“In the beginning was the Word…and we have seen his glory.”
John doesn’t shy away from talking about glory; in fact, the second half of the gospel is often referred to as “the Book of Glory.” John introduces the theme of glory without subtlety in this pericope: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
To be clear, the way John talks about glory is not “glory theology,” which is about human self-glorification. No. For John, God’s glory is God’s presence that defies powers of injustice and brings newness. In the theology of John’s gospel, one “does not have to wait for a future revealing of the fullness of God’s glory and God’s will for the world or for eternal life to be bestowed. Both are available now in Jesus.”1 For John, God’s glory is clearly manifest in the ways God dwells among God’s creation — that is God’s Shekinah. God indwells the tabernacle; Jesus dwells on earth. These concrete indwellings point to the coming of God’s total indwelling — God’s total glory in on its way.
At the end of history, when God’s glory is fully consummated on earth, then God’s glory will mean “an overbrimming life that makes what is dead and withered live; a life from which everything that lives receives its vital energies and its zest for living; a source of life to which everything that has been made alive responds with deepest joy and ringing exultation.”2 Yet John uniquely reminds us that God’s glory is not only manifest at the end of history in the full consummation. God continually breaks into the world and makes God’s glorious presence manifest.
Theologian Jürgen Moltmann says that God’s glory causes four things: the resurrection, eternal life, the kingdom of God, and the new heaven and new earth (The Coming of God). Each of these four proclaims hope in God’s glory for today.
The glory of God is the cause of the resurrection. On account of God’s glory,
The death of Christ is the primary manifestation of God’s encounter with the negative within creation. On the cross, Christ enters into the negative — the absolute pain of life. God negates and obliterates the power of the negative by taking it up into God’s own self-realization. When taken up into God’s own selfhood, the negative is negated and obliterated because it is redeemed. The redemption of the negative into God’s own self-realization undermines the power of the negative, which otherwise makes created life incompatible with God’s own being. The resurrection proclaims hope because it means that God enters into the most negative aspects of our own real lives. Having encountered the negative in our lives, God will transform the negative and bring redemption. God encounters, negates, and obliterates the negative on account of God’s glory because the negative stands in contradiction to God’s glory.
The glory of God causes eternal life. On account of God’s glory, death is left without options and forced to retreat. God’s glory has this effect on death; death cannot withstand God’s indwelling. Since God’s glory causes death to flee, God’s glory provides access to eternal life for all creation. Eternal life proclaims hope, personally, for one’s own life in God’s fullness. Personal eternal life is but a fraction of what eternal life means theologically. Eternal life is more adequately expressed in terms of God’s redemptive action that God’s glory performs on behalf of all of creation when God’s glory expels death.
The glory of God causes the kingdom of God. Since God’s glory is incompatible with kingdoms (political systems) that use their power against people and creation, God’s glory brings about the kingdom of God as God’s own realm of justice and peace.4 God’s glory creates the space — the kingdom of God — in which God’s glory indwells creation. The kingdom of God proclaims hope. Think of the injustices carried out by political leaders: nuclear weapons, gun violence, deportations, walls. The kingdom of God proclaims hope by bring about a kingdom that contradicts kingdoms that defy God’s peace and justice. On account of God’s glory, the kingdom of God will affect an end to the injustices of current administrations under which the vulnerable suffer.
The glory of God causes the new heaven and new earth. When God fully indwells creation, the new heaven and new earth are created through the unmediated splendor of God’s glory. Moltmann considers the unveiling of God’s full glory to be a divine act of “de-restriction” in which God completes Godself.5 The new heaven and new earth proclaims hope because God will no longer veil God’s presence but will indwell creation with God’s immediate presence. God will indwell the new heaven and new earth on account of God’s glory because God’s glory becomes fully revealed through cosmic redemption.
God’s glory is a revelation of God’s true being and is revealed through the cross. Living toward full humanity even in the midst of crisis is a way to glorify God. Many times the true fullness of humanity does come through at the hardest times. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma leave no shortage of stories of great humanity — compassion and self-giving on behalf of those who suffer.
People in my congregation exhibit the depth of humanity:
People in your congregation exhibit the depth of humanity through crises.
