Experiences of God in the clouds

 sermon preached at St Margaret’s Bramley, 3 March 2019

This week, the General Synod of the Church of England took Evangelism as its main theme.  Evangelism in quite a wide sense of commending God to other people through our own experience, as well as in a narrower sense of passing on the teachings of the Church to a new generation.   One of the speakers at Synod described Christians as “Trip-Advisers for Jesus”. I presume he meant that we can rate our spiritual experiences and share them with others, just as certain websites allow you to do the same with your holidays.  For at its core, evangelism is a personal thing, and we cannot pass on to others what we ourselves have not experienced.

It’s that last word – “experienced” – that I want to dwell on today. Too many people still think that being a Christian is either all about “believing the Bible” (however you choose to interpret that), or “going to church”.  But when we actually read the Bible, most of it is about people’s experiences rather than their beliefs or religious practice.

Experiences of God can take many forms – listen again to just two verses from today’s Gospel.  “While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’” (Luke 9:34-35). Hear the experiences there – “overshadowed”, “terrified”, “entered the cloud”, “listen!”  Jesus didn’t take those disciples up the mountain to preach another sermon, he wanted them to have an experience, an emotional experience, that would stay with them and change them.

Narrowing it down even further, the one word that I want to focus on from that verse is “cloud”.  It’s a word that occurs many times in the Bible. Sometimes the cloud is a literal one, sometimes more symbolic.  But always the focus is on experience.  Let’s just run through a few of these to get the idea.  I expect you will have heard of these people.

 

 Noah no doubt saw rather a lot of clouds during the forty days of rain.  But at the end of the story when he and his family were back on dry land, he saw a rainbow in the clouds. And he experienced God saying, “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” For Noah, the beautiful colour of the rainbow became a way of understanding God’s faithfulness.

Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the Law, in thick cloud and smoke, along with fire and a sound like the blast of a trumpet.  Earlier in life he had experienced the burning bush in the desert.  Out of such experiences, a confusion of sights, sounds and smells, and a terrible sense of awe, came the conviction that God was giving his people instructions for living.

Solomon experienced a cloud filling the Temple – in this case the cloud represents the presence or glory of God.  He had to cease his carefully rehearsed acts of worship and instead stand in awe as he sensed the real presence of God. Out of this and other experiences he became the wisest of people. Isaiah had a similar experience in the Temple, which brought him to a place of great humility.

Daniel, in Babylon with the Jewish people in exile, saw a vision concerning the last days, in which “One like a Son of Man came with the clouds of Heaven”.  His spirit was troubled and the vision terrified him.  But from that experience he recognised that God would give to the Son of Man dominion, honour, glory and kingship for ever.

Coming back to Peter, James and John on the mount of Transfiguration, their own experience of being lost in the cloud with Jesus and his ghostly companions also terrified them, to the extent that they told no-one about it until after the Resurrection when it all started to make sense, that Jesus was in fact a new lawgiver like Moses, a new prophet like Elijah, and also Daniel’s “son of man”.  Sometimes it’s only long after an experience that we can reflect on it and make sense of it.

I suggest that in all these experiences of the cloud, God is wanting people to be aware of what they experience (that is, by sight, sound, smell or any other sensation), and what the feel (that is, in their emotions)?  Out of that, he asks the question, “who do you say that I am?”

 

Noah may have responded to that last question with “The One whose Covenant is sure, never again to destroy mankind”.  Moses would have said “the Lord our God, who brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery”. Solomon – “The Lord whose glory fills the Temple”, Daniel – “The Ancient of Days”.  Jesus’ disciples were given the words by the voice from the cloud – “This is my Son, my Chosen”.

Of course, few of us will ever experience anything so dramatic as those prophets and apostles.  What might experiences of the cloud of God’s presence look like in practice for you or me?  I can’t speak for you, because the glorious truth is that everyone’s experience of God is personal and unique.  I can only speak for myself, so here are a few times in my own journey of faith when clouds have featured prominently.

The first time I flew in an aircraft, as a child, with a heart filled with wonder I looked down on the clouds.  Grey and flat from below, above they billow like cotton wool, reflecting the full light of the sun.  No human had seen this before we learnt to fly. At that time, aged ten, I would not have called myself a Christian – I just hadn’t given any thought to the question yet – but looking back on that and other times I’ve flown, I would reply to the question, Who do you say that I am, by saying “the Creator who made all things for Your glory. You delight in that which humans have not yet seen and have prepared what we cannot imagine.”

