Tonight we are singing words that were first formed on the lips of angels: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14). Thus begins the Gloria, an ancient hymn of the church often sung as part of the communion service. And thus sang the angels when they greeted the shepherds with the happy news of a Savior’s birth. “Glory to God!”
I may be wrong about this, but the word “glory” seems to be falling out of favor. It is still used in church, of course, but it is not the kind of word one expects to read in the newspaper, or to overhear in a conversation on the train. Gardeners still plant “Morning Glories,” and very occasionally someone will refer to the American flag as “Old Glory,” but by and large things are not as glorious as they used to be.
It is not hard to figure out why. Glory belongs to God. He alone deserves all the glory. Anything else that we might consider glorious–like a “glorious day,” for example, or a “glorious sunset”–is only glorious because it comes from God, and thus reflects his glory. But we are not very interested in God. Obviously, that is true of people who are outside the church; if you had a lively interest in God, you would come and worship him more often than you do. But often people inside the church aren’t very interested in God, either. We are so busy with our friends and our families, our work and our play–and even our ministries–that we do not make very much time for God. It is all too rare for our thoughts and our dreams to be absorbed in the beauty and wonder of our Creator. Dare I say it? Much of the time, God bores us. We would rather do almost anything except give our undivided attention and our undistracted worship to Almighty God.
According to Webster’s Dictionary, glory is “praise, honor, or distinction extended by common consent.” “Extended by common consent”–that phrase implies that in order for God to receive glory, there must be some sort of agreement that he deserves praise, honor, and distinction. But that is precisely what is missing! There is no widespread acknowledgement in the popular culture, or perhaps even in the Christian church, that God and God alone deserves the loudest praise, the greatest honor, and the grandest distinction. As a result, we are living in inglorious times.
We are here tonight to give the glory back to God. It is especially fitting for us to glorify him in song, because music has the power to touch the transcendent. Johann Sebastian Bach claimed that “the aim and final reason… of all music… . should be none else but the Glory of God and recreation of the mind.” If this is true of all music, then it is especially true of the kind of music we are playing and singing tonight–music written for the explicit purpose of glorifying God. In his essay “On Church Music,” C. S. Lewis observed that such music “glorifies God by being excellent… . In the composition and highly-trained execution of sacred music we offer our natural gifts at their highest to God.” That is what we are doing tonight: glorifying God with excellent praise, offering him the very best of our talents.
If we are here to give God the glory, we need to know what glory is, and why God deserves it. As we have already mentioned, glory means “praise, honor, or distinction.” But for a fuller definition, the place to turn is the Bible.
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for “glory” (kavod) comes from the word for “heavy” (kaved). The word was first used to describe things that were heavy in the literal, physical sense. So, for example, the Bible describes Eli as “heavy,” which is a polite way of saying that he was fat (1 Sam. 4:18). The word was also used more figuratively to describe anything substantial or impressive. Thus the Bible says that Abraham was “heavy,” not because he needed to go on a diet, but because he was rich. “Abram had become very wealthy (literally, “very heavy”) in livestock and in silver and gold” (Gen. 13:2). It is not hard to see why the Hebrew word for “heavy” eventually came to be used to describe anyone who deserved honor or recognition: warriors, princes, judges, and other men of influence and prestige. In modern English, we would call them “heavyweights.” In Hebrew, they were said to be kavod; that is to say, glorious.
The New Testament word for glory has a similar meaning. It is the Greek word doxa, which originally referred to having “an opinion,” but eventually came to mean having a high opinion of some great person, like a king. To give someone glory was to give him the honor that his reputation demanded.
It is not hard to see why the Bible took these words–the Hebrew word for heavy and the Greek word for honor–and applied them to God. God is the biggest heavyweight of all. He has the highest position and the weightest reputation in the whole universe. In a word, he is glorious.
There is one more aspect to glory, and that is its visible manifestation as a bright and shining light. There would be no way for human beings to experience God’s glory unless somehow he showed it to us. That is why God has given us glimpses of his glory. On occasion–and the historical accounts are recorded in the Bible–God has revealed himself in a cloud of brilliant, dazzling light. For example, God led the people out of Egypt with a cloud of light by day and a pillar of fire by night. The Bible calls this radiant, luminescent cloud the glory of the LORD (Exod. 16:10). The prophet Ezekiel saw this glory-cloud–sometimes called the “shekinah” glory–at the temple in Jerusalem. The glory of the LORD… filled the temple, and the court was full of the radiance of the glory of the LORD (Ezek. 10:4). What Ezekiel saw was a visible manifestation of God’s glory. It was the outward brilliance of God’s inward essence, what the great Puritan theologian Thomas Watson called “the sparkling of the Deity.”
