r m p




  Coming in the Clouds


Old Testament Readings: Daniel 7:13-14; Zechariah 12:10

New Testament Reading: Revelation 1:7

 More and more lately I have been considering the literary critical technique of deconstruction. I have threatened one day to try a sermon based on a deconstructionist exegesis of a passage. That day has come, because the New Testament passage I've chosen fairly cries out to be deconstructed! Let me read it again:

"Behold, he is coming in the clouds, and every eye will see him, every one who pierced him."

Now this text at first glance seems fairly clear in its implication: Christ will come and then there will be neither secrecy nor any place to hide. One will not be able to avoid facing the music. Yet there are tensions between meanings in the text, implicit contradictions. These may result from John's combination of the two passages that served as our Old Testament readings.

But in any case, I am going to try to show how, as often happens, the contradictions in a passage are the most helpful part of it! They tell us things undreamt of in the straightforward part of the text! 

The first tension is the exhortation to "Behold!" Why must you be told to do this, implying you might not do it otherwise, if the coming of Christ will be such that no one can help seeing it? If every eye will see it, surely no one needs to be told to look! The condition implied in the need for the exhortation cannot exist! 

But, on the other hand, a command to look to see makes perfect sense in light of the condition implied in the qualifier that it is in the clouds that he comes. 

How does he come in the clouds? I have always taken the reference to be to the clouds of an Olympian Heaven. He will be seen in the sky. And perhaps that is the intention of Daniel and John. But I cannot ignore the happy sense it would make if, in light of the exhortation to look, to strain to see, the clouds were instead to denote that Christ is coming through an obscuring medium of some sort. A nebula of refraction. 

And perhaps due to that cloudy lens, every eye will see him differently! One can only note that for some of those who will see him to have pierced him when they saw him before means that his appearing was hardly unambiguous! And it has, I dare say, become more ambiguous still! 

The text before us suggests to me another biblical image that I wish to apply to Jesus. I think of something else that cometh with the clouds, and that is so vast that every eye may see it, so remarkable that it still prompts gasps and upward gazes.

The Priestly account of Noah's Flood in Genesis 9 tries to account for the origin of the rainbow as a token of God's pledge never to flood out the world again. He places his archer's bow, the one he uses to fire off his lightning bolts, suspended in the clouds. It would appear as a signal to turn the water off. Of course the ancients had no way of knowing that the rainbow appears once it has just stopped raining. They thought it stopped raining as soon as the bow appeared. 

Jesus as the rainbow? Why not? Both are symbols of the covenant faithfulness of God. And both connect heaven and earth. 

But more to my point this morning is the fact that the rainbow is only visible once it becomes distorted by the clouds in which it comes! 

When the rain has ceased, there are still water droplets in the clouds. Those drops function as a prism to refract the invisible white light into the spectacular color bands, and the rainbow is the result. If the light were not bent by the distorting medium of the water-vapor clouds, no one could see it. There would be nothing to see. 

So with Jesus Christ. He is the light of the world. But the light is blinding to human eyes. It must be refracted, filtered, distorted by the clouds, the limiting conditions of human perception.

The medium that makes him visible also distorts what is made visible. And thus every eye sees him differently. It is the only way; otherwise he will not be seen at all! Every viewer must be exhorted to strain to see for himself. 

Here is a passage from the apocryphal Acts of John that illustrates this point: 

    When he had chosen Peter and Andrew, ... he came to me and to     my brother James, saying, "I need you; come with me!" And my brother said this to me, "John, what does he want, this child on the shore who called us?" And I said, "Which child?" And he answered me, "The one who is beckoning to us." And I said, "This is because of the long watch we have kept at sea. You are not seeing straight, brother James. Do you not see the man standing there who is handsome, fair, and cheerful-looking?" But he said to me, "I do not see that man, my brother. But let us go, and we will see what this means." And when we had brought the boat to land we saw how he also helped us to beach the boat. And as we left the place wishing  to follow him, he appeared to me again as rather bald-headed but with a thick-flowing beard, but to James as a young man whose beard was just beginning. So we wondered both of us about the meaning of the vision we had seen.

Well, at least it means that people see Jesus Christ much differently, that as Harry Reasoner once said, "Jesus Christ, like the truth, is in the eye of the beholder. 

Scholars today trade and debate many theories as to what the historical Jesus was really like. Was he a charismatic rabbi? Was he like a Jewish Zen master? Was he a Cynic preacher? A revolutionist who sought to drive the Romans out of Palestine? Was he a magician? Did he put himself forth as a prophet? As God's messiah? All these views have a good deal to be said for them.

All that goes behind the written New Testament. But if you will carefully scrutinize its pages you will see hardly less diversity on the surface of it. Two gospels have a virgin-born Jesus, two do not. One has an incarnate Word Jesus, three do not. In one he about 30, in another, possibly about 50. In three he preaches the kingdom of God, in one himself as the Son of God. Paul says he has made the Torah obsolete for Gentiles, Matthew says the reverse. 

Or look at the Christological dogmas of various churches. The Jehovah's Witnesses are no less sold on the infallibility of the Scriptures than the Southern Baptists, yet the first believes Jesus is the archangel Michael, while the second believes he is Jehovah himself.


For Bruce Barton (­The Man Nobody Knows­) Jesus was, believe it or not, "the founder of modern business." For Albert Cleage, he was the Black Messiah. For the Fellowship of Christian Athletes he is a burly carpenter who would have passed a football if they had been invented (and weren't made of pigskin!).

The vision of the two Sons of Zebedee of the cloudy, shape-shifting form that called to them from shore tells me something else: you may not only see Christ differently than someone else sees him. You may come to see him differently than you yourself once saw him! Your eyes may become sharper! Only they will never become so sharp as to penetrate the fog. Jesus may be in the center of the fog, but there is no Christ at all, no religious significance to the man, except that floating fog!

The very thing that refracts, that shapes our perceptions of him are the conceptions we have of his significance! To see through the clouds in which he comes would only be to dispel them, and to strip away any significance he has for faith! In fact what you would be doing is to strip away faith to get a better look at the object of faith! Surely a bizarre irony! And then what would you have left?

Would you ever think of trying to rid yourself of all your love for your spouse so as to be able to appreciate more objectively what it is that makes him or her so loveable? That would be a wholly pointless and self-defeating exercise.

On the other hand, I am sure you have had the experience of seeing your spouse interact in a new situation, relating to people in a different way than she does with you, and thus, seeing her as others see her, you get a new perspective on her and appreciate her even more!

Your Christ is Jesus having been made an embodiment of the best you know in religion. Some of that may come from a church upbringing. Or from your reading of the gospels. Or from general assumptions you have about what is true and noble, and you just take it for granted that Jesus represents that.

I am suggesting that you try to see someone else's Christ, Christ from the angle from which someone else views him. It will enrich your perspective. It may correct your distortions, it may sharpen your eye for Christ. It cannot but be an enriching faith experience. Do what James and John did. Compare notes on how Christ seems to both of you. What Christ are you seeing? You could research the views of scholars, the dogmas of denominations, read a book on  New  Testament Christology. All these things would be eminently worthwhile. But perhaps all you need is to dare to do something that maybe you've never ventured before.  Talk to a friend, a fellow church member about this private and most personal subject: what is Jesus Christ to you?

Robert M. Price



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