Preached 5 January 2003 at Bolton St James, Bradford.
In Alice through the Looking Glass, Alice meets Humpty Dumpty, and Humpty Dumpty makes a very odd remark to her. “There’s glory for you,” he says. And Alice is bewildered. “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’,” she replies.
Well — if we are honest — we probably don’t know what he meant by it either. “Glory” is a word that’s much used both in the Bible and in everyday speech, and often it’s hard to put a precise meaning on it. According to the words a chap called A C Benson wrote for Edward Elgar, we live in a land of hope and “glory”. Borrowing from St Paul, we sometimes say that a woman’s hair is her crowning “glory”. Occasionally, in summer, for a day or two — usually when we are working or too busy to enjoy it! — the weather is “glorious”; as is the 12th August, the Glorious Twelfth, when the grouse-shooting season begins. Football teams return home “covered in glory” after winning cups and premierships and such like. And most of us have a “glory hole” somewhere in our houses where we store stuff we no longer have use for but can’t bring ourselves to throw away. Now make sense of all those “glories” if you can! But, please … not this morning.
For this morning it is a very particular “glory” that I want us to get to grips with and to begin to understand. It’s the “glory” that John, the writer of the fourth Gospel, says that he and the other disciples saw when they looked at Jesus and watched him at work over a period of three short years in the Palestine of 2000 years ago. We heard John tell us about this glory in this morning’s Gospel reading … near the end. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” That’s a slightly different word order from the one in the church Bibles because, as we shall see later, its the glory that’s “full of grace and truth” more particularly than the Word himself.
So what is it … this “glory” that John and the others saw in Jesus?
Well the answer lies way back in the Old Testament; and we know that that’s where the answer lies because of the word John uses when he says that the Word became flesh and “dwelt” among us. In Greek, the language of the New Testament, the normal word for to dwell is oikeō, but John doesn’t use that word. Instead he uses the verb skēnoō which literally means “to live in a tent” … in Greek, a skēnē is a tent. “The Word became flesh and lived in that tent among us and we beheld his glory.” Yes, you might be saying, that’s all very interesting, but so what? Why should that send us back into the Old Testament?
Well, to make it as clear as I can, I think we’re all going to have to get in my time machine again. I haven’t used it for quite a while. We’ll set the time-dial for 1444 BC (though this date is the subject of scholarly disputation) and the place-dial for the desert region in the Sinai peninsula between Egypt and Palestine. Are you all strapped in. Right, we’ll press the button …
… and here we are. We can all get out. It’s very, very hot. And it’s very, very dusty. And it’s very, very noisy. There are tents in all directions as far as the eye can see. It is said that they cover eight square miles and we can well believe it. They are made from black goats-hair or animal skins, and from them people are spilling out: excited people … laughing, talking, shouting, waving to one another; and all are heading in just one direction. We had better join them and see where they are going. These, by the way, are the Hebrews — thousands of them — who just a year ago were led by Moses out of slavery in Egypt. And they are here in the wilderness because they are on their way to a land God has promised to them.
Well, we are now at what appears to be the very centre of the camp, and we have stopped, and we are facing a very strange kind of structure that is, it seems, just about to have the finishing touches put to it. It is a kind of curtained area … about 150 feet long and half as wide. Half the size of a football pitch. The curtains — they are made of linen and are suspended by silver hooks — stretch from pillar to pillar round all four sides except for an entrance facing us. And when we look through the entrance we can see that in the inside area, at the far end, there is tent. It’s rectangular, not like the tents the Hebrews live in, and it’s quite elaborate … with an outer covering of skins that have been dyed red.
Fortunately, our time-travel machine seems to have given us the ability to understand the language these Hebrews speak, and we can hear what is being said all around us. Apparently the thing in the middle is the tent of meeting … the tent where God himself is going to come and live with them on their journeying … and the whole thing is called the Tabernacle. It seems that some months ago, up on Mount Sinai, God himself told Moses how it was to be constructed, down to the last detail … and now it is finished … Oh, and look — here comes Moses and Aaron and his sons. They are leaving the Tabernacle and joining us here outside. And now look at what’s happening! The air is thickening, like a dense mist and it seems to be gathering over the enclosure. Everyone is moving back and we are too. The cloud is glowing as if within the tent in the enclosure there is something so bright that we would be blinded if we were not shielded from it. What on earth is happening?
Well, let’s let the Bible itself tell us. Exodus chapter 40 and verse 34 …
“Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.”
In short, the great God of all creation, the Lord of heaven and earth, is somehow now in that tent among his people, and they are beholding his glory. And that is the stupendous connection that John wants us to make when he talks of Jesus dwelling in his tent of flesh among the people of Palestine 2000 years ago and of them beholding his glory. “The Word became flesh and lived in that tent of flesh among us and we beheld his glory.”
