Today is cloudy.
That’s not much of a surprise because I live in Britain, and 80-90% of our days are cloudy – more if you live in the Lake District. Windermere gets around 3.3 metres of rain per year, which is 2 more than the rest of the UK and four times the US average!
Why am I telling you this? Possibly because I’m English and all we ever do is talk about the weather (stereotyped, but not inaccurate), or possibly because there’s a lot we can learn from clouds. There’s a lot I can learn, anyway. Stroll along with me?
This week’s reading contains one of my favourite chortle-verses: 11The priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.
They had to halt the church service because God turned up! Arf arf!
As I look out of the window at the flat, grey, summer sky, I could wish for different: for endless, languid, hot days with lazy lounging and icy drinks; for a sky that looks more like the pictures in holiday brochures; for wall-to-wall blue.
But there are down-sides to a life without clouds. For starters, without its generous supply of rain, the Lake District would be, ummn, the Small Pool at the Lowest Part of the Valley District? The Boggy Swamp District? Not got quite the same ring, you’ll agree.
Clouds are what make our country green and lush. Places with a lot of cloudless sky also have a lot of desert. So, while we may think clouds a nuisance: spoiling our picnics, making us shiver at the beach, and obscuring the stars, they also bring un-looked-for benefits: an overcast sky can prevent sunburn, sunset clouds produce a spectacular light show, and while it is dangerous to look directly at the sun, thick cloud-cover makes it possible.
So what of Solomon and his grand temple-opening ceremony? I can imagine him there, all ready with his red ribbon and comically large scissors, posed for the publicity photo op, and suddenly the priests come streaming out of the temple, coughing and spluttering. “There’s, cough, there’s a, cough, flippin’ great cloud in there! cough, cough Couldn’t see a, cough, bloody* thing!”
*Not swearing, given the nature of temple services.
The cloud of God’s presence had filled with the temple and the service simple could not carry on. The people of Israel knew this cloud. They had met it before: as the pillar of cloud and by day and fire by night when God rescued his people from Egypt; as ‘the glory of the Lord appearing in the cloud’ when he came to hear their grumbling over food; as the cloud that descended on Mount Sinai when God delivered the Ten Commandments; as the cloud of the glory of the Lord which filled the tabernacle and led the people through the desert; as the cloud over the atonement cover when Aaron offered sacrifice for the sins of all.
But now this cloud was ruining Solomon’s dedication of the temple. He had worked so long and hard on this. The temple was Solomon’s offering of worship to God, and now this pesky cloud was spoiling the service, making the priests hack and choke, and generally messing everything up.
Yep, clouds get in the way. They make us change our plans. We have to dive indoors if there’s a downpour. We have to cancel our open-air Shakespeare plays. We might even end up diverting to a different airport because of cloud. Clouds sure are inconvenient.
Same can’t be said of God, of course.
Oh no. God never gets in the way of our nicely-laid-out plans. God never throws a spanner into how we think things should work. God never tootles up with his own ideas, taps us on the shoulder and whispers, “Ummn, maybe not like that. How about like this?”
Pshaw – as if!
1 Kings 8:1-43
English Standard Version Anglicised
Then Solomon assembled the elders of Israel and all the heads of the tribes, the leaders of the fathers’ houses of the people of Israel, before King Solomon in Jerusalem, to bring up the ark of the covenant of the Lord out of the city of David, which is Zion. And all the men of Israel assembled to King Solomon at the feast in the month Ethanim, which is the seventh month. And all the elders of Israel came, and the priests took up the ark. And they brought up the ark of the Lord, the tent of meeting, and all the holy vessels that were in the tent; the priests and the Levites brought them up. And King Solomon and all the congregation of Israel, who had assembled before him, were with him before the ark, sacrificing so many sheep and oxen that they could not be counted or numbered. Then the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the Lord to its place in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the Most Holy Place, underneath the wings of the cherubim. For the cherubim spread out their wings over the place of the ark, so that the cherubim overshadowed the ark and its poles. And the poles were so long that the ends of the poles were seen from the Holy Place before the inner sanctuary; but they could not be seen from outside. And they are there to this day. There was nothing in the ark except the two tablets of stone that Moses put there at Horeb, where the Lord made a covenant with the people of Israel, when they came out of the land of Egypt. And when the priests came out of the Holy Place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.
Then Solomon said, “The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness. I have indeed built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in for ever.” Then the king turned round and blessed all the assembly of Israel, while all the assembly of Israel stood. And he said, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who with his hand has fulfilled what he promised with his mouth to David my father, saying, ‘Since the day that I brought my people Israel out of Egypt, I chose no city out of all the tribes of Israel in which to build a house, that my name might be there. But I chose David to be over my people Israel.’ Now it was in the heart of David my father to build a house for the name of the Lord, the God of Israel. But the Lord said to David my father, ‘Whereas it was in your heart to build a house for my name, you did well that it was in your heart. Nevertheless, you shall not build the house, but your son who shall be born to you shall build the house for my name.’ Now the Lord has fulfilled his promise that he made. For I have risen in the place of David my father, and sit on the throne of Israel, as the Lord promised, and I have built the house for the name of the Lord, the God of Israel. And there I have provided a place for the ark, in which is the covenant of the Lord that he made with our fathers, when he brought them out of the land of Egypt.”
Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the assembly of Israel and spread out his hands towards heaven, and said, “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you, in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and showing steadfast love to your servants who walk before you with all their heart, who have kept with your servant David my father what you declared to him. You spoke with your mouth, and with your hand have fulfilled it this day. Now therefore, O Lord, God of Israel, keep for your servant David my father what you have promised him, saying, ‘You shall not lack a man to sit before me on the throne of Israel, if only your sons pay close attention to their way, to walk before me as you have walked before me.’ Now therefore, O God of Israel, let your word be confirmed, which you have spoken to your servant David my father.
“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built! Yet have regard to the prayer of your servant and to his plea, O Lord my God, listening to the cry and to the prayer that your servant prays before you this day, that your eyes may be open night and day towards this house, the place of which you have said, ‘My name shall be there’, that you may listen to the prayer that your servant offers towards this place. And listen to the plea of your servant and of your people Israel, when they pray towards this place. And listen in heaven your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive.
“If a man sins against his neighbour and is made to take an oath and comes and swears his oath before your altar in this house, then hear in heaven and act and judge your servants, condemning the guilty by bringing his conduct on his own head, and vindicating the righteous by rewarding him according to his righteousness.
“When your people Israel are defeated before the enemy because they have sinned against you, and if they turn again to you and acknowledge your name and pray and plead with you in this house, then hear in heaven and forgive the sin of your people Israel and bring them again to the land that you gave to their fathers.
“When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against you, if they pray towards this place and acknowledge your name and turn from their sin, when you afflict them, then hear in heaven and forgive the sin of your servants, your people Israel, when you teach them the good way in which they should walk, and grant rain upon your land, which you have given to your people as an inheritance.
“If there is famine in the land, if there is pestilence or blight or mildew or locust or caterpillar, if their enemy besieges them in the land at their gates, whatever plague, whatever sickness there is, whatever prayer, whatever plea is made by any man or by all your people Israel, each knowing the affliction of his own heart and stretching out his hands towards this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place and forgive and act and render to each whose heart you know, according to all his ways (for you, you only, know the hearts of all the children of mankind), that they may fear you all the days that they live in the land that you gave to our fathers.
“Likewise, when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a far country for your name’s sake (for they shall hear of your great name and your mighty hand, and of your outstretched arm), when he comes and prays towards this house, hear in heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and that they may know that this house that I have built is called by your name.
English Standard Version Anglicised
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.