Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“You Will See His Face” (Revelation 22:3-4)
May 1, 2016
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In today’s lesson from Revelation John records a vision of heaven, the New Jerusalem, a city in which there is “no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb” Jesus Christ (Revelation 21:23). Through the middle of heaven flows a river, “the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb” (Revelation 22:1).
And John writes this about the one seated on the throne, Jesus Christ the Lamb of God: “his servants will worship him; they will see his face” (Revelation 22:3-4). This means one day you too will see his face—and that’s what I am preaching on today.
You can tell a lot about someone by their face. Is their face weathered or pale? Is their face smooth or are there lots of lines? In their eyes do you see a gleam or emptiness or joy or sadness or stress or preoccupation? Is there a smile or a frown, a furrowed brow or an expression of contentment? It only takes a couple seconds to get a sense of how someone is doing simply by seeing their face.
And when you meet with someone in person, face to face, you immediately get sense of how that person feels about you, right? The expression on their face lets you know they are glad to see you or not so glad to see you, that you are in good standing with them or that they have issue with you, that you are accepted by them or tolerated by them. When you meet with someone face to face, before a single word is spoken, their face often tells the whole story.
This may explain the development of emojis for cell phones. Texting is an efficient way to communicate but because you cannot see one another’s faces the tone of a text and the demeanor of the one texting can often be misunderstood, so there are now a myriad of emojis symbolizing a myriad of facial expressions. There are many different kinds of emoji faces—smiling, winking, sweating—faces with hearts for eyes, and faces that express all sorts of other emotions too.
But emojis do not replace seeing someone face to face. Perhaps you remember the first time you looked on the face of your beloved. While the idea of love at first sight is often dismissed as a myth, some people actually do experience it. Perhaps you are familiar with the song, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” It was written in the 1950’s but it is Roberta Flack’s moving Grammy-winning 1972 version that is best known. In the first verse she sings:
The first time ever I saw your face
I thought the sun rose in your eyes
And the moon and the stars were the gifts you gave
To the dark and the endless skies my love
To the dark and the endless skies
A recurring theme in scripture is the longing to see the face of God.
The Book of Exodus records Moses communing with God on Mt. Sinai, but having still never seen the face of God. Moses makes a request, “Show me your glory, I pray.” The Lord responds this way:
“I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live” (Exodus 33:18-20).
Then the Lord told Moses:
“See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, 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 33:20-23).
And when the Lord passed by Moses the Lord proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7).
Even though Moses did not see God’s face, the Lord still revealed that the face of God is a face of love.
In fact, later the Lord commanded Moses to instruct Aaron and the other priests to bless Israel with these words: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace” (Numbers 6:24-26).
“The Lord make his face to shine on you”—the face of God is the face of love.
And this why in Psalm 27 the psalmist writes, “You speak in my heart and say, ‘Seek my face.’ Your face, Lord, will I seek. Hide not your face from me” (Psalm 27:11-12, The Book of Common Prayer 618).
God did not hide his face forever, because in the incarnation God revealed his face to us not by texting an emoji, but in the face of Jesus Christ. In his Second Letter to the Corinthians the Apostle Paul put it this way: “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus showed sinners and sufferers his face of love. Jesus’ face revealed how he felt toward them, radiating unconditional love and grace and mercy and forgiveness and compassion and acceptance—and that is why crowds of people of all walks of life were drawn to him. Jesus’ earthly ministry expressed what Victor Hugo wrote in Les Miserables, “To love another person is to see the face of God.”
On the title track of their 2006 album The Face of Love the Christian band Sanctus Real sings this about the face of Jesus:
I’ve seen Your face on stained glass, in colored lights
In pictures of You looking to the sky
You’ve been portrayed a thousand different ways
But my heart can see You better than my eyes
‘Cause it’s love that paints the portrait of Your life
The face of love
The face of love
You look more like love everyday
And I’ve read Your words in the pages of Your life
And I’ve imagined what You were like
And I may not know the shape of Your face
But I can feel Your heart changing mine
And Your love still proves that You’re alive…
And You are the face that changed the whole world
No one too lost for You love
No one too low for You to serve
The face of love
The face of love
You look more like love everyday
And not only did Jesus face prove to be the face of love for sinners and sufferers, on the Mount of Transfiguration Peter, James and John saw the face of Jesus in a new way—as Matthew put it, in that moment Jesus’ “face shone like the sun” (Matthew 17:2). On the Mount of Transfiguration Peter, James and John—along with Moses and Elijah—saw the face of God, the face of love.
But there were some who wanted nothing to do with Jesus’ face of love—as Isaiah prophesied many centuries earlier about the suffering Messiah: “as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account” (Isaiah 53:3). Some would do much more than turn away their faces from the face of love.
One of the most powerful moments of the 1962 classic film To Kill a Mockingbird, is when Atticus Finch, played brilliantly by Gregory Peck, visits the shack of Tom Robinson’s family to inform them that Tom had been shot and killed while trying to escape prison. The angry racist Bob Ewell walks up to the shack and demands that Atticus come out side to speak with him. Atticus emerges from the shack and walks up to Bob Ewell. The two represent all that is good and evil in the movie.
After a tense moment of silence Bob does the most disrespectful thing imaginable and spits in Atticus’ distinguished face, while Atticus’ son Jem watches from the front seat of their car. Without saying a word Atticus reaches into his pocket, and Bob tenses up, thinking Atticus is reaching for a gun, but instead, Atticus pulls out a handkerchief, wipes off his face, gets into the car and drives away—no retaliation at all. I vividly remember that scene the first time I saw that film as a boy and being blown away by Atticus’ self-control in that moment.
You know where this is going. While some chose to turn their faces away from Jesus’ face, during his passion others spit in Jesus’ face of love, punched Jesus’ face of love, and slapped Jesus’ face of love to the point that as Isaiah also prophesied, “so marred was his appearance” that it was “beyond human semblance” (Isaiah 52:14). Others cursed Jesus, the One who actually did give “the moon and the stars” to “the dark and the endless skies,” to his face—and yet, Jesus would not hide his face of love from any of them.
Why did Jesus subject his face of love to all of that? Well, in the final act of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet Romeo, thinking his beloved Juliet is dead, says this as he goes to visit her:
Why I descend into this bed of death,
Is partly to behold my lady’s face
(V, iii, 28-29).
And that is why Jesus descended into the “bed of death”—to behold your face.
In spite of everything Jesus endured his face of love never changed—which is why he prayed from the cross, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34), and why Jesus’ first words to his disciples after his resurrection were, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19).
This means when you descend into your bed of death, and one day you will, you will simply be closer to seeing the face of God—as Carrie Underwood sings:
Old man, hospital bed
The room is filled with people he loves
And he whispers, “Don’t cry for me, I’ll see you all someday.”
He looks up and says, “I can see God’s face”
(From the song “Temporary Home” on her 2009 album Play On).
Scripture assures us, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12), that in heaven we “will worship him” and “will see his face” (Revelation 22:3-4)—the face that tells the whole story, the face of love, the face of Jesus Christ.