Reference

Matthew 17:14-21
2. Faith in the Kingdom

Kingdom People
2. Faith in the Kingdom Dan Bidwell, Senior Pastor Matthew 17:1-13 4 September 2022

I’ve always had a fascination with Everest, and the idea of reaching the top. Back in Australia I climbed lots of little mountains, but our tallest peak is 7,309 ft – just a little bit shorter than Everest at 29,032 ft!

Back in 1995, a postman from Washington State named Doug Hansen had his chance to climb Everest. But due to bad weather, he was forced to turn back just before the summit.

Hansen returned the following year, in 1996, to finish what he had started. You might know the story. He was part of a team who started their summit attempt shortly after midnight on 10 May. They were instructed that everyone had to summit by 2pm, otherwise they would be turned around.

At 2pm Doug Hansen hadn’t reached the summit. At 3pm snow began to fall as a storm gathered on the horizon. Still Doug Hansen hadn’t reached the summit. He was so close – at Hillary Step, just 30 minutes away from standing on the top of the world. He was out of oxygen and exhausted, but determined to make the top. Tour guide Rob Hall offered to escort him on the final stretch. At 4pm Doug Hansen finally reached the summit of Everest.

But they say descending is the most dangerous part of mountain climbing.

Hall and Hansen were already 2 hours past the safe cutoff time. A storm rolled in. Without oxygen and in the dark, Hall and Hansen were in trouble. Hansen became physically and mentally impaired and could not be coaxed onward by Hall. Hall descended to the South Summit, but when he got there Hansen was no longer with him. His ice axe was later found jammed into the ice just above a sheer drop off. It is conjectured that Hansen slipped and fell 7000 feet to his death.

Later that night, guide Rob Hall and 6 others also perished, alongside Hansen...

They say descending is the most dangerous part of mountain climbing.

In our Bible passage last week, we were taken up onto a mountain top with Jesus, and Moses and Elijah, and three of the disciples. And there Jesus was revealed in shining glory. It was this golden moment, a moment where you see the world from an entirely new perspective, a life- altering moment.

But as Jesus comes down from the mountain in today’s passage, we have an abrupt reminder that life is not always like the mountaintop. Everyday life is not always glorious. It’s not always

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golden. Actually life is messy. There is sorrow and tragedy and brokenness. And it’s not the way we want it to be.

And so today’s passage takes us into the mess, into the valley, and it asks: what will Jesus do about our brokenness?

That’s where we’re going, so why don’t we ask God to speak to us as we open the Bible now.

Our heavenly Father, as we open this part of your Scripture now, will you speak to us. Will you reveal to us your good, pleasing and perfect will for our lives. And will you help us make sense of the brokenness, and your eternal plans to bring it to an end. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Well we are just a couple of weeks into our fall teaching series from the book of Matthew. We’ll be working our way through Matthew 17-21 over the next 9 or 10 weeks.

I love these chapters because they are so practical for us as a church family. Jesus will talk about conflict and forgiveness, leadership and humility, money and materialism, marriage and divorce. There is lots for us to learn and to discuss as a church family. So I do want to encourage you to take a set of these Study Notes, and to work through them yourself. But I’d also love you to think about joining one of our Small Groups – they’re a great way to get to know people and a chance to dig deeper into the themes we study on Sundays.

Anyway, let’s jump into the Bible.

As I said before, our passage follows right on from the mountaintop experience of the transfiguration, where Jesus was revealed in shining glory as God’s own Son. There was the cloud of God’s glorious presence, his voice speaking from the clouds, the OT heroes Moses and Elijah were there. And it was so good that Peter never wanted it to end. It was this amazing experience of God’s power and presence, and spiritual awakening for Peter as he understood Jesus’ true identity for the first time. That mountaintop experience gives us a foretaste of what heaven will be like.

But that bubble bursts as Jesus and the disciples come down from the mountain. Almost immediately they run into an abrupt reminder that this earth is far from [the glory of] heaven.

The Sick Boy

A father comes to Jesus with his very sick son.

14 When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before
him.
15 “Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. 16 I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.” (Matthew 17:14-16)

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As a parent, I can only imagine what it was like for this father. There are few things harder than having a sick child, especially when it’s an illness that is so out of control.

[When our daughter Charlotte was 2 years old, she had super high fever on Christmas Eve. Christmas in Australia is in the middle of summer, and so the outside temperature was in the early hundreds. So was Charlotte. When we measured her temperature, the thermometer said she was like 42 Celsius, or 107 Fahrenheit. And then she started seizing. It was really scary to see our kid like that.

We called the ambulance, they took her to hospital, and the doctors said that sometimes happens with really little kids. They get a really high fever, they have a seizure and it’s kind of like hitting the reset button. Within 24 hours she was doing much better, and she’s never had another seizure.

