Behold the Glory!: A Classic Sermon
December 29, 2002
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. . . .
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us; and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. John bare witness of him, and cried, saying, "This was he of whom I spoke, 'He that cometh after me is preferred before me, for he was before me.'" And of his fullness have we all received, and grace for grace. For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him. (John 1:1-5, 14-18)
The glory of heaven goes so far beyond all worldly magnificence that it cannot begin to be compared with that glory. . . . For the glory of heaven consists in what comes from God shining out of every single thing that is seen there, and in a perception of divine realities, and the wisdom gained from that perception. This alone is the glory to those who are there, for they consider worldly magnificence, in comparison with such wisdom, to be nothing at all; and they attribute all wisdom to the Lord, and none whatsoever to themselves. (Arcana Coelestia #5428)
And we beheld his glory. . . . (John 1:14)
To read the Prologue of John's Gospel is like walking through a dark forest and suddenly coming upon a clearing at the foot of a mighty waterfall. It is a breathtaking experience. One almost hears the roar of a thundering flood rushing down from dizzy heights into the hidden depths of the ground, whence arises a mist, eerie, diaphanous, here and there with the colors of the rainbow. To use a Scripture simile, one hears "the voice of many waters" (Revelation 14:2). Something awesome, majestic, real, of cosmic dimensions and importance is trying to speak in that billowing torrent. One senses the mystery. One grows tense, straining to understand. Yet one is strangely frustrated.
Faster than the mind can follow, stupendous, staggering assertions flash before our eyes: "In the beginning was the Word . . . . The Word was with God . . . was God. . . . All things were made by him." There is no time to stop and think them through. "In him was life; and the life was the light of men. . . . And the Word was made flesh." There is no pause to weigh their logic. The turbulent cataract will not be arrested. The drama presses on.
What is it all about? Ah, beloved! That is John. John, the apostle of love. John, the contemplative, intuitive, sensitive, seeking to share with all the mystic passion of which he is capable; the rapture of his insight into the most baffling miracle the world has known: the birth of God in human life. It upsets all our calculations. It explodes all the categories of our thought patterns. The magnitude and daring of it will not fit into words. Our minds are too small to see it. Perhaps only the heart is big enough to perceive. Perhaps only "deep can answer unto deep" (Psalm 42:7).
And that is what John is doing. Calling from the deep within him to the deep within us. Trying to communicate, not a piece of intellectual information, but an experience.
He has seen the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Not only in the course of three precious years of humble intimacy with his Lord, but ever since, ever more increasingly, he has become convinced that in him God invisible made himself visible; that all God is in eternity, Jesus Christ revealed in time. And even now he feels his love and light and life, and the joy of his inward presence so compellingly that he must say to all people, "Behold the glory!"
He takes us by the hand and leads us through the jungle of our hopelessly entangled lives to the clearing. There he bids us look up, through the mist and rainbow hues, to the face of the beloved Master. See! Behold! Contemplate! Apprehend and try to understand with the heart, not only with the mind. Give release to your responsive emotions. Do not shackle them. Then listen to the thundering silence of the still, small voice!
Unlike Paul, John does not argue, nor attempt to prove anything. He simply seeks to share the burning love he feels, the insight and intensity of a passion that will not let him go. He does not stop to explain. He simply affirms. Were we to pause in our reading or listening and analyze through the labyrinth of reason, we would lose the vital impact of life with life that he has felt and is trying to establish--the response, the contact that he is after. Love can never be apprehended through the cold light of logic.
So within the love unfathomable, strong, austere, invincible, and yet so tender, that radiates from the person of Jesus, John bids us see "the impetuous, irresistible rush of God manward, which has never ceased from the beginning of time." Dazed, overwhelmed he whispers, "Behold the glory!"
Forget your cleverness, your pride, your self-sufficiency! Without such love, humility, understanding, and compassion as John has seen; without the conscience it awakens--a deep sense of moral responsibility to God and the whole of mankind--whereto do the spectacular achievements of this technological era lead us?
Man has broken one after another many of the barriers that confined his thoughts and activities in this physical realm. Each of his conquests has been in itself a magnificent achievement. But how far has he ventured beyond the limits of his temporal and materialistic cravings? How far has he proceeded as a conqueror in that realm of realities that are eternal, and that alone can make him, not a clever, sanguinary ape, but a human in the true sense?
