While he thus spake, there came a cloud, and overshadowed
them: and they feared as they entered into the cloud. And there came a voice out of the cloud, saying, This is my beloved Son: hear him.
(St. Luke ix. 34, 35)
We begin our sermon today with words taken from the lection for the Feast of the Transfiguration, which the Church celebrates tomorrow. Transfiguration means a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state. (Google Dictionary) With regard to its Scriptural reference, it records Jesus’ transformation before the eyes of Saints James, John, and Peter who, having been asleep, awaken to the mysterious vision of their transfigured Master. And as Jesus prayed, the fashion of his countenance was altered, and his raiment was white and glistering. And, behold, there talked with him two men, which were Moses and Elias: Who appeared in glory, and spake of his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem. (St. Luke ix. 29-31) Once Moses and Elijah disappear, St. Peter is so overwhelmed that he rashly suggests that they preserve or mummify Jesus. But Peter is soon silenced, and with the others, enters with Jesus into the cloud. This is my beloved Son, hear him. (St. Luke ix. 33)
Entering into the cloud, or finding oneself underneath the meaning that it implies, fits nicely with today’s lections for Trinity IX. Clouds provide an image familiar to the ancient mind. In ancient Egyptian literature the cloud was a symbol of fertility, obviously foretelling the coming rains. In ancient Jewish literature the cloud symbolized God’s guidance and presence to the people of Israel. The Lord appeared in a pillar of cloud and forsook them not. (Neh. ix. 19) In ancient Greek writings Zeus, the king of the gods, is called the cloud-gatherer. The image precipitates the thunder-bolts either of divine displeasure, wrath, or the reminder of Divine power and wisdom that can render senseless the cogitations of mere mortal men. Later in Greek history, the poet and playwright Aristophanes’ use clouds to image the muddled mindset of his intellectual adversaries, like Socrates whose philosophy, he maintained, led men into (what he called in his play the Birds) cloud cuckoo land, a utopian republic which existed only in the skies. Thus the image of clouds was familiar and instructive to a host of cultures whose understanding of it yielded differing spiritual meanings.
St. Paul’s use of the cloud in this morning’s Epistle relies heavily upon the positive and instructive sense that came to him through its history in ancient Israel. He speaks to the young church at Corinth which is in as much in danger of forgetting the Divine guidance and presence that the cloud signifies, as their ancient Jewish fathers had been. Brethren, I would not that ye should be ignorant, how that all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; And were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; And did all eat the same spiritual meat; And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ. (1 Cor. i. 1-4) The cloud that guided and led the ancient Jews out of bondage and slavery to the Egyptians was God’s Word, which nourished and fed them as they moved forward in time towards ultimate spiritual liberty. That Word, though they knew it not by name or person, was Christ. The cloud, then, symbolized God’s Word of protection and defense, guidance and direction, power and might, wisdom and truth. But no sooner were the Jews delivered and saved from the hands of their enemies, than their faith had failed them. Their memories were dimmed; their knowledge was clouded. So with many of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness…for the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play. (1 Cor. i. 5, 7) They might have taken a page out of their Egyptian neighbors’ book, and recalled that the cloud promised spiritual fertility. They could even have culled deep truth from the Greek teaching that God was the cloud-gatherer whose thunderbolts were sent to punish and correct arrogant men. But instead they became idolaters. And St. Paul tells us that their record is documented for our spiritual education, that we might learn not to lust after evil things, as they also lusted, nor commit fornication, as some of them committed, and fell in one day three and twenty thousand, nor tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed of serpents (1 Cor. i. 6,8,9), and so forth. The point is this: the ancient Jews and St. Paul’s Corinthian hearers were privileged to partake of the spiritual blessings that the glory of the Lord visited upon them. Through the cloud God’s spiritual blessing was conferred upon the ancient Jews. Through the flesh of Jesus Christ the same blessing revealed surer and nearer salvation to St. Paul’s Corinthian converts. The glory is one thing; man’s memory and use of it is quite another. Man is called into glory; and man is summoned to prove and measure his vocation in accord with it.
St. Paul teaches his Corinthian converts and us that the ancient Jews’ forgetfulness of God’s guidance and power, as signified in the cloud, reveals a real failure in faith. There was nothing clouded, vague, imperceptible, or unclear about what the cloud meant for the children of Israel. Faith generated real knowledge that it both baptized and fed them spiritually. It should have carried them further on in their spiritual journey for lasting communion with God. But it did not, and only because they forsook the Giver and the nature of the gift. They forgot about what God had done for them. The people sat down to eat and drink…(1 Corinthians x. 7) Their faith stopped journeying after God in spirit and in truth. St. Thomas tells us this about the nature of faith and the movement of its desire:
In the knowledge of faith, man’s desire [should neither] repose nor rest:
faith is an imperfect knowledge; we believe what we do not see at present;
hence the Apostle says that it is the evidence of things unseen. Thus when one
possesses faith there remains in the soul a movement towards something else:
namely, to see perfectly the truth which he believes and to pursue whatever may
bring him into contact with this truth.
Faith is generated under the cloud of God’s glory and blessing. It must keep journeying and searching if it is to come to the knowledge and love of God. God communicates to man, guides and leads him through the cloud on to his destiny. The soul is made to move toward something else, beyond earthly life, beyond even the clouds. The ancient Jews forgot that they were being liberated and freed, that they were being moved beyond the confines and limitations of earthly existence towards God’s kingdom. They forgot the Mover and the movement. They forgot the Giver and the gift. In fact they took the gift and ran with it. They rose up to play! (1 Corinthians x. 10) Like the prodigal son in this morning’s Gospel, they squandered the gift and forgot the undeserved generosity of the Giver.
St. Paul tells his Corinthian friends and us this morning that the fate that befell the ancient Jews is a real danger for us also. Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall. (1 Cor. x. 12) We are called to remember and receive the glory and blessing of the Lord as the loving power that desires to carry us to his kingdom. To be sure, we shall be tempted to worship our own earthly desires and even the things of this earth. But, as St. Paul says, There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it. (1 Cor. x. 13) The way of escape is memory. With the infant Church we remember not only the history of the Jewish people, but the record of God’s loving kindness in the Incarnation of his Word, Jesus Christ. Another cloud hovers over us, promising to lead us on. There is the cloud of Transfiguration, and we hear the words of the Father: This is my Son, hear him. There is the cloud of the Ascension and we hear: ‘You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.’ Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. (Acts i. 8, 9) Into the cloud and from the cloud Christ calls us on. This is the cloud that mediates God’s desire for us. This is the cloud that elicits our response to him as faith seeks his kingdom.
If we desire to be cured of our clouded vision, if we long to be freed from the cloud cuckoo land that surrounds us, let us ask the Lord to give a renewed sense of his guidance and presence. Let us remember his mercy and thankfully receive his wisdom. Let us pray for the spirit to think and do always such things as be rightful; that we, who cannot do anything that is good without God, may by him be enabled to live according to his will. (Collect: Trinity IX) If our lives have been characterized more by forgetfulness of God, a desire to eat and drink and to rise up to play, a passion to waste God’s gifts on riotous living and prodigality, let us return to our Father and say, Father I have sinned against heaven and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called they son. Make me as one of thy hired servants. (St. Luke xv. 18, 19) If all we desire is to be one of God’s hired servants, the last and even the least, then the cloud will be lifted and the light will shine, our faith will grow, our passion will increase and we shall know even as we are known. (1 Cor. xiii. 12) Amen.
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St. Michael and All Angels Sermons