Ezekiel 1 selected verses
Ezekiel knew where to find God. If Ezekiel ever wanted to be close to the presence of God, he knew exactly where to go. God was in the temple. To come into the presence of God, first he came into the courtyard of the temple, to the great altar. On that altar, there the sacrifices of an entire nation were being burned day and night, and so the altar was always surrounded by a great cloud of smoke with fire flashing inside of it. Beyond the altar, inside the temple itself, there was incense burning on top of coals of fire and candles everywhere dancing to and fro. And beyond the cloud of incense, a final inner room. And there in the holiest of holy places, golden statues gleamed. They were statues of strange composite creatures, with wings like an eagle and a body like an ox and claws like a lion and a face like a child of humanity. And the strange golden gleaming creatures they held their wings together like a throne. The ark of the covenant, the mercy seat. That is where God’s presence was.
Granted, coming in to the presence of God was a bit of a production to say the least—sacrifices and incense and prayers and holy festivals—a production yes, but Ezekiel knew where to find God. In the temple, Past the smoky altar and the flaming incense coals, inside the holy of holies, atop the wings of these strange four part ox, lion, eagle, human creatures, God was over there, in the temple.
But then cataclysm struck. Terrible events far beyond Ezekiel’s control swept down. The temple was destroyed, not one stone was left on another, the altar was struck to pieces, the statues of the creatures destroyed, the ark of the covenant lost forever. The temple, the one place where God was to be found. It was gone. Because the one place where God’s presence was, that was the one place he could never go again. So the prophet Ezekiel lay grieving. At the beginning of the passage we heard read today Ezekial lay on the banks of a river far from home and grieved because he would never again be in the presence of God
But there on the banks of the river Chebar, Ezekiel has a vision. More than that, a vision overtakes Ezekiel. A great cloud of smoke rushes toward him. And the cloud of smoke towers over him, and there is a flame burning at it’s center too, a flame pouring out smoke as if there were a thousand thousand sacrifices burning on an unseen altar. And beyond the cloud of fiery smoke there were coals burning like incense braziers, and beyond there were living creatures moving, strange composite creatures ox and eagle and lion and human, gleaming but not like dead gold statues, these were huge and wild and alive and moving. And the creatures held their wings like they were a throne, a mercy seat from which the presence of God shone like a rainbow after a storm. Ezekiel looked and it was as if the temple itself had come to life, once a building, then rubble, now wonderfully and terrifyingly alive.
Then Ezekiel saw the wheels. High and terrifying and as loud as thunder, as loud as a roaring waterfall. Each was like a wheel within a wheel moving this way and that. And the wheels had borne the living creatures to Ezekiel, there was no place in the world that the wheels could not go. Beside the river Chebar, the wheels had borne the presence of God to Ezekiel. If Ezekiel lived the rest of his days in Babylon, the wheels would bear the presence of God to him. If Ezekiel should take the wings of the morning and settle at the far limits of the sea, the wheels would bear the presence of God to him.
Ezekiel believed there was one place to find God, and when that way of finding God was lost to him, Ezekiel believed he had lost God forever. But God is not like that, God is not contained in one place, God is not constrained by temples or summoned by priests or invoked by festivals and incense. God is wild and alive and moving. The vision of Ezekiel and the wheels within wheels reveals that when we cannot find God, when we give up even trying to find God, God will find us.
I don’t have ideas quite as definite as did Ezekiel about how to find God. There is no temple or altar or holy of holies to which I travel in order to come into the presence of God. But even so, I think I understand how to come into God’s presence. I think it has a lot to do with me. I need to work my heart up into a warm lather of believing in God, and then to pray with words both practiced and heartfelt I need to speak to God, and I need to return once or even twice a week to the altar—oops the communion table—and there partake in the Lord’s supper. Coming into the presence of God is a little bit of a production, granted. But I feel like know how to come into the presence of God. It works for me.
It works for me, until it doesn’t. And one day all of these things will be taken from me. Whether by cataclysm or the simple march or time, all of this will be taken from me. Every way that I know to find God will fail. My intellect, with which I weave together beliefs I find both strong and supple, my intellect can be taken from me. My beliefs can unravel into gibberish. My faith, coddled as it has been during a life largely free from abject misery, my faith could be shattered by tragedy and what is now a warm flame inside me could turn to bitter coal black ash raging at a God who did not do what I asked God to do. And if none of this happens than surely one day my body will fail me, my heart will slow and I will not have the breath to spare to call on God and I will pass beyond the realms of all speech. I may not have a temple, but I have definite ideas about how to be in the presence of God—prayer and faith and belief—and they all have a lot to do with me, how I think, how I pray, what I believe, what I do. But none of that is reliable. Just as the Temple was destroyed, so too will my own efforts to find God fail one day.
Perhaps you are already there. Perhaps you have wandered the halls of grief and found there is no exit. Perhaps words and songs that used to bring you comfort now seems saccharine and brittle. Perhaps you’ve done something that makes you fear you could never approach God and be welcomed. Perhaps you’ve never believed in any of this and you’re not sure why you come to this place.
If that sounds like you, then you and the prophet Ezekiel would have a lot to talk about. You would have a lot in common. Ezekiel would say to you, it is just when you cannot find God, that is when God finds you. Ezekiel would say to you, when every way of finding God has failed you, and God feels inaccessible and distant, it is just then that something like the crashing of wheels begins sounding in the distance. Ezekiel would say to you, when your own faith has burned out and you have nothing to offer but need, that is just when God comes wreathed in flames and smoke, as if the fervent prayers of the entire world were burning on an unseen altar. Ezekiel would say to you, when the world has ground you down, and every path leads to nothing but more of the same, when every day is just the same but somehow worse and worse and your mind turns to desperate things, it is just then that God arrives born aloft by strange creatures that mock reason and confound understanding, all wings and haunches and claws and knowing eyes and unexpected turns of fate.
God is wild and alive and vast beyond understanding, born aloft in eerie grandeur atop the wheels within wheels, sounding as they move—
When you’re suffering, God will weep with you
When you’re wandering, God will search for you
When you’re grieving, God will comfort you,
When you’ve fallen, God will lift you, When you wander, God will find you, When you’re dying, God will hold you,
God loves you, God claims you, God made you, you are Hers.
And if you find yourself beyond the farthest limits of the sea, or if you are on the paths of the valley of the shadow of death, and life has forced to you to your knees, it is then that you will hear the voice of someone speaking. A voice like many waters, saying: O mortal, stand up on your feet. I would speak with you.