1. A Taste of the Kingdom Dan Bidwell, Senior Pastor
Matthew 17:1-13 28 August 2022
When people find out I’m from Australia, they often ask: What are some of the differences between Australia and here?
There is a lot that is similar – and most of the time I feel right at home. Until something happens that makes me remember this is a second culture for me.
That happened at our son’s High School graduation a couple of months ago.
Our youngest, Jamie, went to Vintage High School in Napa, and we were excited to go to the graduation. My wife and I both worked as teachers back in Australia, so we have been to graduations before. And every American high school movie has as scene where the students walk onto the stage and receive their diploma. How different could it be?
Back in Australia, every school child wears a uniform. And the graduation ceremony – or Speech Day as we call it – is a very formal affair. The school where I taught held Speech Day right in the center of Sydney, in the Town Hall – an ornate marble building from the 1800s. All the parents and students would come in and take their seats, and then when it was time to start, the teachers would walk in procession, wearing our academic robes and the hoods signifying which university and which degrees we held. If you can’t picture it, think of Hogwarts in Harry Potter. That’s basically what education is like in Australia.
The graduation here was a bit different. Walking into stadium, it felt more like we were going to a football game than a graduation. There were people in baseball caps and cowboy hats and woollen hats. There were air horns, and air balloons and life-sized cutouts of graduates.
As the ceremony started, two soldiers in uniform marched onto the football field with the flag. The crowd rose and with hands on hearts and hats removed, they joined in singing The Star Spangled Banner. As the sun began to set, the words of the Pledge of Allegiance echoed through the bleachers.
I loved it. I didn’t know all the words, and I didn’t expect it. But I could see what was happening, as this magical moment unfolded and I felt part of something bigger. America.
Now what does that have to do with our Bible passage today?
Our passage today comes out of a different culture. And we might not recognize all the cultural references at first. But when we immerse ourselves in the moment, we’ll see that this passage is about something much bigger. A magic moment that is part of our story…
That’s what I’m hoping to show you today. So why don’t we pray and ask God to help us experience that magic moment.
Our heavenly Father, as we open the Bible today, will you open our eyes and our ears and our hearts to understand the magic moment that happened on the hillside that day. Will you remind us of your plans and promises and leave us with the feeling that we are part of something bigger. Will you speak to us today through your word. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen
Well, we are back in the gospel of Matthew. We have been working our way through Matthew section by section for the last 3 years. Over the next 10 weeks or so we will work our way through chapters 17-21 in a series I’m calling Kingdom People.
These chapters are all about the culture and values of the Kingdom of Heaven. But they are not just cultures and values for when we die – Jesus wants us start living the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. As the church, as Jesus’s followers, we are to be Kingdom People.
And when we live as Kingdom People, God willing, the world around us will see the difference. They’ll experience the goodness of God through us. And our prayer is that many of our friends and neighbors and colleagues will want to know more about Jesus’ kingdom because of what they see in us, and ultimately find life and hope in Jesus for themselves.
So that’s where we’re going. But it all begins with a life-changing experience, the kind of experience that alters your perception forever.
And that’s what we have in Matthew 17:1-13, with a story we call ‘the transfiguration.’ What does that word mean?
Let me start with a little story. A couple of years ago a young photographer in Chicago decided she wanted to capture beauty on film. The photographer’s name is Shea Glover. She would approach people on the street and ask if she could take their photograph. She would take the first photo, and then tell the subject, “The reason I wanted to take your photo is that you are beautiful.”
You can see the faces of the people light up, and completely change, can’t you? And this portrait gallery contains the two pictures of each person, the before and the after. Isn’t that great! The power of a simple compliment…
Well in our Bible passage, we see Jesus’ face completely change. That’s the meaning of transfiguration. His appearance is completely transformed as something very special happens. Let’s read from v1:
1 After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. (Matthew 17:1-3)
Just to remind you of some of the backstory, Jesus has been on the road now for almost 3 years. He has spoken to crowds of thousands, astounding them with his teaching about the kingdom of heaven. He’s performed miracles, he has healed the sick and raised the dead. He is this massive celebrity, very much in the public eye.
But on this day, Jesus takes only his three closest friends – his inner circle – up onto the mountaintop with him. Peter, James, and James’ brother John. And when they reach the top, Jesus is changed before their very eyes – transfigured.
