Sermon for Solemn Evensong & Benediction Sunday 27 January 2013
Numbers 9.16. It was always so: the cloud covered the tabernacle by day, and the appearance of fire by night.
There’s a first time for everything, and I suppose that includes a sermon on the Book of Numbers. But I know you can take it, because I’m not going to lecture you about that rather difficult compendium. I’m going to talk about clouds, the cloud covering the tabernacle in the story, and the cloud which obscures God in a human life, our own doubt as to whether He’s there at all. We start with a disadvantage. In our culture clouds equal dullness: a dull cloudy day; clouds on the horizon. The weather forecasters look sympathetically at us from the little screen: it’s going to be a cloudy weekend, poor you. Only blue skies and bright sunshine will lift the mood. We think about religion like that. When we are really Christian, we think, it will be all clear blue skies and sunshine. Well, maybe, some of the time.
The people of God, the Israelites, had a different view of clouds than we do now. In the Book of Numbers there’s a re-telling of the Passover march from Sinai, a re-telling of Exodus, and it is the cloud which guides the people on their journey. When we tell a story, we use the images with which we are familiar; for example, we might use the illustration of a pilgrimage to describe our spiritual life. Let’s look at the image they used. On the march of the Israelites the cloud covers the tabernacle all the time and leads the way, and during the night the cloud has the appearance of fire. The appearance of fire, the pillar of fire, such a strange image, is in fact a fire shining within the same cloud. So the cloud’s there, day and night. Is God with us, everybody asks, the same question we ask ourselves today. God is with us, they explained back then, as in a cloud, which is present to us and can be seen, and yet at the same time conceals God’s glory from us. God with us, yet absent, his actual appearance remains a mystery. Does that mean anything to us? I think it does. It’s the same idea as that of a silent and mysterious God, who also speaks with great clarity through the Word. The little passage we heard tonight is about chasing that cloud, and what a merry dance that is, because whenever the cloud settles on the tabernacle the Israelites have to stop, and when the cloud lifts they set off again. On God’s order they pitch camp, on God’s order they set out. Now we could leave it there, and we usually do, don’t we, an interesting little story about ancient Israelites, a re-telling of Exodus, nothing to do with us. But we can’t leave it there. Why not? Because we are not separate from them; in God’s eyes, we and they are God’s people. God made us all in His own image. Maybe this is just a fantasy of mine, but I think our ancestors in religion were brighter-eyed than we are, more imaginative, more open to the world of image and symbol, less full of themselves than we are. So they spoke out, not about themselves, but about what is of eternal significance. They knew from their experience and from their traditions that although God is invisible, He is leading his people through this world now, he leads us from birth to death and a new life. This was their vision, what they saw, and it had to be asserted, made plain, because it will never, in the realm of nature, be automatically felt. Vague feelings about God are not enough; the Bible and our traditions are the human assertion of his presence. So this story about the cloud is an assertion, a statement of what God is doing in our lives and what we can expect. The movements of the cloud are unpredictable. We can expect the unexpected. We must be vigilant for God’s directions. We must be sensitive to the subtle promptings by God which provide guidance for our spiritual journey.
There are clouds appearing throughout the Bible, signs of God’s absence and presence, and when we start to make connections, many stories start to come alive in a new way. So at the Transfiguration in St Matthew’s Gospel, “suddenly – I like that, suddenly, unexpectedly, as in our lives – suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, This is my Beloved Son, with him I am well pleased: listen to him.” And at the end of time, we shall see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’. The clouds are a sign of God with us, not absent from us.
We live, or perhaps I should say, we exist in the dull modern world of what you see is what you get. That’s the reality show of most people’s lives, including ours, most of the time. So here is a different world view, the much more exciting world of the Spirit, the world of what you don’t see is what you get. Our predecessors refused to accept a neat division between the natural and the supernatural. There can be no division, because the purpose of our lives, if there is one, is reconciliation with the Creator. If that is so, and this church is built on that premise, then we can not describe reality, particularly the reality of a human life, without bringing in a supernatural, religious dimension. What you don’t see is what you’re going to get.
One of my favourite spiritual books is The Cloud of Unknowing, a classic account of Christian contemplation written by an anonymous English monk in the late fourteenth century. It’s one of those works which takes us beyond our usual limits, but is always rewarding, however short the passage read. Again, the age old question comes up, how do we find God? How do we pierce the Cloud of Unknowing, which separates God and humanity? We can’t, the author says, so stop worrying about that, our minds aren’t up to it. Only love can take the final step, drawing us into the dark yet dazzling mystery of God, God present to us yet hidden from us. Those medieval monks knew a thing or two. They had a popular saying, they all knew it, we’ve forgotten it of course, it came from St Gregory the Great: Amor ipse notitia est: Love itself is a form of knowledge. Christian experience, loving like Christ, brings us to God. Divine love joins the natural with the supernatural. We, with all our faults and doubts, can follow the tabernacle out of Sinai; we don’t just learn about it. We can go where God leads, because Love knows the way. And here’s that fourteenth century monk’s advice to you and me, on the last page of his book: “Go forth and gently conquer, then. Be humble and passionate in this work. Persevere. Contemplation begins on earth but continues in eternity. Love never ends …”
Sermon preached by Fr. Julian Browning