Thursday, March 9, 2017

God's Merciful Glory

This Sunday's readings are full of theological weight, but, by the time we get to the second half of Sunday morning's collect, we will have already made a profound and peculiar statement about God's nature that begs our attention: "O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy..."

The "acknowledgment" is the part of the collect that identifies what it is about the one to whom we address our prayer that makes this prayer worth saying. This week, we address our collect to "God" because, as we state, God is the one "whose glory it is always to have mercy." Not God's nature. Not God's property, which we say in the Prayer of Humble Access. But God's glory. God's glory is to always have mercy. What a curious way of describing both the glory and the mercy!

Think about God's glory. The glory of the Lord is that which appeared in the cloud that went before Israel as they left Egypt and dwelt on Mount Sinai (Exodus 16 & 24). God's glory is that which Moses asked to see, but he was only allowed to gaze at God's backside (Exodus 33). The prophet Isaiah tells us that the Lord gives his glory to no other (42:8). The glory of God shines through in the Transfiguration. It is what is distinct about God. It is the fullness of God shining into this world. Words don't describe it fully. We cannot do it justice. And that glory, we pray, is always to have mercy.

What does that even mean? I've always liked the phrase in the Prayer of Humble Access that states God's "property is always to have mercy" because it stops short of saying that God's "nature" is to be merciful. That distinction in language seems careful to me. We cannot express the fullness of God's nature in any words, but we can identify a property of God as to have mercy. But this collect seems to burst through that linguistic caution and go even beyond God's nature. God's glory is so completely other--so foreign, so different--that we ask Moses to veil his face lest the afterglow scare us. How can we be so bold as to state that God's glory is always to have mercy?

Part of what makes God unique--part of what defines God as God--is his always mercy. God is the Always Merciful One (intentional though unnecessary capital letters). This week in a bible study on Hebrews, we read about the "Majesty on high" and discussed the concept of a periphrasis--a word that, in Greek, means "talking around." It's a sort of euphemism but in a proper noun, fully substitutable way. This week's collect hints at a periphrasis by describing God's glory as always to have mercy. Using the term glory elevates this claim to a fundamental description of who God is. Like "God is love," this is a way of saying God is always-mercy (as if that were a noun).

So, this Sunday, as we read about the call to Abram and how Paul identifies that as an example of justification by faith and hear Jesus say to Nicodemus that God loves the world enough to send his son so that those who believe might be saved, it's worth remembering that all of that is possible because of God's always-mercy. That is God's glory. That is what makes God God.

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