How zoom and contrast can make a message more uplifting
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Some sermons are true but uninspiring. They are like photographs that don't do justice to a beautiful landscape or a noble face, taken by a person with no artistic instincts. The subject is powerful, but the person behind the camera doesn't know how to capture that greatness.
Scripture in context is inherently powerful. The preacher's job is to capture the text in a way that inspires faith and love, repentance and devotion.
In this article I want to show two ways of capturing a subject in inspirational ways. After we have studied the text and know its message, how do we render that message in ways that stir people, such that they cannot look away and afterward cannot get the message out of their mind, like a great picture?
We will learn from one of the most inspiring preachers around: John Ortberg, pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California. Below, in one of his typically inspiring sermons, I will draw your attention to how John uses two methods that contribute to this uplifting effect: zoom and contrast.
On your point and shoot camera, you have a button that enables you to zoom in or zoom out. Sometimes zooming in improves the picture; sometimes zooming out. For our purposes in this article it's good to think of using a video camera, where we do both throughout the video. Each level of zoom has a purpose and adds to the total effect. Sometimes the background is the defining aspect of the scene, so you want a wide angle; other times you want to get as close as you can to one interesting detail. Similarly, if you have ever used photo editing software, you have probably discovered how much you can improve a photograph by cropping it well.
In a sermon, we zoom in and out by changing the scope of a subject. For example, a sermon on the subject of truth has implications for the individual, for the individual's family, church, city, culture, nation, world, and the kingdom of God. All are important on a different scale.
Good photographers also control the contrast in a photo. In a low-contrast photo, everything blends together in an indistinctive, boring way. Using photo editing software to heighten the contrast, we can improve the effect of the image dramatically. Similarly the themes of a sermon become more inspiring when we contrast them with their opposite.
We feel the inspirational potential of zoom and contrast in a great text like Romans 8:38-39: "I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Zoom in, zoom out, and contrast—these serve as illuminating tools of creativity in themselves, but by combining them with other tools Ortberg takes them to another level. As we'll see in the sermon below, he can use terms, phrases, images, ideas throughout the body of a sermon and then near the end of the sermon capitalize on them all, comparing them in fresh ways with each other and with new ideas that involve contrast, zooming in, and zooming out. In this Ortberg resembles a mystery writer who scatters through a story various clues and suspects and then in the climax brings them all together in a way that shows the connections between things previously unconnected in our minds. I'll call this climactic juxtaposition.
Below I have annotated John Ortberg's sermon "For the Glory of God Alone," focusing my notes on his use of contrast, zooming in, and zooming out. The words by Ortberg on which I am commenting are in bold, followed by a reference for a sidebar note. Before you read the sermon, however, I strongly urge that you first watch and feel its direct, uninterrupted effect. View it here.
This is my Father's world
And to my listening ears
All nature sings and around me rings
The music of the spheres
This is my Father's world
I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas
His hand the wonders wrought
This is my Father's world
The birds their carols raise
The morning light, the lily white
Declare their maker's praise
This is my Father's world
He shines in all that's fair
In rustling grass I hear him pass
He speaks to me everywhere
This is my Father's world
Oh let me never forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong
God is the ruler yet
This is my Father's world
The battle is not done
Jesus who died shall be satisfied
And earth and heaven be one
Jesus who died shall be satisfied
And earth and heaven be one
We are starting a five-week series called True North in which we will be looking at several of our core Christian beliefs. The Reformers called these beliefs the five solas. Sola is the Latin word for alone. We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone; and the Bible alone has the unique authority to teach these things. Today we will begin with this phrase from the Reformers: Soli Deo Gloria—to the glory of God alone. All glory goes to our Father. He is running the show. This is our Father's world; it is not ours.  If all glory belongs to God, none of it belongs to us.  It is not soli meo gloria; it is soli Deo gloria.  This is not an abstract belief we are supposed to affirm at church; this is the bedrock of our faith.  This defines how we live.
A man named Paul wrote these amazing words 2,000 years ago: "Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:31). We typically pass over passages like this one, but it is quite striking when you actually take time to think about what Paul meant. What does it look like to eat and drink to the glory of God? How do you prevent from turning your actions into mere expressions, religious clichés, or false humility?
