How do you picture God?
Most of us picture God as an old white man, something like Santa Claus. Perhaps the most famous depiction of God is the one on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, an older, white, bearded guy reaching out to touch humanity,
Generally we see in our heads a kind of grandfatherly figure on a throne; a kind of sky-judge, but also someone we can relate to, no more imposing, really, than Albus Dumbledore or Gandalf the Grey.
Ezekiel doesn’t see Gandalf. What he sees is, to be honest, totally freaky weird. We wonder if Ezekiel might have eaten some really bad hummus there by the river Chebar.
It’s also a really weird time to have a vision of God. What was Ezekiel doing, taking a bath? This is a seemingly random time, and a seemingly random place, to encounter the holy.
The children of Israel are at a low point when Ezekiel encounters the Almighty. The book of Ezekiel begins with these words:
Ezekiel 1:1 On July 31 of my thirtieth year, while I was with the Judean exiles beside the Kebar River in Babylon, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.
Now already things are weird; they are not as they should be. Why? Because it’s Ezekiel’s thirtieth year, and in the Jewish religion, when a man of the priestly family turned thirty, that was when he was supposed to assume his duties as a priest. Ezekiel’s in a priestly family, but he can’t assume his duties as a priest—why? Because he’s in Babylon. He’s in Exile. Things are not as they should be. But God breaks into this weird place.
And it’s a weird image of God. Perhaps it’s blasphemous of me to say that God is weird in Ezekiel, but I can’t think of any other words to describe Ezekiel’s vision. Wheels within wheels? Creatures with four faces? And why does it matter that their legs are straight?
As I consider this passage, it seems to me that this is one of those passages of the Bible that’s rife with symbolism. I believe the Bible is the Word of God; but I also believe that the Word of God contains some things that can’t be contained in words. That’s why, in this passage of Ezekiel, as in the book of Revelation, we hear the words “something like,” repeated over and over. The vision of God is so otherworldly that the things we’ve seen and the words we have to describe them can’t encapsulate the experience. It’s too, well, weird to us. Strange, supernatural.
And I also don’t believe that the Creator of the Universe is really a man on a wheeled cart pushed by four really freaky monsters. That’s why I think that even Ezekiel’s vision doesn’t encompass who God is, not fully. No vision could. Rather, Ezekiel’s vision is meant to symbolically show us in words who God is. And that’s where it gets really interesting.
One thing Ezekiel’s vision teaches us is that God is a living God.
There’s a scene in The Chronicles of Narnia when winter is turning into spring, and one of the characters says, “Aslan is on the move.” You see those words spark joy in the faces of all. God is on the move in Ezekiel’s vision.
Ezekiel 1: 16-20: The wheels sparkled as if made of beryl. All four wheels looked alike and were made the same; each wheel had a second wheel turning crosswise within it. 17 The beings could move in any of the four directions they faced, without turning as they moved. 18 The rims of the four wheels were tall and frightening, and they were covered with eyes all around. When the living beings moved, the wheels moved with them. When they flew upward, the wheels went up, too. 20 The spirit of the living beings was in the wheels. So wherever the spirit went, the wheels and the living beings also went.
Why does Ezekiel spend so much time describing the wheels? Why is the spirit of the living beings in the wheels? Why are the wheels covered with eyes? I think it’s because it’s meant to teach us that God is on the move. God is alive, active, moving throughout His creation.
This is different from how we tend to see God. We think of God as stable, unmoving, old, historic even. Maybe that’s why our Bibles get dusty, or why we want everything in our churches to be the same as it always was. It’s better if God just stays in one place, unmoving, traditional, solid.
But that’s not who God is. God is on the move.
God is doing new things all around us, speaking in new ways.
But I love verse 40: the beings could move in any of the four directions, without turning as they moved. God moves among us, yet God never turns; God never changes. He is the same yesterday, and today, and forever; and yet, we understand Him in new ways. In Ezekiel’s time, that meant that even in Exile, God was still at work; even when the king was in captivity, even when the people were cast out of the Promised Land, even when the Temple was destroyed, God was doing a new thing. Today, the church is in a kind of Exile. We’ve been cast out of our privileged place in society. Christianity no longer influences society the way it once did; our churches are sparsely populated, mostly with older folks, and the young people feel that church is irrelevant, God is unimportant to how they live their lives. So we’re forced to reconsider the way we do church.
Why? Because God is doing a new thing. And maybe it’s not about societal power and influence. Maybe it’s not about numbers and big budgets.
Maybe it’s about being something real, something true in a society that feels increasingly false.
Maybe we’re being burned away. Another captivating aspect of Ezekiel’s vision is that it’s full of fire. In verse 4:
Ezekiel 1: 4: As I looked, I saw a great storm coming from the north, driving before it a huge cloud that flashed with lightning and shone with brilliant light. There was fire inside the cloud, and in the middle of the fire glowed something like gleaming amber.
