatures of God, to be sure; we are beloved of God, unquestionably. Still, as God’s glory engulfs us we are exposed as inglorious ourselves. God’s glory is substance; this substance exposes our unsubstantiality, our froth and frivolity, triflers and trivializers that we are. God’s glory is splendour; his splendour shows up our sordidness. God’s glory is weightiness; his denseness highlights our hollowness. God’s glory is his presence; his presence renders conspicuous our absence. Absence? Of course. Compared to the concreteness of God’s person, we are non-persons, nonentities who spout nonsense and stupidly think it to be profound.

Since God is holy and we are defiled; since God’s holiness cannot withstand even a hint of defilement, our reaction can only be that of Isaiah in the temple the day he “saw the Lord high and lifted up”, the day God’s splendour filled the temple. Isaiah could only cry, “Woe is me, for I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.”(Is. 6:1-8)

Peter and his friends have fished all night and caught nothing. Jesus steals upon them and tells them to go deeper; they must forget about splashing about in the shallows and go deeper. Peter tells Jesus he thinks the whole exercise is pointless, but out of sheer obedience, rote obedience, he’ll do what he’s told. Upon seeing the huge catch of fish Peter falls to his knees and begs Jesus to leave, crying, “Go away, for I am a sinful man.”(Luke 5:8)

John is at worship, one Sunday morning, when the Lord he longs to apprehend (isn’t this why all of us are at worship this morning?) gloriously appears before him. When John has recovered and is able to write, albeit shakily, he scribbles, “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as one dead.”(Rev. 1:17)

We must notice that Isaiah, in his aweful moment, didn’t try to excuse himself or excuse his people or negotiate with God. Instead of “Don’t be touchy now, we can work something out together”, Isaiah croaked, “I’m finished.” And the result? He wasn’t finished; he was purified with the living coal from the altar; his sin was forgiven, and he was commissioned God’s messenger to his people.

We must notice that Peter, in his aweful moment, didn’t say to Jesus, “So I was wrong about how deep to fish; I’ve been wrong before; let’s not sweat it.” Instead he pleaded with Jesus to leave, lest Christ’s presence intensify his shame. And the result? Peter is told that he will henceforth “catch” men and women for the kingdom; he will become the spokesperson for the twelve; and he will be recognized as the leader of all Christ’s people in Jerusalem.

We must notice that John, in his aweful moment, didn’t say, “At last the church service started to liven up!” Instead he could only wait until his strength returned. And the result? He penned that book — Revelation — which rings with the victory of Jesus Christ on every page.

The point I am making in all this is surely obvious: when God’s glory surges over us, when his glory meets our sin, his glory always takes the form of grace. Grace is God’s love and mercy declaring guilty people pardoned. Grace is God’s love and mercy setting crumbled people back on their feet. Grace is God’s love and mercy restoring humiliated people to dignity. Grace is God’s love and mercy granting dead people life.

None of this should surprise us. After all, Paul reminds the Christians in Rome that it was God’s glory that raised Jesus from the dead and restored him to life.(Rom. 6:4) Then why not us? And in fact Paul reminds the Christians in Corinth that God’s glory is changing them day-by-day into the likeness of Christ himself.(2 Cor. 3:18) God’s grace is God’s glory meeting our sin. And God’s glory, having brought our Lord to life, is enlivening us day-by-day as we are vivified according to our Lord’s likeness.

 

III: — Since this is indubitably the case, there is only one response that graced people like us, glorified people like us, can make. Our one response is gratitude. Our gratitude will take many forms: public worship, private devotion, secret resolve in the face of secret temptation, open support for the openly exploited, anonymous assistance on behalf of the defenceless, angry denunciation of the indefensible. Whatever form our gratitude takes, it will always be the gratitude of our heart poured out upon our Lord for grace that saved us as God’s glory met our sin.

Other people don’t understand any of this? So what! Their incomprehension is their problem. They misunderstand everything we do and misjudge our motive for doing it? ‘Twas ever thus, as we see from the story of the woman who poured her perfume on the feet of Jesus, blubbered on them and wiped feet and tears with her hair.(Luke 7:36-52) The man in whose house Jesus was a guest assumed that because this woman had a reputation as negative as it was notorious, she was up to no good. Why, anyone could see the eroticism in her seductive act! Let that man with shriveled heart and constipated affection; let him assume whatever he wants. Jesus knew that the woman couldn’t find words for a gratitude so great that greater alone was the grace that had quickened it.