Years later as a young adult, I again found myself above the clouds, this time on a mountain top in France.  I was using that holiday to explore a sense of vocation. I had walked though the small hours of the night with a local guide to reach the top of the mountain not long after sunrise. What I saw was cloud that covered the valley below us.  As the cloud lifted in the morning sun it revealed a lake far below.  In the silence birds flew round us.  We stayed there for some time, rejoicing at the beauty of this scene.  I thanked our guide, who led us through the cloud and up the mountain. To God’s question Who do you say that I am? I replied, “the Guide who can be trusted to lead me to what I do not know, revealing your beauty along the way.”

Some years later again, when Linda and I were newly engaged, we stood together one evening by the kitchen sink, looking out as clouds gathered at dusk, glowing ever deeper with blazing red.  Never had we seen such a sunset.  We stood in awe of our Creator and in love with each other. Our answer to the question then was, “You are the God of power and passion.  You brought us together and we will trust you in our relationship.”  Like Noah, this sign in the heavens became a personal sign of God’s love.

Of course, not all emotions are happy ones, not all experiences are pleasant, and life has its ups and downs.  Going back a few years, I went on holiday by myself to get over the end of a previous relationship.  Walking alone across cloud-covered hills, I found the mist surrounding me to be a consolation at a time when I felt depressed. God’s presence in solitude embraced me, and to the question “Who do you say that I am?” I could reply “the constant lover, the One who never turns away but always understands.”

Those, then, are some examples of how God’s presence can be felt, experienced, enjoyed (or not).  This imagery of clouds is just one that happened to resonate with today’s readings. There are many other kinds of experience. What I would encourage you to do is ponder how your own experiences, everyday or out of the ordinary, of the world around you, can speak to you of God’s presence.

We are not disembodied minds, we have God-given bodies that sense the world around through touch, taste, smells, sights and sounds, sense our own minds through our emotions, and sense also God’s spirit within us. The truth is that it is only in experiencing God with and through our physical senses and emotions, that we can come close to saying that we know him.

Coming back from the sublime to – I daren’t say the ridiculous, but the mundane, with the General Synod and its discussions on evangelism.  It is when we are able to make sense of our experiences and share our insights with other people, that we are able to engage in the sort of evangelism that the Archbishop of Canterbury was talking about this week when he said this –

“When we talk of evangelism and discipleship, we are talking about a radically, differently shaped Church, which starts with being filled afresh with the Spirit of God, consumed with the love of God for us, for the world, and obsessed by the vision of God for the world, which we seek to change to show the shape of his love.”

So hang on to those moments when the world around you was suddenly lit up with the flame of God’s presence, when the place you were worshipping became for a moment filled with the glory of God, or conversely when the quietness of a misty day or a silent place touched you with his gentleness.  Sharing those experiences with other people may be the best form of evangelism you can offer.

Copyright (c) Stephen Craven 2019

Biblical references

Noah: Genesis 8:1-9:17

Moses: Exodus 19:9-25

Solomon: 1 Kings 8:9-13

Daniel: Daniel 7:1-13

Jesus and the disciples: Mark 9:2-9 / Luke 9:28-36

 

The Bible in a Year – 5 December

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5 December. Acts chapters 17-19

Paul is often held up as the example of a great evangelist, indeed one of the greatest orators, for he was able to be (as he writes elsewhere) “all things to all people”.   Among Jews he argued as a rabbi using their scriptures (17:2,11); in the debating place among philosophers he used the dedication of an altar to an “unknown God” to start speaking of the true God who is invisible but knowable (17:23); he could quote secular poetry (17:28) as well as religious texts. Not only was he gifted in public speaking but he could work with individuals too, Romans (18:7) as well as Greeks; he could encourage individuals who only had a limited understanding of the faith but going deeper with them (19:1-7).  He could also write complex theology in his letters.   If that was not enough, he performed healing miracles and cast out demons in the name of Jesus, as Jesus had done himself (19:11-12)

But in all this he continued to face opposition from many quarters: from Jews who opposed him as a heretic, from Greeks who scoffed at his illogical claims of resurrection, and from Romans who thought Christianity a dangerous cult.  There was opposition too from the idol-makers whose livelihood he had disrupted (19:21-40).  These various groups seemed to be able to draw on a “rent-a-mob” who didn’t even know what they were supposed to be demonstrating about (19:32).

If Paul had been around today, I am sure that he would have experienced much the same.  Religious conservatives, outspoken humanists and atheists, secular authorities who don’t know what to make of faith communities, powerful lobby groups with financial interests, and crowds of demonstrators – they are all still with us, and the ever-challenging message of the Gospel still attracts opposition from them all.

