Almost once a day, the Face-booker at my house calls me over to her seating area to look at a picture of some little one from our gene-pool. “Doesn’t she look just like…?” she’ll say, and I look, and, well, we have differences of opinion because—as it turns out—she sees individual characteristics more. “Aren’t those her uncle’s eyes?” Maybe. But I tend to see the wholeness, and “I would say he looks a lot like the other side.”
Speaking of faces…
It’s Holy Week, and the passage from Isaiah 50 has come calling. It is one of the four “servant songs”: songs of Israel, and eventually of the one who became Israel: Jesus. This painful week, we see hurtful, spitting, mocking, and suffering words and images in the verses that look so much like Jesus. But what calls out to me most of all is the “face” in verse 7:
“Because the sovereign Lord helps me, I will not be disgraced.
Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame.”
Imagine the servant’s rock-hard face: absolutely determined to be/to go/to do what the Sovereign Lord’s agenda calls for, come what may. Imagine the face of Jesus on that servant.
Luke’s gospel underlines the connection. Luke 9:51 begins what is often called “The Travel Document.” Jesus heads to Jerusalem, in a journey that will take up almost half of Luke’s story. Here’s the NIV’s take:
“As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.”
But the NIV hides something very important: as the NSRV has the verse, it becomes more literal:
“When the days drew near for him to be taken up, He set his face to go to Jerusalem.” And a moment later, “the Samaritans did not receive him because his face was set toward Jerusalem.”
Luke expects his readers to hear his words through the filter of Isaiah 50. Luke means to draw our eyes to the suffering servant’s rock-hard resolve as he sets out for the city where he knows he’s going to die (cf. 9: 22). Luke is drawing our eyes to his face so that we can see the resolve in the jut of his jaw, in the focused firmness of his eyes, in the unflinching determination oozing from every pore of this face of flint as he goes to die for you and for me.
The whole face and all of the individual features tell the same story unmistakably, speaking clearly to both kinds of “lookers” at our house.
It is a good image of Jesus’ face to have as we walk through the days and nights of Holy Week: as Jesus unmasks a betrayer, as he wrestles in the garden, as he is disowned by “the rock” three times, as He is mocked and beaten and spit upon and lynched and speared… All along the bloody way as we cringe at our treatment of the sinless one, Jesus’ stricken and tenacious face looks back and says with every facial line, “I will do all that needs to be done for your health! I will die for you and for the world.”
But there is even more to say about faces in Holy Week. Paging backwards from Luke through Isaiah brings us eventually to the primer called Leviticus. Leviticus is a whole book based on the idea that, in order for human beings to be made right with God, blood must be shed. That is God’s way. When someone sins, someone dies. Now, listen for the face of God in Leviticus 17:10, 11:
“If anyone of the house of Israel…eats any blood, I will set my face against that person… For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.”
The “eating of the blood” is not so much about rare steak as it is about disrespecting and profaning what God has designated as the ransom, the price for sin. Hebrews 9:22 (summarizing, among other words, the rest of Leviticus 17) says:
“…without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins.”
God’s anger is hot when someone profanes that precious ransom; He “sets his face against them.” There’s that same expression, and it gets caught up together with the set face of Jesus.
Jesus is heading toward the goal. He knows that vindication lies at the end of the journey, but in between is a Roman cross and the Hebrew curse of hanging on a tree; in between is blood, his life-blood, that will be profaned by us crucifiers, and it is also the blood of the one who “came to be sin.” In other words, the face of the Father is also set against him! Like a brick wall is the Father to his son!
Remember when the surly crowd cried out;
“Crucify him! Crucify him!”
Well, even though imagining this might seem blasphemous, one voice in that crowd would have been the voice of the Father:
See the face of the Father set like flint against his only Son. See the face of the only Son set like flint toward his Father…
And we watch, sinners all, with bittersweet love for God and with that mixture of profound gratitude, shocking embarrassment, and deep sadness. We see the determination in both faces, and they are the faces that make us whole. Thanks be to God.