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A Sermon by Mark D. Roberts

"What Does God Look Like?"

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts          December 19, 2004

Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church

Copyright © 2004 by Mark D. Roberts

Note: You may download this sermon at no cost, for personal use or for use in a Christian ministry, as long as you are not publishing it for sale. All I ask is that you give credit where credit is due. For all other uses, please contact me at mark@markdroberts.com. Thank you.

Scripture Reading: 2 Corinthians 4:1-6

     Therefore, since it is by God's mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God's word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the mage of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake. 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.

I Look Like Whom?

     A few weeks ago I was studying in a local public library. All of a sudden the quiet of the library was interrupted by the mischievous sounds of ten-year-old boys. Looking up from my computer, I saw three young hooligans racing around the stacks, laughing and playing. That's great in a park, but obnoxious in a library. So I gave them my all-time toughest disapproving glare, not that I thought it would make any difference, mind you.

     One of the boys saw me and darted behind one of the shelves. Then he peeked out, looking at me cautiously. Finally he approached and asked in an awed voice, "Hey! Are you FBI?"

     I didn't answer. I figured I'd get more respect if I let him think I was FBI. And you know what? He stopped making noise in the library!

     That isn't the strangest question I've ever received however. Fifteen years ago when I was Pastor of Education at Hollywood Presbyterian Church, I was wandering around in the Sunday School classrooms. As I entered the four-year-old class, one of the little boys looked at me with a start. I noticed that he was staring at me as I said hello to the other children. So I came up to him and said, "Hi. What's you're name?" He looked up at me with wide-open eyes and asked in a hushed voice, "Are you God?"

A Picture of God

     When you think of God, what picture comes to mind? Perhaps, like me, you can't avoid envisioning God along the lines of the Sistene Chapel: a giant, muscular, white-haired man with a long beard, rather like a physically-fit Santa Claus wearing a bed sheet. Or maybe you picture a king enthroned in a majestic palace. Or perhaps you remember one of the cinematic "Gods" of the last two decades. There was the George Burns "God" from the Oh, God films. Then there was the Morgan Freeman deity from the Jim Carrey flick, Bruce Almighty. Perhaps the most imaginative "God" of all was in the controversial movie Dogma. No older gentleman, the "God" of Dogma was portrayed by the Canadian singer, Alanis Morrisette. This "God" had little to say, but liked to smell flowers and stand on her head.

     So, what do you think? What does God look like?

     Of course I'm not really asking about God's physical appearance. God is spirit, the One Scripture reveals to be "the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God" (1 Timothy 1:17). What I'm interested in is not God's outward appearance, but rather God's character. When I ask, "What does God look like?" I'm wondering about the nature of God. Another way to put it would be: "What is God really like?"

Jesus: The Image of God

     We find an answer to this question in 2 Corinthians 4. Here Paul uses a striking phrase, referring to "the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God." (4:4). The Greek word for image is one we use in English: icon (from Greek eikon). It usually means visual representation. But it also refers to something that represents or imitates the essential nature of something else. "True form" is one possible translation. Paul's point is that Christ represents to us the essential character of God. Look at Jesus and you see what God is like. Look at Jesus and you see God.

     This truth lies at the heart of Christmas. One of the main reasons Jesus was born was to show us definitively what God is like. Jesus is God in human form, or, as it says in the first chapter of John, he is God incarnate. And what is the purpose of the incarnation? Well, ultimately it will be found in Jesus's saving death for us. But in John 1 that purpose is expressed in terms of unique revelation. Verse 18 of John 1 reads: "No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known." We can't see God because God is invisible to us. Yet Jesus was truly visible, and he, as "God the only Son," revealed the nature of God in a definitive way.

     Now what I've just said doesn't go down easy in our relativistic culture. People are seeking God in all sorts of different ways, and that's just great. It's a response to the stirring of the Spirit within them. But, as Christians, we don't believe you can find God in any way in you choose. Although other religions and philosophies may have some truth about God, the only way to know God fully and intimately is through Jesus Christ. Jesus alone, as the unique Son of God, is able to show us the Father.