Paul would also undoubtedly have been a media presence.  His Twitter account would have had millions of followers (and attracted trolls too).  He would have been delighted to have been able to set down his theology in blog posts followed by thousands rather than letters to be heard by a few dozen.   He could have argued with the Corinthians instantly by messenger apps, rather than exchange postal correspondence over a period of months.  And no doubt would have been a popular contributor to “thought for the day” on Radio Athens and a controversial guest on chat shows.

But on the other hand, how long would such conversations endure?  How much of what is spoken, blogged and tweeted today will be searchable even in ten years, let alone two thousand?  The power and longevity of the written word – whether Paul’s letters, or Luke’s record of his travels, has meant that his writings and actions have endured down to this day as an inspiration and a challenge.  Let’s hear it for @Paul_Tarsus.

The Bible in a Year – 17 November

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17 November. Luke chapter 8-9

These chapters are “bitty” – they consist of about twenty short anecdotes or recollections of the words and works of Jesus in different places. I can however see a common theme in five of them:

In explaining the parable of the sower, Jesus says “The seed is the word of God. The ones on the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved” (8:11-12).

In sending out his twelve closest disciples, Jesus tells them among other instructions, “Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them’” (9:5).

Likewise, when the inhabitants of a Samaritan village refused to accept him, Jesus criticised his disciples for praying against those people, but merely moved on to the next village (9:53-56).

In speaking of those who feel unable to “carry the cross” (I.e. to experience rejection or hardship of any kind because they follow him), he says “What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” (9:25).

Finally, when people made excuses for not following him (such as being recently bereaved, or having family ties that they were reluctant to break) he said “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (9:62).

What all these have in common is that not everyone who saw Jesus perform miracles and heard his incomparable teaching about the meaning of life actually believed in or followed him.  Some turned away, some were indifferent and some actively opposed him.

So it is not surprising that the same is true today.   Seeking new disciples (witnessing, evangelism, nurture, outreach, mission  – whatever you call it) will always be disappointing if we expect instant results.   The majority of people will always either fail to understand the Gospel message, or  be too busy with other things to really engage with it, or may even feel threatened by it and reject it (and thereby reject Jesus himself).

Jesus’ reaction to that seems to along the lines of “keep calm and carry on” – if one village rejects you, try another.   If one person doesn’t engage with what you are trying to tell them, speak to someone else. The fault is theirs, not yours, and it is for God to decide, ultimately, whether they have chosen to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Bible in a Year – 10 October

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10 October. 1 Thessalonians chapters 1-5

The first of St Paul’s letters to the Christians in Thessalonica is perhaps the most positive of all his writings.  There is little of criticism here, but rather encouragement and thankfulness. He wants them to know that he is pleased with not only their conversion to the faith, but the way they stick to it.  Towards the end of the letter he reminds them of the need to remain faithful to the gospel message, even (or especially) as difficult times come upon them.

The language that Paul uses, not only here but in some of his other letters, when he describes his feelings towards those he has pastored, are quite astonishing – in Galatians he compares his prayers for them to the pains of a woman in childbirth (Paul was probably unmarried, so perhaps he can be excused for this exaggeration). In this letter he reminds the Thessalonians of his approach in teaching them: “We speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others” (2:4-6).

The work of an evangelist or priest is not easy.  Even as a Reader – a part-time, voluntary assistant minister in the Church of England – I find the challenge of “presenting the Gospel afresh in this generation”, and of being a pastoral friend to the congregation, demands more of my time and effort than I can easily give.  Even in our small church fellowship there are many needy people; more come with their children to be baptised; many more than they attend activities that take place in the church buildings (children’s groups, drama groups, exercise classes, parenting classes and son on). And that is without considering the thousands in our parish who never have any connection with the church.

Where is the reward in this?  Paul focuses on the few who have responded to the Gospel and become believers.  “For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? Yes, you are our glory and joy!” (2:19-20).  We need not worry too much about those we never meet, or those who ignore the opportunities to engage with the Church.  If I have the privilege of helping even a small number of people to become, not merely members of our parish church but members of the Body of Christ, it will have been worth it.

 

The Bible in a Year – 4 October

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4 October. 2 Chronicles chapters 30-32

Today we read of the triumphs (at least the religious ones) of king Hezekiah. Since the reign of Azariah in chapter 22 there has been a fundamental rift between the northern and southern kingdoms.  In chapter 30 Hezekiah attempts to heal this, not politically but religiously, as he encourages all the tribes once again to celebrate the Passover together as in days of old.  But apart from a few individuals, the northerners in Israel scoff at his messengers and fail to come to the feast.  Maybe that was in Jesus’ mind when he told the parable of a banquet to which those who were invited refused to come (Luke 14: I will be preaching on that at our Harvest Festival this Sunday).

