The thunderstorms always forced me back home.
As a 12-year-old growing up in South Carolina in the 1970s, summer storms were often furious and they insisted that I return to our house safely instead of staying outside longer and playing with my friends. When the clouds set in the downpours could be torrential, often accompanied by alarming claps of thunder and strobes of lightning. What impressed me most, however, was the routine my mother always followed. It went something like this:
When the storm hit, my younger brother and I ran home. My mother would tell us to make sure and turn all of the lights out and to unplug the television (we weren’t sure why). After those things were done, she told us to go into the living room, sit with her on the couch that faced the big picture window and watch the storm as it occurred. With a respectful whisper, her questions would begin:
“Do you boys know how powerful God is?”
Right at that moment, it seemed, and almost always on the heels of her questions, another shocking clap of thunder would explode and a flash of lightning. When that happened, not only did I “know” how powerful God was; I could feel it.
Question #2: “Robert and Ned, did you boys know that the same God who brings the sun also sends clouds and storms?”
Another pound of thunder and flash of lightning hit as if on cue. Ned and I could have sworn that my mom and God were in cahoots (they probably were). She read the script; He controlled the special effects. All in all, an impression was definitely made; one I still feel to this day.
The God of the Clouds
The Christian life includes some clouds. Have you noticed? But, clouds are not something we especially like to talk or teach about. After all, don’t most of us prefer sunny days to cloudy ones?
Actually, some Christians generally prefer “fire” to “rain”. Fire is a forceful, consuming and motivating metaphor; it arrests and ignites our attention. It stirs our souls. You will frequently find the word in passionate preaching, prayers and praises. When a sermon is dynamic we like to say, “That preacher was on fire!” When a believer’s commitment increases, we say, “They are all fired up.” Even the Apostle Paul challenged his protégé, Timothy, with the same word picture we he told him to “fan to flame” the spiritual gift within his life. In the vernacular of the Spirit-filled life, fire is almost always something exciting and desired. But, fire is not all God uses to inspire and lead his people.
Yes, God did appear to Moses as a “fire” in the burning bush (Ex. 3), but Exodus 13 also tells us that in the wilderness God came to the nation of Israel as “a cloud by day” and as “a fire by night.” In other words, the Hebrew nation’s experience of God’s leading in their lives was not only full of fire, it was also full of clouds, or better said, the Cloud. In the darkness of night, God came as a fire. In those moments, he was a literal “light to their path” (Ps. 119:105) as he led them through a treacherous and unfamiliar wilderness. But, in the bright light of day, he came within a cloud. A closer look at Israel’s journey reveals some important insights for us today, including:
God’s presence came in the form of a cloud.
As soon as Moses finished constructing the portable house of worship in the wilderness for the Hebrew nation (i.e., the tabernacle), the first thing God did was to send a “cloud” to cover it (Numbers 9:15). The cloud represented the presence of God enveloping this sacred place of worship. Over and over again in the book of Exodus and Numbers, we read about God’s revealing within a cloud. One day God even spoke to Moses and said, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, so that the people will hear me speaking with you and will always put their trust in you.” (Ex. 19:9).
At night, the cloud took on the appearance of a “fire.”
The cloud somehow morphed or changed as night set in. In fact, “…at evening it was over the tabernacle like the appearance of fire until morning (Num. 9:15b).” Just imagine. It must have been a powerful and awe-inspiring sight in the eyes of the littlest children of Israel to see the fiery cloud cover the tabernacle in the darkness of night. Certainly this place of worship was the center of their amazement and attention.
The people of God were only to move when the “cloud” moved.
As long as the cloud remained over the tabernacle, the people were supposed to stay put. That was the rule. When the cloud moved, they moved. If the cloud stayed, they were to stay. They moved only with the “cloud”; that is, they moved with (and within) the presence of God.
God came as a cloud every time Moses went up on Mt. Sinai.
