The Cloud of Unknowing

Text of the sermon preached on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany (February 7, 2016) by the Rev. Katie Hargis at St. Cornelius’ Episcopal Church in Dodge City, KS.

Exodus 34:29-35
Psalm 99
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-36

When I began preparing for giving the sermon this week, I read through the scripture and wondered why this particular text is contained in the Bible. If this text were missing, what would the people of Christ miss? The transfiguration of Jesus is both mystifying and mysterious. The Gospel lesson from today is a story of a mystical encounter, not just between God and God’s beloved son, but also between those at the center of the story and those who are just watching. Of course we are the ones on the outside watching Jesus, Moses, Elijah, Peter, James, and John, and many of us are laboring under the illusion that it is our job to try to figure out what this story means.

I’m really not quite sure where we get the idea that it is our job to figure out what the story means, but it seems to be a way that dominates how many of use read the Bible. If we are give a passage of scripture, we put on our thinking caps, do our best to read between the lines , and come up with the encoded message that we think God, or Jesus, or

decoder ring

Make sure to use your decoder ring!

the writer has hidden in the passage for us to find. The story itself is like a backpack, briefcase, or purse, carrying around the message waiting for us to discern it. And once that meaning has been discerned, we can take it out of our bag and we don’t have to go rummaging around every time we need it, looking inside trying to find it when the story comes up. Instead, we pull the meaning out of it and place it on a shelf where we can find it the next time we need it.

In the case of today’s gospel lesson, one of the most common decoded messages we hear, is that Moses stands for the Law, Elijah stands for the prophets, and Jesus, of course, is the Messiah. When Jesus gets singled out as “my Son, my Chosen,” God seems to be setting the gospel over the law and the prophets. The voice from the cloud commands that we should “listen to him.” Which you can get two messages out of this as well — one about how it is better to keep your mouth shut in the presence of all things holy, than it is to blurt out somewhat ridiculous things like Peter does and the other about the purpose of the message is of mountain top experiences being there to strengthen us for the climb back down into the valley of the shadow of death, where our real work remains to be done.

Now, I’m pretty new at this and for all I know, these are exactly the messages that Jesus or God meant for us to get from the story. But it’s important to note that the passage doesn’t exclusively come out and say those things. It instead describes something that is way beyond the ordinary human experience that I believe most of us are perfectly content to watch from at least this far away. Although, sometimes when a storm rolls in and we hear that boom of thunder, I do begin to wonder if we are about to have one of these “mountain top” experiences.

Now, I want you to close your eyes and imagine what it is like to climb to the top of a mountain on a long winding trail as the light fades away from the day, hunting for a good place to pray. And you shut your eyes so hard that it feels like you have light leaking in between your eyelids. You open them slightly and there he is. Someone you thought you knew extremely well, pulsing with light, leaking it from everywhere. His face is like a flame, his clothes dazzling white. Then out of nowhere two other people appear beside him. It can’t be, but it is. Moses and Elijah. Dead men that have come back to life. God’s own glory, lighting up the night. Now they’re gone and peter is saying something about tents. A cloud rolls in, faster than anything you’ve ever seen. It can’t be a storm. Covering everything up like a midwinter fog. A voice rises from the clouds, causing all of the hair to stand up on the back of your neck. And a voice is saying “listen to him. The Son, my Chosen.” And just like it began, it’s all over in an instant.

You can open your eyes again.

Imagine if anything remotely close to this were to ever happen to you. Now you know why Peter, James, and John were relieved when Jesus told them to keep what had happened to themselves. An incredible light like you’ve never seen before. Famous people come back from the dead. God talking to you from inside a cloud. We see and hear stories like this in the Bible, but try talking about them now and someone’s going to give you the name of a good psychiatrist and wonder about the state of your mind. If you want to say anything at all, you’re better off sticking with what the Bible commentaries tell us to say. Something about Jesus surpassing the law and the prophets, poke some fun at Peter for wanting to set up tents, and then just bury the rest of the story. It could have been God, but maybe it


You might need this for that indigestion.

was a little indigestion from last nights Mexican food.

