Face to Face Moments – A Sermon on Matthew 17:1-9, The Last Sunday After the Epiphany

The collect and readings for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany may be found here. The appointed gospel is Matthew 17:1-9.

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

One of my favorite pictures is of my younger son and me. He is about three years old. I am holding him. He has his hands around my neck and his forehead against mine. We are face to face, nose to nose, eye to eye. In that moment we see no one else but each other. There is nothing else. That moment holds everything. It is, however, more than just a father and son. The old adage, what you see is what you get, is not applicable. We are a part of something much bigger than ourselves. There is more going on than what physical eyes can see or understand. We have entered a mystery that can neither be defined nor discussed, only experienced.

There are moments like that in every life. Lovers gazing at each other see more than just another person. They have been brought face to face with the mystery of love. Think about the day you beheld for the very first time your child or grandchild. You were seeing more than a baby. You were face to face with the mystery of life. Look at a little child who squeals and quivers with excitement. It is more than excitement. That child has come face to face with the mystery of deep joy. Recall a time you made a confession, formal or informal, and experienced the forgiveness of God or another person. It was about much more than words, past behavior, and the memory of estrangement. You came face to face with the mystery of grace amidst brokenness. I recall being in a hospital room several years ago with a gentleman named Bob as we waited and watched for his wife to be raised up and carried into new life. We spent that night face to face with the mystery of death.

These are the moments of transfiguration. Each one of them is distinct, unique, and unrepeatable.  Yet they are somehow the same. Each one is so transparent, so real, they glow with the light of God’s presence. They are moments of pure grace. We cannot make them happen. We can only be there when it does happen. In that moment everything around us seems to fall away. There are no distractions. It is a moment of complete presence, attention, and union. It is a moment when we come face to face with another person, with ourselves, and ultimately with God. In that moment we could truthfully say, “I have eyes only for you.”

There is nothing else to be seen. That moment holds the entire world and all of life. Nothing else matters, not because it is excluded or unimportant, but because everything belongs. Everything is included in that moment. Nothing has been lost or left out. It is a moment of union with God, another person, and our self. We experience the union of heaven and earth, divinity and humanity, spirit and matter, time and eternity.

That is what happened to Peter, James, and John on the mountain in today’s gospel. They “looked up and saw Jesus himself alone.” They didn’t see Moses or Elijah, each other, the cloud, or the mountain. Everything and everyone was present, contained, in Jesus himself alone. This was as much their transfiguration as it was Jesus’. They didn’t just see the light they became the light; humanity illumined with and by divinity.

Jesus did not become something he was not before that night on the mountain. He was always filled with the glory of God, radiating the divine light. Jesus didn’t change and become something new but the disciples did. Their sight was healed, their vision corrected, and their blindness removed. They saw the world transfigured, capable of revealing the beauty of God’s holiness. They experienced all of life and creation as sacramental. The saw and experienced life and the world as God sees and intends it.

Every time we experience a transfiguring event our vision is healed and we see in a new a different way. We see with God’s eyes. Transfiguration is not so much about what we see but how we see. It’s the difference between seeing with physical eyes and seeing with transfigured eyes. As long as we see only with physical eyes we will always be looking for love, bored with life, bereft of joy, bound by guilt, and in fear of death.

Will we continue to live as if what we see is all we get or will we let our seeing bring us face to face with the Mystery? Transfigured eyes do not deny or ignore the circumstances of our life or world. They show us, rather, that in the midst of and sometimes despite those circumstances there is nothing but God, there is only God; there is nothing but life, there is only life; there is nothing but love, there is only love; and there is nothing but light, there is only light.

This deeper seeing, this transfigured vision, is what allows us to face, endure, and respond to the circumstances of our life and world. It is why we can get up and not be afraid. It is the source of our thanksgivings. This transfigured vision sustained the disciples through Jesus’ crucifixion and to his resurrection. Perhaps that is why the Church asks us to hear the transfiguration story every year on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany. It is the beginning of our Lenten preparation. It functions as the hinge between the Season of Epiphany and the Season of Lent. Throughout the Season of Epiphany God has turned his face towards humanity. Lent is the season when we learn anew to turn our face toward God, that we might look up and see Jesus himself alone everywhere we look.


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