Clouds – Mystery and Revelation

IMG_6048If we mention ‘the cloud’ today there is a strong chance that the first thing that will come to mind is a remote internet based storage system. Those of us who rely heavily on gadgets and mobile devices can’t escape it as the system of syncing our calendars, being able to access email on the move and sharing documents. The cloud is a cuddly way of referring to some very functional technology more likely based in an industrial unit in Swindon than in some skybase or even floating free. What seems just able to be plucked from the air is actually complex mathematics and electrical signaling. The cloud links us on the move, when we are not plugged into the main storage, and connectivity is a key aspect of it.

In the Bible clouds represent the mystery of God. They tell us that something profound is taking place and it is a moment when something usually hidden is being made known and revealed. It is a moment of revelation and that revelation connects us with the purposes and nature of God. ‘Connectivity’ is actually a term borrowed from a deep and profound aspect of faith. The cloud connects us with who God is and how God is known; it holds both mystery and revelation: God who is beyond our gaze also comes close and can be known.

The cloud is an important element in the story of Moses. He enters the cloud on the Holy Mountain to receive the 10 Commandments. Mystery and revelation are held. There is authority which comes from its profound connection with what is, with that which is beyond our gaze, and there is the very easy to grasp clear commands for the practicality of living. Elijah, in our Old Testament reading (2 Kings 2:1-12), is taken up by the clouds, into heaven. He disappears from sight and enters the mystery. The image intended here is a dust cloud created by dust being whipped up by the whirlwind swirling round and making sight difficult. It is a cloud that both obscures but also removes. He is taken from sight, not just obscured from sight. Mystery comes and mystery goes.

On the hillside, with his closest friends, Jesus is Transfigured (Mark 9:2-9), his appearance changes. It is a moment of revelation when they see the glory within and connect up the dots, or the dots are joined up for them. And while this is happening a cloud overshadows them and from it there is a voice. ‘Overshadowing’ is a strong word in the Bible. The Holy Spirit comes upon Mary and ‘the power of the Most High overshadows her’ (Luke 1:35) at the annunciation and God is made present in the most direct way that there can be, in the conception, growth and birth of Jesus. In the Book of Exodus, God’s presence overshadows the tent of meeting with a cloud and the glory of God fills the tabernacle so powerfully that Moses is not able to enter (Exodus 40:34-35). Overshadowing is the full power and glory of God present and at work. The word ‘overshadowing’ means this is serious. This is a moment of profound revelation.

So for the witnesses of the Transfiguration, they are in the presence of the very presence of God, the full force of God has touched the mountain and what is at work here is revealed to be of cosmic significance. They cannot comprehend it, so much so that Peter decides they need to build something to capture it, completely missing the significance which is far beyond their feeble power. This is God who made the heavens and earth and all that there is, who holds everything in being. The idea that this needs a shed made by him is just ludicrous. But that is what we do when something is too big to comprehend, we try to do something or build something so that we can contain it, define it and make it digestible for our minds. The Transfiguration is mind-blowing in its scale and a moment of seeing what otherwise cannot be seen and barely taken in.

The voice from the cloud, from the mystery, speaks words of connection and understanding. “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him.” In the presence of God, in the cloud, the only response we can make is to listen. Listen, listen, listen again. It is how the Rule of St Benedict begins. ‘Listen’. Connecting to the cloud and through the cloud requires us to be stilled and take in what comes. To listen with all our being. And that is probably particularly hard for us. The very technology that connects also distracts and bombards with information and stimulus. It can be difficult to find the reflective space to stop fiddling and responding, but to listen and take in. Breathe deeply and allow the life of God to fill our lungs and our minds.

I was struck a while back by a post online about how to improve mental health. I think it came from the Samaritans and was aimed at people feeling anxious and stressed. It talked about breathing and how controlling breathing helps calm us and diminish the anxiety. What came to my mind was the reflective way of saying the Psalms in Morning Prayer each day, where a breathing space is put half way through the verses. We stop, breathe out and breathe in, before continuing. What this breathing does is calm us and the net effect is to calm us deeply from any anxiety or stress, worry or concerns, from the rushing and over haste. It helps prevent us from being overcome by these pressures and helps to restore balance. The breathing space becomes an agent of listening.

I’m conscious of this when I find I’m in one of those conversations that start out seemingly routine and ordinary, and then suddenly I become aware that something profoundly significant is being said. It might be talking of a serious illness, distress or something that brings pain to the fore. There is a screech of brakes in my head and I need to breathe deeply so that I can allow the words to be taken in. Not to respond with anything other than attention because whatever I say will be like Peter saying ‘let’s build a shed to contain this’. And what is needed is just to listen and take it in. And that listening can be important for the other who needs to be heard, to find a still and reflective space to be held. I was aware of this a number of years ago when a young girl came up to me in a school play ground and after I’d been greeted cheerily she proceeded to tell me her father died the night before in a car crash.  It was as moment to take a deep breath, to listen deeply and not try to fill the space, but let her be held in it as she spoke.

Clouds are deeply evocative, from Roald Dahl’s ‘James and Giant Peach’ cloudbusting with his parents as they lie on the beach and imagine shapes and visions in the shape of the clouds, to being drawn into them so that they stand as a symbol of eternity and clearer vision. When in 2012 the young songwriter, Zach Sobriech, was given just a few months to live due to a terminal cancer diagnosis, he turned to music to say goodbye and treasure the moments he had. His song ‘Clouds’ has been viewed on YouTube over 13 million times. In it he talks about going up into the clouds where the view is clearer and where he will find eternity. He decided to embrace each day with hope and joy, to celebrate what he had, not what he was either losing or had lost. It is clearly a song that many find inspiring and helpful. And it is based around clouds.

Clouds in the Bible stand for God’s mystery and presence. The mystery is the very root and power and hope at the heart of all things and beyond all things, even life itself. In it we find life and love and joy. When this mystery makes itself know, which it does supremely in Jesus Christ, the best response we can have is to listen, listen and listen again. Then we find beholding the mystery becomes a moment of revelation, overshadowing and inspiration.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 11th February 2018

About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough and Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral in the Church of England Diocese of Peterborough. He served as Rural Dean of Peterborough for 5 years. Prior to moving to Peterborough, Ian was in Leeds for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian was born and grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon and is a former head chorister at Shakespeare's Church - Holy Trinity. He studied in Canterbury, Lincoln Theological College and has a Master of Divinity degree from Nottingham University. He is married with two sons. Publications include three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His most recent book, 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus', was published by Sacristy Press in 2017. There is a hymn based on this 'Christ the Saviour'. He has been writing online since the mid 1990s. Ian is a keen photographer and these frequently appear in his posts and on social media.
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