I'm back from my holiday in Scotland with a cold. This is because I didn't take enough notice of the clouds. (I was caught in a thunderstorm on the way to the bar...)
This sermon is about taking notice of the clouds. What's in a cloud? Who's in a cloud? What's the cloud saying?
The Transfiguration of Jesus - amazing event which proved to Peter, James and John that not only was Jesus a great human teacher and leader - but also that he was divine.
It was the way that Jesus changed physically that showed them this - his face changed, and his clothes were dazzling white, he shone brighter than the sun.
Jesus was on the mountain clearly talking with two of Israel's greatest leaders, Moses and Elijah, representatives of God in glory -that, again, demonstrated the Jesus' glory to the astonished disciples.
But more than anything else, it was the cloud - the cloud which came down and wrapped around them, frightening them as any mountain walker gets frightened when they get lost in clouds, but frightening them even more because there was something in the cloud - a voice - and what the voice said to them.
- Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons ev'rywhere
I've looked at clouds that way
But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on ev'ryone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in the way
One cloud that has hung over us for past 55 years: nuclear cloud of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Hiroshima Day - 8.15 Aug 6, 1945, utterly destroying or 4 square miles of the city, badly damaging a further nine sq. miles; injuring 72,000 people and eventually killing 200,000 people.
Nagasaki 9 August - with similar impact. 39,000 people died immediately and 25,000 were injured.
Today we continue to try to discern what that nuclear cloud did to us, said to us, says to us as our nations continue to invest heavily in nuclear armaments. At Faslane naval base near Glasgow, today, peace campaigners will bring attention again to the Trident submarines based there, £10 billion- worth of bombs capable of causing 36 times more damage than that done to Hiroshima / Nagasaki.
Another cloud has made its way quietly through history - a very different cloud - the cloud of God.
- - a cloud which led God's people on their exodus from Egypt;
- a cloud which showed them the glory of God in the desert before he sent down bread from heaven to demonstrate that he was their God;
- a cloud which covered mount Sinai, the place where Moses and the people met with God;
Maybe that very same cloud followed Jesus - at his baptism, where heaven opened, the spirit descended on him like a dove and the voice of God came down, saying, 'This is my son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.', and again at his Transfiguration, on a mountaintop not unlike / not far from Sinai, where after the disciples saw Jesus in a new light brighter than the sun, after they heard the conversation with Moses and Elijah about what he was about to do in Jerusalem, they were all swallowed up in a cloud - the cloud of God, and the voice of God spoke again about his son, confirmed him as the glorious one, the one to listen to, the one to believe, the one to follow.
- We have been eyewitnesses of his majesty, wrote Peter later. For he received honour and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, 'This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.' We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.
The answer is in the words that came from the cloud, and how they impact now.
This made sense to to Takashi Nagai, a university doctor among the thousands injured by the bomb at Nagasaki in 1945.
He was in his room at the Medical School of Nagasaki University when the bomb exploded 500 meters over the sky, when a flash of light came, brighter and more burning than the sun, when a thick white cloud mushroomed in the sky above the city followed by a blast so brutal that it instantly cleared everything away from the centre of the city: buildings, streetcars, trees, animals, people.
The blast swept Dr. Nagai into the air and buried him beneath a heap of rubble and broken glass, where he lay, stunned for some time, as the sky turned black and fires broke out all around him, before struggling free.
Dr Nagai escaped, his head bleeding profusely from a split artery, he found that 80 per cent of his colleagues and students were dead, his university was in ruins and about to be consumed by fire.
But with those few colleagues who survived, Dr Nagai immediately began working to relieve the wounded and dying all around them.
It was a work which he did because of a strong sense of his vocation as a medical scholar. He did it because he knew he had the skills to be an effective rescue worker. While other injured people sat and waited for help or death, he carried on at grave risk to his own health - though colleagues fixed his head wound to keep him alive in the hours after the bomb, by the end of September 1945 he was again on the brink of death, exhausted.
He did all this, perhaps most of all, because, astonishingly, he saw God in that cloud.
Before his death from leukemia in 1951 Takashi Nagai wrote an account of his experiences of living through the aftermath of that nuclear cloud. It's a traumatic book to read because it describes the terrible events graphically; he writes about the people's suffering with a doctor's attention to detail. But, oddly, it's a book of hope. It's called The Bells of Nagasaki because the cathedral bells kept ringing after virtually every other building had been destroyed on the day of the bomb, and the burned-out cathedral was one of the first buildings to be reconstructed, a sign of resurrection.
Nagai felt that God had somehow sent the nuclear cloud; as a judgment on war, as an end to war.
He saw the suffering which the nuclear cloud caused as an invitation to share in the sufferings of Christ.
The cross which Christ bore brought resurrection. Nagai felt that the cross borne by the people of Nagasaki , himself, his people, had the same value:
- It will not be easy to construct a new Japan on the ruins of the old Japan we loved. But we will get inspiration, says Nagai, from the example of one who sweated blood and carried his cross to Calvary. As his cross had value, ours has value too. And so our story of the bomb is one of triumph. It is a story of resurrection in the very moment of crucifixion. It is a story of chiming bells that announce good news as they peal across the atomic waste.
So the cloud above the mountains of Nagasaki spoke of that same glory, experienced through such great suffering.
Nagai's translator William Johnson wrote that
- In the postwar years Nagai became a symbol of strength and optimism, a central figure in the spiritual and moral reconstruction of Japan. He was partly responsible for the deeply rooted idea that the Japanese, the first and only people to have suffered the atomic holocaust, have a vocation and mission to abolish war, especially nuclear war, from the face of the earth. (The Bells of Nagasaki, p.xx)
It came because Nagai believed in what the voice of God said so clearly on that mount of transfiguration centuries earlier: that Jesus is God's son and should be followed, through all his sufferings to share in all his glory.
The disciples who witnessed Jesus' transfiguration saw this, heard this and followed; and the church was born out of their work and witness; the church, a sign of God's hope and God's glory.
So God invites the church today to look out for him in the clouds that surround us, the clouds of confusion and weakness and faithlessness and apathy; in our prayers we can listen for God's voice speaking to us, speaking that voice which will tell us again where our hope is, where God's glory is, which will point us again to the powerful, divine figure of Jesus Christ.