Till We Have Faces
Till We Have Faces is the title of a 1956 C. S. Lewis novel retelling the myth of the Greek god Cupid and the beautiful mortal Psyche. Lewis tells the tale from the viewpoint of Psyche's older, uglier sister Orual. Cupid marries Psyche with the proviso that she must never look at him. Her ugly sister eventually tempts her to look him in the face and Cupid banishes her from his presence. Psyche ended up longing for Cupid's face; Orual for a more beautiful face, but C. S. Lewis' point is that nothing will be set right between mortals and gods till we have faces.
That brings us to Advent, and I want you to face it. Face it. How will the Lord get to you on such crooked paths? The call has been going out since 800 BC, "Prepare the way for the Lord; make straight paths for Him." In the days before modern machinery and explosives, paths through the wilderness followed the contours of the land. It was impossible to go straight through or even over a high mountain. With our modern view of road building making a crooked path straight is no big deal. Don't transfer the physical view to the spiritual. Face it; your life is so twisted, crooked, and turned that there isn't one straight path for the Lord to come to you on.
But you don't face it; that's why Advent is not a season of repentance for you. It's the Christmas season to you. It's the time to have the Christmas spirit, not the time for the true Spirit of Christ to prepare you for Christmas. Who needs Advent? You're ready for Christmas because you have the tree, the presents, the food, the parties all lined up. In the many commercials for Christmas I've seen featuring a check-list approach not one of them had "repentance" on the list.
Repent to prepare for Christmas? Come on. Who needs to prepare for Christmas at all? No, you're content with the religious trappings. Face it; people think religious trappings are enough to be prepared for Christmas. None of this "Happy Holidays;" O no you say "Merry Christmas;" you say "Jesus is the reason for the season;" you think you have the true Spirit of Christmas because you put Santa in your manger scene.
John the Baptist wants to snap you out of this. He comes in camel's hair with a leather belt rather than in a priest's linen with a golden sash. John was a son of a priest. He could have been a priest in the temple. But he spurns all those religious trappings and tells us that those don't make anyone ready to meet the Christ of Christmas. Repentance is needed. Face it; that's what all of us need.
But repentance isn't itself the preparation. What we really need to be prepared is face time. You know that expression. Face time means personal, one on one, face to face meeting. Literally the Lord says in our text, "I will send My messenger before the face of You." John literally goes before the face of Jesus, but He's not the face of God. Face time with John is not the answer to your problems. You get stuck on John and repentance, sorrow, lament for sin will always be in your face. Wail, groan, cry all day and night, "I'm sorry; I'm sorry; I'm sorry," and your face will only be streaked with tears and still not ready to face God.
The face time you need is with God. Jesus is the face of God; Jesus indeed is the only face the true God ever shows. Where, according to St. Paul, is the light of the knowledge of the glory of God seen? In the face of Christ. Face time with God is what we need. Psalm 80 is the Introit appointed for today. Three times in that Psalm sinners pray, "Restore us O God, make your face shine upon us that we may be saved." As in liturgy so in prayer, the best comes from saying back to God what He has first said to us.
Psalm 80 was written 500 years after the Lord commanded His name be put upon His people by saying what you hear every Sunday, "The Lord bless thee, and keep thee: The Lord make His face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace." Face it; we need face time with God to prepare us. Thankfully the Lord also promises that He does not receive the face.
How's that? Don't we want the Lord to receive our face? Not in the since ugly Orual's face was spurned by the gods and beautiful Psyche's was received. When you read in English Galatians 2:6 that "God does not judge by external appearance," the Greek says, "God the face of a man does not receive." Every time the Scripture says God is impartial or does not go by appearances, the literal rendering is that He does not receive the face.
This is full blown Gospel. This means there is no need for Phantom of the Opera masks to hide our hideousness. This means regardless of the scars, the disfigurements that mar our faces from our sins, our lusts, our angers, our prides, our greeds we can have face time with God with unveiled faces. This means whether we are a beautiful as Psyche or as ugly as Orual doesn't matter at all to God.
