Thursday 2 January 2014

Vision (Ezekiel 1)

1. The people of God

In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month on the fifth day, while I was among the exiles by the Kebar River, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God. On the fifth day of the month - it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin - the word of the Lord came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, by the Kebar River in the land of the Babylonians. There the hand of the Lord was upon him.
Ezekiel 1:1-3

God’s word comes to Ezekiel in exile. To be exiled means to be kicked out of your home, with little or no hope of returning home. Ezekiel lived “among the exiles” (verse 1), meaning this vision came to him when he was far from home, longing for home and unable to return to his home country, Israel. He and his fellow Israelites have been forcibly removed and transported to the “land of the Babylonians” (verse 2), where they now lived under the oppressive rule of their enemies. Even their own King Jehoiachin was but a guest in the enemy’s land. “By the rivers of Babylon,” Psalm 137 begins, “we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.”

Yet here in this foreign country, God appears to Ezekiel in a manner that is unexpectedly and unmistakably real. “The heavens were opened and I saw visions of God” (verse 1). “There,” verse 2 tells us; there, in the land of the Babylonians, so far away from the temple, so far away from God’s presence, it would have seemed, “the hand of the Lord was upon him.”

Ezekiel did not seek this vision. Ezekiel did not expect these “visions of God”. But God chose to reveal himself to Ezekiel through these visions calling Ezekiel to serve not merely as priest in the tabernacle, but as a prophet, speaking God’s word to God’s people.

The book of Ezekiel is therefore God’s word to exiles - to people far away from God; to people who do not expect to meet with the living God. It reminds us that God sovereignly chooses whom he speaks to, and when he does, we will have no doubt whatsoever who we are dealing with. This is the God of glory, of judgement and of salvation. This is the God who reveals himself through his word to his people.

But the book of Ezekiel is especially relevant for us today as Christians for the apostle Peter writes to believers in his first letter addressing them as “elect exiles of the Dispersion” (1 Peter 1:1). This world is not our home. Christians are strangers in a foreign land. We are exiles, longing for our true home - what Peter calls the “home of righteousness,” the new heavens and the new earth (in 2 Peter 3:13). And what we need most today, more than anything else, is not to try make ourselves as comfortable as possible in this world but to hear God’s voice speaking to us in this foreign land; what we need is to be reminded afresh that God is still God and that we are still his chosen people.

2. The vision of God

I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north - an immense cloud, with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light. The centre of the fire looked like glowing metal, and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures. In appearance their form was that of a man, but each of them had four faces and four wings. Their legs were straight; their feet were like those of a calf and gleamed like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had the hands of a man. All four of them had faces and wings, and their wings touched one another. Each one went straight ahead; they did not turn as they moved.
Ezekiel 1:4-9

The vision is filled with terrifying descriptions of fire, of four strange living creatures each with four wings and four faces, of wheels with eyes all round its rims. The visions are gruesome at times, confusing at times, repetitive and scary at times - so much so, that these words might put you off reading Ezekiel altogether. Jewish rabbis have a tradition of not letting students under the age of thirty study Ezekiel; thinking it too discouraging for young readers. There is even a story of student who found a copy of Ezekiel left open on his rabbi’s desk. He read it, meditating on verse 27 - the description of God appearing like “glowing metal” - only to have fire pour out of those very words, engulfing the poor student and burning him up on the spot!

It is worth noticing how Ezekiel himself struggles to describe what he saw. He says, “It looked like this…” or that “it had the form of that”, struggling to find the words or illustrations to describe what he saw. The vision was overwhelmingly awesome and frightening to Ezekiel.

Yet at the same time, he uses language that is familiar at least to bible readers. Ezekiel’s vision is divided up into four stages - the windstorm, the creatures, the eyes and the throne - and at each stage, Ezekiel uses language found elsewhere in the Old Testament to bring across a picture of God’s glory. Meaning: we are not so much meant to sketch these images as a single architectural diagram (you can have fun looking these up on Google) as much as we are to recall other parts of the bible where these different descriptions recur and echo through Scripture as snapshots of God’s character - his holiness, his power, his omniscience. Ezekiel struggles to communicate what he sees, yes, but writes down what he sees using picture words from the bible.