Not so for the father in our story. His son had seizures often - violent seizures that put his life in danger. He had fallen into fires, and into water.

I know this sounds like epilepsy to us, but apparently there was a word for epilepsy in the Greek language at the time, but they didn’t use it here. Instead they use a verb which comes from the word for ‘moon’ – perhaps you could translate it as the boy is ‘moonstruck’. The old King James, uses the word ‘lunatick’ – not politically correct, but it conveys that root in the original language.

Apparently in the ancient Near East, people were afraid that the moon (and the sun) held/harbored/contained harmful magical powers. We see that in Psalm 121, where the Psalmist trusts that God will keep him from harm from the sun during the day, and the moon at night.1

So this young boy, as far as the father is concerned, has come under some kind of evil influence. The seizures aren’t medical, they are supernatural. As we read on, the cause is revealed as demon possession.

Now I know that sounds weird to our modern Western ears, and I’m going to say more about that in a moment. But before we go there, I want you to put yourself in the shoes of the father, or the shoes of the boy’s mother. This must have been terrible. Frightening, and unpredictable, and unrelenting. In Mark’s account of this incident, it says the boy had been robbed of his speech – he was no longer able to speak.2 In Luke’s account, we learn that this is an only child.3

This is a desperate parent, bringing their sick child to the great healer in the hope of a miracle...

1 Psalm 121:5-6 2 Mark 9:
3 Luke 9:38

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Illness and Evil?

Now come back to the weirdness. It would be unusual for us to take our child to the emergency room, and the doctor diagnoses them with demon possession.

And so I want to take a moment to address what the Bible says about illness, and its causes, and the relationship between sickness and the supernatural.

The first thing to remember is that the Bible assumes a supernatural or spiritual realm that is outside of our human perception. God himself is spirit. There are angels, and demons. Satan, or the devil. They all exist. And the Bible is matter-of-fact about all of this.

And in ancient culture, the supernatural world was often held responsible for illness. As one commentator writes,

The ancient world believed unquestioningly and intensely in evil spirits. The air was so full of these spirits that it was not even possible to insert into it the point of a needle without coming against one. Some said that there were seven and a half million of them; there were ten thousand on a man’s right hand and ten thousand on his left; and all were waiting to work men harm. They lived in unclean places such as tombs, and places where no cleansing water was to be found. They lived in the deserts where their howling could be heard. [...] They were especially dangerous to the lonely traveler, to the woman in childbirth, to the newly married bride and groom, to children who were out after dark, and to voyagers by night. [...] One of their favorite ways to gain entry into a man’s body was to lurk beside him while he ate and so to settle on his food.4

William Barclay

Sounds a bit like germs, doesn’t it?

So that was the prevailing understanding of the time. There was great interest in the demonic – perhaps more than was healthy.

We probably have the opposite attitude – as modern Westerns we have so little belief in the demonic that we almost dismiss it completely, in the same way that many dismiss the idea of any supernatural power – good or otherwise.

So is there a link between illness and evil?

The OT is clear that God alone gives life, and God takes life away. He gives us the breath of life (Genesis 2:7, Isaiah 42:5, Job 33:4) and he numbers our days (Job 14:5, Psalm 139:16, Psalm 90:12; Psalm 39:4).

4 William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew (Vol 1), p320-321 4

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And so it makes sense in the OT that it is God who is the source of sickness, as well as healing. In Deuteronomy 32:39, the Lord says:

There is no god besides me.
I put to death and I bring to life,

I have wounded and I will heal,
and no one can deliver out of my hand.

(Deuteronomy 32:39)

Much of the theology of the first 5 books of the OT set out a relationship between obedience to God and a prosperous life without illness (Exodus 23:25-26, Deuteronomy 7:12-15). This wasn’t a promise just for individuals, it was a promise for God’s people as a nation. Obedience would result in prosperity and fertility; sin would lead to illness and decline.

When you come to the NT, Jesus is not as mechanical about the link between sin and sickness. Of course there are some choices we make in life that have direct consequences on our health. But we wouldn’t say that a child with cancer did anything to deserve it, any more than we would say that disabilities are the result of personal sin. That’s an abhorrent idea.

Rather Jesus teaches that death and disease are a consequence of sin more generally. That is, when Adam and Eve sinned in the garden of Eden, they unleashed a torrent of evil/corruption that has tainted the goodness of God’s creation to its very core.

For example, Jesus was speaking about a natural disaster that had happened – a tower fell and killed 18 people. But Jesus said it wasn’t because those people were more sinful than anyone else – the accident was part of a world that is broken.

