There was a problem with the audio this week. Here is the text of my sermon on December 13, 2020, along with the story I told to the children about Saint Lucia.
20201213 Advent 6B
December 13, 2020
"The Face of Jesus"
What does Jesus look like? People have wondered this for almost 2000 years, and I’m wondering it today. Some Christians used to believe that it was a sin to make any depiction of God, since, after all, the very first commandment forbids it. “I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt make no graven images.” They were called iconoclasts (literally, “breakers of images”) because they used to go around ripping down all pictures from the churches. And in those days there were a lot of pictures to rip down. Pretty well the whole of the inside of every church was decorated with scenes from the Bible and images of the saints. The churches of the East still look this way. They still look this way because a long time ago the church decided the iconoclasts were wrong, and that it was okay to make images of God. It’s because of the incarnation, when the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. God became a human being, as we’re soon to celebrate, and so you could say that Jesus is a picture of God. But what does Jesus himself look like?
There are no end of answers in art to this question. Ever since the Iconoclasts were put in their place people have been making depictions of Jesus. There are Eastern icons, Medieval sculptures, Renaissance portraits, Romantic paintings, and modern re-imaginings. There is Jesus as a baby, Jesus as a child, Jesus as a teacher, Jesus on the cross, and Jesus raised to heaven. Although the pious white Jesus has dominated the cultural imagination for the last few hundred years (we have a picture of that one on the bookshelf in the Fireside Room), many today are making more racially diverse depictions of him. As seems fitting and right to me, since about the only thing we can know about him is that he was (and is) human. What does Jesus look like? He looks like a human.
I have a book of portraits by the photographer Steve McCurry. His most famous portrait is a haunting photo of a young Afghan girl that graced the cover of National Geographic during the first war in that region. A friend gave it to me as a devotional and prayer book, a meditation of the image of God stamped on every human being. What does Jesus look like? He looks like that Australian aboriginal girl. And that punk kid from L.A. And that old man from Nepal. And that Italian model. And so on.
But why do we want to know that Jesus looks like anyways? Isn’t it because we want to have clues to what his character is like? We feel that the key to a person’s identity is in their face: the angle of the eyebrows, the squint of the eyes, the lines around the mouth. Is this person gentle or cruel, wise or foolish, kind to others or self-absorbed? We make our depictions of Jesus as portraits of his character. But we can do more than that. We can learn much more about Jesus than what is contained in a static image. We can tell stories, which are portraits too.
A week ago I told a story of Nicholas of Myra, how he rescued three young women from the fate of slavery because of their lack of dowry. He secretly gave them gifts of treasure so they could be supported in the world. That was one little snapshot of Jesus. The compassion for the widow and the orphan. The generosity to people in need. The zest and joy of life that we associate with Saint Nicholas – these are qualities of Jesus, to whom Nicholas’s life pointed all along.
This morning I told the story of Lucy of Syracuse to the children. Why? Because she too is a picture of Jesus. Her care for the poor, her gift of light, her strength of will and purpose, her devotion to God – these are also qualities of Jesus. Lucy is a picture of Jesus.
Just now in the gospel we heard about John the Baptist. We have a pretty strong picture of him in our minds that comes from the accounts of the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke. From those stories we think of John as a rough guy dressed in itchy camel hair and chomping on outsized grasshoppers for his breakfast. Those qualities of power and energy are also pictures of Jesus.
But the John the Baptist we hear about in John’s gospel (different John) isn’t like that. Here he himself is almost transparent. If Nicholas or Lucy, or even the synoptic John are partial and imperfect pictures of Jesus, the Baptist of John’s gospel has become the perfect image of the One who is to come. He only points. Any attention that comes his way he directs on to Jesus. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light, as the gospel says. Whenever anyone asks about his identity he only gives a negative answer. “I am not the Messiah… I am not Elijah… I am not the prophet…” When pressed the only identity he admits to is that he is the one who prepares the way. In everything he does and says, John points to Jesus.
So back to asking what Jesus is like. We don’t have to look far for the answer because he tells us himself, in the words of another prophet who pointed the way to the One who is to come:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
That’s what Jesus does. That’s who Jesus is. That’s what he looks like. He is the one who comforts us, binds up our broken hearts, releases us from our prisons, gives us the oil of gladness and rejoicing… and anoints us to do the same in our hurting world.
