Sermon October 19, 2014

A Sermon Preached by Dr. Stan Henderson
Trinity Presbyterian Church
Oroville, California

October 19, 2014

“Soli Deo Gloria”

Exodus 33:17-23

This is the final sermon in our series on what the Protestant Reformation identified as the five essential beliefs of Christianity. First written in Latin, they came to be titled the Five Solas. Sola in Latin means only or alone. These five foundational statements about Christianity are: Sola Scriptura – scripture alone; Solus Christus – Christ alone; Sola Gratia – grace alone; Sola Fide – faith alone; and Soli Deo Gloria – to God alone be the glory.

Soli Deo Gloria is probably the phrase you are most likely to have heard before. Johann Sebastian Bach appended the letters S.D.G., for Soli Deo Gloria, at the end of all his musical compositions for the church. It has become a popular motto for various Christian organizations and schools and even appears on coins in South Africa. When you see a football player score a touchdown and look up and point his finger at the heavens – I think that’s the same idea – to God alone be the glory; either that, or he’s saying – I’m the greatest and we’re number one.

So what is glory? It’s a word we are familiar with as Christians. We’ve often heard the phrase – the glory of God. The word glory is rich in meaning. The Hebrew word for glory is kabod. When used to describe a person it refers to such things as their worth, stature, power, majesty.

In relation to God, glory is used many times in the Bible. In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah had a vision of God sitting on his throne and the heavenly beings were singing: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” In the New Testament, John describes the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. He said: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

We often think of glory in terms of a brilliant light. In the nativity story the shepherds were tending their flocks at night in the field. And it says – “Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” And we use the language of glory in our worship services. We sang the hymn – “To God Be the Glory.” We sing the Gloria Patri – Latin for “Glory to the Father.” We sing the Doxology; from the Greek word doxa, meaning glory.

Although the word glory is difficult to define precisely, when we use this word we are referring to the greatness and majesty of God. Glory includes a sense of recognition of God’s ultimate worth. When we glorify God we are praising and exalting and honoring God because of his mighty deeds. God not only receives glory, God embodies glory.

When Moses asked to see God’s glory, what was he expecting? Was he looking for a physical manifestation of God’s presence? Was he asking for an experience of God’s true nature? I’m not sure. However, there are two words used in this text from Exodus which help us to understand the glory of God – the first one is presence, and the second one is goodness.

First of all, glory has to do with the presence of God. That is what God had been promising in these verses – that he would be present with the people of Israel, that he would personally lead them. The tabernacle was a visible representation of God’s presence with the people. Inside the tabernacle was the ark of the covenant which even more definitively represented the presence of God.

In the Old Testament, the glory of God was often seen in the elements of nature – thunder, lightning, wind, fire. Fire is one of the most enduring symbols of the presence of God. The flames on our Presbyterian banner represent the presence of God. Moses experienced God’s presence in the burning bush and in the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire. Elijah calls down fire from heaven at Mt. Carmel to demonstrate the powerful presence of God, and at the end of his life he is taken up by a fiery chariot.

There is an awesomeness, a glory, about the presence of God. How many of us came to worship God this morning aware that to come into the presence of God is dangerous and life-changing? When Moses approached the burning bush, God said: “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” When Isaiah had his vision of God, he said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips …yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” The author of the book of Hebrews said: “Let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.”

The second word in this text that corresponds to glory is goodness. Notice how God answers Moses’ request. Moses said: “Show me your glory, I pray.” And God answers: “I will make all my goodness pass before you.” Glory and goodness are presented as parallel. The Hebrew word for goodness means constant, consistent, dependable.

The revelation of God is in his attributes rather than his appearance. Goodness describes the essential nature of God. What displays God’s glory is his goodness. It is God’s activity, his actions, which manifest the glory of God.

Our hymn this morning proclaimed:
To God be the glory – great things he hath done!
So loved he the world that he gave us his Son,
Who yielded his life an atonement for sin,
And opened the lifegate that all may go in.

What this passage is teaching us is that in some way the glory of God is wrapped up in the presence and goodness of God. Moses does not get all that he asked for. Indeed, God declares – “No one shall see me and live.” Moses does not get to see the face of God – I guess we could say – the fullness of God. But Moses gets to see God’s back. Moses does not get an unambiguously clear picture of the divine presence and goodness. A sense of God’s mystery remains. And that is as it should be. God does not reveal himself in such a way as to take away the necessity for decision and belief.

The theologian Paul Jewett writes: “We might put it this way: God has revealed himself and consequently we know him; but though we know him truly, we do not know him fully, as he knows us.” In Isaiah 55 we read: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Professor Jewett concluded: “We cannot, in other words, encompass God in our systems; we cannot put our mental arms around him. We can but touch the hem of his garment.”

Were this text all that we had to go on, we could be frustrated by an incomplete understanding of the presence and goodness of God, of the glory of God. However, it is not all that we have. If we want to understand the glory of God we must turn to God’s supreme revelation in Jesus Christ. It is in Christ that we truly see the presence of God. In his gospel, John declares – “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” And it is in Christ that we experience the goodness of God. It is in the actions of Jesus Christ, in his grace and mercy, in his death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead, that we can see the glory of God.

In the prayer of Jesus in the Gospel of John, we see his expectation that the glory of God would be the manifestation of the church. The Greek word for glory literally means reputation or opinion. This is the calling and purpose of every Christian. The first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism is: “What is the chief end of man?” The answer: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” It’s a sobering truth that God has decided that his reputation in the world will depend to a large extent on how much his glory is seen in the church.

We tend to think of glory in terms of triumph. We glory in victories and achievements. But when we are called to give glory to God it does not mean that God is a divine narcissist. And glorifying God is not a begrudging acknowledgement of greatness from a defeated foe. It is not simply words of praise coerced from groveling creatures. The call to glorify God has nothing to do with shallow self-promotion on God’s part.

God’s glory is always a reflection of God’s character and intentions, especially that God is good and that God is the giver of life as well as its restorer. To glorify God is not to add something to God or to give something to God, as if he needed anything from us. Instead, glorifying God is simply to tell the truth about God as our life-giver and our redeemer. To tell and to live out this truth about God is the heart of the Christian life. This is what I think Paul had in mind when he wrote to the Colossians: “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of our Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

Also I think that those 17th century Christians who wrote the Westminster Confession of Faith were on to something important, when, to the statement – “Man’s chief end is to glorify God”, they added the words – “and enjoy him forever.” In Psalm 16 the psalmist declares: “In your presence is fullness of joy.”

Joy is the outward sign of the inner experience of the grace of God and it is the unmistakable fruit of God’s Spirit at work in our lives. The Christian life is not supposed to be a grim duty but a joyous privilege. Paul said: “Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” And when we do that we will experience a joyous fulfillment.

When we live each day for the glory of God we are fulfilling God’s purpose for our lives and we will discover our greatest enjoyment

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