Introduction to the Readings
My family and I are living in between two calls. Our church will be in between two pastors. We live so much of our lives in between.
Some of you are living in between your old job and your new job, in between the way life used to be and because of a loss, the way things are going to have to be, in between the good health you enjoyed and the health you long for, in between the heartache of a wayward child’s past mistakes and unfulfilled prayers for her better future; in between the broken promises of a friend and the hope of restoration, the memories of a loved one and the hope of resurrection.
Advent is an in between time. We are in between Eden and the New Heaven and the New Earth. We are in between Christmas and the Second Coming. And sometimes it can get cloudy. It is hard to see through these times. It can be hard to focus. But there are lessons in the clouds. Behind every cloud there may not be a silver lining but in the Word of God there are living lessons.
Let us give attention to the reading of the inerrant and infallible Word of God.
From the Old Testament: Genesis 9.12-15
And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: Genesis 9.12 I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 13 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 14 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 15
From Acts and Revelation
So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Acts 1.6
He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. Acts 1.7
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1.8
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. Acts 1.9
Behold, he is coming 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. Even so. Amen. Revelation 1.7
From the Gospel (Let us stand for the Reading of the Gospel of Jesus Christ):
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. Luke 2.8 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. 9 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. 10 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 11 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 12 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 13
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”* 14
Introduction to the Sermon
Joni Mitchell sang of clouds:
“Rows and floes of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons ev’rywhere
I’ve looked at clouds that way
But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on ev’ryone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
Its cloud illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all.”
I guess Joni Mitchell was meaning that life is like clouds. Sometimes the same things that bring joy can bring sorrow. Maybe. I may not be able to figure out Joni Mitchell’s metaphoric meaning, but I can understand her fascination with clouds. I loved them as a child, as I lay upon my back on the warm ground and looked up to watch them moving across the sky. And one of my favorite artists is the English landscape master of clouds, John Constable. He too must have had a fascination with clouds. For in his paintings clouds form a dramatic constant, every present symbols of life in all of its fullness and depth and change.
In the in between time of life, when God had made His promise to mankind about a Redeemer in Genesis 3.15 and the moment when angels sang “Gloria” the clouds too formed a constant reminder that God was up to something.
For behind every cloud in Scripture, there is…a golden lining of the story of Christ and His Gospel. In the OT God gave a covenant in the clouds; angels sang of His birth in the sky, if not the clouds; Jesus ascended into a cloud in the sky; and he shall return with the clouds.
The clouds thus tell the story of Advent.
From the clouds, in Scripture, we learn that…
I. Advent is a promise made (Gen. 9.12-15)
The world lay in post diluvium devastation when God gave his sign and he placed a rainbow in the clouds. That sign of God’s salvation to Noah, that he would not destroy the earth again by floodwaters has meaning for us today.
I read this week about someone who had very little understanding of the Bible, but who looked into the sky one night when all of the stars were out and said “the universe is up to something.” Well, when we look into the sky and see a rainbow in the clouds we need to remember that God is up to something in the universe. And what He is up to is called redemption. For there was a Creation. There was a Fall. And there is now at work in the universe redemption.
Thomas Hobbes could not find any hopeful words about life, calling it “nasty, brutish and short.” Hobbes would remind us that nature also bestows disease, floods, schizophrenia, and death. He certainly would have liked that anonymous line, “Nature is out to kill us!”
But Hobbes could not sing, “This is My Father’s World.” Hobbes could not sing, “Joy to the World.” Without Jesus Christ in your life my beloved you cannot see redemption at work. You are left, Hobbes-like, to grieve forever over the injustices of life. You see only Fall. New life is but a myth.
It is important how you look at clouds, says Joni Mitchell and she is right. For he did not see redemption at work. He looked at the rainbow but not in the right
For when I see the rainbow in the clouds I remember redemptive history: that God was up to something in the world. God made promises. When I see that rainbow in the clouds I am reminded that Jesus is the promise fulfilled. I know this because St. Paul taught us that all of the promises of God are yes and amen in Jesus. He is the fulfillment of all of the covenant promises of God.
In this in between time of Advent we must hold fast to the promise of God that God’s judgment has been placed on His Son. We are free to thus begin again in our world. And the world itself is destined for beautiful renewal. All of creation is groaning for that time, Paul says in Romans 8. And Advent says that a promise has been made. The rainbow in the clouds is a promise made.
And that leads me to a second thought about Advent and clouds:
II. Advent is a promise kept (Luke 2.8-14)
Luke does not tell us a lot about what happened in the fields outside of Bethlehem at the time of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. But we know it had something to do, if not with clouds, then with the sky. For in Luke 2.13 we are told about a “heavenly host.”
Thus the sky if not once more the clouds, remind us that once heavenly beings filled the sky over a tiny Middle Eastern village and sang of a promise kept.
