Mark 9:2-10 The disciples did, however, question what this rising from the dead meant.
Without a good Lent, there’s not a great Easter. We can have a pretty good Easter without a good Lent but not a great Easter.
We have these next 40 days, not counting Sundays, to prepare for Easter. We typically do it with prayer and spiritual practice, often focusing on a part of our spiritual life that needs attention. I’m going to get back to that. But today I’m starting with a different path. I am going to give you a prequel to Easter, some Easter stories that come before Easter, as a way to frame Easter. We’re going to hunt for clues to Easter hidden in the bible like a mystery novel, clues which when we look back on them cause us to utter an “Aha, so that’s what was going on.”
Listen to this story which ends with the sentence, “The disciples, did however question what this rising from the dead meant.” It was not spoken on Easter Sunday. No this question arose right in the middle of the gospel of Mark in chapter 9. Here’s the whole story:
Six days later (after the feeding of the four thousand) Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Child, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.”
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. So they kept the matter to themselves, (and here comes our sentence) but they did question what this rising from the dead meant.”
I could preach all kinds of sermons on that strange vision on the mountain top where bible heroes long dead appear with Jesus and God speaks out of a cloud. But I’m setting all of that aside right now and focusing on the last sentence- what exactly does this rising from the dead mean?
That question reminds me of walking out of what everyone is saying is a very profound movie, something like Fellini’s 8 ½ where a character floats out of a smoking car, and then you see a guy on the beach holding onto a rope stretched to the sky, but when the camera pans up the rope, it’s attached to the leg of the guy from the car now looking down at the beach, and then it all disappears. And everyone is saying, “Wow, deep”.
After the movie, a few stragglers gather for cheesecake, and you summon the guts to ask, “By the way, what exactly did that mean?”
The gospel of Mark, in its oldest version, ends with a young man in a shining white light inside a dark an empty tomb, telling the women, and the fact that it was women who persisted and went to the tomb should never be forgotten, “You are seeking Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified: he is not here. He is risen… He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him as he told you.” End of gospel.
This isn’t the Easter depicted in the other gospels with Jesus breaking into locked rooms, letting doubting Thomas go ahead and touch his wounds. It’s not the Easter of the disciples fishing all night and discovering the risen Jesus cooking fish on the side of the lake.
There is no appearance of the risen Christ at the end of Mark. Instead the figure in the tomb tells the women, “Go to Galilee, where you’ve just been, to find him ahead of you”. To find him ahead of you, first go back to where you’ve been. Galilee is the prequel (sort of like the Phantom Menace is a prequel to Star Wars Episode IV: a New Hope), and this is where I want to go with you in the beginning of Lent to see how we discover stories of rising, stories of the risen Christ, hidden away in the gospels.
Let’s look and see where we may find Jesus in the prequel to Easter in Galilee. One such encounter occurs in Mark chapter 6. Jesus has finished preaching to a large crowd and goes to the hills to be by himself to pray. The disciples take a small boat out to the Sea of Galilee. They are alone, rowing against the wind, making no progress at about 4:00 am in the wind and the waves.
What does this feel like and sound like? To me it’s a classic bad dream, running against the wind or rowing against the current, a dream that wakes me up at the worst time of all, 4:00 am.
The disciples, in this nightmarish setting, look up and see Jesus walking toward them across the water. They are terrified. They think it is a ghost. But Jesus speaks to them and says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” He gets into the boat with them, and the wind ceases.
These clues suggest that this is a resurrection story. It is in the wrong place in Mark’s chronology. It seems like it should be in a chapter after Easter. But this is one kind of experience in Galilee where the risen Christ is met.
The second story from Mark 9 is the one we read today. Jesus, Peter, James, and John stayed on this mountain all night. Note that this is another nighttime vision, like that in the boat. Peter, James, and John are so tired that they are nodding off when suddenly there is a vision. A light breaks into the night, a light so bright that Jesus’ robe glows. His face seems to be shining, and it looks like he is talking to Moses and Elijah, both of whom they know to have clearly been dead for centuries.
When it’s over, they don’t ask what happened. They ask each other, what does it mean?
Life goes on. Moses and Elijah are never seen again, and Jesus looks just like he has always looked. But Mark has given us another resurrection story, again out of sequence.
Mark is telling us something odd. He is telling us to look back into life and see the resurrection which lies ahead.
Easter Sunday is perhaps the grandest day in the church year. We crank up the trumpets, sing the “Hallelujah Chorus” and fill the church with people and flowers. It is grand, but it is not the whole story. The real resurrections occur ahead of us, in the Galilee of our daily lives. And the way to recognize these risings is to think back to how they happened for us in the past.