This was the startling aspect of John the Baptist's baptism compared to the washings handed down by Moses in the Old Testament. The washings of Moses had to be proceeded by various sacrifices and rules for purification. Days and seasons had to be observed and then a baptism, an applying of water happened as a seal of purification (Basil, Concerning Baptism, 31.2). But what if your mind was wandering during the sacrifices? What if you were only half-heartedly following the rules of purification? If the baptisms of Moses sealed the purity you achieved by following the rules, you couldn't go to such baptisms for comfort, strength, or certainty.
Can you see this is all the Baptists, the Church of Christ, the Pentecostals offer you with their believer's baptism? Once you've decided to follow Jesus; once you've asked Jesus into your heart; once you've chosen Him, then your baptism is a seal of your decision, request, or choice. But what if you decided only because you're mom wanted you to? What if you asked Jesus into your heart because all you're friends did? What if you chose Jesus because you felt you had no choice? Your baptism is only as good, as sound, as powerful as your decision, request, or choice.
How much more gracious, excellent, and powerful is the Baptism that John came preaching to Israel? It recognized no distinction in sins; it did not require a variety of sacrifices; it didn't have strict rules of purification, or limits of days and seasons. With no delay at all it gave a person access at once to the grace of God. It gave all who came confessing their sins forgiveness for their sins. In terms of this sermon, all who faced their sins were by baptism given face time with the God who freely forgave sins.
This is why so many of the prostitutes and tax collectors were baptized by John. Those people couldn't even get into the temple court to offer the sacrifices, to follow the rules of purification that eventually led to Moses' baptism. They were too ugly, too marred, too disfigured to meet God, just like us. The paths of their lives were too crooked and twisted, just like ours. But then John shows up apart from temple of Moses preaching that God was coming and no matter how crooked their life had been, no matter how badly they had scarred their faces, his baptism would prepare them to meet Him.
John goes on to explain how come this is so. How come what he did with water could do such wonderful things? How could what came through his hands, hands that weren't worthy to stoop down and untie the sandals of the coming God, deliver to them a baptism that forgave their sins? Well as John poured out a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, Jesus would pour out the Holy Spirit on all mankind. This is what Joel 2 promised: "I will pour out my Spirit on all people." This is what Peter said happened on Pentecost. But as you know Pentecost was proceeded by Easter, and Easter by Good Friday, and the pouring out of Jesus holy precious blood on Good Friday was proceeded by an innocent life.
John can call out to one and all no matter how dirty their face, no matter how ugly their face, no matter how disfigured their face is by sin, by death, or the Devil: "Come confessing your sins be baptized for their forgiveness" because Jesus won the Spirit for all flesh and blood. Whose sins will John later say Jesus carries away? The Lamb of God carries away the sins of the world. He atoned for all those sins by having His holy face beaten and spit upon. Isaiah saw it and says, "Like one from whom men hide their faces He was despised." And, "His appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and His form marred beyond human likeness."
We can't see the face of God till we have faces ourselves. We come together in Advent like those people from science fiction stories that have no faces or worse we come as people from horror movies with frightful faces. We face the fact that regardless of how beautiful or ugly we may be, our God has no reason to meet us let alone marry us. No wonder we sing, "O Lord how shall I meet Thee?"
But that forlorn note of Advent gives way to the fact that He already came once. Once He came in blessing all our ills redressing. Once He came in our flesh and blood to redeem all flesh and blood from a fate worse than death. And He sent this grace of redemption into all the world by His means of grace Baptism, Absolution, and Communion. Here we meet our Lord face to face. Here in Waters that rebirth us, in Words that forgive us, in Bread that is His Body and Wine that is His Blood He gives us faces. So that in the words of St. Paul, "We with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory."
This longing, this hope for faces goes all the way back to David who said in Psalm 17, "I shall behold Your face in righteousness; I will be satisfied with Your likeness." The only righteousness that can look at the face of God and live is that which comes from the Person and Work of Jesus, and in the looking we are changed by grace to grace, from glory to glory. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Second Sunday in Advent (20111204) Mark 1: 1-8