To begin with, Ezekiel opens with language found in Exodus. The windstorm - of thick cloud and fire - are evocative of God’s presence on Mount Sinai, symbolising God’s holiness and judgement. (Indeed, the tornado of wind and flame may even be evocative of the pillar of cloud and fire accompanying Israel through the desert in the Exodus.) The windstorm comes out of the north (verse 4), the direction of Israel’s enemies. God has, in fact, sanctioned what has happened to Israel, the attack of its enemies leading to the nation’s destruction and exile.

In the middle of this storm, verse 4, “in the centre of the fire,” we meet the four living creatures, each with four faces and four wings.

Their faces looked like this: Each of the four had the face of a man, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle. Such were their faces. Their wings were spread out upwards; each had two wings, one touching the wing of another creature on either side, and two wings covering its body. Each one went straight ahead. Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, without turning as they went. The appearance of the living creatures was like burning coals of fire or like torches. Fire moved back and forth among the creatures; it was bright, and lightning flashed out of it. The creatures sped back and forth like flashes of lightning.
Ezekiel 1:10-14

Ezekiel later identifies these creatures as cherubim (Ezekiel 10:1) or angelic beings. Their orientation - each facing away in four different directions - especially, with regard to their wings; verse 11: “each had two wings, one touching the wing of another creature on either side,” are evocative of the cherubim found on the ark of the covenant, facing away from each other with wings touching at the tips. The ark of the covenant represented God’s presence. It was kept in the temple, in the most restricted room of the temple in fact, called the Holy of Holies, accessible by the High Priest only once a year. The ark was God’s throne ruling over his people from the temple in Jerusalem.

Except, remember that Ezekiel receives this vision nowhere near Jerusalem. He is in enemy territory: Babylon. That’s the significance: God’s presence is not restricted to the temple. The ark was just a box; a symbol of God’s presence. This vision was the real thing; this vision was alive! The creatures with their wings and four faces and their appearance of fire: This was God’s living throne!

Additionally, this was God’s mobile throne, for Ezekiel says: this throne had wheels!

As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the ground beside each creature with its four faces. This was the appearance and structure of the wheels: They sparkled like chrysolite, and all four looked alike. Each appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel. As they moved, they would go in any one of the four directions the creatures faced; the wheels did not turn about as the creatures went. Their rims were high and awesome, and all four rims were full of eyes all around.

When the living creatures moved, the wheels beside them moved; and when the living creatures rose from the ground, the wheels also rose. Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, and the wheels would rise along with them, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. When the creatures moved, they also moved; when the creatures stood still, they also stood still; and when the creatures rose from the ground, the wheels rose along with them, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.
Ezekiel 1:15-21

Ezekiel did not seek God, God sought Ezekiel. Ezekiel did not come near to God, God came near to him; and this is how: The wheels. God’s throne has wheels. It moves. The spirit of the living creatures is in the wheels, Ezekiel says that twice in verses 20 and 21. “Wherever the spirit would go, they would go, and the wheels would rise along with them, because the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.”

Also, these wheels have eyes - how strange is that? Verse 18: “All four rims were fulls of eyes all around.” The eyes represent God’s all-knowing character; he sees all and knows all. Similarly, the living creatures facing all four corners, looking in all four directions indicate the same thing - that God sees everything in his creation. Nothing is hidden from his sight.

Together, these images represent God’s presence coming in judgement over his people. Ezekiel sees heaven open; a tornado of wind and flame descends, and in the middle of that flame, the throne of God, moving towards his people. Unlike the ark in Jerusalem, this throne of God is alive. This throne is mobile! Ezekiel struggles to convey all that he has seen into words that we can understand. He says, “It looks like this,” or “It appears like that.” The visions are awesome and terrifying. Each description grows more and more overwhelming until he gets to the throne itself, because when Ezekiel looks up and finally sees the throne of God, he doesn’t simply record what he sees; Ezekiel, the prophet, tells us what he hears.