His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.
I want you to picture this in your mind. If you were Peter, James or John, what would you think was going on?
It’s kind of like the pictures of angels we see in the Bible, isn’t it? Angels always appear like a figure shining with bright white light. That would be a good guess, that Jesus is like an angel. But every other angelic messenger comes and goes. They never stick around like Jesus did for 33 years. Nobody ever saw an angel born of a human mother, and grow up like a regular kid. Jesus was not an angel.
We have to dig deeper into our Old Testament cultural references. There are a bunch of clues that tell us what is happening here.
First, Jesus and his companions are on a mountaintop. The mountaintop was often a place where God met with key OT figures, like Moses on Mount Sinai. That was where God gave Moses the stone tablets with the 10 Commandments, and the rest of the law for God’s people.
And when Moses came down from Mount Sinai, do you remember what was different about him? His face was radiant, presumably shining like Jesus’ face was at this very moment. Exodus 34 says that Moses’ face became like that ‘whenever he entered the Lord’s presence to speak with him’ (Exodus 34:34).
The prophet Elijah also met God on a mountaintop – on Mount Horeb. That story is in 1 Kings 19. It was there that God spoke to Elijah in a still, small voice – almost a whisper.
Coming back to our story in the NT, who is there on the mountaintop with Jesus and his 3 disciples? Moses and Elijah, men who had been dead more than 1000 years.
So we have the shining face of Jesus, the mountaintop location, the OT prophets Moses and Elijah. The scene is set for a theophany, an appearance of God.
That’s exactly what happens. Skip down with me to v5:
5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5)
We have another OT reference here. The cloud. This is the same as the cloud that went before the Israelites as they escaped from Egypt. The same cloud descended on Mount Sinai when God was speaking to Moses. This cloud represents the presence of God with his people, his glory descending to earth, and his voice speaking to his people (Exodus 24:16).
With Moses and Elijah there, it’s almost like God was rebooting the OT prophets, getting ready to recommission them, and relaunch the vision of the Promised Land that was the center of the OT promises of God.
That was what the Jews expected to happen in the last days. They expected Moses and Elijah to return.
The very last words of the OT from the book of Malachi say:
5 “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. (Malachi 4:5)
God had given Moses a similar prophecy for the people in his day:
15 The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him. (Deuteronomy 18:15)
Do you see what is happening here? All the weight of prophetic expectation from the OT is piling up on this moment on the mount of transfiguration. Something big is about to happen.
God speaks from the cloud.
“This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5)
These are the same words that God spoke to Jesus at his baptism. But probably only Jesus heard them back then. Now God’s voice is plain to everybody listening. Jesus is the prophet Moses was pointing ahead towards. The prophet who would bring his people into the promises of God, and into the promised land. And all of them were to listen to him. Moses and Elijah, as great as they were, were just precursors. Humans with a very important job, but just people nonetheless.
Not Jesus. Jesus, we learn, is God’s own Son. God himself declares it from the cloud. To the great prophets of the OT, and to the messengers of the NT – the apostles who would take this truth to the ends of the earth.
And God’s glory is no longer just a reflection in the face of the prophets. Jesus’ radiant appearance tells us that he himself is the glory of God , he himself is the presence of God among his people. Jesus himself will speak the words of God to his people, calling them back into repentance and back into fellowship with God. Jesus is God in human flesh.
Have you ever had one of those moments when the penny drops? (Do you all know that expression – when the penny drops? It means when you finally understand or realize something in a new way.)
In literature, Aristotle gave this device the name anagnorisis (a Greek word which means the moment of recognition).
The classic example is in Oedipus Rex, when Oedipus finally learns his true identity and realizes that he has murdered his father and married his mother. That’s a fairly high brow example.
Perhaps a more accessible example is in The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy spends the whole film trying to find the Wizard, so that he can help her get back to Kansas. But in the end she learns that she had the ability the whole time because of the ruby slippers – she just needed to tap them together three times and say “There’s no place like home…”
In our passage, the disciples have their moment of anagnorisis, their own moment of recognizing something that was there all along. They had been traveling with Jesus for three years, but somehow they hadn’t truly recognized him for who he was.
But in this moment, with Jesus shining with the glory of the Lord, with God’s voice booming from heaven, this is the moment that they finally see Jesus. Their eyes are opened to see not Jesus the man, but Jesus as God incarnate, standing in front of them.