But why does John want us to make this connection? Well, let’s get back in our time machine and make just a very slight adjustment to the dials. Let’s stick with the same year — 1444 BC — but just a few months earlier. And let’s set the place as the top of Mount Sinai where Moses received his instructions about the Tabernacle. Press the button …
… and out we get once again. It’s much cooler up here and there’s a strong wind. There’s only one person around, and that’s Moses. There he is, over there, near that crevasse in the rock-face. Fortunately, we’re invisible to him. He seems to be talking to himself, so let’s move a bit closer until we can hear what he’s saying …
No, he’s not talking to himself, he’s talking to God … and this is what he is saying: “Now … show me your glory.”
What does God reply? We can’t hear … but we know what he replied because that too is recorded for us in the Bible. Exodus 33.18 :
“Then Moses said, ‘Now show me your glory.’ And the LORD said, ‘I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,’ he said, ‘you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.’ Then the LORD said, ‘There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by.’”
… and then chapter 34.5 …
“Then the LORD came down in the cloud … and he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness …’”
The glory of God — that which shines out of him for all to see — is his goodness. Did you catch that? “Show me your glory,” says Moses. “I’ll make my goodness pass before you,” says God, “and when my glory passes by I’ll shield you in the rock.” Whatever else glory might be, God’s glory is God’s goodness. And in what does God’s goodness lie? “It lays in the fact that He is a “compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness …’” His goodness lies in his “abounding in love and faithfulness.”
Now — “abounding in love and faithfulness” is a good translation of the Hebrew text into English. But here is something wonderful. Do you know what you get if you translate the Hebrew text into Greek … into the language in which John read the Old Testament and wrote his Gospel? I’ll tell you! You get the very words that John uses when he says that the glory of Jesus was “full of grace and truth”!
“Abounding in love and faithfulness” in Hebrew is the same as being “full of grace and truth” in Greek. And that is the “goodness” that is the glory of God … both when he dwells in a tent with his Hebrew people in the wilderness of Sinai and when he dwells in the tent of the humanity of Jesus in the Palestine of 2000 years ago.
By the words he uses, John is driving us back again and again to the Book of Exodus because he wants us to grasp this astounding truth … that the God of Moses … the Word … the One who spoke the universe into existence … somehow became man in the person of Jesus Christ and walked on this very earth that he had made. And he proved that it was so by displaying the one-of-a-kind glory that belongs only to God. That, for John, was the proof of the divinity of Jesus. He had the goodness of God, the whole goodness of God and nothing but the goodness of God. A goodness that combines ultimate grace and ultimate truth … love that endures for ever — unmerited and limitless — and unyielding faithfulness and constancy.
“And the Word became flesh and lived in that tent among us. We have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
John and his fellow disciples had their eyes opened to see the grace and truth of God in Jesus’ every gesture, every word, every action, and every response to the world about him. When he turned water into wine out of compassion for a bridal couple facing social disgrace at their wedding at Cana, because the guests had drunk the party dry, John recorded that, “He thus revealed his glory” (John 2.10). But it is supremely in the submission of Jesus to the cross that John sees the glory of the Word become flesh. This is where all the grace and all the truth that make up the goodness of God become fully manifest in the person of Jesus. This greatest of all acts of self-giving is the glory of which the shining of God’s presence in wilderness Tabernacle was only a hint, a foretaste, a promise.
And the point of all this … the reason why John is setting these things down in his Gospel … is that, by the eyes of faith, we might behold and experience his glory too. “These things are written,” says John “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you might have life in his name.” (John 20.31).
The glory of God seen in the Word that became flesh was not for the sight of the disciples only. It is for us to see and experience too, by faith. To Christians who, like us, had never seen Jesus in the flesh, John writes “and from his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace.”
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth … and from his fullness have we all received, grace upon grace.” The glory of Jesus, John is saying, is like a vast ocean of grace and truth. And all those who will, by faith, step into that ocean will … and do … experience wave after wave of grace breaking over them … flooding their lives with blessing and joy.
That is where I meant to end … but as I reached that point in my preparation for this morning, I found myself being directed to Paul’s prayer for the Christians at Ephesus. Maybe God wants it is to be a prayer for us at the start of this new year … and John would endorse that, I’m sure, because when I came to look at Paul’s prayer, I found that it echoed and amplified everything that John had been saying in those verses we’ve looked at together this morning … Here it is … from Ephesians 3.16 …
“I pray that out of the riches of his glory, God may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge — that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”
The glory of God. God’s glory in Christ Jesus — the Word made flesh. And from Him, glory in me, glory in you. Glory in the church. Grace and truth washing over each one of us, filling us, flooding us, changing us … and through us flowing out into this needy world.