     So, if you want to know God better, look at Jesus. Study the biblical gospels. Wrestle with the perplexing actions and words of Jesus. Embrace his truth and his lordship. Become one of his disciples.

     Moreover, if you want to grow in your relationship with God, grow in your relationship with Jesus Christ. This begins when we put our trust in him as our Lord and Savior. But that isn't the end of the relationship. It's only the beginning. Once you've entered into a lifelong friendship with Jesus through faith, grow in him through prayer, Bible study, service, and committed fellowship with his people. The more you know Jesus, the more you will know God.

Seeing God's Glory in the Face of Jesus

     Returning to 2 Corinthians 4, Paul says even more about Jesus than that he is the image of God. Verse 6 reads, "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."

     This striking statement assumes knowledge of one of the foundational stories in the Old Testament. In Exodus 34 Moses went up Mt. Sinai to meet with God himself. Here God revealed to Moses his essential character. He is:

"The LORD, the LORD,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (34:6)

Then God revealed his will for the Israelites, his commandments that Moses was to pass on to the people. When Moses descended from the mountain, his face was shining with supernatural light because he had been in God's presence. In fact, he looked so unreal that at first the Israelites were afraid to come near him (34:30). Moses had to put on a veil to obscure the brightness of his face when he spoke with the people.

     Now, with that story in mind, hear once again what Paul said in 2 Corinthians 4:6: "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." Like Moses, the face of Jesus reveals the glory of God. Yet, unlike Moses, Jesus doesn't shine only with the remnant of divine glory after he has been in God's presence. Rather, the face of Jesus radiates with the very glory of God, because he is God in the flesh.

     Don't you wish you could see the face of Jesus? I'm speaking literally. Don't you wish you could actually see the face of the Savior who loves you and died for you, the Friend who knows everything about you and embraces you as his own, the Lord who wants the very best for your life? I yearn for the day when I'll be able to see Jesus face to face, to look into his eyes for the first time.

The Face of Jesus in the Gospels

     As I was preparing this sermon I wondered what the New Testament gospels actually say about the face of Jesus. What might this tell us about Jesus and the God of whom he is the image? It turns out that the gospels rarely mention the face of Jesus, but when they do, they illustrate profoundly the paradoxical glory of God.

The Face of the Transfigured Jesus

     The first mention of Jesus's face comes in the story of the Transfiguration. Jesus went up on a mountain along with Peter, James, and John. There, Matthew tells us, "he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun" (Matt 17:2). In this mysterious moment the divine nature of Jesus shone through his humanity. If there were any question about what has happening, a voice from heaven cleared it up: "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" (17:6). The three disciples fell to the ground in fear. When Jesus came to them, his appearance had returned to normal.

     In Christmas tradition we often think of the face of the baby Jesus as shining with a divine glow. Remember the third verse of "Silent Night":

Silent night, holy night!
Son of God, love's pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.

Now it may well have been true that radiant beams of "love's pure light" were shining from the face of the baby Jesus, though the gospels don't actually say this. But we mustn't forget the bedrock truth that this face had also just traveled through the birth canal of his mother. If you've ever looked at a newborn baby, that face can be pretty wrinkled, squashed, and discolored from the ordeal of birth. Whatever else was true of the face of the infant Christ, it surely looked rather like every other newborn face in all the humility of full humanity.

     The paradox of divine glory, you see, is that it has entered into human life in the baby Jesus. God's glory does not stand apart from the messiness of our experience, but enters into it and transforms it. Why? Why would God allow his glory to seem so sullied? Because God's glory is saturated with grace. Perhaps the most glorious thing about the face of the baby Jesus is not its supernatural glow, but it's utter, genuine, humble humanness. And yet, as the Transfiguration reveals, this baby was also God in the flesh.

