To the Glory of God Alone
Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek
Before I worked for a church, I used to work with a guy I’ll call Bill. Bill was a great guy to have around the office; you would like to work with him. But he didn’t want much to do with church. Occasionally, another Christian and I would invite Bill to church, and Bill would say something like, “Oh, I’d come to church, but if I did, the building would probably fall down on me.”
I don’t think Bill really believed that if he dared approach God, the wrath of God against him was so severe that it would flare up against him to the extent that it might even bring harm not only on him but those around him. I don’t think that’s what Bill thought. I think he just said that to get out of coming and because it was a funny way to say that church is for people who are more put-together, more moral, more conservative than his past had been. Church wasn’t for him. Maybe that’s how you sometimes feel too.
There’s a story in the Bible about some people who might have talked like Bill. They show up in the Christmas story. They’re the shepherds. I’m making some generalizations, but research would seem to show that shepherds could be a rough bunch. But on what seemed to them an ordinary night in the fields, the glory of God came down to them. And they were changed.
If you have a Bible, please turn with me to Luke 2:8–20. Follow along with me as I read. After I’ve read the passage, we’ll pray and study this together.
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.
This is God’s Word. Thanks be to God. Please pray with me as we begin to study this together? “Heavenly Father . . .”
This summer I was sitting with a friend at church at a coffee shop downtown. We were talking about what have been called the “five solas.” If you’ve been at our church for the last few weeks, this will be a quick review, but I don’t want to leave anyone out who is visiting.
In the 1500s, the church experienced the upheaval we now call The Reformation. The Reformation began with the growing desire to show the church its errors and make the church healthier. This year, Protestants around the world commemorated the 500th anniversary of The Reformation, which is marked by the date October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther famously nailed his points of debate to the door of a church in Germany.
During Advent at our church, we’ve had a sermon series looking at each of the five solas. The five solas are a cluster of Latin phrases that describe the central points of contention during The Reformation (sola is Latin for “alone”). The solas highlight how God rescues his people from their sin: we are saved on the authority of Scripture alone, by Christ alone, through Grace alone, on the basis of Faith alone, and all to the Glory of God alone. Scripture alone. Christ alone. Grace alone. Faith alone. The Glory of God alone.
So this summer, I’m at the coffee shop chatting about these solas. And my friend and I were also talking about what I might call the “anti-solas” too. These anti-solas were the common teaching of the church before the Reformation, and sadly in many places they are still taught, whether directly or indirectly. The anti-solas might go something like this:
Scripture plus church dogma
Christ plus his mother, priests, and saints
Grace plus the sacraments
Faith plus doing good deeds
To God’s glory plus human ability
When we came to that last one, we paused. In some ways, it just even seems strange to say: “To God’s glory and the glory of human ability”? Huh? What church and what Christians says that?
As my friend and I talked, I realized something, perhaps for the first time. I realized almost no church and no Christian says that directly. But, if you say something like, “When we seek God through Scripture and church dogma, we can be made right with God through Christ and other helpers, by trusting in God’s grace and the sacraments, as long as we do enough good works alongside our faith,” then when you say those four other things, all of a sudden, whether you say it explicitly or not, what you are doing is telling a different story. It’s a story not to God’s glory, but ours.
Look at it like this. If I come up to you on a football field and say, “Coach, I’m here to play football. Let’s do this.” You look at me. And then you say to me, “Son, let’s back up a moment. You’re wearing soccer shoes. You’re wearing soccer shin guards and tall socks. And, son, you’re wearing soccer shorts and a soccer shirt, not the proper pads and helmet.” Then you add, “I know you say you’re here to play football, but you’re not. You’re here to play a different game.” Now, don’t get distracted by the fact that some people call soccer football. Hopefully you see my point.
If you tell a story about salvation that requires you to play a crucial role in your own deliverance, then you’re telling a different story. You’re saying, not to the glory of God alone, but something else. And that something else isn’t good news.
So, what does any of this have to do with anything about Christmas and Luke 2 and shepherds and fields and Hark the Harold Angels? The answer is everything. But if we are to see and appreciate the wonder and magic and glory of the Christmas story, we need to back up. We need to have some sense of the Christmas backstory.
The Christmas Backstory
Let me tell you briefly about a tower named Babel and a king named Harrod.
Near the very beginning of the Bible there is a story that goes like this:
2 And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves . . .” (Gen. 11:2–4)
Why bring this story up on Christmas Eve? Notice the phrase, “[L]et us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.” The Big Story of the Bible is about the God who loves his people and makes a name for himself by creating them and saving them and loving them. But the little story of The Tower of Babel is about people trading that story, the story of the glory of God, for the glory of man. And it’s a story on repeat in every generation and in every human heart.