Sometimes in our churches we get goofy about praise and admiration. I went to a Christian college. At school concerts we would all clap if we were moved by the performer's skill. Most of the time, the artists would respond, "All glory belongs to God." But with their body language, they would communicate they liked the applause and attention. So what does it mean to do everything for the glory of God?
Today I am going to talk about what the Bible means when it teaches that all glory belongs to God.
I. It is natural to proclaim God's glory
Glory is a strange word for many of us. It seems archaic or old-fashioned. C. S. Lewis wrote a great essay titled The Weight of Glory. Lewis writes,
I turn next to the idea of glory. There is no getting away from the fact that this idea is very prominent in the New Testament and in early Christian writings. Salvation is constantly associated with palms, crowns, white robes, thrones, and splendor like the sun and stars. All this makes no immediate appeal to me at all, and in that respect I fancy I am a typical modern. Glory suggests two ideas to me, of which one seems wicked and the other ridiculous. Either glory means to me fame, or it means luminosity. As for the first, since to be famous means to be better known than other people, the desire for fame appears to me as a competitive passion and therefore of hell rather than heaven. As for the second, who wishes to become a kind of living electric light bulb?
According to the writers of Scripture, the great truth about God is that he is glorious.  They reveled in this. They said his glory is proclaimed everywhere. Psalm 19:1 says, "The heavens declare the glory of God."  This is often misunderstood in our day. The psalmist is not necessarily saying that creation proves God's existence. In the ancient world, everyone assumed a divine being existed. What the psalmist is saying is this: creation, the heavens and the earth, tell us something about God; the beauty, wonder, mystery, majesty, power, and liveliness of creation reflect who God is.
Glory is the particular excellence of a thing that makes it praiseworthy. The glory of a flower is its beauty. The glory of a strong man is his strength. I was playing golf a few weeks ago with a friend, and one of us hit a wedge shot from 100 yards that bounced into the hole for an eagle—it was me! But I give all glory to God. It was a beautiful thing.
Creation is telling the glory, majesty, wonder, splendor, and otherness of God. When we recognize this and revel in it and celebrate it, we give God glory.  We were made for this. We ought to do this, and it is a good thing to do. "Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name" (Psalm 29:1-2). Every person is like something. We all have a name. We all have character.  God's character, his person, is glorious.  Recognize that. Ascribe to him the glory due his name. "Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness" (Psalm 29:2).
Now this brings up a really important point. People sometimes wonder, Why does God want us to do this? Doesn't it seem needy when he says, "Give me glory"? Doesn't it seem like he has a weak ego? We need to realize that we do not worship God because he has unmet needs; we worship God because it is the natural response when we detect his glory.
If you see something glorious—a fabulous sunset, a comet, the Northern Lights—you naturally want to tell somebody. That's part of the joy; you want to express an appreciation of the glory you have seen. Now if you see something glorious and it's a person, the concept is taken to another dimension. If you're a single man and you see a beautiful and magnetically winsome woman, you should want to tell her that she is beautiful. This is Relationships 101. If she receives your praise and is pleased by it, then you get to be blessed by her reception of it. You might be able to enter into a relationship with her. You might be able, in some strange, deep way, to share in her beauty. That is glorious.  God is a glorious God doing a glorious thing, and you get to be a part of it.  That is why you exist.
II. We were made to experience God's glory
The Hebrew word for glory—kabod—is a fabulous word. This word belongs to God,  and it originally carried the idea of weight, substance, or even burden. The idea is the glory of God gives weight, meaning, and significance to life and creation. All of life matters.  Your life matters. Your life has the weight of glory.  That is an amazing claim.
In the Bible, the glory of God is particularly associated with the presence of God. The heavens declare God's glory, but when God's presence is manifested, his glory becomes more palpable.  Now it gets a little complicated and dangerous. Israel is liberated from slavery under Egypt, and they go off into the wilderness. God is gloriously present at Mount Sinai. He gives ethical instructions, the Ten Commandments, to the people. Of course, other peoples thought about morality and ethics, but they never connected with God.  God said he would enter into a relationship, a covenant, with the people of Israel. People had relationships and covenants, but never before with God. 