The Face of Jesus Grieving

     The next time we encounter the face of Jesus in the gospel he has just finished celebrating the Passover - which we know as the Last Supper - with his disciples. Here's the way Matthew tells the story.

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, "Sit here while I go over there and pray." He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, "I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me." And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want." (Matt 26:36-39) If you were reading in the original Greek, that last verse would read: "And going a little farther he fell on his face praying." Here we see the face of Jesus grieving and sorrowful. His is the face of agonized uncertainty, of wrestling with God in prayer.

     Here we see Jesus in perhaps his utmost humanness. He knows that his Father is calling him to the cross. But Jesus doesn't want to go. The Son of God, the one who is God of God, Light of Light, and Very God of Very God, is struggling to obey the Father, much as you and I struggle. Jesus is not some divine Superman who flies safely above the pain of real human life. Rather, he is the Word of God in the flesh, a fully human being humbling himself before his Heavenly Father.

     And in his humanness, and in his struggle, we see even more profoundly the mystifying glory of God. Jesus is Immanuel, God with us. God with us, not just near us, but with us as one of us.

The Face of Jesus Battered

     The next and last time we see Jesus's face in the gospels he is in Jerusalem, having been arrested and delivered to a kangaroo court in the house of Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest. There, after the officials find Jesus guilty of blasphemy, we read this: "Then they spat in his face and struck him; and some slapped him, saying 'Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who is it that struck you?'" (Matthew 26:67-68).

     This is the face of Jesus battered, the face that will soon be beaten and torn, covered with blood, and crowned with thorns. What could be further from divine glory than this? Jesus is struck in face by the very people he came to save. Isn't this the antithesis of glory? Not according to Jesus. In the moments before his death, he prayed in this way, "Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you" (John 17:1). In his death on a cross - the most inglorious of all forms of capital punishment in the ancient world - Jesus will be glorified? How can this be? How can the tortured face of the crucified Jesus reflect the very glory of God?

     Here we come to one of the deepest of all mysteries. God's glory lies not only his majesty, power, wisdom, beauty, and holiness. Rather, God's glory lies also in his grace, mercy, compassion, willingness to take on vulnerability, and in choice to suffer in our place. God's glory is seen, not only in the Christmas baby, not only in the transfigured Jesus, but also and especially in the crucified Jesus. He is the Suffering Servant of God, about whom it was said in Isaiah:

. . . there were many who were astonished at him
     -- so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance. . . .
He was despised and rejected by others;
     a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
     he was despised, and we held him of no account.
                   (Isa 52:14, 53:3)

     Why? Why did the face - and the body, and the soul - of Jesus take such a beating? Isaiah continues:

Surely he has borne our infirmities
     and carried our diseases; . . .
he was wounded for our transgressions,
    crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
     and by his bruises we are healed. (53:4-5)

     Here is the matchless glory of God,

• the glory of a God who deals with the problem of suffering by suffering himself,

• the glory of a God who loves us so much he came to save us in his Son,

• the glory of a God who never lets us go,

• the glory of a God who bore our sin so that we might live forever in fellowship with him.

     My friends, if you are looking for God, look at Jesus Christ. He reveals the true nature of God to us. He radiates with God's glory. And he magnifies God's glory by dying for you on a cross so that you might know the true God and live with him forever.

The Hope of Glory

     And not only live with him for eternity, but also be glorified with him. Yes, believe it or not, someday you and I will share in God's own glory. This is our hope. It's part and parcel of Advent as we wait for Christ's glorious return. When that happens, not only will we see the radiant face of the victorious Son of Man, but also we ourselves will radiate with his own glory.

     Yet, for now, we wait. We wait for the day when God's glory will be fully revealed, when every knee shall bow before the majesty of Christ. We yearn for the day when we shall see him as he is, when his radiance shall fill our eyes and hearts. In the meanwhile, we walk in the light of Christ, seeing in him the matchless glory of God, receiving from him both light and life, and glorifying him in word and deed, until he comes again.