The prophet Isaiah writes, “Truly, thou art a God who hidest thyself” (45:15RSV). Isaiah’s vision in the temple amidst the shaking foundations and smoke and fearful seraphim is but a glimpse of the hem of the robe of the heavenly king. Ezekiel’s vision is of the “appearance of the likeness of the glory” (1:28) of the LORD.
Elijah encounters God in the silence, not in the wind, earthquake or fire. Moses’ first encounter is with a God hidden in the burning bush. Abraham dreams of a smoking fire pot. In answer to the question “who shall I say sent me,” Moses gets an enigmatic name that probably means “I am who I am,” or perhaps, “I will be who I will be.” Job is answered from a whirlwind.
Only Adam and Eve have a direct, unmediated encounter with God when he walks in the garden in the cool of the evening. And then Moses, of whom it is said “the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11) in the tent of meeting. And yet, in that very same chapter of Exodus, Moses is only allowed to see Gods back: “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” (Exodus 33:20)
The fact that the first Christians had no images of God led the Romans to call them atheists. Deep in Hebrew and Christian faith is the sense that God is hidden, veiled, beyond our sight and comprehension. So the dominant image of God’s presence is a cloud.
In a world that wants gods to be visible, God remains hidden. We want visible; what we get is mystery. Holiness. Hiddenness. The strange. God behind a curtain. Might and majesty hidden in the crucified.
And even Christianity’s notion that God has revealed himself in Jesus of Nazareth – or the sacraments, the bread and wine and water – even there, God is visible only to the eyes of faith. In other words, he is not visible at all, except that we trust the promise of his presence. The bread still looks and tastes like bread. The water still looks and acts like water. Yet God is there. So God promises. So we “see,” see with the eyes of wonder and trust, see with a spiritual insight, not a physical one.
And at a hospital bedside; at a graveside; when food is shared with the hungry; when the unwelcome are welcomed; prisoners visited; when unexpected grace happens – there, too, we “see”. See the God otherwise hidden from us – but the God made visible in love and sacrifice. The God made strangely visible in the broken body with a pierced side. The God who does not shun suffering and sorrow, but meets us there.
So when we read about clouds at the Mount of Transfiguration, we know it means God is present. And when we hear that Jesus will come “on the clouds of heaven” we know it’s not a reference to the sky. And when we are groping in a fog; it bears a far greater secret than mere confusion.