Occasionally someone will ask me if I could only own just one book of the Bible, which would I choose? Sometimes I tell them the Acts of the Apostles, because I believe it provides the framework of what it means to be a Christian faith community. However, most of the time, I choose Isaiah...which some call the fifth gospel since Isaiah directly and frequently heralds the good news of the Messiah.
To me, Isaiah is the pivotal and overarching book that helps us understand the whole faith story in which we find ourselves. It connects the history of the past...the stories, the prophecies, the lessons...to the story of Christ...and reveals the fully established Kingdom to come. It pieces it all together. So, for me, if you dig deep into Isaiah, by default, you are forced to dig deeper into the rest of the scripture. And most assuredly, given the number of times Isaiah is quoted or referred to in the New Testament, if we scratch the surface of any part of the New Testament writings, a connection to Isaiah is waiting to be found.
Isaiah is THE book that reveals God in all his holiness, the gospel in all its grace, and our future in all its glory. Therefore, it is only fitting as we close our sermon series on the Five Solas of the Reformation with soli deo Gloria (to the glory of God only) that we turn to Isaiah.
Now, let us be reminded that the Reformers did not start out with these solas as their rallying cry. Instead, they are the five Latin phrases which emerged to summarize the chief theological concerns of the Reformers. That said, folks tend to be much more aware of the first four: salvation comes to us by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, as revealed by scripture alone. In fact, Soli Deo Gloria is often missing from the list and is sometimes referred to as the "lost" sola. Not so much because it is not important...but that it does not directly represent a key complaint of Luther and his contemporaries.
Certainly, Luther could point to very specific church practices which contradicted grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone and Scripture alone...however, there really wasn't a particular thing that the church was doing to call into question God's glory. No priests were going around denying God's glory in the Middle Ages...at least not directly or intentionally. Indirectly, however, was a different story.
You see...Soli Deo Gloria is both the underpinning and umbrella of the other four solas. In other words, if salvation was offered by any other means than God's grace...such as an indulgence...then it is not to God's glory alone...something else factors in. If one could obey their way into salvation...then humankind would deserve some of the glory, too. If anything or anyone other than Christ commuted our righteousness...then that thing or person would be due some glory. You get the picture. So, if any of the other solas are missing from theology or practice, so is soli deo gloria...conversely, when the other four are observed, God is glorified.
So, given the significance soli deo gloria, I'm wondering...what do you suppose is meant by the term the "glory of God" or God's glory? What does "glory" mean? Or the term glorification?
It sounds straight-forward and simple...after all, we toss these theological words around all the time. We should be able to define glory of God. Yet, when we try to put it to words...we stutter around, unsure of ourselves. Nonetheless, we try. When we refer to the glory of God...we tend to characterize it as an attribute of God. Glory is an aspect of who God is. God's glory is God's majesty...God's greatness...God's supremacy over all things. Glory captures the unmatchable, unsurpassable, unable-to-be-replicated, belongs-to-no-other facet of God that makes God, God. It also carries a connotation of lightness and brightness and...emanating from God. Still, it's not just part of who God is...God's glory is also the way that God makes himself - in all his majesty and greatness and supremacy - known to us. God's glory makes it clear to us that God is God and we are not.
In the reading today, God, speaking through Isaiah, minces no words about his majesty, greatness and supremacy. In fact, to be quite honest, if anyone other than God were to use this much "I" language to say these things about his or her own self, we'd worry that they were suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Of course, the "hearers" of Isaiah's words recognized this as the Almighty God's covenantal language of love...It was God promising to be their God. Likewise, it was quite comforting to hear on the heels of the previous fiery declarations of woes and consequences for their unfaithfulness and the prediction of their impending exile by the Babylonians. The Israelites needed reassurance that they still belonged to God and that God would be with them in their suffering...and yes, they were going to suffer. Likewise, though, God also needed to remind them that God and only God could save them in their suffering.
Now, there is a mention in here in verse 7, of God's glory. Speaking of all who will be redeemed, God says "everyone who is called by name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made". So apparently, there is a connection between God's people...and God's glory. One possible interpretation would be that by being the ones created for God's glory, the Israelites were God's most precious possession...proof of God's of majesty and greatness. A second interpretation would be that they were created to be a revelation of it. Or, perhaps, and more likely, it's a little of both. I believe, when we apply the idea to our post-resurrection selves, it is definitely both. Through Christ we are glorified, in other words, God's glory is made known...and we are also called to be glorifiers - those who make God's glory known.
Now, I'm going to explain that further in a moment, but let me first say a little bit more about the concept of God's glory from the Old Testament perspective. For the ancient Israelites, glory was more than just an attribute of God, it represented God's presence among them. In fact, the Hebrew word for "glory" translates to a weight or heaviness...which conveys God's actual presence versus his majesty and awesomeness.
