After the long, drawn out process of escaping from Egypt, Moses found himself on the far side of the Red Sea facing a sea of refugees, accompanied by a huge number of sheep and goats. They must have looked really odd: undernourished, unwashed, weary and apprehensive, but dressed in ill-fitting designer clothes and wearing expensive jewellery. As they had hastily left, their Egyptian neighbours had loaded them with silver, gold and garments. These escapees were now looking at Moses with a “What happens now?” expression.
Moses instructed them them that they would all now be led by a Cloud. It would be a tall, vertical cloud over the camp during daylight and a column of fire after dark. They were to follow the movements of this Cloud and only move when the cloud moved; they could only stop when the Cloud stopped. The Cloud was the visible evidence of the presence of God. The Cloud became a feature of their everyday life. If the Cloud began to move, the whole camp leapt into action; dismantling tents, putting out cooking fires, rounding up the kids. If the Cloud moved for a couple of hours and stopped again, everyone had to stop walking and begin the whole process all over again: erecting tents, lighting the fire, laying out the beds. If the column of fire moved in the night someone had to wake up the sleeping multitude; the beds were rolled up, children dressed, animals gathered, and off we go again.
This is a great metaphor for us who try to order our churches around the leading of the Presence of God. Bill Johnson says that for generations people gathered around a sermon, but now people are learning to gather around the Presence of God.
We read in Deuteronomy that during that time God protected the people from sickness. Their feet never became sore or grew blisters, their shoes did not wear out, nor did their clothes. I guess that meant they stayed in fashion too. He fed them with bread from heaven, water from a rock and quail when they fancied some. They did bring flocks and herds with them from Egypt, so they presumably ate these too. The point was, that when they were in the desert, being led by the cloud and Moses, life was pretty good. That is, if you like camping.
But, there is something else about the Cloud.
Every day, Moses; the man who knew God as a friend, face to face; headed into the special tent of meeting to speak with God. We read that Joshua went in with him. Moses hung out with God: we have no idea what went on in those times, but we do know that Joshua lingered there after Moses left. The campers noticed the Cloud over the Tent of Meeting and stood in the doorways of their tents and worshipped God as families.
Here’s the thing:
The nation of Israel diligently followed the Cloud. The Cloud was God saying “I’m here,” or “I’m moving—time for you to move too!” Their lives were governed by the Cloud. Their lives were protected and blessed by the Cloud. But when Moses, the friend of God went to pray the Cloud moved in response to him. That is mind blowing! This is God, moving in response to a human being. Moses entered the tent, God’s presence came and the whole nation worshipped.
God is omnipresent. But he can come. He is everywhere, presumably moving all the time, and then he moves. It is awesome when he moves in response to our prayers. If we want to be theologically pedantic, we could say that he moved us to pray for something he had already set in motion; nonetheless, we see a beautiful dynamic relationship between God and the people he loves.
Moses’ friendship with God served to open heaven to the community of refugees camping in the desert. His pursuit of God was initiated by God and then mirrored by God’s pursuit of him. When God came in response to Moses heading into the tent, the whole nation experienced the nearness of God. A whole people group was brought out of slavery and oppression because a human being turned aside to see the phenomenon of a burning bush in the desert. They were submerged (baptised) under the Cloud of God’s presence, because one man responded to God’s invitation to come up the mountain. Throughout history major moves of God have been born because individuals and tiny groups of people have turned aside to listen to God. Old women, blacksmiths, teenage girls, monks, nuns, school teachers, even accountants.
Read the story in Exodus 13 and Deuteronomy 8
Baptised in the Cloud 1 Corinthians 10:1-4