“Nice to meet you / where you been? / I could show you incredible things /… / Saw you there and I thought oh my god / Look at that face /… / But I got a blank space baby / And I’ll write your name.”
I thought these words from Taylor Swift’s new album would be the right way to start a sermon on Matthew 25, a passage all about faces, about recognizing faces, the faces of Jesus, the color of his eyes, the hue of his skin — this passage from Matthew’s Gospel is all about seeing the face of Jesus, about recognizing the countenance of God. “Look at that face,” T. Swift says. But first we have to ask Jesus, in her words, “Where you been?”
There’s a tension in the Bible about seeing God. There are stories about people seeing God’s face, and there are other stories about people who can’t see God’s face, because no one can.
Last month I preached the story about Moses, when he’s on the mountain, and God covers his eyes, so Moses can’t see God’s face, but Moses is allowed to see God’s back. Although, just before this story, it says that Moses and God would meet together, to chat: “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” Moses and God, face to face.
And there’s the story of Hagar, when God saves her and Ishmael from dehydration in the desert, after they were kicked out of Abraham and Sarah’s household. “So Hagar named the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are El-roi,’ [which means ‘The God of Seeing’]; for she said, ‘Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?’”
The same tension continues into the New Testament, where we hear in 1 John, that “No one has ever seen God.” Yet we have Jesus say, in the Gospel of John, that “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”
Our Scriptures record a long discussion among the people of God, a back and forth over centuries, where one voice in the Bible is in conversation with another voice, one book speaking to another book, all about what it means to see God, to look at God’s face.
This conversation in the Bible has continued, in the work of theologians and poets, as they try to describe God; the conversation has continued in the work of the artists of the church — their paintings and sculptures and stained glass, icons, windows that try to offer glimpses of God’s face, openings in our material life that try to offer a peek at God’s appearance.
Once a month I drive up Interstate 85 to the town of Butner, on Thursdays, to lead a discussion group for men at the federal prison. And every time I’m there, I see a woman, in her 70s, who goes through the same metal detector that I go through. After we sign in, after we get our visitor’s badges, once we are allowed into the facility, she and I walk up the long path to the chapel, and we chat. She leads classes, I found out, for some of the Roman Catholic prisoners.
Last week I asked her how often she comes, because she’s there every time I’m there — so I know she goes at least once a month. Once a week, she told me, once a week for nearly a decade, ever since she moved to the area for her retirement. I told her that I was impressed. I told her that I wanted to be like her when I grow up. Such dedication. Such devotion. She shook her head and smiled and said, “No, I don’t think you understand. I’m not a good person,” she said. “That’s why I need to come here as often as I can. To see Jesus.”
I didn’t know what to say, so we kept making our way to the building in the center of the prison, walking slowly because of her limp. “It sure is cold,” she said. “Yeah,” I replied, as we stood outside the chapel, waiting for the door to be unlocked, so she could meet with her Jesuses.
She lives in the world of Matthew 25, where Jesus is found in prison, where Jesus is a prisoner. Those verses are alive for her. “Come,” Jesus says, “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world . . . for I was in prison and you visited me.”
Matthew 25 is part of our long tradition, a tradition in the writings of Scripture and in the history of the church, of trying to talk about God, of trying to name God, trying to picture God, to see what she looks like, to hear what he sounds like. When we add the voice of Matthew 25 to this conversation — the conversation about what it means to see God, to see the face of Jesus — our eyes and ears begin to focus on people all around us, specific people: people who are hungry and thirsty, people who need clothing, who are sick, who are strangers and foreigners, people who are incarcerated.
Hungry, thirsty, sickly, naked, strangers and prisoners. This series is repeated five times in our passage, probably because we would forget them if Jesus didn’t remind us again and again. They are the forgotten in society, and Jesus wants to etch them into our memory, to make it so that we can’t think about him without thinking about them, that we can’t imagine what he looks like without getting to know what they look like.
I know that Taylor Swift isn’t really talking about what we’re talking about here, this evening, but I can’t help but think of a line in her song, the one I mentioned earlier: when she says, “I got a blank space, and I’ll write your name.” That’s actually the name of her song, “Blank Space,” and I think it helps us get at the way the identity of Jesus is always being filled out, his face is always being drawn and redrawn, always being sculpted, always being redescribed and reimagined, as we write his name, as we try to understand who he is, by writing the names of others — the least of these, as it says — as if their names are the names of Jesus, as if their faces are the faces of Jesus.
“I got a black space, and I’ll write your name.”
We can’t name Jesus without all those other names. We can’t imagine God without all those other faces, icons of the divine, human images of God’s likeness.
Now, I have to admit, all of this sounds so pious, as if I’m saying that all of our lives are driven by a pursuit after God, as if every moment of your life is fueled by a longing to see God, here in this life, to look into God’s eyes, at work, at home, outside the grocery store, on a street corner. That would be great, if you spent your days like that, looking for God — and if that’s you, I think you might be on your way to becoming a saint, like the woman I see at the prison in Butner. But I’m guessing that some of us, probably a lot of us, maybe most of us, have other things on our minds, important things, nothing to feel guilty about, but just the stuff of life.
And here’s where the story from Matthew 25 gets me. Jesus tells the righteous, the people at his right hand, that they had taken care of him when they fed the hungry and gave drink to the thirsty, when they clothed the naked and cared for the sick, and when they welcomed the foreigners and visited the prisoners. But the righteous ones, it says, were surprised to hear this; they were shocked, and responded, saying, “When did we see you?”
Apparently, they never once thought that they were doing anything for Jesus, when they were spending time with the least of these. They didn’t do it for Jesus. They weren’t trying to see God. They weren’t looking through people in order to try to see God. No. They cared about people because they cared about people. There’s no ulterior motive here, no religious incentive, no pious rationale. Just people doing what people are created to do — to love, without reasons, without explanations, without justifications. Just to love.
When the Son of Man comes, there will be a scandal, because among the righteous there will be people who never did anything for God, people who never had a thought about Jesus, but who were the kind of people who have loved unconditionally, who have laid down their lives for others, just because — people who were so full of God’s love, overflowing with love, without ever knowing that it was God’s love inside of them, God’s love at work in them.
And, then and there, with them, we’ll find out that Jesus is like one of the righteous people in the story, that he is the one who fed us when we were hungry, who gave us a drink when we were thirsty, who cared for us when we were sick, who welcomed us when we were strangers, who visited us when we were in prison.
We’ll find out that Jesus is the one who loves us for no reason, that Jesus has never had ulterior motives for being with us.
We’ll find out that Jesus has cared for us all long, not because he wanted something in return, not because he needed to please God, but because Jesus can’t help but love, without reasons.
We’ll find out that Jesus just loves, and that God is that kind of love.
Isaac Villegas is pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship in North Carolina and serves on the Executive Board of Mennonite Church USA. He preached this as a sermon at CHMF Nov. 23.