So in Exodus 24, God is present on the mountain top. To the Israelites, the glory of the Lord looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain. God's glory is so great that it cannot be described with words, so he reveals it to us as best we are able to receive it. The glory of the Lord is like a fire, radiant and bright. We love fire, but a consuming fire is dangerous.  We cannot live without it, but it can also hurt us.
People are drawn to God's kabod, to his beauty and splendor. Although the Israelites were drawn to it, they were also afraid of it.  They stayed at a distance. They said to Moses, "You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die" (Exodus 20:19). The people remained at a distance, because the glory of God is awful, in the old sense of the word—full of awe. We want to see it, but we are afraid it will kill us.
You might remember the shepherds in the Christmas story at Bethlehem: "An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear" (Luke 2:9). The King James Version says, "They were sore afraid."
We were made to experience God's glory. We love it and we crave it.  But we hardly have a name for it anymore. We have been cut off from his glory, and now we are starving for it.
III. We are to be glory reflectors, not glory manufacturers
One of the most famous verses in the Bible was written by Paul to the church in Rome. He says, "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). Sin cuts us off from God, and it makes us want to accumulate glory for ourselves. In the story of the tower of Babel, the people essentially said: We will use our intelligence, our technology, and our own strength to build a tower. We will not ascribe to God the glory due his name. Come, let us make a name for ourselves. 
That is the human condition—we are in the name-making business. We want to accumulate glory for ourselves: "Come … let us make a name for ourselves" (Genesis 11:4). In the long run it never works, and we just look silly.
Imagine that a newly minted military officer has just taken command of a military base. A private knocks on his office door. The officer wants to look important, to have the glory due to a new officer. So he picks up the phone and pretends to have a conversation with an important person: "Yes sir, General Petraeus. I will get right on it. You can count on me, sir." He hangs up the phone and turns to the private: "Okay, private, what do you want?" The private looks confused. "I'm here to hook up your phone, sir," he says. Accumulating glory for ourselves never works. We just look silly.
Part of what it means to give glory to God is to die to the self-glorification project. We are hungry for glory, and that is why we often work longer and harder than we should. That is why we want to try to look better and sound smarter than we really are. We are hungry for glory. Our hunger for glory is good—it is part of why we were made—but sin has perverted and ruined our hunger.
This is one of the most tragic, yet true, statements of the human condition: "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." All of us are glory mongers. However, we cannot get true glory, because glory is a by-product of knowing God. The moon does not provide its own glow; it reflects the light of the sun. We are designed to be glory reflectors, not glory manufacturers. 
Moses, in his day, knew God like nobody else. The Bible tells us the Lord spoke to Moses face-to-face, as one speaks to a friend. God's glory was so strong that Moses' face became radiant with the presence of God. We are told the Israelites could not look steadily at his face because it was glowing—it reflected God's glory. Can you imagine that?
If someone falls head-over-heels in love with another person, and you mention the name of the person they love, what happens to their face? They blush. They turn red. They beam and glow. Research says when you are in love, the capillaries near your skin will open up, and your skin will glow in a sense.
Moses glowed with the presence of God, but it was temporary. He would put a veil over his face so the Israelites would not be able to see that the glow was fading away. It came and it went.
IV. God's glory is his goodness
He wanted it like you want a drug, like you want joy.
One day Moses was talking with God, and he said, "Show me your glory." It was a remarkable moment in human history. Have you ever asked God for that? "Show me your glory." How do you think God would respond? If you were God, what would you show Moses? Would you show him thunder and lightning, a tremendous earthquake, huge galaxies, or special effects? The Lord said, "I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you." In other words, the most glorious thing about God is not his power, majesty, strength; the most glorious thing about God is how good he is. God passed by Moses and proclaimed his goodness, kindness, love, mercy, and compassion. That was God's glory. 
God revealed to Israel as much glory as they could stand to experience. He wanted them to have a sense of his glory, so he instructed them to construct a tent, a tabernacle. It was a humble dwelling for the glory of God.  The end of Exodus says, "Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle." Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled on it. The glory of the Lord came down to earth and filled the tabernacle. It was so intense that even Moses could not enter.