What glory is there in boasting of gadgets, of ephemeral possessions, of worldly power, of man-made satellites, of outer-space travel and long-range missiles, if that glory means living the existence of hunted animals, and of bigger and better underground shelters? The glory John would have us behold is another matter.
In his account of the coming of Christ into the world, he goes back beyond the telling of the Nativity, glorious as it is in Luke and Matthew. Not to ignore it, but to flood it with a greater glory still. He starts his Gospel with the same thought-challenging words with which the book of Genesis records the first event of our history--the birth of our world: "In the beginning . . . ." (Genesis 1:1). But that is only to underscore the fact that to him even the creation of the world is like being on the ground, still on the runway. In his flight he means to take us farther than the beginning of time, beyond the limit of things that are seen.
"Behold the glory!" Upward and above the bubbling, stirring, awakening primordial chaos he soars into the empyrean, beyond space, beyond time, into eternity, infinity, to the beginning of all beginnings, to the very core of life itself at its source, into the heart of ultimate reality! "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . All things were made by him." And then, with lightning speed, he spirals down to earth: "And that Word was made flesh!"
The limitless love, wisdom, and power of God, all that makes for kinship with us, are seen in their effulgence to become personalized as they make their way to reach us. They are garmenting themselves in a form ineffably more perfect, more gracious, more translucent and irresistible than ever before. In Christ, the all-compassionate, the all-wise, the all-mighty becomes incarnate!
A babe, a youth, a man--the God-Man! Born on earth that he may be born and live in us forever, and we in him. That by his power we may conquer our hereditary nature and be made anew. That as we pray our way from beast to angel, his love may flow in and through us, and human life recover its meaning, worth, and dignity. That in fellowship and communion with him past all understanding, it may fulfill its eternal destiny. "Behold the glory!"
In Christ, God broke down in reverse all the barriers we boast of having overcome--though in reality, we have not broken them at all, but simply learned to jump over a few fences. In him, love bridges time and eternity: "Behold, I am with you always" (Matthew 28:20). And that means always. Now we know that life is forever. He broke the sound barrier and became articulate: "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them (John 10:27) . . . by name" (John 10:3). He broke the space barrier: "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matthew 18:20). In the hearts of all people he now lives everywhere, in both worlds, with as intimate, warm, and personal a relationship as they will let him.
"Behold the glory!" He came to break down the barriers that not only separate man from him, but man from man. He came that by the creative, all-encompassing power of his love, in all our group relationships we may live up to the challenge of his Divine Humanity, and attain in him, the God-Man, that organic unity and freedom that is his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. And though the promise that Christmas brings is in large measure still prophetic, much of it already is heartening reality. It is in our every endeavor to promote reconciliation, in our every victory over selfishness. Here, now, his broken image within us is being restored, and we can behold his glory time and again in the faces and deeds and lives of one another, and of all who love him.
Ah, but you say, there is one barrier he cannot break! True: that of unwilling hearts. But see, rather, that it is his glory that he will not break it! He will not compel us to believe in him, to receive him, to love him in return. Love cannot be compelled. Yet in our waywardness he follows us all the way, sharing the unhappiness we bring on ourselves; ever ready, if we repent, to forgive; still loving us, and from beneath supporting us, despite our spite, with his everlasting arms. "If I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there" (Psalm 139:8). So, even there, "Behold the glory!"
And what of the travail and tragedy of our times? Here once more, beloved, that is it! We are the barrier. He has to work with and through our freedom. But even then "the wrath of man shall praise him!" (Psalm 76:10). Had these hardships (not of his making) failed to come upon us, where would be our assurance of his presence in the world? Do they not represent the pressure of his truth for human life encompassing our self-will? Are they not teaching us, his only half-seeing children, that we belong to a higher order of being than the beasts? Challenging us to match our humanity with his? Relentlessly urging us to break down the shelters of pride, greed, hatred, prejudice, and self-sufficiency behind which a pseudo-Christian civilization (now definitely, as we hope, on the way out) was in danger of losing its soul? So the question should be: What are we doing about it?
If we buckle down to the task, no matter now how bleak the prospect of a better world, we shall not fear. No matter what tomorrow brings, we shall know that he is in it, and always will be, until beholding his glory, "of his fullness shall we all receive!"
O Radiant One, we behold your glory, coming down to us from your dwelling place in heaven, and we bask in its glow. Open our hearts once more to your new birth within and among us, and expand our awareness beyond all its previous boundaries. Amen.
Rev. Antony Regamey