1. Gail O’Day, “John.” Ed. Leander E. Keck, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Luke – John (Nashville, Tenn: Abingdon Press, 1996), 497.
2. O’Day, 336.
3. Jurgen Moltmann, The Coming of God, 328.
4. Moltmann, 142.
5. Moltmann, 295.
Beauty. Good tidings. Peace. Salvation. Joy. Comfort.
These aesthetic marks of the Nativity of Our Lord culminate in the prophet’s proclamation: “Your God reigns!” and this is “the salvation of our God!”
Critical to considering the aesthetics of this pericope is considering the historical and narrative context.
Exile. Real exile, not a metaphor.
In the wake of the enemy’s conquest, against the historical backdrop of destruction, in the midst of physical exile, the prophet speaks these words of peace. The context is not neutral. It’s also not in its origin metaphorical. Rather, the context for this language of beauty is a backdrop of ugliness: enslavement, displacement, suffering, death. Flesh and blood reality. Take to heart that this is not to disparage our attempts to relate to the beauty of Deutero-Isaiah’s poetry. Rather, it is meant to help orient our thoughts to the radical nature of this beautiful text. The exiles were kingless, landless, homeless, but not forgotten by the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.
Isaiah 52 begins with the prophet’s call to the people to rise out of the ashes and to put on their best duds. The Lord is about to act. From the Lord’s mouth:
“You were sold for nothing, and you shall be redeemed without money.” (Isaiah 52.3b)
This one little phrase, though properly outside of our pericope, sums up the reality of the exiles. Their exile is real, and the prophet in spite of all the evidence to the contrary can and does proclaim the promise of their freedom.
Lest we mistake that this text is solely about the exiles, it is important as well to recognize what the text says of God. The Lord’s desire, perhaps even the impetus for the Lord’s redeeming action, is that the Lord’s people know the Lord’s name (see also Isaiah 52.6). This name of the Lord is intimately tied with this movement from slavery to freedom. It is this self-revelation by the Lord that then is the object of our pericope.
What are these good tidings (see also Isaiah 52.7)?
Simply put: who God reveals God’s self to be.
“Your God reigns.” (verse 7)
“The salvation of our God.” (verse 10)
The first proclamation is for those who have no agency or power. For those who live under the thumb of a king that is not their own. Your God reigns! The kingship that matters is different from the exilic experience alone might suggest.
With this proclamation, itself a revelation, is the promise that the exiles will see the holy arm of the Lord — a demonstration of this kingly power. The poem promises that the people will see “the salvation of our God,” this God who reigns even for those living in the midst of realities that run contrary to the claim. The Lord, the king of the universe, promises to act and the act is salvific.
In our day and age (as in perhaps all!), it does not take a great deal to conjure the trappings of exile. While it is incumbent on the preacher and the Christian in general to always keep in mind that this text was written to those who lived in the midst of true exile with all its ugly ornamentation and trappings. In our preaching and our prayers, we are called especially as we celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord to be conscious of those who live in realities more analogous with those exiles who served as the initial audience for Deutero-Isaiah’s poetry.
Yet, the aesthetic of God’s kingship and the revelation of the salvation of our God remains for all to hear. This news for all is beauty-full, peace-full, joy-full — worth singing about!
Consider this Isaianic text within its Christological horizon.
As we mark again the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, tradition calls us to at least consider this reign of God, which is our salvation, revealed in the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes. At the center of the beauty of this news is its paradoxical nature. God makes God’s self known — in particular God’s reign and the desire that God’s name be known — in the birth of a child. Here the Eternal Word takes on flesh and dwells among us. The holy arm of the Lord is ultimately the tiny arm of a helpless infant who would reveal the fullness of God’s kingship with arms outstretched on the cross.
Like many psalms of praise, Psalm 98 begins with an imperative “call to praise” followed by a “reason to praise” introduced by the Hebrew word ki, “for.”1
Here is my translation of 98:1-3:
Sing to the Lord a new song, for (ki) he has done wonders! By his right hand and his holy arm has he achieved deliverance! The Lord has made his deliverance known, he has revealed his righteousness before the eyes of the nations! He has remembered loving fidelity and faithfulness to the house of Israel, all the ends of the earth have seen the deliverance of our God!