A lot of us have had that one experience where something knocks us for the loop, blows all of our circuits, and calls all of our old certainties into question. And it’s a good thing to have these old certainties called into question. In fact, when we read our baptismal covenant as Episcopalians, we promise with God’s help to “persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever we fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.” Which to me sounds like leading this life in Christ means trading in our old certainties for new ones.

Once we emerge from the cloud, we are supposed to have no doubts about what we believe. We are supposed to know who’s who, what’s what, and where we are going in our life and why. We are supposed to have all of the answers to the important questions, and when we read the Bible we are supposed to know what it means. We have our Christian decoder ring, now use it!

But what if the point of this story is not to decode the cloud, but to enter into it? What if the Bible is less a book of certainties and more a book of encounters? In which an incredibly long parade of people run into God, each other, life — and are never the same again? I mean, what don’t people run into in the Bible? Not just terrifying clouds and hair-raising voices, but also crazy relatives, persistent infertility, armed enemies, and deep depression, along with life-saving strangers, miraculous children, food in the wilderness, and knee-wobbling love.

Whether such biblical encounters come to us disguised as “good” or “bad,” they have a way of breaking biblical people open, of rearranging what they think they know so that there is room for more divine movement in their lives. Sometimes the movement involves changing their angle on what is true and why, or moving from one place to another, or even it can involve the most invisible movement of one heart towards another. Certainties can and do become casualties in these encounters, or at least the certainties that involve clinging to static notions of who’s who, what’s what, where you are going in your life and why. Those things can shift pretty dramatically inside the cloud of unknowing, where faith has more to do with staying fully present to what is happening right in front of you, than with being certain of what it all means.

The meeting — That’s the big thing.

When Jesus lit up right in front of Peter, he knew what he was seeing. The Bible calls it “God’s glory” — the shining cloud that is a sure sign of God’s capital “P” Presence. In the Book of Exodus, when Moses climbed up Mount Sinai to fetch the tablets of the law, the whole mountain top stayed covered in divine cloud cover for six whole days. In 1 Kings, when Solomon dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem, a dense cloud filled up that huge place so that the priests could not even see what they were supposed to be doing. When Ezekiel had his vision of the four living creatures, he saw them in the middle of “a great cloud with brightness around it and fire flashing forth continually.”

Mosy-beautiful-cloudsApparently thats what God’s glory looks like: a bright cloud — dark and dazzling — an envelope for the Divine Presence that would blow people away if they looked upon it directly — and so God in God’s mercy placed a cloud buffer around it, which both protected the people and made it difficult for them to see inside.

Before this cloud ever rolled in, Peter already knew what he was seeing. What he did not see was a tent of meeting, a dwelling place, like the place where Moses met with God during the wilderness years. So Peter offered to set one up, one for each of the great ones who appeared in glory before him. Peter may not have known what he was saying, but his instincts were good. He knew that he was in the presence of the capital “P” Presence. He knew that God was right there, and he was standing as close as he was ever going to get to the only kind of meeting that really matters.

For those of you who keep the Christian calendar up along with the one that tells us today is Sunday, February 7th, you already know that it’s the swing Sunday between the seasons of Epiphany and Lent — the day those who follow Jesus look down at our iPhone’s GPS and say “uh-oh,” because it is time to turn away from the twinkling stars of Christmas, pack away all of our alleluias, and head towards the deep wilderness of Lent. And as gloomy as turning to Lent sounds, it’s actually very good news. A lot of us get so distracted by our gadgets, so busy with work, and so addicted to our pleasures that a nice, long spell in the wilderness is just what we need. Now, no one can make you go, after all. But if you’ve been looking for some excuse to head to your own mountaintop and pray, THIS. IS. IT.

If you’ve been looking for some way to trade in your old certainties for some new movement in your life, then look no further. This is your chance to enter the cloud of unknowing and listen for whatever it is that God has to say to you. Tent or no tent, this is your chance to encounter God’s contagious glory, so that a little of that shining rubs off on you.

Today you have heard a story that you can take with you when you leave here. It tells you that no one has to go up the mountain alone. We’ll all be along for the ride with you. It tells you that sometimes things get really scary before they get holy. But most importantly, it tells you that there is someone standing in the center of the cloud with you, shining so brightly that you may never be able to wrap your mind around him, but who is worth listening to all the same — because HE is God’s chosen, and YOU are his, and whatever comes next, YOU are up to it.


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