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Glory of God: Glory (Isaiah 35:1-10)
There are just a few weeks until Christmas. If your first reaction to that statement was anxiety over things not done, plans not carried out -- if you do not have the "spirit of Christ" but have become dis-spirited by Christmas -- welcome to the crowd. It is a cliche, but with more than a modicum of truth. In the busyness, hustle and panic of this season, it is difficult to be still even for a moment to hear the strange message coming through a crackling department store sound system: "Glory to God in the highest ...."
What can it mean? Is there a word here in all the pagan celebration about the deepest things in life? It's a major victory if we just take the time to ask, even if we feel there really are no answers. We believe it is like the reporter asking a man, "What is the secret of living to one hundred years of age?" His response was, "Well, you get to be ninety-nine and then you are very, very careful." That seems to be the highest vision, "just getting through" not only Christmas but life itself.
Is there a higher vision than that? The Spanish philosopher Unamuno said, "May God deny you peace but give you glory." He was speaking to people who want more out of life than being careful or just getting through it. For there are those who have a zest for life, who seek the glory of being fully alive now.
In addition to experiencing all of life's exciting sights, sounds, smells, there is a need to do or produce something that goes beyond life. "Will I be remembered by something I did, achieved, contributed? Will it be by something that lives on in my children?" This is a quest for glory, though we may not call it that, which launches into the hurly burly, grabbing for all the "gusto" we can.
What we seem to grab is air. The glory we long for is real, but it cannot be wrested from the gods as Prometheus' fire. For the first thing we must know is that glory comes from God.
Glory does not come from piling up our accomplishments and then standing astride those achievements so all can see us. It comes from seeing the glory of God. Once you have seen it, you are never really the same again. That was Isaiah 35; looking past exile and estrangement he could say, "They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God." Whatever that glory is, it seems to have the power to startle those who see it, from exiles to shepherds.
When I was in high school, our youth group would sometimes go on a retreat. We went to a beautiful place called "Uplook Lodge." One of the adults with us did not seem to fit the youth leader stereotype. He was Harvard-educated, very successful in business, yet the reserved, dignified type. He shocked us one morning by arising at dawn (we had just gone to sleep after talking all night) and exclaiming at the top of his lungs, "Glory, glory!," at what he had seen in the sunrise. Aberrant behavior? Perhaps it was like William Blake being asked if when he saw the sun he saw a disk the size of a small coin. He said, "Oh no, I see a multitude of the heavenly host singing and praising the Lord."
Ezekiel had such a vision that could only be described as light unapproachable. "Glory" for him was the light the Holy gives off. Glory is a lure, a beacon that calls us to a higher reality.
Madeline L'Engle, the gifted author, tells of a memory of her childhood. When little more than a baby, she was taken to her grandmother's cottage on a deserted stretch of beach in northern Florida. She was picked up from her crib so she could see the stars outside. It made an indelible impression on her. It had stretched her sense of beauty, of God. The God in her infant prayers had become much more than the biggest parent. This experience became "the foundation of all other such glimpses of glory."
She had been touched by the infinite. In the Old Testament, "glory" literally meant "weighty," something of substance. To have a vision of even the light that surrounds the holy is to see not the ethereal, but that which is solid. This glory is enduring and effects change in all that see and believe.
It was Handel who said, after writing the "Hallelujah Chorus": "I did think I did see all Heaven before me and the great God Himself." It was in this writing of a masterpiece -- which is still a wonder to us as we are swept away by its reflected glory -- that he mellowed and came to see that he was not the creator but an instrument of the Creator. The changes became clear to many for, before that time, he was known for his ability to swear in five languages. Now the one who had seen the glory of God was considerably more kind and gentle in tongue and temper.
This great work of Handel brings to mind the second mark of God's glory; it shines brightest in the darkness of human need and longing.
That is the story of Bethlehem: "In thy dark streets shineth the ever lasting light." God's greatest glory came in a time of darkness and despair. The prophetic voice had been silent, the light had gone out in Israel just as it had in the exile. Yet God broke through in human flesh, the star led to a stable, the magnificent light to a manger. Those who could see God in human form were no longer wandering in darkness. That was the hope of Isaiah fulfilled. He says in Isaiah 34:5, and it is sung in Handel's Messiah, "Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened."
The eye opening of God's glory comes often when darkness surrounds us, as it did for Handel. At age fifty-six, he was in the depths of mental depression, his career and his finances were bankrupt, he had made enemies in high places. Once the toast of London society, he was now called, in his adopted country of England, "that German nincompoop." By 1741, he had used up the last of his friends and resources. Yet it was in this very dark year that the light of the Messiah broke in upon him.
Isn't this when Christ -- the Messiah -- comes in power? Isn't it when the voice of God seems muted, the light of His presence dim; after the death of a loved one, a painful divorce, a crushing defeat; that Christ, the glory of God, comes to save us, to bring hope into a climate of despair? When we come to the end of ourselves and the limits of our own power to experience glory, then comes the salvation Isaiah promised long ago. Now is God's glory, our salvation, seen when the hands weak from grief are strengthened, the knees ready to buckle from the load of a feared medical diagnosis are steadied, made firm.
Glory, then, is from God alone. It is made known to us through Christ who was faithful even in the darkness of the cross and our sin. But that's not the end. That's the beginning, for in Christ we beheld His glory full of grace and truth. That glory now holds us and shapes us. It is that grace and truth which is now to be seen in us. Christ, in us, the hope of glory.
One of the Christian Church's patriarchs, Irenaeus, said it best: "The glory of God is a man (or woman) fully alive." The hope of glory is not just "pie in the sky by and by" -- it is to be fully alive now. That's the glory of God!
To see the glory of God is to be transformed. It is to look so steadily at God's Christ that our lives become less narrow, confined, crippled. We become released from our self-imposed but often unconscious prisons of self-centeredness and indifference.
The debut of Handel's Messiah was performed for the benefit of those in jails and hospitals. From that one concert, 142 men in debtor's prison were freed. What a picture of the effects of seeing God's glory; release for the captive. It was more than a symbol. Handel had been deeply hurt by those who had pirated his early versions of the Messiah and performed them without his knowledge or permission. Yet he asked one of the persons who had wronged him and participated in the pirating to sing in the debut performance as an act of forgiveness. He was freed from the prison of bitterness.
To be fully alive means to live out our work or vocation to the glory of God. Thomas Carlyle said of one person, "He was born a man and died a grocer." The greatest Christian vocation is to be not just a grocer, or homemaker, salesperson, composer or preacher, but to be what you are to the glory of God.
It was Bach who wrote on each score he produced, "Only to the glory of God." The epitaph to a certain John Smith in England who "for forty years cobbled shoes to the glory of God" seems a pious fable to us now, because we produce more Christian talk than workmanship. The greatest testimony to the glory of God is the man William Barclay knew who was known for "building his Christianity into his house." What are we building to the glory of God?
See God's glory, accept and follow His Christ, be fully alive in all you do!
This and other information on Handel's Messiah from Richard I. Dinwiddie, "Messiah," Christianity Today, Dec. 17, 1982.
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