In the Hebrew scripture, God's presence is often represented by a cloud - a cloud that somehow contained, yet veiled, God, when God was near. Likewise, the revelation of God's glory was also a mixed blessing of sort. On the one hand, it meant that the living God was dwelling among his people...yet, when God comes near in the Old Testament, judgment is never far away. So, throughout the ancient story, there is a unsettledness in that God's people can't survive far from God, but God can't be near them either because of their sin. In fact, according to Ezekiel, things got so bad that Israel, in their disobedience and apathy, eventually lost her status as holy people. Sin rendered the nation unclean and their worship defiled the Temple. God had no choice but to withdraw and let them suffer the natural consequence which was national destruction. Sometimes I wonder if God ever thinks about doing that again?
Still, God loves his people and is faithful to his covenant, so God would not...could not...remain separated from his beloved. Eventually God takes on human flesh, coming as a baby boy, in order to be reunited with all his people...and to adopt more into his family. So, Jesus of Nazareth, through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, comes as God's Son and becomes God's glory incarnate - Jesus was God's presence with his beloved people. No more "cloud" per se.
Jesus also took care of the sin-gap that separated us from God. By going to the Cross...a lowly place of total humility...the complete opposite of the world's definition of power and honor and majesty...Jesus not only redeemed our sin, he was exalted by God. His ministry of compassion, healing and restoring people to community gave glimpses of God's glory, but it was through his self-sacrifice at the cross, that Jesus ultimately revealed all of God's glory. That is why we sometimes use the phrase, the glory of the cross. It is not the world's definition of glorious, but it is God's.
I think the official theological terminology for this the process of God revealing God's glory is "glorification"...which was fully consummated on the cross. Now...I know this is a lot of church-y words...and I don't usually like to bog us down with those...but sometimes, a preacher's gotta do what a preacher's gotta do.
The good news for us today is much simpler. It is this: because of our salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, we are part of this big glory story too. We are participants because through his Holy Spirit, Christ is transforming us to be bearers of God's glory. Of course, in this life, we are not perfect bearers the way Jesus was...however, individually and as his church, we are constantly being shaped by the Spirit to be revealers of God's glory to the world ...to live our lives soli deo gloria...until we are fully united with Christ in all God's glory forever and ever.
So...the real challenge for us is not in recognizing God's glory...I think we all see and feel God's presence in many ways. We get glimpses of God's glory when prayers are answered....when trust is built...when forgiveness is offered. We see God's glory at work when the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, the poor are cared for, and the strangers are welcomed. God's glory is revealed in and through the church when the church is bearing the image of Christ in the world.
Make no mistake though, glory-bearing is difficult, emotional work. In order for God to be glorified in us, we must practice the kind of humility and denial-of-self that Jesus did in his dying on the cross. In other words, we must become less so that God's glory can be revealed. No you all know this is 100% contrary to everything the world teaches us about who and what gets glorified. By the world's standards, glory belongs to those who are visible...in the limelight...in the know...famous...successful. But that's not how it works in God's kingdom. God's glory belongs to those who are willing to bear the cross.
Soli deo gloria...to the glory of God alone. Soli. Deo. Gloria...SDG.
I read a story this week about Johann Sebastian Bach. Did you know that he signed his compositions SGD rather than JSB? SDG was his way of reminding himself that all of these masterpieces were offered, not for his fame, but for God's glory. SDG was a way for Bach to keep himself humble before God.
SDG...soli deo gloria...we all probably have something in our life that needs a little SDG stamped on it. A reminder that all the glory belongs to God. Perhaps it's our check book...does our spending reveal God's glory? Or maybe our relationships...can we see God's presence in them? Or what about our words? Do others see SDG in how we speak to each other...or what we write on FB...what we utter about others under our breath? Is there a part of your life where you seek recognition, accolades, or you just need to be right? Does it bring glory to God...and does it bring God's glory to the world?
We could ask these same questions of the church and its ministries, you know. Where do we need to put little post-it notes of SDG, reminding us that all we do is soli deo gloria? Does our work and worship, our mission and ministries bring glory to God? Perhaps even more important in our current context, are we revealing God's glory to the world so desperately needing to experience it?
Just as the Israelites needed God's glory near them for both assurance and accountability, so does our world. There is so much hurt and pain...division and hostility...deep loneliness and isolation...arrogance and self-sufficiency...so many who feel abandoned, lost, outcast....and even more whose sin overwhelms and whose choices condemn. There seems to be so little hope and even less joy. And practically no glory...at least not soli deo gloria. Plenty of sources of false glory...but no awareness of God's glory.
Friends, soli deo gloria reminds us that God is God and we are not. As is clear in Isaiah, only God can save the world. We, God's people, have nothing to contribute to that end. However, we, the church, are called to live our lives soli deo gloria so that they point the world to God's glory. A glory which is found in and through the humility of the cross of Christ.
As the Psalmist wrote: Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness. All glory be to God, manifested in and through the Son, Jesus Christ, by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Amen