Nevertheless, for those who do come, and for the people of Judah, this is a great feast – held a month late, but for two weeks instead of the usual one.  Many of those who attend have not carried out the required rituals of preparation, but Hezekiah wisely allows them to participate: “The good Lord pardon all who set their hearts to seek God, the Lord the God of their ancestors, even though not in accordance with the sanctuary’s rules of cleanness” (30:19).  That echoes the frequent debates heard in churches about who should be admitted to Holy Communion – only those baptised or confirmed as adults, or anyone baptised (even as an infant), or anyone who says they believe in Jesus?  Hezekiah would have been with the inclusive churches.

Many seem to have been ‘converted’ (or had their faith ‘refreshed’) at this Passover. Afterwards, they are inspired to go home and tear down the ‘high places’ – the remaining pagan shrines in their territory – and to make generous donations of animals and produce to the Temple.   It does tend to be at large gatherings, when religious fervour is stirred up, that people are moved to go and take action, change their lives, repent of practices they are now convinced are wrong, or share their faith with others.  The call to give sacrificially to the cause also tends to get a good response in such gatherings.

That is why ‘revivals’ are based on well advertised meetings in large venues with well known speakers or ‘miracle workers’, while quieter forms of evangelism are carried on week by week in small groups and one-to-one conversations.  Both are equally valid, and which one will “work” for an individual will depend as much on their own personality type as anything.  The only caution is that sometimes the religious fervour of the newly converted can spill over into insensitive pressurising of others to commit to the faith, something that really should be an unpressurised decision.

This religious triumph is followed in chapter 32 by a military challenge: the Assyrians under Sennacherib attack Judean towns and threaten Jerusalem itself.   But a combination of fervent prayer for deliverance led by the prophet Isaiah, and the wise tactical step of cutting off the invading army’ water supply, sends Sennacherib packing back to his homeland and to his death.  So with the country of Judah in the grip of a religious revival, and deliverance from the enemy, Hezekiah earns his places as one of the greatest kings of Judah.

The Bible in a Year – 18 March

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18 March. Judges chapters 1-2

The next book of the Bible that I am reading is that which covers the days of the ‘judges’ who despite the name used in translation were actually still more like military leaders than lawyers. They did however have the responsibility for upholding the religious/civil law as well.

 

These first two chapters are a bit confused.  Some material is repeated from the book of Joshua (e.g. the marriage of Othniel and Aksah). In chapter 1 Joshua is clearly already dead and the tribe of Judah is said to have captured and set fire to Jerusalem. But chapter 2 describes events in Joshua’s lifetime, and the Benjamites (in whose territory Jerusalem lay) fail to capture Jerusalem.  So maybe these two chapters got put in the wrong order somewhere along the line.

 

The lesson for us today, however, does not depend on resolving that.  It concerns the angel who appears to remind the people of the importance of obeying God. But even that, on top of Joshua’s exhortations and the people’s promise witnessed by the stone at Shechem (Joshua 24:26-27), fails to stop them reverting to idolatry within a generation.  God says he will continue to provide judges to point his people in the right direction, but even so he knows that most of the people will not listen to them and will bring judgement on themselves.

 

That reminds me of two sayings. The first is that of Jesus – “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”  (Luke 16:31). One cannot rely on a mass response at a rally, or even a dramatic miracle, to convince everyone who is there to make a real change in their lives.  True conversion happens on an individual basis and is built on many encounters with God and his people.

 

The second is one often heard today in the Church – “the church is always one generation from extinction”.  If we do not pass on a living faith in some form to the young people of our day, the Church of Jesus Christ (in its widest form) will cease to exist.

 

The Bible in a Year – 27 February

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27 February. Deuteronomy chapters 1-3

This is a short post because much of these chapters (indeed, much of Deuteronomy) covers old ground.  It represents a recapitulation of both the history of the Exodus period, and the teachings that Moses received at Horeb, before moving on to Moses’ farewell speech.  This was necessary because a whole generation had passed, and only two of the men who had left Egypt with Moses (Joshua and Caleb) would take the new generation across the Jordan into a new land. So the new generation had to be reminded of what had gone before, in order to inspire them to continue in the same faith and not assimilate themselves to a new host culture.

 

The church today finds itself in an increasingly post-religious world where fewer people attend church (very few, if the older generations are left out of the count).  Our task therefore is to inspire those few younger people who are with us to take a distinctive faith forward in their generation, as well as seeking new converts by appropriate means. They need to understand the whole history of the Jewish-Christian tradition in order to see their own challenges in context, just as Moses’ hearers had to understand the sacrificial effort (in every sense) that had gone into getting them to where they were.