Monday, November 15, 2010

Anchors for the Storm: Glory to God Alone

Preached Sunday, November 14, 2010

Scripture Readings: Psalm 96; Romans 11:33-36; John 17:1-24

I have told some of you about Roger, who was a friend of mine during my seminary days. Roger loved to sing, but he couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. When I was sitting next to Roger in chapel, and we were singing hymns, when the music went up Roger went down, and when the music went down Roger went up, and he wasn’t singing harmony. He had absolutely no idea what pitch we were singing, and I don’t think he even knew, by actual experience, what the word “pitch” means. But Roger loved to sing.

Some people, when they know they can’t carry a tune, stop singing completely. The very thought of singing embarrasses them. Roger knew perfectly well that he wasn’t doing what anyone else was doing when we sang, but he didn’t care.

He told me that, when music was going on, he felt it inside him and he wanted to join in. He wouldn’t let the fact that he couldn’t sing stop him from enjoying that music. He told me this because I was young enough, in those days, to be much ruder than I am now, and I just came straight out and asked him about this. Why do you sing?

Once I understood this, it was fun sitting next to Roger in chapel. It was all I could do to keep from laughing, and he knew it. Sometimes, when it was really bad, I would catch his eye, and he would just give me a knowing look.

This is important, because it helps us understand something about glory, and especially about the glory of God. It helps us understand why it is that God seems to want glory.

For God to love glory is like what it is to love of music. The best way to understand glory is to soak it in from the poetry and music of the Bible. The Book of Psalms is the hymnbook of the Old Testament. And, if you really learn about that ancient poetry, you will find that most of the places in the Old Testament that speak of the glory of God are at least on the verge of poetry, or else it’s just meant to be sung out loud.

“Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, praise his name; proclaim his salvation day after day. Declare his glory among the nations.” (Psalm 96:1-3) The glory of God is like joyful music. The glory of God is like the invitation to sing.

With God there is something to sing about: for “the Lord made the heavens.” (96:5) “Proclaim his salvation day after day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples.” (96:2-3)

The creation of the heavens and the earth, the story of salvation (which is new life for the soul, and the healing of wounds, and the restoring of all losses, and the mending of all tragedies, and the new heavens and the new earth): these are truly works of love. These things are like joyful music. To give glory to God is to take part in the music of something worth celebrating.

When the Washtucna football team wins a game, they sing a victory song on the field. They don’t sing it very well, but they sing it with gusto.

I don’t believe they sing it because they think they are really great. They sing because they are happy. They are relieved. The thing is done. They have won, and it is a great thing to win. They are happy.

They have put all they had into a game; or they have watched their teammates play and give their two-hundred percent, just as their coaches want. When you have won, after all that, you have a natural invitation to sing.

Some seasons, the song doesn’t get sung as often as we would like. But the fact that such a song exists reminds us that the enjoyment of glory is not necessarily selfish or egotistical. It is just happy. It isn’t a bad thing to enjoy the glory of being happy. Glory is at the essence of what God does and who God is.

There is an ultimate game (an extreme game) that is being played on the field we call the heavens and the earth. At the end of this ultimate game (this extreme game) a victory song will be sung, and part of the beauty of this game is that even our defeats, and our injuries and our losses play into the victory.

The Lord is the team captain and the play-maker. The Lord is the player on whom the whole team depends. The Lord does not play for the glory of egotism but for the glory of happiness. God relishes that victory song.

“Proclaim his salvation day after day.” Salvation is shorthand for a long story that includes everything that has ever happened and ever will happen. Salvation is a story, most of all, of everything that God has done, and everything that God will do.

“Ascribe to the Lord, O families of nations, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering and come into his courts. Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness; tremble before him, all the earth.” (96:7-9)

The writer of this psalm pictured the whole world coming to the temple in Jerusalem. The temple was the place where one could worship and watch the sacrifice that was made for the forgiveness of sin. The temple was where the scriptures were kept safe and whole.

