A sermon on Ezekiel 1:1-2:2
This is a doctor. You can tell he’s a doctor because of his stethoscope. Without his stethoscope he could be anyone. But with his stethoscope he can listen to your heart and to your lungs. This makes the doctor a very useful person. Because by listening to your heart and lungs he can tell you that all you’ve got is a virus and no, you can’t have any antibiotics. That’ll be a $100, thank you very much.
The one thing that makes him even more useful is the aeroplane in the background. He’s a doctor in the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia. If someone in a remote area of Australia is in any kind of medical emergency this doctor can be flown in to help. The plane means this doctor can be where he needs to be, when he needs to be there.
Many professions have their own mode of transport. Paramedics have ambulances. Posties have their bikes, soon to be phased out in Australia. And clowns have their VW beetle. It means they can get around to be where they need to be to do their job, whatever it is. Saving lives. Delivering letters. Scaring children.
Our God too, the true and living God, is wherever he needs to be, precisely when he needs to be there.
Today we are looking at Ezekiel chapters 1 and 2. Like many visions, it is confusing in its details, but simple and precise in its overall message. Ezekiel’s vision of creatures and wheels and flashes of lightning describes God’s amazing portable throne. God is king. He sits on his throne. But he isn’t a careless, absent monarch locked up in heaven or in a special sacred place. God has transportation. His throne rides on the back of a chariot driven by angels. Its wheels are already pointing in whatever direction they need to. It means that God is where he needs to be. It means that God is with his people wherever they are. It means that God is with us. It means that God is with you precisely when you need him.
We turn from the book of Daniel to the book of Ezekiel. They lived at the same time at the same place. Both were taken from Jerusalem to Babylon as young men. Both saw visions of God. But there are big differences to their experience of life in Babylon.
Daniel, due to his noble birth and his natural intelligence, was chosen by the Babylonians to work in their public service. Probably in the hope of sending men like Daniel back to Jerusalem to work as governors and overseers in the interests of Babylon. Locals, but loyal to the empire.
Ezekiel’s life was very different. He was born into a priestly family. But before he could begin to serve as priest, he and his family were taken as hostages to Babylon. And in the chapters of the book of Ezekiel we see him living in a refugee camp beside an irrigation channel. The grandly named Kebar river. Those exiles hoped that their life in Babylon would be temporary. That their God would rise up to overthrow the Babylonians and make Jerusalem and its temple great again.
They were to be cruelly disappointed. In 586 BC Jerusalem, its walls, its palace, and its temple would all be destroyed. It would break their heart. It would test their faith.
So in Ezekiel chapters 1 & 2 we not only see a description of God’s amazing portable throne, but we also see Ezekiel’s calling to God’s service. Not as a priest. But as a prophet to give the exiles in Babylon a message of hope. A hope that would not be in Jerusalem or in its buildings or institutions, which were temporary and fragile, but a hope in God, eternal and strong to save. A God who wasn’t trapped back in Jerusalem. A God who didn’t lock himself away in heaven but thanks to his portable throne was with his people in exile.
So if the book of Daniel taught us how to live in Babylon, the book of Ezekiel gives a message of hope to those who live in exile. We don’t live in exile. I live in a nice home, not in a refugee camp. I may be a long way from where I grew up, but I am here with you by choice and on purpose. I don’t live in a literal exile.
But you live in a kind of exile if you feel like you don’t belong. If your values don’t match the values of those living around you. If you feel far from home. If your heart longs to be somewhere else. The Bible teaches us that our true home awaits us with God in his coming eternal kingdom. In this world we live as strangers in exile, which is why earthly blessings will never truly satisfy us and why we will never be happy.
So I believe very strongly that the book of Ezekiel has a message of hope for us. A hope, not in the institution of the church or in church buildings that are temporary and fragile, but a hope in God who is eternal and strong to save.
Ezekiel chapter 1 verse 1 tells us that this vision came to Ezekiel in the thirtieth year. It is Ezekiel’s thirtieth year, the age according to the book of Numbers chapter 4 that priests began to serve in the temple. But Ezekiel is far from the temple and he will never see it again. At the age he should have become a priest, God called him to be a prophet to his people in exile.
And his calling to be a prophet began with a vision. And what did he see? He saw visions of God which he records in his book. In his vision recorded in chapter 1 he saw a windstorm coming towards him from the north. An immense cloud with flashes of lightning. As it came closer the vision resolved into more precise details. And if Ezekiel’s description of what he saw is sometimes confusing it is only because he is trying to confine heavenly truths within the limits of human language. He is literally struggling to put what he saw into words.
Ezekiel describes his vision from the bottom up. He saw four living creatures. You can see three of them in the picture on the screen. The fourth is hidden on the other side. They are angels, servants of God, attendants of his heavenly court. They have four wings. With two of them, they cover their bodies, because they are unworthy to be in the presence of their creator, the heavenly king. And they stretch out their other two wings so that they touch the wings of the angel next to them, forming a square. And, of course, because they have wings they can fly. And since they each have four faces, looking in different directions, if they need to change direction when they are flying, they are already looking in the direction that they need to go.