Over and over again, God came and covered the mountain with the “cloud” of his presence. When Moses walked up the mountain to meet with God, in a sense he was walking into a cloud. For Moses his most intimate times in the presence of God were cloudy experiences. Similarly, in the New Testament, when Peter ascended the Mount of Transfiguration with Jesus, James and John, something similar occurred.
5 Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 6 (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.) 7 Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” 8 Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.
– Mark 9:5-8
In this case, as in the episode of Peter walking on the water (and then sinking), it seems that Peter’s focus moved to the wrong place. Instead of giving Jesus his worship and attention, he seemed more enamored with Moses, Elijah and with his own idea of what should come next (i.e., “Let us put up three shelters…”, v. 5b). Instead of granting his request, however, God covered all of them with; first with a cloud and then with his voice. The result? “Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone … except Jesus.” (5:8) And, isn’t that as it should be? Aren’t the best times in the Christian life those when our lives and activities are so clouded that all we can see is Christ? In this case, it appears that the “cloud” did not shield them from God, but rather from everything else but God.
The Guide of the Cloud
Still, a question remains: Why a “cloud”? Why this particular image or manifestation as the one God chose to represent his presence? Here are a few considerations:
Clouds provide covering.
Often, when clouds fill our “sky”, clouds of uncertainty or confusion, we become frustrated with our lives or even disappointed with God. Our concern is often over what the clouds are keeping from us. We worry over information we feel we need to know that we do not or opportunities we sense we need that are withheld; we feel the “clouds” moving in. From God’s perspective, however, the primary consideration is not what is being kept from us, but often what we are being kept from. The fact is… God is our “shield” and he knows that there are some things that his grace alone keeps us from knowing and yet experiencing. He knows that some of these things may frighten or alarm us; others, on the contrary, may fill us with pride or self-dependency.
Clouds provide shade.
Wandering in a desert wilderness brings a whole new appreciation for clouds. Clouds offer shade from the blistering and harsh rays of the sun. “God spread a cloud to keep them cool through the day and a fire to light their way through the night… (Ps. 105:41, MSG).” In a desert, a cloud is no disappointment; rather, it is a gift, a grace-gift. God is our “shade”. Psalm 121:5-6 says, “The Lord watches over you – the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.”
Clouds sometimes bring rain.
Clouds are often God’s fountain of thirst-quenching water. Matthew 5:45 says, “God causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” While rain has been often turned into a metaphor for something bad in our culture (i.e., remember the old Carpenters song, “Rainy days and Mondays always get me down”). Well, in Biblical times, the view was quite different. Rain was a blessing; something you hoped and prayed for. A cloud was not an ominous sign, but rather a hopeful one. And, rain was no curse; rather it was a sign of God’s blessing and nourishment.
Clouds can be a guide.
When clouds and darkness comes into our lives, it is easy to fear because of the unknown and of what we cannot see. It is important, however, to remember that darkness never clouds the view of God. In fact, he has perfect night vision. So while clouds can make it difficult to see what is ahead, they can also keep us depending upon the only One who always can. God can turn our darkness into light. King David, amidst his own “clouds” said: “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,’ even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.” (Psalm 139:11-12).
Those Unforgettable Questions
Amidst the darkening southern skies on those unforgettable afternoons, my mother’s questions were anything but cloud-y. As we watched the rain pour, they were always clear and penetrating:
“Do you boys know how powerful God is?”
“And, did you know that he sometimes send clouds and rain?”
Since those days, I have found that God still often comes in the clouds. Mark’s gospel, in fact, tells us that his second coming will be in the same way: “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.” (Mark 13:16)
I have also found that the clouds, the rain and the storms still force me back home; not back to South Carolina, but to my faith and to Christ. While clouds can reduce my view of what lies ahead or what surrounds me, they also have a way of brightening my view of God. As I look around in those times there is no one I can see “except Jesus.”
What “clouds” are you currently facing? Are they pushing you away from God or calling you closer to him? While you may find it hard to see what lies ahead, are you finding yourself looking more fully to the One who can? And …
Did you know that the God of the sun and light also often comes in the clouds?