Daniel P. Strandlund
St. John’s Episcopal Church
July 3, 2016
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
The Face of the Lord
The Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him [ÏÏá½¸ ÏÏÎ¿ÏƒÏŽÏÎ¿Ï…] in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. (Luke 10:1)
As the NRSV translates it, this first verse of Luke chapter 10 loses some of the poetry inherent in the narrative. Today I want to offer two better translations of this verse so we can get a better feel for the work Jesus is sending these 70 missionaries out to do. Then I’m going to conclude by reflecting on what it means for Christians to proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near (10:9).
Returning to the first verse of this narrative: The Lord appointed seventy others and sent them ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. The first of our better translations is this, The Lord appointed 70 others and sent them before his presence¦. These 70 missionaries go before the presence of the Lord into every city and place where he himself intended to go. Their job is to prepare these cities and places where the Lord’s presence will become manifest.
It’s the exact same phrase that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all three use to talk about the role of John the Baptist. All three of those Gospels speak of John the Baptist by quoting Isaiah, saying, See I am sending my messenger ahead of you”before your presence to prepare the way (Matt 11:10, Mark 1:2, Luke 7:27). These missionaries are preparing these cities and places where Jesus intends to go to receive the presence of the Lord. For someone to have presence is for them to have a kind of authority.
My elementary school principal was a man named Jim Miller. Mr. Miller was over six feet tall, with broad shoulders, and he played rugby in college. Mr. Miller also had one of those booming voices that could just plough through the noise of even the loudest elementary school lunch room. When I was in third grade, someone wrote some nasty words on the wall in the boys’ bathroom. (It wasn’t me. Seriously. I didn’t even know one of the words yet.) When Mr. Miller heard about it, he had every boy in third grade line up outside his office, and one by one we came before his presence as he looked us in the eye and asked each of us, very pointedly and individually, if we had graffitied the bathroom. I hadn’t done it, but I almost confessed anyway. Such power doth the presence of Mr. Miller command.
These 70 missionaries go before the Lord’s presence to prepare his way, proclaiming that the Kingdom of God has come near. They’re preparing these cities and towns to receive and welcome the authority of the Lord, whose presence will soon come among them.
A second better translation would be to say that these 70 missionaries, like John the Baptist, are to go before the face of the Lord. To say that these 70 missionaries go into all these cities and places before the face of the Lord conveys the closeness and the intimacy of what is happening. It brings all that authority and power, that grace and love”it brings all of it close to us. To see someone’s face, to see their eyes, to see whether they’re smiling or laughing or crying or stern or angry”to see someone’s face is to see a little glimpse into the state of their soul.
I want to linger on all this stuff about faces because it’s a motif that runs through Luke. In chapter 9, the story we call the Transfiguration, Jesus goes up a mountain to pray with Peter and James and John. The face of Jesus radiates with the light of God’s presence as he is transfigured before them. The disciples catch a glimpse of the Son of God revealed in glory, and that glory arises in his face.
As Jesus’ ministry in Galilee comes to a close, and he prepares for his confrontation with the religious and political leaders of his day, we read that Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem (9:51 and 53). It’s a sign of his resolution to see this thing through to the end. He’s facing the world’s brokenness in the eye, and he isn’t flinching.
Two of the other Gospels use this ˜face’ motif, too. In Matthew (26:67), during Jesus’ trial before the high priest, the high priest’s soldiers strike Jesus on the face for blaspheming. They can’t stand this face, this presence among them, whom they see as such a threat to the fragile world to which they’re so desperately clinging.
The way Mark tells the story of Jesus’ trial before the high priest (14:65), these same people spit on Jesus and strike him, but as they’re doing it somebody covers his face with a hood. The NRSV says they blindfolded him; but a better translation would be to say they covered his face. I wonder if they do that because deep down, those soldiers and religious folks are ashamed of what they’re doing to this man from Nazareth in Galilee. If you don’t have to look someone in the face, you can do and say all kinds of things to them. You can make decisions on their behalf. It’s easier not to care. When faces see each other, souls make contact. They cover Jesus’ face to protect themselves perhaps from the shame of what they’re doing.
So, it is before this face of Jesus that these 70 missionaries go, to prepare his way, so that others might enter into God’s kingdom. How are we to receive the presence of Christ? How are we to enter the kingdom drawing near to us, the kingdom revealed in the face of Christ?
Luke has some thoughts on that, too. And it involves more faces.