The “wonders” and “deliverance” that Psalm 98 originally celebrated may have been a specific military victory or miracle. Or, much like our Easter or Pentecost hymns, the psalm may have been composed for an annual celebration of one of the Lord’s historic “wonders”—such as the Exodus, the rescue of Jerusalem from the Assyrian army in 701 BCE, or the return from Exile in the 6th century.
Whatever the original purpose or ancient Israelite use of the psalm may have been, the Revised Common Lectionary that many Christian Churches follow has elected to use this psalm on Christmas Day. The psalm is fitting for Christmas Day because it celebrates the long history of God’s saving actions and wonders. It is also fitting because it calls for “joy noise,” “joyous song,” and “praises” to be sung to the Lord. More on that momentarily. But first, a word about the “new song” for which the psalm calls.
A “new song”
The psalm’s opening imperative calls for a “new song” (shir chadesh) to be sung. This “new song” for which the psalm calls is generally understood by psalms scholars to refer to a special genre of songs—the “new song” that is to be sung after a particular experience of God’s gracious deliverance. To put it another way, the “new song” does not merely mean to compose a new psalm composition. The new song means to write and sing a song that has to be “new” because God has just done something new—such as a new act of deliverance, a new act of grace, a new act of forgiveness, or a new act of blessing.
There are several places in the psalms that sing of the “new song.” But the newness of this type of song can be seen especially in two places.
First, the “new song” can be seen in Isa 42:10-13 [continuing with verse 14 through 43:7?—it is not exactly clear where the song ends]. In this song, the anonymous prophet of the exile sings a “new song” announcing and giving thanks because the Lord was moving to restore the Judean exiles to their home: The Lord was moving “to open the eyes that are blind, to bring the prisoners out of the dungeon, from prison those who sit in darkness” (42:7).
A second place where the newness of the new song can be seen is at the start of Psalm 40, which is a song of thanksgiving that a person sang after having experienced personal deliverance from the Lord. Here is my translation:
I waited and waited for the Lord, he inclined and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the miry swamp. He set my feet upon a rock, he established my steps. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.
The “new song” here is the song of thanksgiving that the psalmist came to sing after the Lord had lifted the singer “out of the desolate pit”—a metaphor for extreme danger.
In light what the “new song” was in the Old Testament, it is appropriate for Christians to sing the old, old songs of Christmas every year, because in Jesus Christ, the new covenant, new testament, new creation, and new life of God has drawn near. As Paul wrote, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5:17).
We sing the faith
Therefore, the people of God don’t just tell the faith, they sing it. From Jubal in Genesis 4, to Moses and Miriam, through Zechariah, Mary, the angels at Christ’s birth, and later from Martin Luther to Charles Wesley and finally right down to us—the people of God sing the faith.
I would go so far as to say that the Christian faith must be sung. This is the case because by singing, we can at one and the same time both respond to God’s active work in this world and also challenge the anti-God powers and regimes that seeks to wrench this world from God’s will.
When thinking about biblical songs, I especially am drawn to Eugene Peterson’s illuminating paraphrase of the start of the Magnificat: “I’m bursting with God-news, I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.”2
“I’m bursting with God-news!” The people of faith must sing because we are “bursting with God-news.” Mary sang because she was bursting with God-news. In response to what the angel and her cousin Elizabeth had told her, but also in challenge to the powers of the world—the powers of sin, death, and the devil that cling to us so closely, that crowd into grand jury courtrooms so that justice itself is strangled in the womb and after long labor pangs, injustice is born in its place.
Throughout the church year, the words and tunes change. But the God-news that the people sing stays the same. The God-news of Advent, the God-news of Christmas, the God-news of Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost demands that we sing. We sing because we are bursting with the God-news that in Jesus Christ, God is reconciling himself to the world, overcoming sin and all the powers of death. And we sing in resistance to the death and injustice of the world.
As one translation of the final stanza of Martin Luther’s “new song” “A Mighty Fortress” has it:
Were they to take our house, Goods, honor, child or spouse, Though life be wrenched away, They cannot win the day! The kingdom’s ours forever!3
1 Commentary first published on this site on Dec. 25, 2014.
2 Eugene H. Peterson, Luke 1:46-47, “The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language,” (NavPress, 2002).
3 “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Text translation © 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship, admin. Augsburg Fortress.