How is your life a picture of Jesus? Could you become known, like Nicholas, for your generosity? Could people think of you as someone with joy and strength like Lucy? Could you have courage and power like John? Is there some other quality that is all the way and only you – your unique gift to the world – that will be for others a picture of Jesus?
All of us have the gift of reflecting some unique aspect of God’s image to the world. All of us, as Christians, have the vocation to be pictures of Jesus for others to see.
Lord Jesus, help us to reflect your face and your character by the way we live our lives. Shape our wills and desires to be as your own. For you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
This morning I want to tell you about a young girl who the church remembers every year on this day, December 13. I don’t know if these stories happened this way, but I know that they are true.
Once upon a time, in the faraway land of Sicily in the city of Syracuse, a girl was born into a wealthy Roman family. Her parents named her Lucia, which in the Latin language means light. And the name fit! As a girl she was known for her brightness, enthusiasm, and joy for life. You could see it in the sparkle of her eyes. When she was still very young, Lucia became a Christian. She wanted to give all her energy to prayer and serving others in need, and for this reason she vowed never to get married.
But the time in which Lucia lived was very dangerous for Christians.
The Roman empire was in danger from attacks from outside and divisions inside. The emperor Diocletian thought that the best way to strengthen Rome would be if everybody went back to following the old pagan ways, including worshipping the emperor himself! This was something the Christians would not do. So Diocletian tried to bully and persecute them until the did what he said.
Many Christians were tortured and killed during this time. Many had to go into hiding. Some Christians in Lucia’s city hid underground in long hallways and caves called catacombs. But there was no food down there! Lucia, who was still able to live with her family in her home, remembered the other Christians in hiding and decided that she could help.
So each day she went to the catacombs, bringing baskets of bread for the hungry. But how was she to see where she was going underground, especially when her hands were full? To light her way in the dark she wore a wreath of candles on her head. When she came people thought of Jesus, who promised to be bread for the hungry and who said he was the light of the world.
When Lucia grew a little older and the time came for her to be married a young Roman nobleman came knocking on her family’s door. He wanted to have Lucia for his wife. But she didn’t want to get married, and she said so! Lucia wanted to choose her own path, which was prayer and service.
But girls in those days didn’t get to choose such things. The young man became very angry. “What!” he yelled. “You don’t want to marry me? Well I’ll make sure you never marry anybody. I’m telling the magistrate that you’re a Christian.”
So they hauled poor Lucy up in front of the magistrate, who demanded that she worship the emperor instead of Jesus, and also marry the young man. Bright-eyed Lucy calmly refused. So the magistrate ordered that she be put to death. But before the guards killed her, the magistrate told them to do something really horrible. He said they should poke her eyes out! Bright, beautiful eyed Lucy. He thought such an awful torture would really teach a lesson to any other young woman who wanted to defy men’s wishes.
But it didn’t. In fact, legend has it that God caused Lucy’s luminous eyes to grow right back! And even though the Romans killed her in the end, other young women took courage from Lucy’s brave example. People honored her faith and commitment to the way of prayer and service. She of the bright eyes was a light of hope for people in a time of darkness. And that’s how the young girl Lucy of Syracuse became “Santa Lucia,” the saint remembered around the world today.
One place where Saint Lucia is especially loved is the country of Sweden. The people there tell a story about how long ago there was a famine in the land. As winter deepened the hungry people thought they might not live until spring. Then, on December 13, which used to be the darkest and longest night of the year, and was also the day Lucy was martyred centuries before, someone looked out over Lake Vanern and saw a light approaching over the frigid waters. It was a ship, and at its helm stood a young woman with flashing eyes and a wreath of candles on her head. Soon the ship came to shore and distributed food to the starving people. But before anyone could thank the maiden or ask where she came from, the ship disappeared! People said it must have been Saint Lucy, bringing bread and light, just as she did in her life.
To this day Swedes celebrate the return of the light at this dark time of winter. Young girls dress in white gowns and bring special saffron bread to their families. Bonfires are lit in village squares and parades are held.
Today we, too, can give thanks for Lucy the martyr, whose life of faithful service points us to Christ who is the Sun of Righteousness, the true Light of the world.
Come, thou long-expected Jesus, bring light to our weary hearts, bring light to our dark world.