In chapter five, a man afflicted with leprosy comes to Jesus begging for help (5:12). In his supplication, he bows his face to the ground, beseeching God’s healing. With this gesture, he claims no authority for himself, but defers all to Jesus.
In chapter 17, Jesus cleanses ten more lepers. Yet only one of them returns to thank Jesus. This man is a Samaritan, who is not to associate with Jews, and to show his gratitude, he falls to the ground and puts his face against the earth. It’s this sign of utter, heart rending gratefulness that something so good could ever have finally happened.
In Luke’s telling of the resurrection, Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the Mother of James all arrive at the empty tomb, but instead of finding the body of their Lord, they discover two angels and the stone rolled from the tomb. They fall down in fear, hiding their faces from some unknown power they can’t bear to see (24:5).
What does it mean to receive someone’s face? In a lot of the examples I just listed from Luke, people fall with their faces to the ground before Jesus”out of supplication, out of gratitude, out of fear. They receive his face by bowing theirs. Christians in the United States don’t pray with our faces to the ground very often, but if you’ve never tried it, and if you’re able to, give it a whirl for a week or so as part of your prayers at home. It’s weird. It’s really weird. But so is believing in the resurrection. Besides, Episcopalians are known for our pew aerobics: stand, sit, kneel. This is just another possible step in our spiritual yoga routine. If that’s too much for you, then when the cross comes by, try bowing a little if you don’t already.
Clearly, there’s good biblical precedent for receiving the face of God by falling with our own faces to the ground. But I don’t think that’s the only way God desires that we receive his face. That’s not the only way faces receive each other.
Think of a mother smiling and touching her nose to her baby’s nose, giving Eskimo kisses. The silliness of it is just beautiful to watch. The baby doesn’t even really know what’s going on. She just delights in the closeness of this wonderful face to which she is inexplicably drawn, under whose gaze she feels safe and connected to the world.
Think of newlyweds at their wedding reception, dancing, as Frank Sinatra would have it, cheek to cheek. Face to face.
Think of the adult daughter of an Alzheimer’s patient, leaning her face down over her father’s to kiss him on the cheek, even though he may not recognize her today.
Think of someone who has just been in a car wreck. Shaken up and bruised, ribs broken, sitting in shock on the metal guardrail along the highway. And there’s an EMT bent with his face so near to them, checking the dilation of their eyes with that slender flashlight.
Think of an 8 year old in the principal’s office as that giant, former rugby player on the other side of the desk asks all the necessary questions.
The face of God, the face of Christ, approaches us in all those ways, and more. To receive the face of Christ is to allow yourself to be known, to be seen. Fully. Honestly. This means allowing the face of God to see you in all your pettiness, all your shame, all your addiction, all your proud stubbornness, all your ungentleness. But it also means allowing the face of God to see you in all your strength. All your unsung glories. All your little acts of compassion and nurture. All your secret joys that make your heart sing. All of that is redeemed in the eyes of God, by the eyes of God.
More than anything, I think the work of those 70 missionaries was to go out into all those cities and places and live lives beyond shame or fear or anger, lives that exude the kind of peace which comes only in being known so fully. It’s no accident that Jesus sent them out in pairs. Each goes out with a companion, someone who is learning to see them the way God sees them. Someone whom they themselves are learning to see as the Lord sees. To say to someone, The kingdom of God has come near doesn’t mean anything”that is, unless they can see reflected in your face something of the inner light that comes from being known by God. Jesus sends them out in pairs so that other people can witness that kind of relationship being rehearsed, so that others can see the way Christian faces are to look at each other. With compassion, with honesty, with reflections of God’s light.
We must practice this truth: every face we encounter is preparing us to receive the face of God. The details you see, the laugh lines, the perpetual frown, the little scar above the eyebrow”there is more of a story there than you realize. In our neighbor’s face there is more testament to the brokenness of the world and to the redemptive, active love of God present within it than we realize. When we look at each other, when we see each other, we have to keep that in mind: there is always more going on there than we know. The people we meet, these utter mysteries beside you in the pews”each of them is, in their own way, somewhere between a manger and a cross, somewhere between a cross and an empty tomb.
By receiving them as Christ, we prepare them to receive the face of the Lord, who will surely not be far behind. That is perhaps the essence of Christian hope when we see our friends or loved ones or even strangers in great pain: we are just one of the nameless but familiar 70 sent out by Jesus. Our job is to remain with our sisters and brothers, to bear witness to their lives, to wait for the Lord, who will catch up with us soon enough.