By Michael Smith
Reading from Numbers 9:15-23, 10:29-36
15 On the day the tabernacle was set up, the cloud covered the tabernacle, the tent of the covenant; and from evening until morning it was over the tabernacle, having the appearance of fire. 16It was always so: the cloud covered it by day and the appearance of fire by night. 17Whenever the cloud lifted from over the tent, then the Israelites would set out; and in the place where the cloud settled down, there the Israelites would camp. 18At the command of the Lord the Israelites would set out, and at the command of the Lord they would camp. As long as the cloud rested over the tabernacle, they would remain in camp. 19Even when the cloud continued over the tabernacle for many days, the Israelites would keep the charge of the Lord, and would not set out.
20 Sometimes the cloud would remain for a few days over the tabernacle, and according to the command of the Lord they would remain in camp; then according to the command of the Lord they would set out. 21Sometimes the cloud would remain from evening until morning; and when the cloud lifted in the morning, they would set out, or if it continued for a day and a night, when the cloud lifted they would set out. 22Whether it was two days, or a month, or a longer time, that the cloud continued over the tabernacle, resting upon it, the Israelites would remain in camp and would not set out; but when it lifted they would set out. 23At the command of the Lord they would camp, and at the command of the Lord they would set out. They kept the charge of the Lord, at the command of the Lord by Moses.
29 Moses said to Hobab son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law, “We are setting out for the place of which the Lord said, ‘I will give it to you’; come with us, and we will treat you well; for the Lord has promised good to Israel.” 30But he said to him, “I will not go, but I will go back to my own land and to my kindred.” 31He said, “Do not leave us, for you know where we should camp in the wilderness, and you will serve as eyes for us. 32Moreover, if you go with us, whatever good the Lord does for us, the same we will do for you.”
33 So they set out from the mount of the Lord on three days’ journey with the ark of the covenant of the Lord going before them for three days’ journey, to seek out a resting-place for them, 34the cloud of the Lord being over them by day when they set out from the camp.
35 Whenever the ark set out, Moses would say,
“Arise, O Lord, let your enemies be scattered,
and your foes flee before you.”
36And whenever it came to rest, he would say,
“Return, O Lord of the ten thousand thousands of Israel.”
“The cloud” had been a sign of divine presence since the Israelites were led out of Egypt by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Ex. 13:21-22). In today’s reading, we learn that when the cloud moved, the people moved, breaking camp and traveling on to the next stage of the journey.
While the clear sign of God’s presence would be a comfort, at the same time one can almost sense the frustration and even annoyance at the uncertainty of knowing how long each sojourn would be. After all, we camp differently and unpack accordingly depending on whether we are staying for one night or two months! How could they plan for their future? Perhaps that is the point: travel lightly and do not get too settled in one place for we will eventually be moving on.
I find myself getting anxious about the future. When will things get back to normal after the pandemic? I am tired of quarantine, masks, and social distancing. I want to get back to church like we used to. And the racial unrest! Didn’t we take to the streets in the 1960’s with the civil rights movement? Why are we still afflicted with the plague of racism fifty years later? How long, O Lord, how long?
And then I remember the cloud of God’s presence and the lesson to travel lightly, to be ready to move when God moves. As frustrating as it might be, paying attention to the divine presence is the only effective and safe way to arrive at our desired destination. In the words of the old African American gospel song:
Lead me, guide me along the way,
For if you lead me I cannot stray.
Lord, let me walk each day with Thee.
Lead me, oh Lord, lead me.
The Rt. Rev. Michael G. Smith served as Bishop of North Dakota for fifteen years and is currently the Assistant Bishop of Dallas. He is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation of Oklahoma. He and his wife, the Rev. Lisa White Smith, are the parents of three grown children and grandparents of nine.
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