On another occasion somebody asked Jesus about a man who was born blind – he asked if the man’s blindness was a result of his sin or his parent’s sin. But Jesus says it was neither – it happened so that God could display his power in the man’s life. (John 9:1-3) Jesus healed him and many believed because of it.

So when we think about sickness, or illness, or accidents, a biblical attitude is to understand that these things happen in a world where sin is still eroding the fabric of creation. It’s not normal for God to punish our sin by sending sickness, although I guess he might, but that’s not the normative pattern. God doesn’t operate on karma.

Actually he treats us better than our sin deserves (Psalm 103:10). Jesus says that God sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45), he blesses every human with all kinds of good things. And even in the midst of our sin, he reaches out with the gift of forgiveness in Jesus Christ.

But most people never recognize the source of the blessing. And they don’t get forgiveness. 5

But healing? That makes people sit up and pay attention.

Sickness and Healing

Come back to our passage. This father comes to Jesus, begging him to heal his very sick son. And Jesus heals him, with just a word. Look at v18:

18 Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed at that moment. (Matthew 17:18)

We see here that the father was right – his son had been possessed by an evil spirit. But even the world of demons has no power when Jesus is there. And that’s the testimony throughout the NT – Jesus heals the demon-possessed time after time. The devil may prowl about like a lion looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8), but he’s a caged lion. His power is limited only to what Jesus permits him to do.

And when Jesus heals, he gives us a window into his eternal kingdom where there is no more sickness, no more suffering, no more loss, no more accidents, no more death, no more mourning, no more pain. A world where evil is no more.

Don’t you long for that world?

When someone we love is sick, we long for healing. That’s why people flock to the healing waters of Lourdes in France, hoping for a miracle. It’s why people make pilgrimages to the burial places of saints, hoping for a miracle. It’s why the crippled in Jerusalem waited at the pool of Bethesda during Jesus’ time – they hoped for a miracle. It’s why crowds came out to see Jesus. We long to be healed. We long for someone to take away the pain. We want a miracle in a world where our bodies break down and eventually die...

Did you notice how easy it was for Jesus to heal the boy? He speaks, he rebukes the demon and it’s gone.

On other occasions, Jesus spoke and the lame walked, the blind were made to see, the deaf to hear. A man with a shriveled hand had it restored before a crowd of onlookers.

In Jesus’ kingdom, death and decay disappear, like a bad dream disappears when you wake up. PAUSE

I know there are people in this room who have experienced miracles that can’t be explained by medicine. I love that! I love that God is still doing miracles in this world.

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But I also know that some of you are praying for a miracle right now, and the miracle hasn’t happened.

One of my good friends in Africa found out that his wife was sick. She was only in her 30s, with 3 small children. Not a country with great health care. My friend prayed. His wife prayed. His church prayed. They trusted God for a miracle. But still she died just a few weeks later.

And the truth is, even if we experience a miracle healing from Jesus, one day death will claim us anyway.

That’s a reality of living this side of the resurrection.

Jesus’ kingdom is coming, but it’s not completely here just yet. We live in the in-between, in the now-and-not-yet. We get glimpses of what’s to come, but we’re waiting for the fullness of the promises of God to break into this world and to rebuild it from the inside out. That’s what will happen when Jesus returns, bringing with him the new heaven and the new earth. When all of us who trust in Jesus will be resurrected to eternal life. Imperishable. Never again to die.

But that day is sometime in the future, whenever God decides the time is right. So what can we expect in this lifetime? Can we expect God to heal?

First I want to say that God can do whatever he wants. God still does miracles and absolutely we should pray for them. But it’s up to God to decide if, and when, he will heal in this lifetime.

And even if God chooses not to heal our illnesses, that shouldn’t change the way we feel about him. You see, God’s promise doesn’t change. Full restoration is the promise on the other side of the resurrection. Every illness will be healed, even if he doesn’t heal us today.

And as hard as it is to understand, perhaps God has a more important purpose for your life than healing your body. Perhaps the way you live with illness will help somebody see the glory of God even more clearly. Perhaps your implicit trust in God, even in the face of death, will lead your family and friends to the same trust that you have.

Because trust, or faith, is what is most important, says Jesus. Look at v19.

19 Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” 20 He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

Jesus wants us to know that there is no obstacle that he can’t overcome in our lives, if we just 7

trust him. Whatever our life might look like, we can trust him to achieve his purposes for us, even in the face of death.

After all, that’s the attitude Jesus took to the cross, wasn’t it? Even death couldn’t stop the kingdom of God from advancing in this world. In fact, Jesus had to face death in order to bring an end to it once and for all.

And on the day that he rose from the grave, his resurrection showed us that we have nothing to fear, even from death. On the other side is the world that we long for, the world where our prayers for healing will be answered fully and finally.

Is that something you can put your faith in?


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