Without a doubt, one of the most fascinating books I've read in recent years is a little book called Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman. Einstein's Dreams is a piece of fiction based in part on the life of Albert Einstein. The story goes something like this: The year is 1905, and Einstein is working in a patent office in Berne, Switzerland. He is a young man, who in his spare time is toiling over the theory of relativity, the theory of how time works and orders our world. That's what most of us do for a hobby, I'm sure. Anyway, as he toils, Einstein begins to have a series of dreams, each one a different way that time might flow. There are thirty dreams in all, each one a radically different way of looking at the world we know.
Some of the dreams are funny, light-hearted, like the one in which he imagines that time moves faster at lower altitudes, so folks begin to build their homes in the mountains, even on stilts if they can. Most of the dreams are more serious, more mystical and dream-like. There's the one where time repeats itself over and over. Like an ant crawling around the rim of a crystal chandelier, life circles back upon itself. There is no future, nothing to hope for. In another, there is no past. No one remembers what has gone before. There is only the present. In yet another, time stands still, raindrops hanging motionless in the air, people suspended mid-stride or holding onto loved ones for what they hope will be forever. It's a book of dreams, strange dreams.
Biblical scholars have often noted the dream-like quality of this passage in Mark's Gospel, this transfiguration of Jesus on a mountain. If we were to be honest, this story, like most dreams, is a bit strange. Jesus and his closest three followers--Peter, James, and John--go up a high mountain. Nothing unusual about that, but suddenly Jesus is transfigured, changed. His clothes become a blinding white, and they are joined by Elijah and Moses. Peter proposes a monument to mark the occasion, when a cloud comes over them, and the heavenly voice declares, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" And that suddenly, everything is back to normal. No voice. No cloud. No Elijah or Moses. No white robe. No nothing. No wonder Mark writes about how the disciples "kept the matter to themselves." I guess so. This is not the kind of thing you blurt out at work over the water cooler. Sure, talk about the weather. Talk about the cost of gas. But who's going to bring up something like this? "They kept the matter to themselves."
It does have a certain kind of dream-like quality to it, and you know how dreams are--the details not always making much sense. Jesus' clothes turning a white that even Clorox couldn't match. These two Old Testament figures showing up unannounced. And how did the disciples know it was them anyway? Do you think they had name tags? Or maybe those signs on a string we wore around our necks in Sunday school when role playing? "Ok, here, you be Moses. You be Elijah." How did they recognize them? Let's be honest, this transfiguration story is a bit strange. Unless I miss my guess, Hallmark probably won't be marketing a line of transfiguration cards anytime soon.
Luckily, we are given some help within the story itself. There are two parts to this passage: what happens on the mountain (strange as it is) and the discussion about it as they come down from the mountain. Did you notice? Beginning in v. 9, Mark tells us what Jesus has to say about the whole event: "As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead." It may not seem like much help, but it is. Let me explain.
I think in some ways it's like watching a movie on DVD, with those special features, like watching it in French or out-takes, that kind of thing. Only in this case, it's like Mark has provided the director's comments. We see the story unfold, but we also get interpretive clues.
That's what we have here in Mark's Gospel; it's the director's piece on the plot of Mark. On Transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday before Lent begins, we are given a glimpse of the big picture. You see, in Mark's Gospel there are three major confessions of the Christ's identity: the first at his baptism, when the heavenly voice declares, "You are my Son, the Beloved." It's a scene of glory. The last is on the cross, when after Jesus' death, a Roman soldier confesses, "Truly this man was God's Son!" It's a scene of suffering. In between these two is this one, a confession that combines his glory and his suffering. Peter wants to build some monuments on the mountain. The only monument will become a cross on a hillside.
But none of us really want to go through Lent to get to Easter. Can't we just skip the ashes and sackcloth? Can't we just have spring now? Can't we just sing Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" and be done with all of the suffering? The disciples felt the same way. Can't we just overthrow the Romans and be done with it all?
You probably are aware that in the Gospels the disciples don't always come off looking so good. That's especially true with Mark's Gospel. In this account of the life of Jesus, the disciples are repeatedly portrayed as thick, blind. In fact, in this section of Mark, it's a blind man who proclaims the true identity of Jesus, while his closest followers stumble around in the dark. As a former colleague of mine once noted, in Mark's Gospel anytime the disciples are afraid, you could just as easily translate it as confused. In other words, the Greek word for "terrified" is "duh." Peter didn't know what to say, writes Mark, "for they were terrified." Same thing in this case.
We'd rather take the shortcut to Easter, but we can't. In his book Peculiar Speech, Will Willimon says, "When you join the Rotary they give you a handshake and a lapel pin. When you join the church we throw you in water and half drown you." The Lenten journey ahead of us begins with ashes and leads toward a cross. That's the truth.
But it's not the whole truth. You see, if scholars are right, that the transfiguration is a glimpse of things to come, then it is worth noting that Jesus' words of explanation end in resurrection. He comes down from the mountain and warns them not to say anything about what happened until he is raised from the dead. If the beginning of Lent is ashes, its end is resurrection. As Christians, we dare to dream that it is true, that the Christ has been raised. Along with God, we dare to dream of a world where love lasts, war doesn't. We dare to dream that the private pain we carry with us will someday be put to rest. We dare to dream of a different way of being in the world. We dare to believe that our loved ones who have died in Christ will also be raised in Christ. Now, tell me, who, other than God, could have dreamt that?
In that book Einstein has these thirty dreams, all of them interesting and powerful in their own right. But one of them stands out in my mind. It takes place on June 2, 1905. The dream begins like this: "A mushy, brown peach is lifted from the garbage and placed on the table to pinken. It pinkens, turns hard, it is carried in a shopping sack to the grocer's, put on a shelf, removed and crated, returned to the tree with pink blossoms." Life out of death!
The dream ends something like this: A woman stands at the graveside of her husband, throws a handful of dirt on the coffin, and feels the cold, April rain slap against her cheeks. But she does not cry. She looks ahead a few days when her husband's lungs will be strong, when he will check out of the hospital, when he will be well enough to get out of his bed at home. She looks ahead when the two of them will eat together, make love, go for a walk, just talk and laugh together. She does not cry. She waits for a day she remembers in the future when the two of them will be together and life will be new.
Imagine that, the dead raised! It is true, you know, even if for now, it only seems like a dream! Amen.
Let us pray. Most gracious God, bless your word this day wherever it is read, wherever it is heard, wherever it is preached, most especially, wherever it is lived. Amen.
The following resources were especially helpful in the preparation of this sermon: Werner H. Kelber, Mark's Story of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979), 43-56; Alan Lightman, Einstein's Dreams (New York: Warner, 1993); Lamar Williamson, Jr., Mark in Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox, 1983) and William H. Willimon, Peculiar Speech (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 32.