The Reading of Scripture: Luke 2:8-20; John 1:14 (ESV)
8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
John 1:1414 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
These two passages speak with two different intentions. Luke 2 gives a historical chronological account of what was happening on the day the Savior was born. John 1 gives a historical theological account of the great mystery of incarnation. The great secrets that are hidden from the eyes of many people, are revealed to God’s faithful. These two passages speak of one thing in common, which is the glory of God. Luke 2 shows the glory of God in heaven shining upon the shepherds. John 1 shows the glory of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Both have the same quality of glory. For both is God. This is the mystery of the Trinity.
The glory in Luke 2 caused the shepherds to tremble in fear. The glory of the Son in John 1 is said to be full of grace and truth. The different sides of glory emanate from the eternal God. The once in a lifetime event that the shepherds experienced was an event that did not appear ordinary at all. The shepherds never saw that kind of glory before. They never met an angel of the Lord before in their life. When the glory was shown to them, it terrified them. An unknown entity had broken into the ordinary world, into their ordinary life, into their ordinary vocation, the glory of the great God of heaven. Never in their life was a person in position of honor coming to them. If the king of Judea would come to them and show them his glory, it would be a great honor to them. But this in front of them was not a human being. In front of them was a heavenly being, and the glory of God was shown to them. So their heart raced very fast: “What’s happening?” must be in their mind at that moment. Remember the time when God called Isaiah? Immediately Isaiah said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” That was a terrifying event. This event can be understood in light of the doctrine of the transcendence of God.
John has to explain the glory of the Son, because when the Son of God incarnated into the world, he did not show the terrifying glory in public at all times. He showed the terrifying glory only twice. First in the transfiguration passage, Matthew 17, Jesus showed his terrifying glory when Moses and Elijah came. And second before he was arrested, John 18, that when he said: “I am he,” all the people who were going to take him by force fell to the ground. But other than that, Jesus appeared to be ordinary. So here in John 1, it is not the heavenly glory shown into the ordinary world, but that the Glorious One lives as an ordinary human. So people were not terrified at Jesus. On the other hand, they dared to mock him. They dared to taunt him. They dared to trap him. They dared to insult him. Because the kind of glory that emanated from Jesus was the glory of grace and truth. Grace and truth are not the terrifying glory. When Jesus healed the sick, he showed his glory of grace. When Jesus forgave sins, he showed his glory of grace. When he died on the cross for our redemption, he showed the glory of grace. And when he taught the people, he showed the glory of truth. When he proclaimed the Kingdom of God, he showed the glory of truth. When he revealed who he was, he showed the glory of truth. So people were not afraid of him. This deep theological statement by John can be understood in the light of the doctrine of the immanence of God.
Both the transcendence and the immanence of God are two sides of the quality and nature of God. God is both high above full of terrifying glory and here below full of the glory of grace and truth. This is what is known in theological discussion as the paradox of God. In the event of Christmas, God shows both his terrifying glory and his approachable glory of grace and truth. Being born in a manger as a little baby that is weak and vulnerable makes God approachable. Even the outcast of the society, the shepherds, may approach him without being terrified. The terrifying glory that they saw on the field did not appear when they approached the baby Jesus. The memory of the terrifying glory must have stayed with them for the rest of their life for its dramatic quality cannot be easily forgotten. In one night, the shepherds witness both the terrifying glory and the approachable glory of the one God of Israel.
The apostle John also understands this paradox. So before he writes John 1:14, he begins with John 1:1-3:
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.
This is the only gospel which recognizes Jesus as the Word. He is the eternal Word of God. He is the glorious God of heaven and earth. Innate in him is the terrifying glory that he showed from time to time. At the same time, the eternal Word of God also has in him the approachable glory of grace and truth. In his person the two sides of God’s quality and nature, the transcendence and the immanence of God meet. In Jesus God is both transcendent and approachable. And this is the truth about our God. At Christmas that day, he breaks into the ordinary life of the world, into the ordinary life of the people, that all may see his glory. The two sides of his glory are in him the whole time. When he lived on earth, he restrained himself in such a way that his terrifying glory was not projected all the time. As Philippians 2 testifies, Jesus is said:
though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
And so when we reflect on the birth of the Son of God in a manger, the imagination of the terrifying glory being restrained by Jesus must take place. It is his voluntary choice to not project his terrifying glory all the time. His emptying himself is meant to draw us to him. He is approachable for he is vulnerable. But we should not mistake him of being weak. Often people mistake his voluntary choice to be vulnerable as his natural weakness. Don’t! Jesus is still the terrifying God of heaven and earth, who sent ten plagues to Egypt, who divided the Red Sea, who supplied Israel’s needs for 40 years in the desert, who conquered Canaan, who judged nations, who created the heavens and the earth, who controlled all the elements of nature, who held authority in the realm of the living and of the dead, but he restrained himself in such a way so that he becomes approachable. This is the nature of the One whom we are going celebrate his birth on earth.
