“And the Word became Flesh and dwelled among us. And we have seen his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only-begotten Son, full of grace and truth”.
I wonder: What did they see?
What did they see, the astrologers from the East, when they saw the child and his mother? What made them confident that their long and dangerous journey had not been in vain?
What did they see, the old man and the old woman in the temple? What did he see when they saw the young family, that convinced them that all their desires and hopes had been met?
What did they see?
Two days ago we have completed the season of Epiphany and in fact the Christmas season.
Throughout this time we commemorated and celebrated stories of sudden insight: Christ is being revealed to the world as the Saviour, as the Son of God, as the Word become Flesh.
And people see, people are spellbound, stopped in their tracks, full of awe: We beheld his glory, a glory as of the only-begotten Son of God.
I imagine these moments were a bit like walking through a dark corridor and suddenly a door opens and you catch a glimpse of a magnificent feast going on: You see the bright chandeliers, you hear laughter, soft piano music, and you smell the most exquisite aroma wafting out through the open door. It’s glorious.
But what did they see?
The Gospel of John gives us a lot of glory moments. They are sometimes eye-catching and take your breath away: John the Baptist sees the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descending on Jesus (John 1:32). The disciples witness a sudden abundance of the best, the finest wine, which washes away any sense of embarrassment and lack (John 2:1-12). The crowds in Bethany see Jesus calling his life-giving word into a stinking tomb and see, with their own eyes, a dead and bandaged man staggering out of it (John 11:38-44). Glimpses of glory.
God’s visible splendor and power for all to see.
But even so, even with all these visible signs and miracles not everybody sees the same.
Not everybody sees in the same way.
Some people are wowed. Some remain skeptical. Some become even hostile.
“I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind” (John 9:39), says Jesus.
But some begin to see with eyes, which see deeper. Some begin to see with the eyes of faith.
“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” (14:9)
Whoever has truly seen me.
But what did they see?
What did they see when they followed Jesus on his tiring journeys across Galilee and Judea?
What did they see, when they discerned glory in the tortured figure on the cross?
What did they see, when their heart leapt as they peered upon a pile of cloths, neatly folded in a corner of a tomb?
Some time ago, I think probably in the mid-90s books called “The Magical Eye” were greatly en vogue. They contained pages, which looked like an advert for wallpaper, for rather ugly wallpaper, to be sure, with garish colors and wild patterns. But if you held the book at a certain distance before your eyes, a picture hidden in the pattern suddenly appeared before you. These books gave me a lot of distress, because I usually could not pull off the magic, but I vividly remember the moment when I finally got the hang of it and beheld for two seconds a majestic group of reindeers. What really shocked me apart from the fact that I could finally do it was the notion of three-dimensionality. It was as if the flat picture popped out from the page and wrapped me up in an altogether new dimension. I became part of the picture, sweeping along with those reindeers.
I think this is a very shadowy image for what beholding Christ’s glory means.
Those who behold the glory of Christ with the eyes of faith are not doing so as spectators of a two-dimensional picture, but have been drawn into a completely new dimension. And unlike my magical reindeer moment, this is not a delightful but fleeting illusion, but a revelation of what is eternally true, truer than everything that meets the eye. At the heart of the Universe, at the beginning and end of it all, there is God’s glory, God’s splendor and beauty. Despite all the dreadful evidence to the contrary.
And this glory has found a dwelling place on earth. Not in the temple, not in a holy site, but in a concrete human being, who is walking around, communicating with people.
The eternal word has taken up residence in our midst. The Word pitched a tent, the Word came camping among us. And we beheld his glory.
And because the Word has become flesh and fully human, glory is not just a show of power staged for us. Because the Word has become flesh, there is not just something to see for us, but somebody who sees us. There is a gaze upon us, a face turned towards us, as we heard so movingly last Sunday.
Because the Word has become flesh, glory can be described as “full of grace and truth.”
“Grace and truth” are a bit like salt and pepper – they belong together but are not quite the same.
Together they describe the unshakeable, steadfast love and mercy of God.
Taken by themselves they seem to point in very different directions at first glance.
Truth is “saying it how it is”. I have a friend who is from the Netherlands. And sometimes she says to me: “Please be Dutch with me.” And by that she means: “Please be brutally honest.” Say it like it is, without excuses and attempts to hide or make things look better than they are. Truth can be like a particularly powerful flashlight or a cruel bathroom mirror, which reveals every last wrinkle. It can be refreshing and liberating – the truth will set you free says Jesus in John 8:32 – but also a bit daunting or, in extreme cases, crushing. The Gospel of John describes how people prefer to huddle in the shadow instead of coming to the light – they dread the truth about themselves (John 3:20).
Grace, on the other hand seems more like a heart-warming candlelight to me. It bathes everything in a warm glow, which conceals as much as it reveals. Grace understands and covers up what has been exposed. Grace goes the extra mile and finds us precisely as we are huddled in the shadow. Grace is God’s loveliness, God’s generous giving far beyond what we deserve.
God’s gaze in Christ brings together grace and truth. It is the glory of Christ that he brings us face to face with the truth of our lives – and behold, we live.
It is the glory of Christ that his truth does not crush us but liberates us.
“Has no-one condemned you?” says Jesus to the woman, who has been caught in adultery and dumped before his feet. “No-one, sir”, she replies. “Then I do not condemn you either. Go forth and sin no more.” (John 8:10 -11).
What did she see? What did she see in this strange man, who wrote on the earth that convinced her that her life had been spared and indeed made new?
I think she saw somebody who looked at her with grace and truth. I think she caught a glimpse of God’s glory, which drew her in and wrapped her up, a whole new dimension, a whole new world.
Let me finish with a story from our day and age, which illustrates very powerfully how an ordinary person can become the channel of Christ’s glory, somebody who has been known and loved by Christ and can in turn look at others with grace and truth.
The story takes place in a London parish and was experienced and recorded by a young Anglican priest, who was a Pastoral assistant at the time. He posted the story on Facebook. (Thank God for Social Media!) I do not know him, but he kindly gave me permission to share it with you.
One afternoon, during a mid-week service an unexpected and unwanted guest wanders into the church. He is a huge man and clearly under the influence of drugs. As he makes his way down the aisle he starts calling out “Hellloooooo everybody!” The congregation freezes and people pretend not to see and hear what is going on. Somebody tries to calm him. But the awkward visitor adds, in a mildly threatening tone: “I am going to take all my clothes off!” The pastoral assistant starts to think frantically about how to deal with the situation, when he sees how a tiny, quite frail and elderly lady from the congregation stands up and approaches the man.
Everybody holds their breath as she finally stand directly before the giant man, bravely looking up to him.
“Go on then”, says the woman, called Mandy. “Go on and take them off. You’d be doing an old girl a favour.”
Suddenly the man blushes and mutters something incomprehensible, visibly embarrassed by the situation.
“Oh well”, says Mandy in an encouraging tone. “Wouldn’t you rather have a chat?”
After that she leads the man to the tea and coffee corner and they talk for over an hour. The author finishes the story with the words: “He left the church transformed.”
Now, believe me, I would pay a lot of money to have Mandy’s gift of courage and her sharp tongue. But I know I shall never be as quick-witted. But I hope that, like her, I learn to grasp and reflect the glory of God in Christ more and more. I hope that all of us are granted the favour to look at others the way we have been looked at: Full of grace and truth.
For “the Word became flesh and dwelled among us and we beheld his glory, a glory such as of the only begotten Son of the Father”.
 It turns out it is a small world. The priest who wrote down the story, Steven Young, trained at Mirfield!