Spread out above the heads of the living creatures was what looked like an expanse, sparkling like ice, and awesome. Under the expanse their wings were stretched out one towards the other, and each had two wings covering its body. When the creatures moved, I heard the sound of their wings, like the roar of rushing waters, like the voice of the Almighty, like the tumult of an army. When they stood still, they lowered their wings.
Ezekiel 1:22-24

All this to say, that as Ezekiel’s gaze turned upwards, above the living creatures which were causing a huge racket as they moved - “like the roar of rushing waters” - suddenly, everything came to a standstill. The living creatures lowered their wings, the throne stopped moving and all became silent, because now God was about to speak. As if to say, all this - the vision of the throne, the living creatures, the tornado of wind and fire was just the opening act. The visions prepare us for the voice.

3. The voice of God

Then there came a voice from above the expanse over their heads as they stood with lowered wings. Above the expanse over their heads was what looked like a throne of sapphire, and high above on the throne was a figure like that of a man. I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him. Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him.
Ezekiel 1:25-28

It becomes harder and harder for Ezekiel to describe what he saw. Now, every sentence is shrouded with uncertainty - “what looked like… sapphire,” “a figure like that of a man,” “he looked like metal,” “as if full of fire” - Ezekiel is struggling even more to convey what he saw. Like Isaiah who sees God in the temple, only to realise that all he has seen are God's socks; Ezekiel’s description of God himself is vague, except to tell us that God is covered in light and fire. But he also tells us in verse 28, “Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him.” He is describing God’s beauty. The rainbow that comes after a storm - that’s God’s glory. If you remember the story of Noah and the flood, the rainbow is a reminder of God’s forgiveness after judgement. It’s a promise that every storm will eventually end.

This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. When I saw it, I fell face down, and I heard the voice of one speaking.
Ezekiel 1:28b

The vision gives way to a voice. God reveals himself ultimately though his word. Like Moses who first encountered the burning bush; like Isaiah who sees a vision of God in the temple; Ezekiel bows down in worship when he encounters the glory of God only to hear the voice of God, “Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you” (Ezekiel 2:1). There, God reveals his plan. There, God sends his Spirit into Ezekiel enabling him to understand; empowering him to speak.

This was Ezekiel's vision of God - of God's holiness, his glory, his judgement, his beauty and his radiance. But the vision of God gave way to the voice of God. “Son of Man, stand up... and I will speak to you.”

What is our vision here as the Chinese Church? When you pray and ask for God’s guidance - in your job, where you are going to live, who you will marry - what exactly do you ask for? A sign? Perhaps God could organise a series of occurrences and coincidences, something we can point to and say, “Now I know God has opened this door for me to walk through”?

We want God’s vision but sometimes… sometimes at the cost of ignoring God’s voice. To cry out to God on our knees, saying, “Show yourself,” but to do so with the bible closed on the floor, is at best foolish; is at worst, disobedient. I’m not saying God can’t give you a vision - he did with Ezekiel - but the reason he gave that vision was so that Ezekiel would hear his voice; so that Ezekiel would speak his word. God warns him: some will listen, others will not. But the whole purpose of the vision to Ezekiel the prophet is so that God’s voice might be heard.

It is saying: At the heart of God’s revelation of himself is a relationship. Yes, we do need a bigger vision - not of our aspirations as the Chinese Church - but a clearer vision of God in his glory, because often times our view of God is too small. We think he is there to serve us. We forget that we were made to serve him. But more than a vision, as important as that is, what we need is to hear God’s voice speaking to us - because what we want is the relationship with him. It is hearing the voice of our heavenly Father. It is trusting in the promise of his Son dying on the cross for our sin, made known to us through the word of the gospel.

Even the angels lower their wings in anticipation of his voice. “Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you.” That’s our expectation each time we gather - that’s our vision - each time we open this book and each time we hear the gospel: all of heaven gathering here in the Chinese Church each Sunday, waiting for God’s word to be spoken; eager for God’s voice to be heard.