“Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:27).
For many Christians, the faith is more about reaching a destination (Heaven) and avoiding another (Hell), than it is about adjusting our eyes to the light of God’s kingdom and contemplating His divine glory now. Many have been taught to pray something akin to, “Get me out of here and to your celestial shores,” rather than Jesus’ prayer for God’s Kingdom to come “on earth as it is in Heaven” and to open our eyes to see and participate in it.
We’re exploring the story of the Transfiguration and what the three disciples experienced on that mountain, and this experience has been central to the spirituality of many ancient Christians. We tend to read this as a one-off account of a strange and unrepeatable experience long ago; not anything that we can enter into or learn from 2,000 years later.
The early church fathers and mystics saw the disciples’ experience of “seeing” the divine light of Christ’s transfigured before them, beholding the dazzling radiance of his divinity, as something we too can long for and indeed experience to some degree here on earth. We may get to that in a later post, but today I want to focus on a spirituality that places “seeing the kingdom” back at its center.
In the verse immediately before the Transfiguration story, Jesus anticipates their strange experience on the mountain and says: “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:27). Matthew, Mark and Luke all place this promise of Jesus immediately before the account of these disciples “seeing” what they saw on that mountain.
Does our Christian walk involve learning to see the kingdom of God breaking into ordinary reality? Or have we been taught to think of the “kingdom of God” as a place called Heaven we shall go when we die? I think this is a major oversight (forgive the pun) among Christians today. We go to church on Sundays to sing about God in Heaven, while we fix our eyes on the kingdoms of the world all week long. We place our trust in Christ as our Savior, but we won’t let Christ’s kingdom values challenge and shape our politics. That is, we just haven’t learned to “see the kingdom of God” as a present reality or a central part of our faith.
We need to rediscover this aspect of discipleship: learning to see our lives and our world — current issues, politics, relationships, money, sex and power, etc. — in the light of the reign of God launched by Jesus during his earthly ministry. The church may be teaching people how to be “saved” but the past five years have shown that the church is doing a poor job of teaching people how to see and enter into the upside-down Kingdom ethics of Jesus.
We are still blind to so much of Jesus’ teachings on how to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us, resisting worldly power, compassion for the marginalized, welcoming the foreigner, seeking first His kingdom, pursuing His justice, denying ourselves and putting others’ wellbeing first, avoiding political idolatry, and so on.
“The god of this age (Satan) has blinded the minds of unbelievers” (2 Cor 4:4) and apparently many believers as well. In John 3, Jesus told Nicodemus that if he wanted to “see the Kingdom” (again, the emphasis is on right seeing, not “getting saved” or “going to heaven”) he needed to be “born again from above.” While we don’t need to go back inside our mother’s womb, Jesus does say we need to learn to see again with the pure and innocent eyesight of children.
I “see the kingdom” of Jesus at work in my kids when they choose to put others first and wear a mask at school and get vaccinated even though they are not worried about Covid themselves (they had it and were fine). Meanwhile, parents protest school board meetings, call mask mandates government oppression, and fight for “my right” to not wear a mask. Such an attitude seems, to me at least, to be blind and deaf to the Spirit of the Kingdom of Jesus that has “love others above yourself” as it’s central tenet.
It’s the season of Advent and we’re preparing our hearts once again for the Christmas conspiracy, when God snuck into a loud and raucous world 2,000 years ago as an unlikely Jewish peasant baby King lying in a manger. Mary and Joseph and some shepherds looked into that feeding trough and could “see the kingdom.” Herod heard about that baby from a distance and could only see a nuisance or a threat.
On Mount Calvary some 30 years later, a dying thief and a Roman soldier looked at the bloodied figure on the cross and could “see the kingdom.” Others saw only weakness, failure, and the apparent superiority of Roman power.
Jesus looked over his small crowd of followers and said, “Some standing here will not die until they see the kingdom of God in a powerful way.” My fear is that many lifelong church attenders and would-be Christians will die before they ever see and truly understand the Kingdom Jesus is inviting his followers to embrace. That thought should keep pastors sober, and give them the courage to call their people to true Kingdom allegiance, exposing lies and shining the light of the Truth-in-Person who can set us all free.
God, help us to see your Kingdom of light in these days when so many have been coopted by the kingdom of darkness and deceived by the Father of Lies.