The text says, "The cloud covered the tent." The Hebrew verb for covered, settled, rested is shek. This is where we get the term shekinah glory. The glory of God was portable. It was able to come down to earth, and it can surprise you in the strangest places, at the oddest times. It came to a little tent unexpectedly. In the midst of ordinary, fallen human beings, something transcendently good happened. God's presence was manifest. It was remarkable that Moses could not go inside.
In the Book of 1 Samuel, the Israelites lose a battle to the Philistines, and the Ark of the Covenant is captured. The Ark of the Covenant embodied God's presence among the Israelites, and it was stored in the tabernacle. The absence of the Ark of the Covenant meant God was not present with his people.
 It was a traumatic day. Their priest Eli dies, and his son dies. His son's wife dies, but before she dies, she gives birth to a son. The servant says to her, "Don't despair; you have given birth to a son." Her final words are, "His name shall be called Ichabod." She is making a pronouncement about reality. His name stems from kabod, the word for glory. But in Hebrew, when the letter i is attached to the beginning of a word, it turns it into its opposite, much like the letter a in English (for example, moral versus amoral). Kabod means glory; Ikabod means "inglorious" or "there is no glory."
When we lived in Chicago in the 1990s, glory had a name: Michael Jordan. He was the glory of Chicago. When he retired, all the glory left with him. They used to be the Chicago Bulls; they became the Chicago Ichabods.
In naming her son Ichabod, this woman essentially said there is no Yahweh. Abraham was a dreamer. The covenant is a fairy tale. The love of God is a myth. The resurrection of the righteous will never happen. The day of the Lord will never occur. History is not moving to a glorious consummation. Death is final. Life is cruel. It is better that my son learn the truth than believe a myth. Here is the story of our planet: Ichabod. There is no glory, no God.
Unfortunately, many people today think that way.
VI. Jesus reveals God's glory
 But a prophet in Israel said this was not true. He said kabod, shekinah  was coming: "For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea" (Habakkuk 2:14).  That is a statement about where the world is headed, whether you believe it or not. The earth will not simply be filled with and declare the glory of the Lord; it will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord. We will know it. We will see it. We will experience it. We will somehow participate in it. We will cherish it.  That is what the prophet said.
Then one day "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." Here, the Greek word for "dwelt" is skene, which means tent or tabernacle.  The verb could be translated, "The Word became flesh and tabernacled in our midst." Remember the shekinah glory, the kabod of God, which once came in a humble little tent? Now it has come in a humble little baby,  in vulnerable, killable flesh. Now you can touch God's glory. Now you can see it: "I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you."  "And you shall call his name Jesus." 
On the night before he was crucified, Jesus prayed, "Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, so that the Son may glorify you." Then he went on to the cross. This is a strange sort of glory. What kind of God is this? What kind of God glorifies his Son by crucifying him?  The cross demonstrated God's shekinah glory. 
Before he died, Jesus prayed the most astounding prayer for you and me. Praying for his disciples, and for us, he said,
I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one (John 17:20-22).
Do you understand that Jesus has given you the glory of God? That is good news! If you do not have a job, if you have been rejected, if you have terribly messed up stuff, it does not matter. If you are a follower of Christ, you have the glory of God.  That is good news.
VII. We were meant to share in God's glory
Here is the deal. We do not simply want to see glory; we want to be a part of it.  When we lived in Chicago, a friend of ours regularly gave us Bulls tickets. Every year I would take my son, Johnny, to a game. The seats were located alongside the tunnel at the United Center, so when the Bulls ran out on to the floor, when Michael Jordan would run through the tunnel, everybody nearby wanted to give him a high five. They wanted to share his glory.
We all want to touch glory. We want to connect with it. We want to be a part of it, even though we know we are not worthy. The Bulls had a reserve player named Stacey King, who rarely left the bench. But one night, during the playoffs, he did. He said it would always be the greatest memory of his life: the night he and Michael Jordan scored a combined total of 70 points in an NBA playoff game. Michael Jordan scored 69 points, but King shared in the glory.
C. S. Lewis said, "We do not want merely to see beauty .… We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it." At present, we are on the wrong side of the door. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." We can detect the purity of God's glory—like the freshness of the morning dew, and other beauties of creation—but the glory of creation cannot make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendors we see,  but all of the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumor that it shall not always be so. Someday, we shall get in. 
