Behold the Glory of the Lord!
A sermon based on Exodus 33:18-21; 34:5-7
Friday, December 25, 2015 – Christmas Day
"There were shepherds living out in the fields… keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified." (Luke 2:8-9)
Ever wonder about that phrase, "The Glory of the Lord"? Is it just a reference to the angels in their brilliant light as they reflected the glory of God's face from which they had just come? Or is it a reference to God himself being present in those fields? If it's just a reference to the glory the angels displayed, it's the only place I can think of where that phrase, "The Glory of the Lord" doesn't refer to God himself. This verse is the only place where that phrase is used in the New Testament. And wherever we find it used in the Old Testament it's where God comes to earth and stands in the presence of his people. If the use of "Glory of the Lord" in Luke 2:9 is used as a reference to God himself present in those fields that night, no wonder the shepherds were terrified!
This morning, we consider that thought: of standing in the presence of God himself, of seeing the Glory of the Lord. Moses once asked to see the glory of the Lord, but God told him he couldn't see his full glory—he couldn't see God's face—and live. It would utterly consume him; for a sinner to see the face of the holy God! But Moses did get to see God. He beheld his glory.
Likewise, the shepherds were terrified to have the glory of the Lord shine around them, yet, they too did see God, wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. And we, too, ought to be terrified at the thought of standing before a holy God in our sin, yet, we see his glory, and this morning we even hold God himself in our hands and in our mouths in the Lord's supper. We behold his glory… and we live!
Our text for this morning—this Christmas Day—is taken from Exodus 33:18-21 and Exodus 34:5-7…
18 Then Moses said, "Now show me your glory."
19 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. 20 But," he said, "you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live."
21 Then the Lord said, "There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. 22 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. 23 Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen." …
5 Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. 6 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, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation."
I. No One Can See God's Glory and Live
The Glory of the Lord appeared on Mount Sinai before Moses and the elders and looked like a consuming fire. (Exodus 24:8) The Glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle as a cloud by day and as fire by night and led the Israelites in the wilderness. (Exodus 40:34ff). The Glory of the Lord appeared as a fire that consumed the offerings on the altar. (Leviticus 9:23) The Glory of the Lord filled Solomon's temple so the priests couldn't go in. (1 Kings 8:11) And whenever the Glory of the Lord appeared people fell face down afraid to look directly at the Glory of the Lord.
When Moses asked to see the Glory of the Lord, God told him, "You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live." Why not? God explained: "[The Lord] does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation." God is so holy that he cannot stand to be in the presence of sin. Or rather, the sinful cannot stand to be in the presence of the Holy.
It reminds me of that Indiana Jones movie where the Nazis opened the Ark of the Covenant against Indy's clear warning, "You cannot stand in the presence of God." When they did it anyway, they melted, so great was the Glory of the Lord. Yes, it's fictional and graphic with some special effects using wax and a heat lamp, but there's an element of truth to it. Sinners cannot stand in the presence of God, they cannot see his face and live.
No wonder the shepherds were terrified when they saw the Glory of the Lord.
And we too ought to be terrified at the thought of seeing God, for we know that we too have sinned against him. We have accidentally broken his commands. We have deliberately disobeyed him. We have intentionally rebelled against him. And we know that sinners cannot stand in the presence of God, they cannot see his face and live.
It's like the teens whose parent went away for the weekend and explicitly forbid him from having any parties. But as soon as they left, he sent out invitations to all of his friends, he hung flyers, he got a keg and threw the wildest party his school had ever seen. But the next morning his parents called to say they were coming home early and the house was completely trashed—there were stains in the carpet, furniture was broken, expensive and sentimental heirlooms were destroyed. And that teen knew he was in trouble. He was terrified because he knew he would be—he deserved to be—punished and punished severely.
Likewise, we ought to be terrified because we know that Jesus is coming back any day—and look at what a mess we've made of our lives by our sin. We will see the Glory of the Lord, we will see God himself on Judgment Day and we know we've messed up. We ought to be terrified because we know that, "he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation."
II. See God's Glory and Live
The shepherds were terrified when they saw the Glory of the Lord. And rightly so. Yet, nevertheless, those very same shepherds approached the very Son of God—and here we know for certain that they were in the presence of God himself, for Jesus is none other than the true God himself—and yet, they were completely unafraid as they approached that baby in the manger. Why? How could they now approach God himself—not with terror, but with joy?
It was because God masked his glory in a way they could handle it. He didn't appear to them face to face in full glory that would consume them and burn them up. He gave them what they could handle just like he did for Moses.
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. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen."
God gave Moses just a small glimpse of his glory. He didn't show his full glory which Moses could not have endured and lived, but just a peek to give Moses the reassurance that he needed that God will still be with him and give him grace. Moses didn't need to be afraid that God would abandon his people for rebelling one too many times. No. God, "passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, 'The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.'" And God really showed his greatest glory in revealing to Moses his grace.
Likewise, God showed his greatest glory to the shepherds, not by leaving them terror stricken at the thought of facing the wrath of a holy God, but by revealing his Son, born a human, lying in a manger, come to earth to rescue them from their sins. He showed his greatest glory in revealing to those Shepherds his grace.
You know that we could never stand in the presence of a holy God—one who is sinless and perfect and cannot be in the presence of imperfect or the imperfect would melt like the Nazi's in an Indiana Jones movie. He knew that we couldn't bear to see the full Glory of the Lord and live. So the holy God became one of us. He masked his glory in a way that we could handle—in an infant in a manger, in a Rabbi from Galilee, in a teacher in Judea.
And as Jesus took on human form, sinful man could not only handle him, but could manhandle him. And so the God who created the universe, the one who had the full Glory of the Lord, was nailed condemned to die, was scourged and beaten, was nailed to a cross. But he did it all to show us his greatest glory, and to be, "The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin."
And that's really what this Christmas Day is all about. God masked his glory for a time as God became man and took on human flesh. God humbled himself and gave up his full glory that he could show his greatest glory to us—his grace. So we are forgiven of our wickedness, rebellion, and sin. We are loved by God himself who daily shows us his compassion and grace. And though no one may see God's glory and live, because we've seen the glory of his grace, we will live.
There is no greater gift that you could receive this Christmas Day. You have seen the grace of God. You have beheld God in his greatest glory! You have seen the Glory of the Lord! And you live!
And soon you will hold the true God in your hand or in your mouth, as he again comes to you in body and blood in the Lord's Supper, as he condescends to mask his glory again to come to us in a way in which we can handle him. And he does it all to assure us again that we are forgiven, we are loved by God, that he will be with us, and that he will show us his grace.
Today, this Christmas Day, and every day, may you be eager to live for Jesus in thanks to him for showing you his great glory that you might live. In his name, dear friends, amen.