Everything was there. The celebration of God’s creation was there. The story of the fall of our world into sin, and misery, and disaster was there. The story of the calling of a people to be God’s people, who would be a blessing to all other people, was there. The history of everything that happened to those people was kept there; their stubbornness, their lack of faith in God, their repeated betrayals of God, their worship of other things besides God, their repeated times of repentance and grace.

It was all there to be sung about. It was all a part of what God was up to, and it was all a part of God’s glory.

In the temple, the pattern of what God is about could be seen: a pattern of love and victory. In this world we often don’t see God’s patterns. Sometimes we see only random events like random dots on a canvas.

There was a French painter of the late eighteen hundreds who made his paintings out of tiny drops of paint on the canvas. If you stand too close to his paintings you see nothing but dots. You don’t see the pattern that makes the dots into a portrait, or a landscape.

Worry, fear, anger, and doubt are like taking a position in life that puts us too close to events to see the pattern they form. We only see random, meaningless spots. Faith means standing at the right distance to see the whole picture and what it means.

There are medical cases where, as a result of a stroke or tumor, a person becomes unable to recognize their wife, their husband, or anyone at all. This is not dementia, because these people remember the other person clearly, but not their face. They can’t recognize the familiar pattern of the face. (See the writings of Dr. Oliver Sacks)

In fact there is a rare condition one can be born with of having various degrees of inability to recognize faces. People with this condition recognize voices, and clothing, and even smells, but not faces. They lack the ability to see the pattern that is always with them; the pattern of a familiar face of another person who is the center of their life. The pattern is there, but they don’t see it.

It is hard to join in singing the music of the glory of God when we cannot see the pattern of his love and his victory. The worship and the sacrifices in the temple told the story of salvation from the point where the pattern could be seen. They clarified that pattern for those who had forgotten it.

The scriptures also tell us the story of our salvation, with all its ups, and downs, and repetitions. We even see the pattern in the enormous length of the story: the centuries of the story that leads up to Jesus.

The story of God coming down into our world in the impoverished birth of Jesus, in Bethlehem, shows us the pattern of how God loves and wins. The story of the long quiet years of the childhood of Jesus, and the long quiet years of his work in the carpenter’s shop shows us how God loves and wins. The wandering life of Jesus on the road as a teacher and a healer of the sick, followed by his brutal and gruesome death on the cross; the resurrection, and the ascending of Jesus into heaven: all show us the pattern of how God loves and wins. These all show us God’s glory, and they all show us something only God can do; something only God can give.

Remember that we are looking at phrases that help summarize things in the Bible that keep us safe, just as anchors in a storm keep a ship safe from being tossed and broken by the waves, or driven onto rocks. One of those anchors is the phrase “to God alone be the glory”; or, “glory to God alone”.

For the most part, I don’t think we usually think of wanting glory for ourselves, and we may have trouble thinking about God loving glory without having some unsavory thoughts about God. After all we have been taught that it is not right for us to go around looking for glory, and it is hard for us to imagine it being right for God.
There are a few reasons why glory should be given to God alone.

One reason why glory should be given to God alone is that it is the only safe thing to do with glory. It is safe to give glory to God because God doesn’t need glory.
If we have a notion of what it means to seek glory we think it has something to do with self-seeking. We want something for ourselves. We want some measure of control. We might even seek glory as a substitute for love, because we don’t understand love.
God is the only safe focus for glory because he doesn’t need it. I think God doesn’t need glory because God is love (1 John 4:8).

People use other people for glory without giving it a name, because to give it a name would be rude. We use people for our own glory because we are not very good at love. We try to be in control because we don’t trust love. We don’t think it is enough.

We can’t trust God because we don’t trust love. Perhaps we can’t grasp the concept of being truly loved by God and so we seek substitutes. We even may make our religion into a glory-machine, a thing to make us important and impressive to others, and to ourselves. We turn religion into a means of achieving mastery.