Beside each living creature is a wheel. Each wheel is made up of a wheel inside another wheel. The wheels intersect at right angles so that like the heads of the living creatures they are pointing in different directions. They don’t need to turn as they move. They are already pointing in whatever direction they need to go.
The living creatures move the wheels. Not with ropes or chains or pulleys. Instead, we are told, the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. There is a psychic connection between creature and wheel so that as the creatures decide to move, the wheels move with them. The wheels need to move, of course, because what Ezekiel is describing is a mode of transportation. A kind of carriage and Ezekiel goes on next to describe what the wheels were carrying.
Above the heads of the living creatures was what looked like an expanse. In old fashioned language it was a firmament, the name we used to give to the dome of the sky. Because that’s what it looks like: a big blue dome going from horizon to horizon. What this fancy carriage is carrying is a part of the sky. So that what is above this bit of the sky must be a part of heaven. In Ezekiel’s vision heaven is coming to earth riding on four wheels and pulled by angels.
Above the bit of sky was a throne. Of course it is a throne because the one who sits on it is the king who reigns above the firmament over both heaven and earth, the creator of everything, the true and living God, the God of Israel, the Lord almighty. He glowed like fire and brilliant light surrounded him like a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day.
Ezekiel will later call this vision the glory of the God of Israel. It was the same glory of the Lord that appeared to the Israelites at Mt Sinai and from which the Lord spoke to Moses. The glory of the Lord which filled the tabernacle when Moses finished building it. The glory of the Lord which appeared to Moses at the tent of meeting when he went to inquire of the Lord. The glory of the Lord which led the Israelites through the wilderness in a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire at night. The glory of the Lord which filled the temple when Solomon finished building it.
The glory of the Lord is the presence of the Lord’s blessing. The hope of heaven which fills our hearts with joy is nothing less than the promise of experiencing his glory, the presence of his blessing forever. And the judgment of hell is nothing less than the absence of this blessing. For what greater torment can there be for the soul that has spent its whole life running away from God than to have that wish granted forever. To fall short of the glory of God and to be excluded from the presence of his blessing for all eternity.
What Ezekiel saw was God’s amazing portable throne. It is the promise that God is not just everywhere. And, of course, I know that God is everywhere. Everyone who went to Sunday school learned at least that. But God is not just everywhere. His amazing portable throne means that he is where he needs to be precisely when he needs to be there. He isn’t locked up in sacred places that you have to go to to visit him. He isn’t only with you in the happy times. But when you need him, wherever you need him to be, he is already there. God is with us. God is with you when you need him.
When Ezekiel realised what he was seeing, he fell down on his face. Like the angels of God, who cover their bodies with their wings, Ezekiel was overwhelmed by his unworthiness. To kneel before the Lord was not enough for Ezekiel. But he felt compelled to hide his face.
But this was not the kind of relationship that the Lord wanted with Ezekiel. So from the vision of his glory the Lord spoke to his soon to be prophet, and I want you to listen carefully to the words he said.
Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak with you.
Meaning, Get up, man, stop grovelling in front of me and listen to what I have to say to you.
It’s an important reminder that the Lord doesn’t want us to grovel. He is not hiring slaves, he wants to adopt us as his children. The Lord doesn’t want your shame. He doesn’t want your guilt. He sent his son to wash all that away. Why would you want to wallow in it a moment longer. We are not pigs that the farmer has hosed down to show off at the fair and that just can’t wait to roll in the mud again. We are the children of the most high God who has redeemed us from our sin that we may stand before him unashamed and listen to his voice.
Guilt and shame make us focus on ourselves. They shout so loud they are all that we can hear. God has taken our guilt and shame so that we focus on him and do what he says.
And what did the Spirit of God do for Ezekiel? The Spirit came and raised him to his feet. For by his Son the Lord made us to stand before him and by his Spirit he makes us able to stand before him, so that if the Lord makes us stand we cannot fall.
And what did Ezekiel hear? He heard the Lord call him to be his messenger to his people.
Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their fathers have been in revolt against me to this very day. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says.’ And whether they listen or fail to listen, they will know that a prophet has been among them.
What that means we will learn in the next few weeks. It is enough today, however, to stop there and to wrap up very briefly. Just like flying doctors have planes and posties have bikes, the Lord has transportation to take him wherever he needs to be. What the exiles in Ezekiel’s day needed to learn was that the Lord wasn’t far away in Jerusalem and that he didn’t die when the temple was destroyed. He was with them in their exile, just like he appeared to Ezekiel beside that irrigation canal in Babylon.
And God is with you in your exile. You may not feel like you belong, and you may long for your eternal home so far away. But God is with you. He is right where he needs to be whenever he needs to be there. So that when you need him, he is already there.