Yesterday and today I wrote devotionals for my wife’s devotional list that drew lessons from the movement of the cloud and fire over the tabernacle in the wilderness. These devotionals are not truly exegetical exercises, but rather draw on the approach I call “listening to the conversation.” The command here is clearly directed to Israel at a specific time and place. There is no direct application. At the same time we can draw lessons by looking at how God deals with people. For this post I’m presenting the scripture once, and then combining the two devotionals.
15On the day that the tabernacle was pitched, the cloud covered it, including the tent of the testimony, and starting in the evening there was the appearance of fire over it until morning. 16So the cloud covered it continually, and the appearance of fire at night. 17Now when the cloud lifted from the tent, the Israelites broke camp, and in the place where the cloud settled down, there the Israelites camped. 18By YHWH’s command the Iraelites broke camp, and by the command of YHWH they made camp. As long as the cloud settled on the tabernacle, they camped. 19If they cloud stayed a long time on the tabernacle, for many days, then the children of Israel maintained kept watch on the service of YHWH, and did not leave. 20If the cloud stayed on the tabernacle for a limited number of days, they would camp at YHWH’s command, and at YHWH’s command they would depart. 21If the cloud stayed from evening until morning, and then lifted, they would break camp in the morning. It was they same if it was a day and a night–when the cloud lifted, they departed. 22If it was two days, or a month, or any number of days, however long the cloud stayed over the tabernacle, the Israelites camped, and did not leave, but when the cloud lifted, they left. 23At YHWH’s command they camped, and at YHWH’s command they broke camp. They observed the service of YHWH at YHWH’s command given by the hand of Moses. — Numbers 9:15-23
Focus on God’s Presence
Most of us have dealt with teenagers at some time on a topic such as homework. Those who know me know that I am not the world’s best disciplinarian. When I was left with the problem of homework, for example, it was a real problem! The initial complaint, normally, would be that I had already given a reminder. I had said it so many times. Inevitably I would then have to ask, “But is the homework done?” And just as inevitably I would discover that it wasn’t!
The long passage I quoted today could be summarized very quickly. There was a cloud that stayed over the tabernacle, though at night it was replaced by something that looked like fire. When the cloud was over the tabernacle, the Israelites camped. When it rose up, they would leave. (You’ll remember that Numbers 2 tells us how the Israelites camped around the tabernacle and even traveled with it buried deep in their marching order.)
I’m not known for being brief, and yet I got the whole message there. I can imagine a reader of this passage thinking, “Enough already! I’ve got it!” But the question is, “Do you?”
Look at what’s missing. The cloud doesn’t announce when it’s time to leave. When it comes to a camp, it doesn’t brief the leadership on the amount of time to be spent there. Nobody could set their organizers for an alarm so they’d know when to get ready to leave. They just had to watch the cloud.
That cloud was the sign of God’s presence. I told you in a previous devotional that I was going to talk more about the presence. The Israelites had to focus on God’s presence all the time in order to know what to do. They had to learn to wait and to follow, to be directed on a constant basis.
Many folks regard God’s presence as a “church thing” or as a religious thing. At a minimum, you’re supposed to set aside earthly things, put on your praise music, or whatever works for you, and get yourself in God’s presence. But we’re not talking churchy stuff. We’re not talking special holy days. We’re talking day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, ordinary, annoying, detailed life.
We’re told that our bodies are God’s temple. With the coming of Jesus we each have that focus of the presence of God, the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit isn’t just interested in making you religious, or publicly spiritual. The Holy Spirit is interested in who you are, in making you the best of whatever you are. Whether you’re headed out onto the field to play sports, going to work to do your ordinary job, writing a devotional like this, or going to church to sing and to worship, look to the cloud and fire of God’s presence in your own life.
Make God’s presence the focus.
Keep Moving with the Cloud
No, I didn’t make a mistake and send you the same scripture twice. Or rather, I did send you the same scripture twice, but it wasn’t by mistake. I want us to think about this again.
I have frequently commented that it’s odd for us to pray for God’s presence in our meetings. Our Christian theology tells us that God is present everywhere. He’s in the downtown bar as well as in your church service. It’s just that very few people are looking for him at the bar, and we hope many people are looking for him in church.
I still pray for God’s presence, but I think of it more as our awareness of it. You can have an extraordinary manifestation, or showing, of God’s presence, but I think even that is usually just an extraordinary opening of our spiritual perception to see God at work.
But there’s another problem with God’s presence in our lives and in our worship service. The question is this: Are you looking in the right direction?
Typically we arrange an event on our schedule, at our favorite place, with our favorite music, our favorite speaker, our favorite chairs, . . . well, you get the idea! Then we pray for God’s presence. Now God can open our eyes, but the question I have for us today is this: Is God supposed to come find us and manifest his presence, or are we supposed to find where God is manifesting his presence and go there. Notice that the Israelites didn’t pitch the tabernacle and then wait for the cloud to show up. They pitched the tabernacle where the cloud had already shown up!
But what is more, when the cloud moved on, they moved on. Many of us are still hanging around at places where God was active in the past. I don’t mean specifically geographical locations, though that may be the problem for some of us. What I’m talking about are spiritual “places” in our experience, the way good things happened to us, and we want the same thing to happen again. Now it’s quite possible for God to give us the comfort of repeating an experience, but it’s not all that common. That’s because God wants us to move forward. God designed us to move forward.
Here are my questions for each of us today: Are you hanging out at a place where you say the cloud and the fire, and hoping it will show up again? Have you decided that you just have to have a repeat of a past experience?
Here’s the scriptural advice: “So let’s leave the basics of Christian teaching behind and move on toward perfection, not laying the foundation again …” — Hebrews 6:1