With God, it is not like that. The universe does not revolve around us, but everything comes from God, and continues through God’s care. Everything has a purpose from God that is known only to God. Everything is intended to lead us to God, if we will let it.

Paul says something like this in the verses in Romans that we read. “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.” (Romans 11:36)

Now there is glory, showing up again. It’s true that there is control in that glory. God is in control. But God’s glory is not aimed at control. It is aimed at mercy, which is another way of saying that God’s glory is his love.

Paul, through whole chapters of his letter to the Romans, has been dealing with the mystery of history. Especially Paul has been struggling with the observation that the human race, in its rebellion and fallenness, seems to throw up obstacles and resistance to God at every step of the way. Human nature even seems able to take the gifts, and the blessings, and the callings, and the promises of God, and tries to use them against God himself.

So Paul writes about God’s radical measures to deal with this problem. In Romans 11:32 he writes: “God has bound all people over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.”

It is a way of saying that God has let us be ourselves in order that he could be himself and show that his grace and love can make the difference. And that is what makes Paul sing about the glory of God. It is the glory of God to give us the glory of mercy.

In John we see into the heart of God before the creation of the universe. We see that the everlasting nature of God is to give glory. Jesus is praying to his Father like this, “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.” (John 17:4-5)

The everlasting glory of the Son is to give glory to the Father, and the everlasting glory of the Father is to give glory to the Son. They are always giving each other glory. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as well, are an eternal fountain of glory-giving.

So God does not need glory from us. In himself, from everlasting, God is a love that loves to give glory as an expression of love.

In the Biblical languages, the word “glory” carries the impression of light and weight. Here is how the Bible expresses this. Isaiah says, “Arise and shine, for thy light has come and the glory of the Lord has arisen upon thee.” (Isaiah 60:1) Paul says, “This slight, momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” (2 Corinthians 4:17)

Glory reveals, as light does. Glory is like a light that makes you see things in a way that shows you that you have never really seen anything so great before.

What does weight have to do with glory? Car-makers design car doors to shut with a certain sound that makes people think that their cars are built solid and heavy. They build a glorious sound into their car doors. The glory of God is the sense of something being more substantial, more solid, and more real than anything you have seen or heard before.

When Jesus glorifies his Father it is because he reveals his Father, and it is because he shows the solidness of the Father. And the Father gives the same glory back. What is the solidness of the Father and of the Son? It is the cross. Solidness, in God’s case, is a faithfulness you can trust, because it will inevitably involve him in the cross, for your sake.

Jesus’ glory (that shows the Father’s glory) is the cross, and the resurrection. This has been done to take away the sins of the world. (John 1:29) God has done this for all people, to “have mercy on them all.” (Romans 11:32)

We say “glory to God alone” because God has done the incredible, the impossible, the inconceivable. God has done for the world (God has done for us) what no one else could do.

And God has done this in order to give us as a gift to himself, for his own joy. This is his glory. Jesus prays about this, in this way, as he prays for us and for those who will believe through us: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20-21)

We are like plants rooted in the soil of God, and rained on by the love and nurture of God. We are like plants whose roots, when they are healthy, grow deeper and deeper, protected from drought and frost. How can a plant boast about its good soil and the rain that makes it grow? To God alone be the glory!

To say that the glory belongs to God alone does not mean that we have a God who is hungry for glory. It means that we have a God who loves to give glory, and such a glory can come from no other place.

To say “Glory to God alone” is to respond to an invitation by God to live by learning how to trust. It means we can live without giving our life the “white-knuckle treatment”. It means not having to be afraid and worried all the time.
Since it is the glory of God to be a giver, it means being a giver yourself. Since the glory of God is faithfully merciful, living for the glory of God alone means being merciful.

It means you can connect the dots of life and see the patterns of God. You see how God loves, and how God wins. You see the cross and the resurrection, and you live accordingly because that is where God is, and there alone is the glory. Glory be to God alone.

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