One of the first major hurdles that my wife and I had came at our first Christmas. We had nothing christmasy. We get our tree and she goes to the store to get lights and such to decorate. She comes home with all white lights. Of course I ask, “where are the colored lights??” I mean, is it really Christmas without colored lights? After a volley back and forth, I yielded my colored light position, though obviously lights were meant to be
colored. This is one of those question that belongs in premarital counseling.
The first Christmas of course was accompanied by a spectacular light but this light had nothing to do with lighting a tree in the living room. One evening, there were shepherds out in the field, some of them taking the night watch, when suddenly a bright light shone and they were petrified as an angel began to speak to them. The Bible explicitly tells us that they saw the glory of God. Most people who have even a vague familiarity with the Bible know about this passage, if nothing else from the Charlie Brown Christmas Special where Linus give Charlie insight that will show help him overcome his disillusionment with the commercialization of Christmas.
I want to make a brief case for why the glory is an indispensable part of the Christmas story. We focus, rightly, on the fact of God becoming man, but equally important is God’s glory shining through on that first Christmas night.
Far from being an overstatement, we can rightly say that the Bible is in fact the story of God’s glory. Below you will find a brief sketch of the theme of glory in the Scripture. This is crucial to understand the lights on that first Christmas night.
A Place for His Glory
John Calvin memorably quipped, “The world is a theater for the glory of God.” Calvin’s sentiment has far reaching implications that are thoroughly biblical. When we read about the creation account in Genesis 1, something interesting occurs. God creates the Day-Night cycle before he creates the sun. (I do take a literal 6 day creation position, but the point stands even if you differ). What provided the light source for those days prior to day 4? How can you have a day and nigh without a sun? I think the answer is simple. You do not need the sun, per se, you need directional light. I believe later scriptures give insight that this light source is nothing less than the shekinah glory of God. Interestingly, the Bible ends with “no sun or moon for the light of the glory of God gives light to the nations.” I believe Revelation 21 mirrors Genesis 1.
The Psalms provide key insights on the purpose of the planet itself. The famous first verse of Psalm 19:1 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” Paul affirms that creation is in fact a perpetual megaphone shouting out the glory of God. (See Rom 1).
With the earth as a stage for God’s glory, he calls out a people for his glory.
A People for His Glory
The glory of God is not specifically mentioned until the book of Exodus. We learn early on in the Exodus account that God is not saving Israel for Israel’s sake, but for his own name’s sake, for his own glory. God shows up to Moses in an unusual fire in a bush to call him to lead the people. After some objections by Moses, he cooperates with the plan (for the most part) and becomes God’s messenger.
We learn specifically about Israel: “Yet he saved them for his name’s sake, that he might make known his mighty power.” (Ps 106.8). God calls his shot in Exodus 14.17: “And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gotten glory over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen.” God’s highest purpose is always his own name, his glory.
The Parameters of His Glory
Once the people are delivered from the Egyptians, God gathers his people to reveal his shekinah glory in a specific way. Whereas creation reveals his glory in a general way, God reserves his specific revelation for particular times and places. Exodus 19 records a scene that the best cinematography in the world couldn’t duplicate. God calls a meeting at Mt. Sinai with his newly emancipated people. The people are warned to stay back, lest they die, they see lights, hear thunder, and the booming voice of their God. The scene is so awesome that the people back up and do not want to meet directly with God, they want a mediator. God has chosen his man, Moses. He disappears into the cloud on the mountain to meet with Yahweh. The experience is so spectacular, when Moses descends from the mountain, he has to cover his own face since it glows with the aftereffects of meeting with God.
Through the Sinai narrative, we learn that God is particular about where and how he will allow his glory to be seen. Much more could be said about the glory of God in Exodus, but for our purposes, a word about the end of the book will suffice. The bulk of Exodus 25-40 are instructions about how to order the tabernacle and the ark of God. God delineates clearly the parameters by which he will reveal his glory. The ending of the book of Exodus is beautiful. Once the tabernacle is completed according to God’s specifications, his glory cloud comes down! God is with his people, and they lived happily ever after, right? Not quite.
Of course the story continues on. The people would rebel, they would wander the wilderness, they would eventually enter the Promised Land. Once established in the land, the monarchy under David is stabilized. David recognizes that while the people are living in permanent structures (houses, palaces and such), that God’s dwelling place is a tent, the tabernacle. David wants to build a beautiful permanent structure for God. David is instructed that he would make the plan and gather supplies but his son, Solomon would be the builder of this house.
Solomon completes the temple, prays a prayer of dedication, and then God shows up. His glory fills the temple to the point that the priest could not go in to enter (2 Chron 7). This is a notable pattern. In a similar way, the tabernacle was completed, dedicated and the glory came.
Sadly the people would rebel against God. Only a few chapters later, Solomon is marrying foreign women and giving himself to their gods. Israel would spiral down for years. The kingdom would split and eventually the North would fall (722BC) followed by the fall of the Southern Kingdom (586BC), significantly the place of the all important city of Jerusalem where the temple was.
Prior to the fall of the Southern Kingdom, the prophet Ezekiel is given a vision that would terrify any astute Israelite. This enigmatic prophet is taken on a heavenly tour of the temple in Jerusalem, even though he has been deported to Babylon. The corruption is great in the temple. In response, the glory of God is visibly seen by the prophet to be picking up from the holy place and progressively moving away from Israel (Ezekile 8-10). The departure of the glory signifies the disapproval and judgment of God, as the prophets had warned for over 400 years.
The people would return in three waves from exile, they would rebuild the temple, but guess what never shows up? The glory of God.
The Person with His Glory
After many years of absence, the glory makes an unexpected appearance one night to an unsuspecting group. The glory does not come to the temple, nor to the leaders of Israel. The glory shows up to a group of shepherds! This is a birth announcement that no one is going to top. The people had read the Scriptures about the glory appearing to the people at various times but they had never experienced it for themselves. The manifest glory of God is not something you can script into a well plotted service. God’s sovereign glory appears when and where he desires. The glory, finally, is back in Israel in the form of a person, a baby in fact, Jesus Christ.
The glorious God-Man is the “radiance of his glory” (Heb 1.1), meaning, he does not simply reflect the glory, like Moses, he is himself the source of the glory.
This Christmas, let’s not forget about the original Christmas lights, the light of the glory of God which is a light to the nations.