Look at what happens next.
5 And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. (v. 5)
This passage is supposed to have humor to it. They are building a tower to heaven. But what must happen? God, who is in heaven, must come down to see their tweeny, weeny tower. “Ahhh, what’s this? It’s so cute. You stacked all those bricks on top of each other. Ahh.”
Except it’s not cute. It’s an act of war. It’s rebellion. Would the American people be pleased with you if you went to the Capital Mall area in Washington D.C. and started to build right next to the Washington Monument, a giant sculpture of yourself flexing your muscles? Would people be pleased? They would not.
That’s a tower named Babel. Let me say something about a king named Harrod and his long backstory.
The beginning of what we call the New Testament is preceded by a dark and winding story. There are whispers of hope in the Old Testament, but there are many shouts of frustration. There was a king named David, who did many wonderful things, but he also did bad things too. And this king named David was promised to have a greater son, a son who would have an everlasting dynasty, a rule that would last forever. But if you were alive at the time of the beginning of the first-century, the hope of a greater King David was hanging by a thread. And the thread was starting to unravel.
You see, David was king around 1000 BC, and then he had a son who had another son, and when that son was in charge, there was a civil war and the kingdom split in two. And then you go a few dozen more kings down that family line of kings, and the whole nation is crushed by a foreign power called Babylon and people are carried off into exile.
Eventually, some people come back to Israel (what’s left of it) when the Persians are in charge. The people sorta rebuild the temple, but it’s not the same. And then after the Persians, Alexander the Great takes over the area. More decimation. And when Alexander dies, his four generals divide everything up. Then, eventually, the Syrian empire grows, and they are in charge. More decimation.
They, for just a moment, there is this little Hebrew rebellion that is actually a pretty big deal. It’s the story of Hanukkah. But over several generations this family of Hebrew leaders became more and more corrupt until rulers of the Roman empire got fed up with them. And then Rome installed their own ruler over the land of Israel. His name was Harrod. We call him Harrod the Great. But he wasn’t so great. He was insecure and unstable and killed lots of people, including parts of his own family. He was trying, perhaps we might say, to build a kingdom to his own greatness. He was trying to make a name for himself. Sound familiar?
If that was too much history for you—King David to a civil war, to an exile by Babylonians, to Persians and Alexander the Great, and the Roman empire and an erratic puppet king named Harrod—what’s the takeaway?
I’ll tell you the takeaway: if you were alive at the time of the first-century, any hope you had for the exalted King to come from the family line of King David was hanging by a thread, and the thread was starting to unravel. And maybe it already had.
Until glory showed up. The glory of God showed up to a bunch of rough shepherds.
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!” (Luke 2:9–14)
There’s this line in O Holy Night that says, “long lay the world in sin and error pining.” That’s not an exaggeration. People building kingdoms for themselves was the way it was. And in many ways, it’s the way it still is.
Except there is now the real king on an exalted throne. This baby-in-a-manger-who-was-The-descendant-of-David-and-savior-messiah-Lord-and-Christ, he grew up. He lived, and he loved. And he died when people killed him. But they only killed him because he let them. And when he died, he took all the punishment for our rebellion to himself. And then he rose again. And when he rose, he then ascended to the throne of the universe, where he still sits. And from where he will come again.
I mentioned my friend Bill at the start. I don’t think Bill really believed that if he dared approach God, the wrath of God against him was so severe that it would flare up against him to the extent that it might even bring harm not only on him but those around him. I don’t think that’s what Bill thought.
But, when you an I try to approach God in our own righteousness, when we try to build our own tower to heaven, we are essentially saying, not to the glory of God alone, but to the glory of God plus my own glory.
And that’s not good news. The Reformation was birthed out of absolute desperation because scores of people were worried that the tower of their own righteousness wouldn’t ever make it to heaven.
And they re-discovered the glory of God in the highest. In that passage in Luke, there is a line that says, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (v. 11).
For unto you? Ordinarily, when a baby is born, that baby is born unto the parents. You don’t go tell it on the mountains that a baby is born unto a bunch of shepherds. You don’t do that.
But angels did. And that’s good news, good news for them and good news for us.
I don’t know what frustrations you have on your mind this holiday season. But one of them doesn’t have to be whether or not you can make it to heaven. You can’t, that is, you can’t on your own. But you can with God. Because of Christ the Savior who came down for us. To him alone be the glory.
Pray with me as the music team comes back up. Let’s pray…