To summarize, the biblical terminology for glory has two aspects. One is the renown God deserves because of the weightiness of his reputation. The other is radiant and resplendent light. Both of these aspects were brought together in a newsletter recently published by Wycliffe Bible Translators. The letter described the frustration of a woman who was trying to help a group of natives translate the Bible into their own tribal language. “After struggling through six pages of explanations and references for the Greek word ‘doxa,’ commonly translated ‘glory,’ she took a walk to ponder the problem. Suddenly she saw the brilliant red sky of the setting sun. It was a perfect illustration of two meanings of the Greek word she had tried so hard to convey: ‘A brilliant light in the sky’ and ‘something beautiful and wonderful’.”
That glorious sunset enabled the tribesmen to identify the best words for “glory” in their own language. Once they learned the right vocabulary, they were able to give God the glory. To give God glory is simply to give him the honor, and the praise, and the worship that his reputation demands. There is no way we can make God any more glorious than he already is. But what we can do is to hold him in the highest regard, giving him the transcendent praise of which he alone is worthy.
That is what the Gloria does: It takes what the Bible teaches about God and sets it to music to help us give God all the glory he deserves: “We praise thee, we bless thee, we worship thee, we glorify thee. We give thee thanks.” Why? “For thy great glory.” God is worthy of all our praise and worship. When we give him the glory, we are simply telling it like it is, declaring that he is the God of all glory.
The Gloria reminds us of some of the reasons God is so glorious. One is the great mystery of his triune being. The one true God exists in three persons–the Father, the Son (who is also called Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit. The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God; yet there is only one God. So the Gloria gives praise to the “Lord God, King of Heaven, God the Father Almighty.” It also gives praise to the “Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son… of the Father.” At the very end it praises the Father and the Son “together with the Holy Spirit.”
This is the biblical doctrine of the Trinity: One God in three persons. There is God the Father, who rules over all; God the Son, who came to be the Savior; and God the Spirit, who lives in the heart of every child of God. There are three persons; nevertheless, there is only one God. This is not easy to understand, but remember, this is God we’re talking about, and we should not expect to understand everything about him. One of the reasons God is so glorious–so heavy, so weighty, and so honorable–is because of his three-in-one being. Even if we do not understand this mystery, at least we can praise God for it, giving glory to the Father, glory to the Son, and glory to the Holy Spirit… always remembering that when we give glory to Father, Son, and Spirit, we are giving glory to the one true God.
We mentioned earlier that there would be no way for us to experience God’s glory unless somehow he revealed it to us. There is a visible aspect to God’s invisible glory, and in order for us to see it, he has to show it to us. That is exactly why God sent his Son Jesus. God sent his one and only eternal Son into the world to become a human being. First he was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary. Then he was born in a stable, where his parents laid him in a manger and called him Jesus. When the angels came to announce his birth, they sang, “Glory to God in the highest.” It was the very first Gloria.
The angels gave glory to God because there was something glorious about God sending his Son, Jesus Christ, into the world. The Bible says that “the Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Heb. 1:3). In other words, if you want to know what God is like, if you want to see his glory, all you have to do is look at Jesus.
First you look at Jesus in the manger. There is nothing glorious about a manger; it is just a feeding trough for farm animals. But there–in the manger–you see that God the very Son became a real human being of flesh and blood. You join the angels in giving “glory to God in the highest” for the gift of his beloved Son.
Then you look at Jesus on the cross. There is nothing glorious about a cross either; it is just a rough piece of wood. But there–on the cross–you see that Jesus offered his life as a perfect sacrifice for sin. You sing the words of the Gloria: “Lord Jesus Christ… who takes away the sins of the world.” The way Jesus took those sins away was by allowing himself to be crucified. He was nailed–bleeding–to that rough piece of wood, and there he died. Death is the just punishment for sin, and Jesus suffered that punishment on the cross in the place of sinners.
But that is not all. Now you look to Jesus on the throne. The manger and the cross are in the past. Jesus is not lying in the manger. Nor is he hanging on the cross. He is ruling from God’s throne, and there is always something glorious about a throne. In the words of the Gloria, he “sits at the right hand of the Father.” For after Jesus died on the cross, God raised him from the dead and lifted him up to heaven, where all his glory shines. Jesus was resurrected in a glorious new body of dazzling splendor. Now the full weight of God’s perfect being shines through God’s Son.
If you want to see the glory of God, all you have to do is look to Jesus. That takes faith, of course. Since you have never seen Jesus with your own eyes, you will have to believe that what the Bible says about him is true: that he was born in a manger as a real human being, that he died on the cross a saving death for sin, and that he was raised to God’s throne in heavenly glory. Looking to Jesus in faith also means asking him to forgive your sins. You will never see the glory of God if you insist on living for your own glory. Instead, you have to ask God to have mercy on you, and to forgive your many sins, saying, “Lord Jesus Christ… who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on me.”
Then you will you be able to give God the glory, saying, “Thou alone art holy, thou alone art Lord. Thou alone art most high, Jesus Christ!” Then you will be able to do what you were always meant to do. God made you for his glory. Your ultimate purpose is to give God the honor and the worship that he alone deserves–praising him for the mystery of his triune being and for the gift of salvation in his Son, Jesus Christ. “To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen” (2 Tim. 4:18b).
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