“Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” (John 12:27-28)
Somewhere in my childhood, I remember asking why we wore good clothes to church on Sunday. The answer, as I recall, was that God deserves our best; we wear our best clothes as a way of honoring God. I’ve heard the same argument made about sanctuary carpets and pew upholstery. I understand that impulse – to honor God with the best that humans have to offer (even if I don’t really care what people wear to worship, as long as the clothes themselves aren’t worn to make oneself the focus of attention). I also think it misses something essential about the gospel of Jesus Christ.
For centuries, Europeans built magnificent cathedrals to glorify God. The vaulted worship spaces, intricate carvings, radiant stained glass and gilded altars all contributed to a sense of God’s majesty.
Following the Exodus from Egypt, the people of God began to worship God in a tabernacle – a tent with surrounding courtyards established by drapes. The tabernacle was a fancy tent, to be sure, with gold and fine textiles, but a tent nonetheless. The Ark of the Covenant that represented God’s presence in the community was housed in a tabernacle for generations.
King David worried that he lived in a fancy palace, while “Ark of God stays in a tent” (2 Samuel 7:2). It was Solomon who built a magnificent temple for the Lord that stood for nearly 400 years. The Babylonians destroyed this temple when they captured Jerusalem in the 6th century BC, but the exiles rebuilt it when they returned. The reconstructed temple paled in comparison to the one Solomon had built until King Herod began a renovation project some 500 years later. Herod’s temple was bigger and more glorious than all its predecessors. The Galilean fishermen who visited it with Jesus could not help but exclaim, “Look, teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings” (Mark 13:1). Which facility, I wonder, most honored God. Did bigger and shinier glorify God more? The disciples were awed by Herod’s temple, but Jesus announced its doom.
What is it, then, that glorifies God? Is it fancy buildings and showy worship? It is quite natural, I think for people to believe the things most valued by the world are also the things that most honor the Lord.
In Jesus, however, we find something shocking. The cross glorifies God. Death by crucifixion was dishonorable, an embarrassment and the source of shame. “Anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse,” Deuteronomy 21:23 said. The old hymn gets it right: “On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross, the emblem of suffering and shame.”
For modern Christians, however, the cross has become merely a symbol. The world has been shaped by the cross for 2000 years to the point that we rightly see Jesus’ death as noble and powerful in its own way. No one in the ancient world would have thought of it as either. Our minds cannot grasp the weakness and shame it entailed, but early church had to wrestle with these facts. Paul wrote,
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. . . . For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1Corinthians 1:18-24).
What glorifies God? The cross of Jesus glorifies him as nothing else can. Let’s not be ashamed of it.
In our rush to offer God the things the world values, let’s remember he’s already shown us what is important to him. A life shaped by the cross glorifies God much more than a silk tie or a nice suit. The church’s proclamation of the cross – and living as people redeemed by the cross – glorify God much more than church buildings adorned with fine textiles or beautiful artwork.
Lift high, the cross; the love of Christ proclaim, ‘till all the world adore his sacred name.