Jesus is the promise kept. He is the answer to every covenant of God. On Him God laid your sins if you will trust in Him. On you God imputed Christ’s righteousness if you will but receive Him. There are no charges laid against you any more. Your sins are removed. You are free. You are forgiven. And the broken pieces of your life are being put together again into a new mosaic by the providential, miracle working hands of God himself. And that is enough to make us sing.
III. Advent is a life to be lived (Acts 1.6-9)
The promise was made. Redemption was underway. And in Jesus the promise was kept. But the promise was then given to us. And when Jesus physically departed, he left in a cloud that took him away.
When we see the clouds in the sky let us also remember in the life of Jesus that we are commanded not to peer into speculative things. Christianity must not become a philosophy. After all that had happened, the disciples were still looking for a physical kingdom to come, even a political one. But Jesus said it was not for them to know.
Advent is an in between time. But when I see the clouds and I read this text, I am reminded that Jesus is calling me to steer clear of speculating about things hidden, and focusing my life on announcing things revealed. Advent is a life to be lived.
I come out of a pretty neat system called the United States military. I had once even held a Top Secret clearance in the Navy. But my clearance was given in order that I could do my work in one particular area. Once I presumed upon my clearance to inquire about something in another part of the world. I was told that I did not have a need to know. I was given enough information to conduct my work in my area. The Navy will tell you if you need to know something else.
This word came to the disciples every bit as plain. They did not have a need to know about such things. And we don’t. Let us not seek to peer into things, which Christ has said has no answers for us. Churches divide and Christians separate. To be sure God has said some things. And we should not use these words to back away from what is given. But where there is mystery, leave it alone. When you stand on the shoulders of the giants, of Luther or Calvin or Wesley or Edwards, you will hear them carefully focusing their flock upon the main points of the Gospel.
Some have wondered why I have chosen to speak so little of eschatological issues when there seemed to be a desire to hear more. And the reason is, I am told that Christ came. He is coming again. And in this in between time I am not to be looking into the mystery of what might be, but into the masses of human beings who are without Jesus Christ. My job, our job, given by Jesus, is to get the Gospel out to the ends of the earth.
Thus when I look up, in Advent, to see clouds in the December sky, I am reminded that there is yet work to do in this in between time.
Now what I have just said may seem to be in conflict with what I am about to read and say. But it is not.
Let us read Revelation 1.7:
“Behold, he is coming 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. Even so. Amen” (Revelation 1.7 ESV).
This reminds us:
IV. Advent is a future not to be missed (Rev. 1.7)
In the clouds we are reminded that God is up to something and that something is redemption; Advent is a promise made.
In the clouds we are reminded that the angels sang over the coming of Jesus and what that meant for liberating a world in darkness. Advent is a promise kept.
In the clouds we are reminded that our task is not to speculate about things hidden, but to proclaim the Word revealed. Advent is a life to be lived.
But in this passage, we are clearly told that Jesus will return with the clouds. It will not be secret. In fact every eye will see him, even those who pierced him. All of the tribes, all of the people groups of earth, will weep on account of him. In other words, the Lamb is coming again as a Lion. His first advent was made in obscurity. His second advent will happened in spectacular unfinished glory. His first advent led him to a family in Nazareth. His second Advent will be with the heavenly hosts, with the saints who have gone before, with resurrected bodies flying through the sky to be gathered in that scene, and with those who are alive at that time caught up to be with him. His family will be universal and will fill the sky. In his first advent he rode into a physical city called Jerusalem on a donkey. In his second advent He rides on a steed on the dramatic Constable sky and he brings in a New Jerusalem that will never go away and which will be for all people. In his first Advent he left a work to be done, a kingdom that would come through the hearts of humble spirits, but in His second Advent he will harvest what has been sown. When He comes in the clouds again it will be to complete his work. And the kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdoms of God and of His Christ. And every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. And those who rejected him or ignored him will be removed from His sight. The babe of Bethlehem will be the King of the Universe. And the Son will present the kingdom to His Father that God might become all in all.
And the most important question of all is simply this:
What will you do in the mean time?
Christian what will you do? Will you obediently trust in this kingdom to come and banish fear and worry? For he has placed his bow in the clouds. Will you join with humble shepherds in the choral song of joy over the coming of Jesus? Or will you treat life as if Christ had never come? Will you gaze into the clouds and ignore the clear teaching of Jesus and be seduced by the eschatological intrigue which can never bring unity much less clarity, or will you give your life to reach the peoples of the earth with the news that God has come and His name is Jesus? Will you embrace mystery as a part of the Gospel? Will you trust God with His own future and rather focus on getting Christ to the world? And will you live in this in between time as if there is no tomorrow? As if there is no judgment? As if he will never come again? Or will your today be shaped in purity and obedience by the certainty of his coming again?
What will you do in the mean time?
One thing to do is to receive Him into your heart by faith today. Another thing to do is to look at the presenting clouds of life and see that behind every cloud there is the story of God’s grace,
Don’t forget the clouds. For behind every cloud…there is a story of God’s love in redeeming your life through His Son Jesus Christ.