Video of the service is here. The sermon begins around the 40:12 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Moses said to God, “Please show me Your glory.” And God said No. Because no one can see My glory, My face, and live. But God said, I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with My hand, and then I will pass by you. And I will take My hand away and you can see My back—a glimpse of the glory, maybe the shadow of the glory—but no one can see My face, My full glory, and live.
The people of Israel also wanted to see God’s glory. And they had. They had seen incredible and glorious things, when God brought them out of slavery in the land of Egypt. He had divided the Red Sea into two, and brought them through on dry ground. He had swallowed up all their enemies in the sea and saved them. They had seen glorious things, but now God was nowhere to be found. He had withdrawn from them to the heights of the mountain, hidden in clouds. And Moses, the human deliverer, who had led them out, he was up there on the mountain too. We don’t know what happened to him. Maybe he’s dead. Who knows?
So when they don’t have God in His glorious action as they would like, they have to construct their own glorious gods of gold. They make a golden calf, and they say, “Look, Israel, these are your gods, who led you out of Egypt!” Which is what we all do when we can’t find God the way we want Him. When He doesn’t speak to us, or answer us. When we are in trouble, when things are falling down around us, when life is not like a holiday movie, where everything turns out perfectly in the end—then we have to make our own gods. And they are usually not made of gold, but of our own flesh and blood. Isn’t it amazing that we can fail ourselves and others over and over again, but still we keep trusting ourselves? I make myself my own god, believe my own lies, choose for myself, follow my own heart and my own desires, and enslave myself to my own choices and failures.
But sometimes God’s glory breaks in where I least expect it, in places and times where I’m not really sure I even want it. I’m not sure the shepherds wanted it. They were out there, doing their jobs, minding their own business out there in the darkness. Maybe around a fire, but outside the edges of the firelight, there was only darkness around them. Only darkness until, with no warning, the glory of God tore open the heavens and there was an angel, a messenger of God. And the shepherds weren’t necessarily happy to see these glimpses of God’s glory clinging to His messenger. They were terrified. In the words of the old King James, they were “sore afraid.” And the angel said to them, like angels always say, “Do not be afraid. For born to you this day in the city of David is a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
I’m not sure the shepherds knew they needed saving, or that they had any idea that a Savior would be for them anyway. But that’s what the angel says. And then a multitude of the heavenly soldiers, the armies of God’s angels, appear and sing, “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth among those people on whom God’s favor rests.” They may have been happy to have the glory of God stay up there in the highest. They may have been a little relieved when the angels disappeared, and the glory of God no longer “shone round about them.”
Is God, then, nowhere to be found? Has He withdrawn and left them. Hardly. “This will be a sign for you: you will find the baby wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” Glory to God in the highest, yes. But now, glory to God in the lowest. When Adam and Eve decided that it was not good enough to be a glorious creature of God, made in God’s own Image, they thought they could ascend the heights and be gods themselves. But instead, they started falling, down into a now-cursed world, into sin and death and fear. They tried to hide from God and from each other. And death followed close after, even in the murder of one of their sons by the other.
We haven’t done any better. We think we can climb out of the mess we’ve made for ourselves if only we want it enough; if only we try harder, try again, then we can stop digging our own graves. But who has succeeded? Who, even with the best motives, can stop wounding, hurting, harming others? We don’t even know we’re doing it much of the time. Who has made it out of this world alive? No, we keep digging, keep falling, keep sinning, keep dying. But God refused to let us fall all the way into hell and eternal destruction. So God the Son outpaced us, falling further and faster than we could. He descended into the virgin’s womb. He descended into infant flesh, wrapped up and helpless, unable to move or speak or act. He descended into our mess, our sin, our death. He humbled Himself to the point of death, even death on a cross. He descended even into the suffering and punishment of hell on the cross, all of it so He could stop our fall. And then He rose from the dead, in order to bring us up with Him, giving us back the life of God in His own resurrected flesh and blood.
Where is God in the midst of all the muck and grime of this world? Distant in the glory of heaven, glory to Him there? No; glory to God in the lowest. The whole point of Christmas is that God came down to be among us, with us, one of us. And He didn’t hide us so He could pass by in His glory. He hid Himself and His glory in the lowest, in humility, in helplessness, in suffering, and in death. If you want to know where God’s glory is, God’s glorious salvation, God’s answer to everything that has gone wrong in us and around us, then start where the shepherds started, at the manger. But do not stay there, because Jesus didn’t. If you want to know where the glory of God is in this world, until it breaks through and overcomes and recreates this world, you will find it in the signs that God Himself has given: this will be the sign for you, you will find Jesus wrapped up in the water of Holy Baptism, by which He puts His own name on you; in the words of forgiveness delivered to you by another sinner; in the bread and wine, where Jesus promises to put His Body and Blood for you. Until heaven and earth are united fully, glory to God in the lowest, here, with us, for you.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/22/22