"Clouds"Dr. Stephen Clyborne Acts 1:6-14 Year A: Seventh Sunday of Easter
The manifesto of the Cloud Appreciation Society states that “We believe that clouds are unjustly maligned.” I bet you didn’t even know there was such an organization as the Cloud Appreciation Society. I didn’t either until I started preparing for this sermon.
Someone has counted that the word “cloud” occurs 107 times in the Bible in ninety-four different verses. I will take their word for it.
The plural form of the word – – “clouds” – – occurs some forty-nine times in forty-nine different verses. And the word “cloudy” is found six times in six verses in the Bible. That gives us 162 references in 149 verses.
And if you think the Bible has a lot of references to clouds, you should check out the hymnal, where there are not only a lot of references to clouds, but a decided bias against clouds.
Think of how the bias against clouds affects how we hear the weather forecast, even if it is only partly cloudy. But in the Bible, clouds do not always carry a negative connotation. For example, the first mention of clouds in the Bible is found in Genesis 9:13, in which God says after the flood, “I set my bow in the cloud, and it will be a token of a covenant between me and the earth.”
Of course, the “bow” here is a reference to the rainbow which appears after the rain or storm clouds. But it is in the verses after that reference that we realize that the rainbow is seen even in the cloud by God. In other words, the rainbow was there all along, but could only be seen by the God who sees and knows everything. Only after the clouds lift, do we sometimes see the rainbow that the LORD always sees – – rain or shine, clear or cloudy.
So as early as the pre-historic stories in the Bible, the clouds symbolically carry the sign of God’s covenant with the earth. In the story of the Exodus, the clouds are the means by which God guides the covenant people toward the land of promise. In the book of Job, we find a pre-scientific explanation of the function of clouds and a poetic statement about the meaning of clouds.
In the New Testament, clouds appear around Jesus at His transfiguration, and Jesus often spoke of His return in reference to the clouds. Here in the book of Acts, Luke tells us that, when Jesus ascended into heaven, “a cloud received Him out of their sight.” And then two angels stood there telling the disciples that Jesus would “come in like manner as they seen Him go” (which means in the clouds), which also explains why Paul wrote in First Thessalonians and John wrote in the book of Revelation that Jesus would return in the clouds.
So from the first book of the Bible to the last, from the beginning to the end, clouds figure prominently in the story of Scripture. And despite our bias against the clouds, many of the references to clouds in the Bible are hopeful and redemptive. So why all the cloud bashing?
Well, if we are honest, we have to admit that the reason many of us have an anti-cloud bias is because clouds keep us from seeing the sun, feeling its warmth, and basking in its glow. And in the passage of Scripture we have read today, Jesus disappears in the clouds. The clouds obscure our vision of Him. The clouds eventually hid Jesus from the disciples who stood there wondering if they would ever see Him again.
At first, Jesus was in plain view, and then their vision of Him was obscured by the clouds. First, they were looking at Jesus; and the next thing you know, they were looking for Him. One moment, they were listening to Jesus telling them that they were going to be His witnesses to the ends of the earth. And then the next thing they knew, they were standing there staring at a bunch of clouds with Jesus nowhere in sight.
And two men in white robes asked the disciples why they were just standing there – – because this same Jesus who dis-appeared in the clouds will re-appear in the clouds.
This all took place forty days after Easter, which is why we call this Sunday Ascension Sunday. It is the Sunday closest to forty days after Easter. It is the day the historical Jesus returned to heaven, leaving His disciples on earth wondering what to do next. It is not that Jesus had not told them what to do next. Just before His ascension, Jesus’ parting words to His disciples were words of mission, actually co-mission: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses, starting right here where you are, everywhere you go, and even to the ends of the earth.”
In other words, even though Jesus was about to ascend into heaven, He would still be present with them in the form of the Holy Spirit, who would empower them to be His witnesses wherever they went. So that must have been part of the reason why, after Jesus disappeared, two men in white robes asked the disciples, “So why are you just standing here, looking into heaven?
This same Jesus will re-appear just as He disappeared. But in the meantime, He has left you with a job, He has entrusted you with His mission, and He will empower you with His Spirit. So why are you just standing here with your heads in the clouds? There is work to be done” (my paraphrase).
And then from that point on, the book of Acts is the story of how the disciples quit standing there and started doing the work they had been entrusted and empowered to do. They were on mission; and from that point on, they would be co-missionaries not just with each other, but also with the risen Christ who, even though He had disappeared in the clouds, would still be with them by the presence and power of His Spirit.
