May 30, 2019 A+D
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We are accustomed to Christian artwork that portrays Christ in the clouds. If we’re not paying attention, we might think that was merely artistic symbolism meant to show that Jesus ascended into the sky, the place of clouds, or that He is powerful and fleet like a cloud.
But the clouds at the Ascension were more than symbolic. They were literal and to give away the punchline, if I was translating this passage, where St. Luke tells us that a Cloud took Christ out of the apostle’s sight, I would capitalize the word “Cloud.” I would do this so that it matched the capitalization of the title “Holy Spirit.”
The Cloud concealed Christ from the Apostles. Then the angels told them that Christ will return in the same way, that is, on the Clouds. John introduces his vision by telling us that Christ will return “with the Clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him.” Jesus Himself twice describes His return in this way saying in Mark 13 and 14 that the Son of Man will come, visible to all, and in power, in the Clouds.
All of that is set into the context of history of God’s merciful interaction with Israel. The Hebrew word for “cloud” means “a covering.” A great Cloud concealed the Divinity from the eyes of the people so as not to destroy them in the wilderness, at Sinai, occasionally in the Tabernacle and at Temple. This cloud hid God’s destructive holiness from them in order that they not be destroyed, but it also showed them where God was to be found. Get this: He not only concealed, He also revealed. He convicted the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment. All He did, He did for the sake of mercy. Knowing where God was, where He promised to be, in His Law, in the Temple, leading them through the desert, His people could approach Him in repentance and faith, bringing their petitions and praise, they could be cleansed and restored to His fellowship. God also set the bow, after the flood, into the Clouds, aiming the pointy end at His own heart and away from the earth. The Clouds, really the Holy Spirit, hold the bow in place and make sure the arrow hits Christ and not us.
The most important Cloud in the Gospels is likely at the Transfiguration. There, Christ speaks with Moses and Elijah about His upcoming crucifixion. When Peter suggests they skip that and stay on the mountain, a bright cloud overshadows them and a Voice from the Cloud says “Shut up and listen. This is My Son, doing My Will, on My mission. Do you think you are smarter than Moses and Elijah? I am well-pleased with His obedience. I know what I send Him to do. Listen to Him.”
The Cloud is light but it conceals the source of the Voice which comes out of it. Still, even though the Cloud protects Our Lord’s inner circle, there is enough in the rebuke that Peter, James, and John fall on their faces and are terrified. The Voice at Sinai, which came out of the Cloud, and that which later whispered to Elijah was the pre-Incarnate Christ, the Meditator between God and man, but here the Voice is distinct from the Son though bore by the same Cloud. The Voice doesn’t tell them to obey the Law of Moses given on Sinai but to listen to Jesus and, by implication, to listen to Him talking about His upcoming crucifixion and not about what He wants for dinner.
Certainly the Father wants us to listen to the Law as given on Sinai, to all of the Old and New Testaments, but here the Father, speaking from the Cloud, zeroes in on the heart of it all: Listen to Jesus’ talking with the prophets about His sacrifice. The Cloud bears the Voice of the Father who witnesses to Christ.
Now where do you listen to the Son talking with the Prophets about His crucifixion? When you read the entire Bible in light of the cross, that is, when you recognize that all of the Holy Scriptures testifies of Christ and His work. Then you are listening in the way you were directed.
Most English translations say the cloud “overshadowed” the three apostles. It is a rare word. It means to cover and indicates that the cloud is resting in a certain place and not just blowing through like a bit of mist. Surprise, surprise, this happens to be the word that is used of the Holy Spirit in regard to the conception of Christ. He overshadowed her and she conceived. There He isn’t called a Cloud, just the Spirit, but He acts like the cloud that led the people, that lit upon Sinai, and inhabited the Tabernacle and Temple.
So also, there is something of cloudy about His brooding over the chaos in the beginning, for clouds are made of water and ice that hangs in in the air until it reaches critical mass when it falls to the earth and brings it to fruition.
Every time we see a cloud, we ought to repent and rejoice. We should never see them as nothing more than meteorological phenomena but we should say to ourselves: is that the Holy Spirit? Is Jesus with Him coming even now as He promised in the same way that He departed? Am I ready for Him, am I eager? For the Cloud not only conceals, it also reveals.
Until then, let us follow the example of our ancestors in the faith and gather around the place where God has promised to be for us: in His Holy Word and Sacrament.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.