The Cloud Of Presence
Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
February 23, 2019 –Transfiguration Sunday
Jesus is on the mountain with Peter, James and John. Suddenly Moses…the law…and Elijah…the prophets…are speaking with him. A cloud comes down around them and they hear God’s voice in the cloud say that Jesus was God’s son. “Listen to him.
Moses hears God call him to come up on the mountain to receive the law. He goes up with Joshua, leaving Aaron and Ur in charge. A cloud covers the mountain for six days while God gives the law to Moses.
This resonance in the scriptures we read today got me to thinking about the mysterious nature of clouds. They are water, but they are air. They hang above us and around us…between us and heaven…between us and paradise. God is in them.
Sometimes we can enter into them, too…and when we do mysterious and wonderful things can happen…if we are attentive…and open…and willing. There is a powerful imagery that the Bible repeats for us as the Word draws us into an awareness of God’s presence.
In Genesis, God hangs a bow…a rainbow…in the clouds after the Great Flood to assure us that God will never unleash such destructive forces again. My Grandma Hyer once told me that one of the three great things she had seen in her life was a complete double rainbow.
She died in April of 1997 and within two months of her passing I had seen two complete double rainbows. Just a coincidence, I suppose, but the second one was so vivid as Amanda and Caleb and I approached Chico Hot Springs…one of our favorite retreats anywhere in the world… that they wanted me to stop the car so we could go look for the pot of gold.
In Exodus, it is a cloud that travels with the nation of Israel as it journeys from oppression to freedom. It hangs between God’s chosen people and Pharaoh’s army, protecting them from danger with God’s presence. They would follow the cloud through the dangers of an unknown land with a pillar of cloud.
God was with them as their guide and protector. God remains with us today in the Word, as our guide and protector. Those who cling to the Word…who accept God’s help… find salvation. We are Into the Word and into the world.
God’s people could not see through the cloud or move the cloud to where they wanted to go. They had to trust that God’s presence...God’s grace…was sufficient for them…even in the most difficult of situations…when they would not otherwise know which way to turn.
When Moses went up on God’s mountain, a cloud came down to envelope him and the cloud remained on the mountain for 40 days while the law was given to him.
Clouds are symbolic of an endless, reciprocal exchange between the ethereal and the earthly, moving between formlessness and form. They promise life-giving rain and have been seen by many cultures as wellsprings of cosmic fertility.
They hover between heaven and earth. In them the hiddenness and the manifestation of the divine is represented. They are intimate hiding places and the revelation of Creation itself.
This is not just true of our faith tradition. In the Muslim tradition, Allah existed as a cloud until he revealed himself to Muhammad. So we hear it said, “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.”
The Mayans believed that the Creator of the Universe existed as a cloud until the great work of creation began.
Clouds hold truth which is above us and around us, waiting for us to open our hearts and minds to all God’s creation offers.
As we celebrate Transfiguration Sunday, then, we celebrate a long tradition in the faith journey of all humankind, from the dawn of time to the present day.
Jesus takes witnesses with him who all see the same thing and share the same testimony about the one who told us in the Sermon on the Mount that he did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets…but to fulfill them.
So who do we find Jesus talking to on the mountain but Moses… representing the Law…and Elijah…representing the Prophets? As he was talking with them, what happens?
Well, if you were steeped in the Jewish traditions you would all be raising your hand right now, saying “I know! I know! A cloud comes down! A cloud comes down!” And there you have it.
This is not any ordinary cloud, either. It is a bright cloud and from it they hear a voice say, “This is my dear son. I am pleased with him. Listen to him.”
Clouds tell us a lot of things. They tell us when it’s going to be a nice day. [Heights Sunrise]
They tell us when the weather is going to change. [East Front Storm]
They tell us when a storm is approaching. [Two Medicine Storm]
There is something about clouds that cause us to look up and wonder about why things are the way they are, and what we can do to make things better…about the Eternal and the Almighty.
Clouds change our outlook, sometimes in ways we are not even aware of. [Siyeh Creek]
They shade the trail or expose it. They can even change the color of things when light strikes the clouds just so. [Moon in clouds]
They are always with us, talking to us, embracing us as one who wants us to lift our gaze a bit…to the horizon…and beyond. [Firebrand Pass]
They keep us a little warmer when it is cold. [Church in Snow]
When people say we have our head in the clouds, they are really saying that we are deep in thought… problem-solving with intensity… working something out…getting in touch with our subconscious…our cloud…our Creator.
It’s like the day a friend told me about a little while ago…from a long time ago. She was young, and her life seemed to be giving her hard answers at every turn.
She was out in the orchard one day, leaning against and old oak tree and asking herself why things were so hard. It was as if she could hear the tree talking to her, she said, and it told her it was from the earth and all it knew about was the earth. But she was from another place and she was meant to dance or move among the stars. [Bigfork Sunset]
It was such an interesting turn of phrase to me, an old oak tree talking about how the clueless human leaning against her was connected to the stars. In mean, she could walk… she could move…she could fly. It was another one of those little coincidences I see from time to time.
The reason our blood is red is because it has iron in it. The universe creates iron when a star goes nova, expands greatly in size and heat then collapses in on itself. A star had to die…somewhere way back when…for us to be an iron- and carbon-based life form we are…flourishing here.
It seems to me that my friend’s old oak tree knew that all that way back when she was leaning against it, maybe even before humankind knew where iron came from. Just a coincidence, I suppose, but it is a very interesting one…an old oak tree knows we came from the stars.
Still, our story is not over today. When we turn to the first chapter of the Book of Acts, Jesus ascends into heaven. He tells them they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them; and they will be his witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
And indeed, they have been and we read their words this morning, the words Peter remembered hearing that day on the mountain, “This is my dearly loved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.”
Peter…the one who abandoned him on the night he was arrested… this Peter has become his witness beyond the ends of the earth that they knew about. What a remarkable prediction by Jesus…what a coincidence…and it turns out that he was right again.
When he said this “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” There is that cloud again.
The classic contemplative meditation text was written in the late 1300's and it is called The Cloud of Unknowing. Earthly knowledge, it says, can limit our ability to access our native wisdom.
The core idea is that the way to know God is to abandon consideration of God's particular activities and attributes, and be courageous enough to surrender one's mind and ego to the realm of "unknowing", at which point we may begin to glimpse the nature of God.
The cure? Sit and think only of God for 30 minutes…or 20 minutes…or even 10 minutes…every day.
Watch to see how much more you can see… and what comes to mind while you are sitting there. Every time you find you have been distracted by your thoughts, take a deep breath and refocus your attention on God. Enter the cloud of unknowing and re-boot your soul…as you renew your spirit.