The reason we have such an anti-cloud bias is because the clouds represent those realities in life which obscure our vision of Jesus. We want and need to have a clear, unclouded view of Jesus at all times. And the clouds are what stand in our way. So, over time, the clouds became a metaphor for anything that blocks our awareness and vision of Jesus. And rather than focusing on the refreshing rain that can come from the clouds to water the earth and give new life to it, at the first sight of rain, we immediately curse the clouds and jump to the conclusion that they are storm clouds that will only bring inconvenience and darkness to our lives.
We almost never stop to consider the good that can come from the clouds, but instead focus on the dreadful results of them. When we think of clouds metaphorically, we do not see the rainbow behind the clouds that only God can see. We do not usually think of how God can use the clouds to guide us into freedom.
We do not usually consider where Jesus is behind the clouds. We think of them as storm clouds which are there only to bring disaster and darkness, and destruction. Rather than asking what God sees on the other side of the clouds, we focus on the clouds themselves. We focus on illness and death, divorce and despair, darkness and gloom. We think of heartbreak and disappointment. We think of all the times when our lives were all but destroyed by disaster, all the times when our dreams were shattered by the storms of life.
The clouds symbolize all of that to us, and more. Sometimes we talk not just about storm clouds, but also about clouds of doubt. Clouds cause us to wonder if there is anything or anyone behind them. Clouds often obscure our vision of Jesus, just as they did in the Scripture passage for today. Clouds often cause us to wonder where God is, what God is doing, and if God is even there.
An unknown poet during World War II looked all around for God, and wrote these words on the wall of a cellar in the Cologne concentration camp: “I believe in the sun even when it is not shining.” But the truth is the sun is always shining. It’s just that we cannot always tell that it is.
The story is told of a mother and her young son as they stood at a cemetery in the city of Rio de Janeiro, at the graveside of her husband, the young boy’s father. The mother and son were so very sad as they looked out across the horizon and saw the famous statue of Christ the Redeemer, whose arms were outstretched as if to embrace the world. The little boy was amazed at the size of the statue; and the mother used the occasion as a teachable moment to assure that Jesus would take care of them.
The son seemed to be content with his mother’s assurance and by his view of the statue of Jesus. But the longer they stood there, thick clouds began to move across, eventually obscuring their view of the statue. The young boy was distraught, and asked his mother, “Will Jesus still be there when the clouds are gone?” The mother replied, “Yes. He will.” And He will.
All this reminds talk about the clouds on Ascension Sunday reminds me of what happened on that dark Friday forty-something days earlier. On the day we now call Good Friday, on this side of the clouds, it seemed like there was nothing good about it. As Jesus hung on the cross – – even though it was noon – – there was nothing but darkness over the face of the whole earth. But on the other side of the clouds, God was working, under the cover of darkness, to redeem a fallen creation.
And it was not until the third day, that the sun began to shine again; and to those who have eyes to see, it became clear that, as Chuck Poole has said, “Sometimes God does less than we hope, but God always does more than we know.” (Charles E. Poole, Beyond the Broken Lights: Simple Words at Sacred Edges (Macon, Georgia: Smyth and Helwys Publishing, 2000), 31.)
Storm clouds can cause us to look and long more eagerly for the sun. Clouds of doubt can cause us to be curious about what is on the other side. And on this side of the ascension, we have the promise that the same Jesus who sometimes disappears in the clouds will one day reappear in the clouds when we least expect Him. So, please, no more cloud bashing. Not only does God see and work behind the clouds, but the clouds may actually become God’s cover for the next surprise.
About the writer:
Dr. Stephen Clyborne is senior pastor of Earle Street Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina. A graduate of Furman University, Stephen earned his Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degrees at Erskine Theological Seminary, where he has also served as adjunct professor. He is married to the former Sylvia Davis. He and Sylvia have a blended family of two daughters and a son-in-law, two sons and two daughters-in-law, and seven grandchildren.
Scripture and Music:
1 Peter 4:12-14
Hail the Day That Sees Him Rise
Alleluia! Sing to Jesus
Christ the Lord Is Risen Today
Hail Thee, Festival Day
My Hope Is Built (The Solid Rock)
Hope of the World
Come, Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain
Thine Be the Glory (Handel)
Love Enough to Give (Horman)
O Clap Your Hands (Rutter)
Sing Unto God (Handel)
O Be Joyful (Rutter)
If God Be for Us (Handel from Messiah)
He Is Exalted
He Who Began a Good Work in You