Or verse 13:
Ezekiel 1:13: The living beings looked like bright coals of fire or brilliant torches, and lightning seemed to flash back and forth among them.
Or verse 27:
Ezekiel 1:27: From what appeared to be his waist up, he looked like gleaming amber, flickering like a fire. And from his waist down, he looked like a burning flame, shining with splendor.
What is all this fire about? Remember that in Old Testament Judaism, fire was used in sacrifice.
Fire is an agent of purification; you use fire to purify metals in a crucible. Fire burns away impurities; fire makes something pure and holy.
So all this fire means that God is holy, and God also makes us holy. Ezekiel’s vision and prophecies were aimed at purifying the people. Ezekiel’s message was that the people had to become holy again, to burn away their sin and idolatry, to return to God, so that God would return them to the Promised Land. I think of my son going into time-out, where he seems to be a lot lately. Exile was kind of a time-out for Israel, a time to think and reflect on what God really wants and how they are meant to live. That’s why so much of the Bible comes from that time in exile.
In the same way, perhaps, this time in the church’s history is meant to be a time of purification; a time when we stop trying to be something we’re not, a social club or a political group or a form of entertainment, and be who we are meant to be: the body of Christ, sharing His love and His message with all.
It’s a time when we must be honest with ourselves and one another about our failure to live up to our calling, or put another way, our sin, and seek each other’s forgiveness and God’s.
But I see something more than judgement in Ezekiel’s vision, something more than holiness. And it’s because I am a Christian that I see in this vision a message of infinite power and also infinite grace. Where do I see this? First, here:
Ezekiel 1:10: Each had a human face in the front, the face of a lion on the right side, the face of an ox on the left side, and the face of an eagle at the back.
Because I am a Christian, I believe that Ezekiel’s vision was supernatural. I believe his vision taught of the Gospel. The four gospel writers are often compared to the four faces of Ezekiel’s vision. Matthew is the human face; Matthew shows us Christ’s human nature, steeped in Jewish tradition. Mark is the lion – a figure of courage, who shows us Christ working miracles and conquering death. Luke is the ox – showing us Christ the servant of all. And finally, John is the eagle – showing us the eagle’s eye vision of what God is doing through Christ. These living creatures, with their four faces, to me show us that God can be encountered in different ways. Each of the Gospels is different, and yet they are all included in Scripture, because God recognizes that we come to meet Him in different ways. Through the Gospels, God meets us where we are—just as God met Ezekiel and his people where they were, far from the Temple, far from the Promised Land.
Finally I look to the one seated on the throne: a figure like a man.
Ezekiel 1:26: Above this surface was something that looked like a throne made of blue lapis lazuli. And on this throne high above was a figure whose appearance resembled a man.
Why should the Creator of the Universe look like a man? As a Christian, I believe that God came to us in human form because of His grace and love; that God meets us where we are.
God shows us Himself in a way that is both awesome and otherworldly, but also something we can understand. God comes to us both as a purifying fire, and also as a loving Father.
Ezekiel’s vision is strange; it is weird; it is otherworldly and supernatural. It’s also the message Ezekiel needed to hear. That God was on the move; that God desired to purify His people; that God was willing to meet them where they were and show them grace. It’s weird, but in a way, it’s also wonderful.
And encountering God is always kind of weird. Why? Because God is fundamentally other than who we are, and who we want Him to be. God isn’t a white man who shows up once a year or so and gives us what we want. That, again, would be Santa. God shows up in unexpected places, does unexpected things, through unexpected people. He’s unpredictable; he’s frightening; he’s untameable. And yet, He’s more amazing than the gods we create for ourselves.
I’ve heard God speak through the mouths of the poor and homeless; I’ve seen God act in psych wards and on street corners; I’ve witnessed Him in the midst of great pain and suffering, with rape victims and drug addicts, as much as within the walls of any church. This week, I sat with a young, homeless black man and asked him what he wanted prayer for. Rather than pray for himself, someone who surely had a laundry list of needs, his prayer was for the world, for peace, and he prayed for our enemies, even for terrorists and criminals. I heard God through that young man’s words more than the piles of words of the theological scholars and preachers I combed through, looking for truth in Ezekiel. But that’s what God does; he shows up in strange and unexpected ways. He’s not a tame God; he’s not a God we can contain or understand. He’s not Morgan Freeman or Santa Claus. Instead, he’s greater, more mysterious, and yet accessible to even us.
He’s not the God we want; he’s scary, he’s strange, he’s dangerous; but He’s the one true God, the one hard, true thing in this world of so many soft, easy lies; and, the more we encounter Him, the more we recognize He’s the God we truly need.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.