When the Glory Passes By
Ryan Zhang serves as a pastoral intern and staff member at Christ the King Presbyterian Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He immigrated to the United States from China in 1999 and is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Georgetown University.
This post was initially published on The Body Politic and is reposted in its entirety with permission.
The Chinese media – including my family's social network – was buzzing with news of China's military parade in Beijing recently. The parade marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in China, and it gave the entire world a chance to see how far China has come in the last seventy years. Having lived through the turmoil of 1950s–1980s, many of my family members and friends watched the parade with pride.
Large-scale military parades like these are not common in the U.S., but we have our own parades – championship parades for sports teams, Thanksgiving parades and presidential inaugural parades. Regardless of what they celebrate, all parades share a common purpose: to let the glory of a team or a nation pass before the eyes of its people. Whether the object of the parade is military glory, political glory, or cultural glory, such exhibitions celebrate a collective achievement that distinguishes a people from all other teams, political parties, or nations. Such glory leaves us in awe, and inspires us to ask for more.
As citizens of the Kingdom of God who believe that we have been created by God to share in his own glory, what is the glory that we should seek? What type of glory expresses our collective identity and sets us apart from all others?
Moses asked God this same question. After the Golden Calf episode showed that the Israelites were just as sinful and idolatrous as all other nations, God again promised to Moses that he would give Israelites land, victory and even his presence. (Exodus 33:1-3, 14) But Moses was not satisfied. He pleaded with God, "Please show me your glory." (Exodus 33:18) Moses was not asking to see God's glory because he doubted God's power to deliver Israel, but because he wanted to experience the glory that would anchor his entire existence. Moses was fully aware that he was asking to see the only thing – God's presence – that set the Israelites apart from all other nations. (Exodus 33:16)
But God's response to Moses' request may have seemed a bit strange: "I will let my glory pass before you, I will proclaim before you my name. But," he said, "you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” (Exodus 33:19–20) In other words, God was saying, "Do you know what you are asking here, Moses? If I really show you my glory, you will be destroyed!" No sinful human beings can be in the presence of God's holiness without being burned up. "So here's what I’m going to do, Moses: When my glory passes before you, I will put you in the cleft of that rock over there, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.” (Exodus 33:21–22) In this way God made his glory pass before Moses; Moses caught a glimpse of the back of God's glory, but he did not see God's face.
If the story had ended there, it would have been the most disappointing event in human history. It would be like waiting in the cold winter streets of Washington, DC, to see the inaugural parade, but never even catching a glimpse of the president as his motorcade passes by.
So it’s a good thing the story did not end there.
About 1,200 years later, God did show up. The Gospel of John says, "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory." (1:14) Jesus is the Son of God who came to show the glory of the Father. He healed the sick, cast out demons, and calmed storms, but all of Jesus' life ultimately pointed to the moment where God's glory truly passes by – the cross. The place where God the Son was most lowly and humiliated was also where he had victory over the power of sin and death. Christ became the rock in which we take refuge by taking on the punishment that we deserve. Think of Christ's death on the cross, and consider these words that God proclaimed to Moses,
"The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6–7)
What is the glory we should seek? The answer is found in the Cross, where God responds, "I love you and I will be with you, even if I have to die for you."
While the rest of the world may seek glory in political power, intellectual achievements, or cultural influence, let the glory of the Cross displace all other types of glory that we seek. It is not a glory dependent on anything we achieve, but a glory entirely dependent on God's steadfast love and faithfulness. The Cross is not simply a show of force that demonstrates God's power; it is also a show of mercy that makes it possible for sinful beings like you and me to be in the presence of God without being burned up. The glory of the Cross is a way of peace and sacrifice, and through it we have the rights to become children of God. It is a glory that we may seek to experience awe, but more importantly, it is a glory that we need to be reconciled to God.