Monday, May 16, 2022

Whenever the cloud lifted

Reading Numbers 9 at Morning Prayer today, I felt myself move through a thought process, one that seemed familiar; I think it is a mental road I've trodden many times before.  The story concludes the account of the construction and inauguration of the Tabernacle - an account which has occupied much of the books of Exodus and Leviticus, as well as the beginning of Numbers.  Clearly the Tabernacle is a big deal!  But of course it is: Israel has come out of Egypt to the Mountain of God, and met with God there; but now they are going to move away from the Mountain and journey to their new home - will they also be journeying away from God?  That is a genuine possibility after the Golden Calf incident, until Moses intercedes.  Now God will indeed go up with them, and the Tabernacle is how it is going to happen.

Numbers 9 explains how this works.  The cloud and fire rest over the Tabernacle at the heart of Israel's camp, indicating God's presence with the people.  When the cloud lifts and moves off, the people move with it.  When the cloud stops, the people stop.  "At the Lord's command the Israelites set out, and at the Lord's command they camped."

So my thought process went as follows.  First I thought: wouldn't it be great to have this sort of guidance?  We've just taken a somewhat momentous decision; wouldn't it have been great to have had the equivalent of a cloudy-fiery pillar to direct the way?  I know some Christians who do seem to live a bit like this, seeing sign after sign.  I've no reason to doubt that this is real for them, but it isn't my experience.  I often feel that I have to strike out in one direction or another, without a sure sense that this is right.  The security of a guiding pillar would be very welcome in those anxious moments!

But then I thought: but fundamentally they had to trust God, just as I do.  I bet those Israelites in the desert would have liked one thing that they were never offered: a detailed itinerary of the journey to Canaan.  I wonder if they ever thought that it would be easier to trust God if only he would explain the path ahead, rather than just feeding them piecemeal instruction?  Basically they had to trust that if the cloud wasn't moving it was because they didn't need to move, indeed, must not move; and if it did move, they had to trust that this was the time to pack up the tent and move along.  Sometimes the stops must have seemed interminable - will we ever get there at this speed? - and sometimes the leaving must have been hard - this is a nice oasis, do we really have to start marching again?  But they had to trust.  (The narrative of Numbers shows that they often didn't; just as I often don't.  So there's another similarity).

So the end point on my road was this: it is simply delusional to imagine that if God did things differently I would find it easier to trust him.  God signposts every step with a pillar of cloud?  I want to see the big picture before I'll trust him.  God promises his presence and help and then leaves me to prayerfully make decisions?  I want clear signs.  I think even if the Lord unfolded his whole plan to me - assuming I could understand it, which of course I couldn't, I would still wonder what might be going on behind the scenes.  The problem here is not lack of guidance; the problem is sin.  If we trust him, we can walk with him in uncertainty and doubt, and into darkness; if we don't trust him, whatever signs he shows will not make us trust him.

The question, then, for Israel and for me is very simple.  Is God trustworthy?

And the gospel gives the answer: yes, he is trustworthy, for he has kept every promise he ever made in Jesus.

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