Sermon for Epiphany: Fire and Cloud

Fire and Cloud
Epiphany; January 5, 2020
Exodus 13:17-14:4

At the beginning of the year, first I should talk to you about what we’re doing for worship and preaching, and why. I started preaching the story of the Exodus last fall, then took a break for Advent and Christmas, and now we’re returning to it. The reason is simple: the Exodus is Israel’s story about how they became a people; it’s the story of the formation of the people of God. Isn’t that what we aspire to be? I can’t speak for everyone here, as individuals. There can be all sorts of reasons why people come to the church house. But I dare to presume that, as a group, our deepest wish is to be the people of God. That is particularly important this week, with so much uncertainty about the international situation before us. So the preaching and worship series this year is about the formation of the people of God.

Why this particular story on Epiphany? Why the pillar of fire and the pillar of cloud? Isn’t today supposed to be about the visit of the Magi to Jesus? Well, no. The holiday is called “Epiphany,” which means “manifestation,” or “showing forth.” It’s an ancient holiday among Christians, more ancient than Christmas, and celebrates that God is manifest to us – God is shown to us – in Jesus Christ. Sometimes we read the story of the Magi on Epiphany: God is shown to the nations of the world in the child Jesus. But other stories associated with Epiphany are the Baptism of Jesus, and Jesus changing the water into wine, and the Transfiguration. All of these are stories about the glory of God being shown to the world in Jesus Christ.

In short, what we celebrate today is that whenever we want to see God, to know God, to know more about God, we look to Jesus Christ. As the child told Madeleine L’Engle, “Jesus is God’s show-and-tell.”

So on Epiphany, we celebrate that God is not completely hidden from us, but is available to us. God has revealed Godself to us.

As the Hebrew people were fleeing their slavery in Egypt, God led them. The story says that God led them by a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire at night. So, let’s use our imaginations and think through this. What would that look like for us in 2020? What would it look like for God to lead us in a pillar of fire? What would it look like for God to lead us in a pillar of cloud?

Think of the associations we have when we hear the word “fire,” both positive and negative. Right here, probably the first thing many people think of is the fire we had in the 1970s. Apparently it was arson, so there is the feeling of being attacked and harmed, of being left spiritually homeless. The Worship Committee had to find another place to worship, the people had to be a sort of pilgrim people, not settled in. And the fire has left its mark, in your memories, in our stories, and when we were doing the building renovation we found the old ceiling is still above Fellowship Hall, scorched and burned.

Fire allows us to cook our food, so we can more easily digest it and it is safer to eat. Fire allows us to be warm inside during the winter, and used to be the way we could light our way at night. Orthodox Jews will not turn on a light switch on the Sabbath, because they feel it is equivalent to lighting a fire. So fire means food and warmth and light. It also means danger and homelessness; just ask the people of New South Wales, Australia. When God comes to us in a pillar of fire, expect that it will mean warmth and clarity, but also mean fear and danger.

The pillar of cloud brings three associations to my mind; you probably can think of others. The first is the shekinah, the cloud of the glory of God. Wherever the Lord chooses to be, God is surrounded by a cloud of glory, the cloud of God’s presence. So first I think that when God comes to us in a pillar of cloud, then you and I experience the awe of God’s presence. We try to evoke that awe in our music and worship, to remember that God is not so much “buddy” as high and exalted and wonderful and glorious. When we are faithful in our prayer and worship, then the center of attention is the glory of God.

The second association I have is with a classic of Christian mysticism, The Cloud of Unknowing, which teaches communion with God not by studying God’s qualities, by trying to know more about God, but just the opposite: enter the cloud, the cloud where you know nothing, and experience God by not knowing. I can’t explain it to you; I didn’t really understand it when I read it. But I do think of that. And what it makes me think is that some of you, at least, will be led by God by encountering God in the cloud of unknowing, through your quiet contemplation of God.

And, third, I think of dreams, for some reason – maybe because in our other Scripture for today (Matthew 2:19-23) dreams figure prominently. Joseph has been guided by the Lord in his dreams: first to stick with his plan to be married to Mary, then to flee to Egypt, then to return from Egypt, and finally not to return to Bethlehem but to settle in Nazareth. Even the Magi were told in a dream not to go back to King Herod (Matthew 2:12). Some of you may have dreams that help to shape your experience of God and God’s guidance of you.

We’re not all going to have the same experience of God: some will know God through the fire, some through the cloud, and some by a mixture of both. We celebrate, though, that this fascinating, wonderful God does lead us and does give us glimpses of God. We all are invited to have an experience of God by eating bread and drinking wine, even though that experience will be a little bit different for each of us. The point isn’t what you and I experience: the point is that God is the one who is giving us the experience. The light of God, the danger of God, the glory of God, the presence of God: that is what we look for when we follow the fire and the cloud.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska


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