A rich image and precious words to take to heart!
A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by Andrew McKearney on Ascension Day 2019
Today’s feast of the Ascension is wonderfully rich in symbolism and imagery. It’s from the writings of Luke that the story is told – at the end of his gospel and again at the beginning of the book of Acts. Jesus is ‘lifted up’, a ‘cloud’ takes him out of their sight and he’s ‘carried up into heaven’.
Tonight I want to explore just one of these images – the cloud that the book of Acts refers to:
‘As they were watching, he was lifted up,
and a cloud took him out of their sight.’
What’s the significance of a cloud?
At it’s simplest, the cloud is a means of transport either to get you up to heaven or to bring you down to earth!
In a number of places in scripture the image of a cloud is used to carry people up.
In Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians the living and the dead are caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air (1 Thess. 4.17), and in the book of Revelation the two prophetic witnesses go up to heaven in a cloud (11.12).
Then there are occasions when clouds are used imaginatively to bring people down. Most famously perhaps at his trial when Jesus answers the high priest by quoting from the book of Daniel:
‘You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of
power and coming with the clouds of heaven.’
So clouds mark this transition between earth and heaven, ferrying people too and fro across the divide, and of course also hiding what’s on the other side from view – just as we heard from the book of Acts:
‘…a cloud took Jesus out of their sight.’
A cloud though has another metaphorical meaning in scripture – it signifies the presence of God.
In the book of Exodus this idea is used in the story of God encountering Moses at Mount Sinai. There the Lord says to Moses:
‘I am going to come to you in a dense cloud.’
And God meets Moses on the mountain, with the cloud covering the mountain for six days, and on the seventh God calls to Moses out of the cloud. (24.15-16)
Then when the people of God journey through the wilderness, it’s a pillar of cloud that signifies God’s presence with them, leading them to the Promised Land.
So in the book of Exodus, the cloud is more than a means of transport between heaven and earth – it signifies the divine presence. As of course it does in the gospel story of the transfiguration where a cloud overshadows Jesus and God speaks to Peter, James and John.
This is just a little of the background to that phrase we heard Luke use to describe our Lord’s ascension – that ‘a cloud took Jesus out of their sight’.
Some of you may know the book, ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’. There the image of the cloud is used in a very similar way by the medieval writer to hold together two seemingly contradictory aspects of our experience of God – the certainty of God’s presence and the hiddeness of God! With the dart of longing love being the only way that we can pierce the cloud!
What a rich image! Rooted in scripture, it’s still capable of conveying insights both theological and spiritual. By writing that Jesus is taken into the cloud, Luke assures us that our Lord enters God’s presence, and is no longer limited by time and place!
All this is expressed by Matthew too in the way that his gospel ends – except he doesn’t use any of Luke’s symbolism! The last words of Matthew’s gospel conclude with the risen Christ saying to his disciples:
‘And remember I am with you always, to the end of the
Universal and eternal! On this feast of the Ascension, Matthew and Luke offer us a rich image and precious words to take to heart! Alleluia! Christ is risen.3