And like everyone who comes face to face with the living God, they fall to the floor terrified…
6 When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified.7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. (Matthew 17:6-8)
I think there are many of us who spend our lives like Peter and James and John. We’ve known Jesus for a long time. But have you had that moment of anagnorisis, that moment of recognition, when you understood that Jesus is more than just a moral teacher. He is not just one voice amongst all the philosophers and psychologists and leadership podcasts of our generation. He is the definitive voice, the voice of God. God himself says (in v5): Listen to him!
You see, Peter and James and John had a life changing moment with Jesus. A moment when their physical eyes were opened to see what only the eyes of faith can see. They were given a moment of spiritual clarity.
At that moment, Jesus was revealed as God to them. Not just their friend, not just their teacher, but God himself.
Have you had that moment of spiritual clarity? Have you recognized Jesus as this passage reveals him?
Because one day you will. Whether you’re prepared for it or not. The Bible says that on the day that Jesus returns, every knee will bow before him, and every tongue will acknowledge that Jesus is Lord. (Philippians 2:10-11)
And for those who have lived as enemies of Jesus, and those who have not paid him any heed, that day will be terrifying.
But not for those who have recognized Jesus, and aligned their lives with him.
I love the way that Jesus responds to the terrified disciples in v7.
“Get up,” he says. “Don’t be afraid.”
Jesus does not want to terrify us. He wants to bring us into the presence of God, where all the goodness of creation is restored for all of eternity. We see that idea in the last few verses of our passage. Jesus wants what is best for us, what is best for our families, what is best for our community. Jesus wants to give us life to the full (as he says in John 10:10).
That all begins when you recognize Jesus.
I know that many of us here know Jesus as Lord.
But if you are someone who hasn’t had that moment of recognition for yourself, can I encourage you to join us at Alpha this Fall.
Alpha is a 6 week course designed to help you find out about life and faith and meaning, and how Jesus fits into it all. It’s a free course, there’s good food and discussion, and the chance to really interrogate the Christian faith and whether it is for you. If you’re interested, grab one of these brochures at the front of church or click on the link on the homepage at yountvillechurch.org. We’d love to have you along for the ride.
In the moment
Now there is a little part of this passage that I skipped over. Back in v4. The three disciples are up on the mountainside and the transfiguration happens. Jesus is shining, and the two greatest prophetic figures in the OT show up, and they’re talking to Jesus.
Did you notice what Peter was doing? He was loving it.
4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (Matthew 17:4)
Peter was a fisherman, a salt of the earth guy, practical and hands-on. And I love the way he offers to build shelters for Jesus and Moses and Elijah. Maybe it’s because Moses spent 40 days and nights on Mount Sinai – Peter wanted to make sure they were comfortable if they were camping out. Or maybe it was going to rain. Or maybe Peter had his mind on the things of this world, like Jesus had said to him in the previous chapter.
It's a kind of odd interaction, but there is something profound in what Peter says, and I don’t want to miss it in the awkwardness. Look again at the first thing Peter says there:
4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”
Peter realized the goodness of being in the presence of Jesus, and in the presence of God. He didn’t want it to end. He wanted to camp out with Jesus, and stay with Jesus. He wanted to hang out with Moses and Elijah.
It is good for us to be here, Peter said.
Do you think about church the same way?
It is good for us to be here.
As we spend time together, asking God to speak to us, trusting that he is present here by his Holy Spirit. It is good to be here.
What about your small group? Do you get together and think, it is good to be here!
What about when you’re getting coffee with someone from church, or praying with them over the phone, or serving on a roster together here at church, or handing out food at our monthly food pantry. Do you stop and think, it is good to be here!
There is something very special about being the church. God has put his Holy Spirit in each of our hearts, so we don’t need to be church for God to show up in our lives.
But we’re not made to do this alone. We are made for church. And when we’re together, we get a foretaste of what heaven will be like. We get a foretaste of the kingdom of God, and a foretaste of the heavenly family and the heavenly banquet table and the heavenly worship. It is good to be here! And I hope you want to be here, because this is the most important couple of hours of your week.
In a moment we’re going to stand and sing our final song, and when we do, I want you to say to yourself, it is good to be here! This is what I was made for. And this is a taste of eternity…