Sunday, 8 March 2015

Third Sunday of Lent

The whole region was covered by low dark cloud, down to 200 ft, and accompanied by heavy rain all morning. Only the bottom third of the Wenvoe TV mast was visible at noon through the downpour. By mid afternoon, the cloud began to lift, changing colour and character as the sun shone through, becoming less threatening, more appealing to the eye.
Even though weather systems have common characteristic which enable us to identify certain types of cloud, they constantly change and are unique in each passing moment, only dull to us when there's little or no movement to attract our attention. At certain times of day they can be exquisitely lovely to observe, at other times, they can look ugly and threatening, at other times they seem mysterious, as if they were about to disclose something of great significance. 

There's a certain ironic folly in describing internet data storage facilities, modern repository of all knowledge, as the 'cloud' when this word for the past three millennia has been used to evoke what cannot be known, and is beyond or experience. Consider references to cloud in scripture, and what these convey in context.

First, God the creator is imagined anthropomorphically as one who inhabits the skies, like the storm gods of Canaan, but infinitely more powerful.

'Clouds are a hiding place for Him, so that He cannot see; And He walks on the vault of heaven.' (Job 22:14)

Clouds and thick darkness surround Him; Righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne.(Psalm 97:2)

This also appears in the book of Revelation

Then I looked, and behold, a white cloud, and sitting on the cloud was one like a son of man, having a golden crown on His head and a sharp sickle in His hand. (Rev 14:14)

Before the science of meteorology evolved, people knew about weather and how to foresee the impact of its changes on them and their environment. They knew what it meant to be enveloped by mist or fog at sea or in the plain, or caught in passing clouds on a mountain - experiences of sensory deprivation, bewilderment, disorientation, dread that spell 'danger'. There is another aspect, however. Elijah knew how to read hopeful signs in the weather.

And it came to pass at the seventh time, that he said, Behold, there ariseth a little cloud out of the sea, like a man's hand. And Elijah said, Go up, say unto Ahab, prepare thy chariot, and get thee down, that the rain stop thee not. (1 Kings 18:44)

Inside a cloud you can't be sure of anything you know - 'cloud of unknowing' is such an apt term to describe this. The preface of St John's Gospel, also the first Epistle state 

"No-one has seen God at any time" (John 1:18)   No-one has ever seen God (1John 4:12)

The simplest of poetic imagery relating to the unseen, unknown divine presence naturally refers to the shared experience we have of clouds, and the feelings they arouse in us. Cloud features prominently in the Exodus story with reference to the guiding presence of God in the wilderness, and in the meetings between God and Moses and in the tent sanctuary.

The LORD was going before them in a pillar of cloud by day to lead them on the way, and in a pillar of fire by night to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. He did not take away the pillar of cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people. (Exodus 13:21-22)  

It came about as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the sons of Israel, that they looked toward the wilderness, and behold, the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud. (Exodus 16:10)

And it came to pass, as Moses entered into the tabernacle, the cloudy pillar descended, and stood at the door of the tabernacle, and the Lord talked with Moses.And all the people saw the cloudy pillar stand at the tabernacle door: and all the people rose up and worshipped, every man in his tent door. (Exodus 33:9-10)

Clouds of burning incense used in worship may be what is referred to in the case of the tent sanctuary, as concealing the presence of God in the midst, felt but unseen. Fire and clouds of smoke on the mountain, perhaps a volcanic eruption if not a brush fire, are the setting for God's self revelation to Moses. All this carries over into the worship offered in the Temple.

It happened that when the priests came from the holy place, the cloud filled the house of the LORD, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD. Then Solomon said, "The LORD has said that He would dwell in the thick cloud. (1 Kings 8:10-12)

Cloud covers Mount Tabor after the transfiguration of Jesus before his disciples. The voice from the cloud is the voice heard at Jesus' baptism - God's presence, God's good-will is once again declared.

"Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: "This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!" (Mark 9:7)

When the resurrected Jesus finally took leave of his disciples, his separation from them was mysterious and charged with divine presence.

"As they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him from their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel;"Men of Galilee," they said, "why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven."  (Acts 1:10-11)

Even though the phrase is mediaeval, the underlying concept ancient Paul, speaking of the end-time, speaks of this notion of the 'cloud of unknowing', rather than state starkly that he is referring to what is utterly beyond our present comprehension. 

After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. (1 Thess 4:17)

Though beyond our present comprehension, for we are stuck in the clouds, Paul declares that God is - 'All in All.' (1 Cor 15:28)  The final vision is not of clouds but of glory, uncreated light.

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