For years now I have been moved as often as I have read the Heidelberg Catechism, written in 1563. The Heidelberg Catechism is the “crown jewel” of the shorter Reformation writings. I have referred to it in sermons so often that many of you can recite question and answer #1. Q#1: “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” A#1: “My only comfort, in life and in death, is that I belong, body and soul, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.” (There’s more to A#1, but we’ve said enough for now.) What about Q&A#2? Q#2: “How many things do you need to know in order that you may live and die in this comfort and blessing?” A#2: “Three things I need to know. First, how great my sin and misery is. Second, how I am redeemed from all my sin and misery. Third, how I am to be grateful to God for such redemption.” Our apprehension of God’s glory acquainted us with our sin and misery. Our apprehension of God’s glory, now dwelling among us in Jesus Christ his Son, acquainted us with our redemption. Our apprehension of God’s glory, that which raised our Lord from the dead, is similarly at work in us changing us into his likeness; this has acquainted us with the fittingness of gratitude. Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude; it’s all gratitude; the whole of the Christian life is gratitude. And in fact the Heidelberg Catechism gathers up the whole of the Christian life (Questions and Answers 86 through 129) under the heading, Gratitude. Question #86 begins the section on discipleship, and Answer #86 tells us that “with our whole life…we are to show ourselves thankful to God for his goodness.”

The people who inhaled the Heidelberg Catechism and exhaled it with every breath; they exhaled it as well with their last breath. It was written in 1563. A few years earlier the emperor, Charles V, had trampled on the Reformation and its people in eastern Germany. Those who lived in western Germany, Heidelberg, knew what was coming. Nine years later, in 1572, the St.Bartholomew’s Day massacre would explode, as 30,000 French citizens of gospel conviction were put to the sword (among them Admiral de Coligny, the highest-ranking officer in the French navy.) They died repeating to themselves, “My only comfort in life and in death…. And what do I need to know to die in this comfort and blessing? I need to know, finally, how I am to be grateful to God for my redemption. Gratitude means I shall die before I ever deny my Lord.”

What does gratitude mean for you and me today? It means eversomuch everywhere in life. In view of the special service today (Stewardship Sunday) we have to understand that it means something specific in one area of life; it means something specific with respect to our money. Our stewardship of our money has to express the truth that “with our whole life we…show ourselves thankful to God for his goodness to us.”

Can money express our whole life? How does money express something crucial about our whole life? We have to understand what God does characteristically. Characteristically God frees. From the day of Red Sea and Sinai to the day of cross and resurrection to the coming day of the kingdom’s public manifestation, God has been about one thing: freeing us. He frees us from every bondage that bespeaks our bondage to sin. Then how free are we? Our freedom with respect to money illustrates more than we think about how free we are (or aren’t) anywhere in life.

Think for a minute about the immense power money has. We all know that money talks, and we don’t hesitate to say that it talks. Money also makes people fall silent. If money both talks and silences then money is exceedingly powerful. And so it is, for we know that money bribes, money coerces, money renders the most loyal people treacherous, money renders the strongest-willed suggestible, money punishes, money perverts, money seduces. So powerful is money that there’s nothing money can’t do. Then does it have us in its might grasp? Are we Christians tyrannized by it too? We like to say we are free with respect to money, but nobody believes us. Nobody believes us for one reason: the only freedom there is with respect to money is the freedom to give it away. All other talk about freedom with respect to money is the rationalizing of the self-deluded, for the only freedom with respect to money is the freedom to give it away.

God’s glory is God’s presence apprehended. To be acquainted with his glory is to have had his glory slay us and resurrect us, condemn us and pardon us, discard us and conscript us, kill us and comfort us. To be acquainted with his glory is to know that we are being changed into the likeness of Jesus Christ as we are freed day-by-day from bondages known and unknown. Freed? Are we really being freed? Everywhere in life? Even with respect to our money? How do we know? Who would ever believe us? The answer to the last six questions is declared by one truth: the only freedom we have with respect to money is the freedom to give it away.

For a long time now I have known that we aren’t going to give it away until we are genuinely freed, and we aren’t going to be freed until we are constrained to cry with the psalmist, “And in God’s temple — in church, Sunday-by-Sunday in church — all cry, ‘Glory!

 

                                                                         Victor Shepherd    

October 1997