This Lent, I want to open my life to think back to risings in my past and look for them in a life that is attentive to the miraculous, the unexplained, the poetic. I need to look at the events of my life and not wonder so much about what happened, but rather what did they mean?
My dad was diagnosed with cancer when he was 58. I was 31. He died when he was 62. I love my dad. He was a good and kind man. I definitely got my sense of humor and my love of the search for meaning from him. He told me the first whale house stories that some of you heard me tell on retreats. My dad also liked to collect antique tools, (this chisel and clamp are two of them) which he displayed in the barn and house at the farm in Pennsylvania. He told me that in retirement he’d like to continue his collecting and sell them at antique sales.
Following his death in that July many years ago, I was restless, angry and at loose ends. In September of that year I had a dream about him. In the dream I am traveling with Sandy, our sons, and my mother when I find my dad at a table at a flea market selling antique tools. I am so excited I run to my mother and tell her I found dad. She rushes with me to see him and says, “I’m so glad to find you. Now you can come with us.” Dad says, “I can’t come with you now. I’m okay here.” “But I miss you so much,” she says. “I know,” dad replies, “and I miss you too. But I’m okay here, and you have to go ahead.”
It was a bittersweet dream of both loss, that we could not be with him anymore, and reassurance, that he was okay.
It was one of those resurrection experiences of my past that also sent me to my future. Notice how my dad, like the figure in Jesus’ tomb, says that you have to go ahead.
Mark suggests that the stories of resurrection are stories of meetings in life. We like the disciples will have our resurrection experiences when we are fishing, dreaming, rowing against the wind, when we are up late caring for a child or talking through the night with a friend, or when we are laughing or crying. Our resurrection experiences will come when we are riding down a long lonely road or burying a loved one. And the word we receive in order to notice such moments when they come is, “Watch and Pray.” That’s the word of the disciples to us.
For our spiritual practice in Lent this year, I suggest doing as Mark did, sifting through the experiences of our past year. What were the experiences of rising in that time? When did I touch the hem of eternity? What was my moment of terror in the night, thinking I saw a ghost, but instead encountering a familiar face moving toward me to calm the storm? Did some form of new birth enter my life as a miracle? In the midst of so much bad news, where have I found a cause to live for?
And it’s not only about reflecting on these things in the past. I believe Lent calls you and me to be open to these experiences in the present during these 40 days and nights. Resurrections are within us and around us, and our frenzied lives can so easily blind us to their presence and make us deaf to their songs.
When we ponder the stories of faith, of Easter risings, let’s move from questioning what happened to wondering what they mean for us.
And these meanings are very specific. We are not just talking about being better, calmer, more balanced people. We are talking about a rising over brokenness which scars the world, rising over death itself. What propels me through Lent is a deep hope, submerged beneath my brave exterior, that death and darkness do not have the last word.
And the hope that life triumphs over death is also the hope and confidence that good overcomes evil.
Resurrection in this way must become specific enough to address the very concrete evils of the world. Hannah Arendt wrote that fascism doesn’t care about good and evil. It only cares about winners and losers. We are called to counter fascism with a conviction that what is right and true and good and just does matter, and that this counts more deeply than simply winning.
Our resurrection faith must be strong enough to say that good does matter when millions of refugees are suffering because we will not let them into our homeland which welcomed my grandfather and our refugee ancestors. Our resurrection faith must be strong enough to get Ray Meeks through the rest of his life in the Florida state prison system. Our resurrection must be strong enough for us to go through Lent facing our own losses, our own aging, our own diagnoses.
For our deepest fears and our highest hopes, resurrection must become specific, and it must promise that there is more hope, and depth and goodness, and love ahead for all of us, in this life and in the next.
“Resurrection” as the quote we read earlier by Marilyn Sewell said, “is hard work… We learn to practice resurrection, in the daily cycles of loss and rebirth.” We learn to practice resurrection here, in community, during Lent.
This is my credo. This is what I believe. From this I wish you a good Lent, a time of paying attention to dreams. I wish you space to watch and pray and courage to rise up and act. Having found meaning in the past, I wish you vision to go forward to Easter with openness to new risings that surely lie ahead.
Let us pray:
We pause before you O God at the beginning of this Lenten season and pray for these 40 days of our lives.
We pray for awareness to resist our worst temptations.
We pray for focus, to probe our questions.
We pray for courage, to break through our fears.
We pray that our time in Lent may open us to a call that leads us to our own Easter, of a rising above all that would pull us down and pull down the world around us.
Let us hear you calling us by name to a risen life.