People experience the Christmas season differently.
For some, it means joyous celebrations with family and friends. For others, it’s a time when the loss of loved ones, financial hardships, and battles with depression or loneliness become even more painful. And the cultural ritual of heightened consumerism, from Thanksgiving through the New Year, may leave some feeling stressed out and empty, wondering if there is something more to life than pursuing a good deal on a big screen television by shoving other customers out of the way.
In such situations, reconnecting with the “big picture” of life can make a difference. Hebrews 1:1–4 helps us do just this.
These opening verses of Hebrews, which itself functions as a homily, remind the Christian audience of what they already know. Apparently of Jewish background, hearers would know that God spoke to their forebears by the prophets (Hebrews 1:1). They would also be aware that their identity as Christians stems from God reaching out to them in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God’s own Son (verses 2–4). But it seems that they needed to connect with these truths once again — perhaps even to be jolted by them in the midst of their ordinary routines, as the cosmic scope of the passage suggests.
Why would they need this?
While we do not know the precise identity of the intended recipients of Hebrews, the text indicates that they had suffered for following Jesus. They were exposed to public abuse and persecution, and even joyfully accepted the plundering of their possessions (Hebrews 10:32–34). They have struggled with sin (12:4), and can expect more trials to come (12:7).
Another threat came not from external persecution, but rather from discouragement and weariness on the journey of faith (for example 2:3; 12:12), and a lack of proper growth (5:11–6:2). The author likens the audience’s pilgrimage to the forty years that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness (3:1–4:11). Though the Israelites had seen God’s marvels that freed them from captivity in Egypt, the trials of the wilderness hardened their hearts. They doubted God’s promises, and ultimately, their generation was prevented from entering the Promised Land (see also Numbers 14). The author warns the audience of Hebrews not to let the same happen to them, losing confidence and disobeying God when the goal of their faith seems far away.
Whether enduring trials or spiritual apathy, Hebrews 1:1–4 speaks powerful truth to people who might benefit from seeing beyond themselves and their current circumstances. For example:
Hebrews 1:1–2 shows God’s initiative across the centuries to speak with people. Such communication is key to establishing and maintaining relationship. God reaches out to us again and again, despite our wavering faith.
Through the prophets and Scriptures, God promised humanity a Messiah. God fulfilled this promise, and by exalting Jesus from death to God’s own presence as “heir of all things” (Hebrews 1:2), God also fulfilled the promise that an heir of David would inherit the nations (Psalm 2:8). This God can be trusted to follow through on the promises that God’s people are still waiting to be fulfilled.
Temptations to go our own way instead of the way of Jesus and the cross still loom, but Jesus, both high priest and ultimate sacrifice, has purified us from sin once for all (Hebrews 1:3; 7:26–28). Since Jesus lived not only as divine but also as fully human, he sympathizes with out weaknesses, so that we can boldly approach him for help in our times of need (4:14–16). He continues to sustain all things (1:3).
Jesus’s perfect obedience to God on earth, even during suffering, makes him our forerunner (Hebrews 2:10; 6:19–20) who helps us persevere in the goal of eternal salvation (5:8–9). The one through whom God created the universe (1:2) is both the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. We can look to Jesus in the midst of joy and hardship (2:10; 12:1–2).
Human capacity to understand God is limited, but Hebrews 1:1–4 gives us a glimpse of God’s glory by lifting our minds from the mundane to where Christ shares in God’s own life, exalted above the angels. This Christ is the same Jesus who lived on earth as a human being, revealing to us the very being of God (1:3a). This extraordinary God is the same one who meets us in our very ordinary lives.
How such insights might be applied in a sermon depends on the audience.
Unlike Christians in many parts of the world, I venture to say that, generally speaking, the more pressing issue for Christians in the United States is spiritual complacency, rather than persecution for our faith. Our lives may be comfortable enough on the whole that we do not feel an urgency about clinging to God’s promises in Scripture and sharing them with others. Church may feel like just another part of the weekly routine, and perhaps even like an unwelcome interruption to our hectic Christmas schedules of shopping, cookie baking, and family gatherings. Maybe we should invite the disruptive vision of Hebrews 1:1–4 into our lives, letting it remind us that the source and goal of our lives is the eternal God it presents.