When we have become as perfect in voluntary obedience as the inanimate creation is in its lifeless obedience, we will put on nature's glory. Or rather, we will put on the greater glory of which nature is only the first sketch.  When that day comes, Jesus says, "The righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father." That is you. You are going to glow. 
Then, in words so rich you could live off them for the rest of your life, Paul says, "And we all, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another." That is what we are doing right now. We are being transformed from one form of glory to another.
VIII. We were made to please God
Do you like to be praised? Do you enjoy receiving compliments? If not, why? Our family has a little, yellow lab. He gets a lot of stuff wrong, but when he gets something right, we praise him: "Baxter, way to go!" His tail thumps excitedly, and he glows when we praise him for doing something right.  Similarly, when a child receives praise from a beloved father or mother, she beams with joy and excitement. 
Why are we that way? Now of course, because we are sinful, we want all the praise for ourselves. But our desire for praise exists for a reason: we were made to please God. You were made to hear God say to you, "Well done."  When God created the world, every day he would look out at his work and say, "It is good." He does not give detached, clinical evaluations; he truly takes delight in what he has made. It makes him happy. You were made to please the heart of God. Our desire for glory is good. We were made to be known and delighted in by God, but our selfish desire for personal fame distorts God's original intention.
C. S. Lewis said, "When the redeemed soul, beyond all hope and nearly beyond belief, learns at last that she has pleased him whom she was created to please, there will be no room for vanity then. She will be free from the miserable illusion that it is her doing."
It is written, "We will all stand before God's judgment seat" (Romans 14:10). We will appear before him, we will be inspected by him. The incredible promise of glory is made possible only by the work of Christ. Only through him shall we survive that examination, please God, and be approved by him. To please God—to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness—and to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work, is impossible without the work of Christ. Without Christ, it is a weight  we are unable to bear.
This is the glorious possibility that is now set before you. "So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God."  This is not about waiting for a glorious event, for a glorious vacation, writing a Bach cantata, or some spectacular achievement. We confuse glorious and glamorous. This is not an invitation into a glamorous life; it is an invitation into a glorious life, and that is the greatest invitation humanity has ever received. Sin, darkness, and the Evil One will attack you, trying to convince you your life is ordinary, insignificant, and inglorious.  That is a lie from hell.
Frank Laubach writes, "The most wonderful discovery that has ever come to me is that I do not have to wait … for this glorious hour .… This hour can be heaven. Any hour for anybody can be as rich as God." We can learn to do every moment of life to God's glory, because the glory, the kabod,  of God is right here, right now.
When you eat, eat to the glory of God. God is present with you, and he has given you food. You did not earn it. Eat it. Savor it. Don't just shovel it in. Don't cram it down as fast as you can so you can't remember what it was. Chew and think about how good it is. Think about how good God has been to give it to you. There are people in the world who don't have food. Ask God to give them food, too. Eat to the glory of God.
You can do this. This is what makes a life glorious. This life is your shot at glory. Your office can be a place of shekinah glory.  Your car can be a place of glory. Everyday activities like paying your bills, having coffee with a friend, talking with people in your neighborhood, reading a book, and sleeping can be glorious moments.
Here is one more passage from C. S. Lewis:
It may be asked what practical use there is in the speculations which I have been indulging. I can think of at least one such use. It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight,  or burden of my neighbor's glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.
It is a serious matter to live in a society of possible gods, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to could one day be a creature you would be tempted to worship. Every day we are, to some degree, helping each other move further towards one of these destinations—towards worshiping God and becoming more glorious, or worshiping a creature. That is the weight of glory.  Jesus came for ordinary people, and he came to give us eternal things.  All other entities, cultures, nations, civilizations will come and go. 
End of sermon
In this sermon John Ortberg has shown how zooming out, zooming in, and the use of contrast can make a message truly inspiring. With some practice, these methods will become instinctive ways of thinking that frame the truths in your preaching text in a way that displays their full glory.
Craig Brian Larson is the pastor of Lake Shore Church in Chicago and author and editor of numerous books, including The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching (Zondervan).