As we are about to celebrate Christmas, the historical moment that happens only once, of which there is no replication, nothing like this has ever happened before and will never happen again, as we celebrate that moment, the moment the God of the universe breaks into the depraved world, the moment the God of glory breaks into our sinful life, remember that the incarnate God, the Son of man, the baby in a manger, Jesus, is that God – the terrifying God, the God that shakes the foundation of the earth, the glorious God. Do not mistake him with the regular baby, the cute little baby with the crying and the cooing and the smile. No, this particular baby is the God who holds the entire universe in his hand. In him are both the terrifying glory and the approachable glory. Jesus is special. His birth is special. Unlike other stories of birth, this is THE birth that the entire world is waiting for. This is THE GREATEST καιρός of all. This is the moment when the One True God enters into the world in his most vulnerable condition. Christmas is the historical moment that turns all philosophies and human reasoning upside down. Jesus is born into the world that believes that God can never bleed. But Jesus bleeds. Jesus is born into the world that believes that God is untouchable. But Jesus is touchable. Jesus is born into the world that believes that God is always transcendent. But Jesus is also immanent. That’s why he is called Immanuel – with us God or we know it as God with us.
Brothers and sisters, when this paradox of God is not understood properly, we respond to God inappropriately. There is some kind of people who believe that God is only transcendent, and thus never approach God. These people always beat themselves so hard because in their serious and genuine meditation, they know how sinful they are, unworthy to be in the present of the holy transcendent glorious God. The more they work hard to purify themselves, the more they are distressed, for they know more of their shortcoming, and they know how far they are from God. But on the other hand, there is some kind of people who believe that God is only immanent, and thus never respect God. These people always take God lightly, because for them God is this easygoing God, always tolerant to their sins, always forgiving, always loving, and so they never take God seriously. For them, since God has forgiven their sins for eternity, then they can do whatever they want. Whenever they approach God, they always approach God in dishonorable manner, God is just like their buddy, their childhood friend to whom they can burst out and swear freely. These two responses are not appropriate.
The paradox of God must be clear in our mind. We must never take God lightly. But we also must not then run away from God because we think he is so unapproachable. He is indeed approachable. Christmas is the proof of God’s approachability. But when we approach God, we must not approach him with disrespect. He is God. He deserves the proper respect. The way the world approaches Christmas is very disrespectful. The mystery of the incarnation of the terrifying God is reduced to the family time of present giving. The world treats Christmas merely as the time when families gather to give presents to one another. No longer is Jesus Christ in the picture. The more fitting “god” of the world’s Christmas is not Jesus Christ anymore. The world has replaced him with their own “god,” which they find in the imaginative character of the Santa Claus of the North Pole. The glory of God, both the terrifying and the glory of grace and truth, they could no longer see.
Ironically, every living creature’s deep desire is to see the glory of God. God’s glory captivates the heart and the mind of those who see it. Sin has disoriented us from the holy desire to see God’s glory. And so, there is a battle within, where on the one hand we desire to see God’s glory and on the other hand our sinfulness desires to run away from God’s glory. Our sinfulness cannot stand the terrifying glory of God. For when the terrifying glory of God is revealed, our sinfulness is disclosed. Through the glory of God we see our ugliness, our total depravity, our shamefulness. So our sinful nature attempts to go away from the glory of God. But the more we run away from God’s glory, the more our souls yearn for it. Christmas is the secret to fulfill our deepest desire. The breaking in of God into our life through Christmas is very special. For here in order to bring us to see the fullness of God’s glory, the Almighty God chooses to restrain himself of his terrifying glory – his natural glory that he has before there was time, and for a time only the glory of grace and truth remain. Then people may approach him, and see a different side of glory emanating from him before later they may see the fullness of glory that Jesus has since the beginning. God walks through a very difficult path voluntarily for the sake of us. Of this we can only fathom it through the lens of God’s love. Thus this calls for us to honor him even more.
When the proclamation of Jesus’ birth is given by the angel to the shepherds, they go to baby Jesus with great respect. Luke 2:20 testifies to what happens after they see Jesus: “20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” Matthew 2:11 testifies of the Magi worshiping the child Jesus: “11 And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.” Yes Jesus is approachable. Yes Jesus is immanent. But he is not an ordinary child. The only appropriate response is to fall down and worship him, and glorifying and praising him. The center of Christmas is not Santa Claus. It is Jesus. God breaks into our life through Christmas so that we may see his glory. Once we see his glory, both the terrifying glory and the glory of grace and truth, we may know God. As we reflect upon this, ask ourselves: “Have we truly seen the glory of God? Have we responded appropriately to the God of heaven and earth? Or are we accustomed to taking God so lightly? Or are we accustomed to run away from God?” Brothers and sisters, he has broken into our life, and when he does, he shows his glory so that we may see his glory. He shows his terrifying glory so that we may give him the proper honor he deserves, for he is God. He also shows his glory of grace and truth so that we may approach him and honor him even more. This is the grace of our great God, our glorious God, our terrifying God, to all of us. Amen.