Have you ever needed to feel God’s presence and just not been sure God was there? I mean really inhabited a place of deep need in your spirit, reaching out in prayer or anguish to feel just a sliver of the living God alongside you, and in that moment of need feeling doubt? You would be in good company. The prophet Ezekiel felt this. He sat on the shores of an obscure river far from home, just one of a countless flood of Israelites that had been driven from their homeland, and Ezekiel needed God and Ezekiel did not believe God would be there. The people of Israel had been conquered by the invincible king Nebuchadnezzar of the empire of Babylon. Jerusalem had been plundered, their farmland taken from them, their homeland taken from them, and the people forced to live in exile, as refugees in the very land of the people who had conquered them. But all of this calamity could have been borne, but for one truly terrible event, one event that the prophet Ezekiel looked back upon and knew he had lived through the darkest day yet in the history of the people of Israel, the one thing that made Ezekiel long for God’s presence and know that it was not coming—the Temple had been destroyed.
The temple that King Solomon had built, it had been destroyed stone by stone, its precious ornaments carried off as plunder, the holy of holies wherein the very presence of God dwelled, desecrated by unbelievers. This was no mere building, no pile of stones which could be substituted for some other holy site. For the people of Israel the Temple in Jerusalem was the only place in the world where God could be present. It was the only place in the world where Heaven touched earth so that God could actually be present among the people. This was no superstition. The people of Israel knew that without the Temple it was impossible to be in the presence of God. They knew it because that’s what God told them. That’s why they built the Temple in the first place, because God told them to build the temple in order that it might be even basically possible to be in the presence of God. And now it was destroyed.
This is why Ezekiel needed to feel God and yet did not believe he would find God. The Prophet Ezekiel awoke to the crushing realization that he would never again feel the presence of God. Then he has a vision. Ezekiel’s vision is the scripture passage read earlier.
It is a vision of angels, but not like angels that any imagination had ever conjured. The four angels each with four faces moving in four directions carried aloft on four wings flanked with four wheels within wheels, these divine creatures are the Cherubim, alive and fluttering with eyes looking in every direction, capable of moving anywhere, they can fly through the skies and carom across mountains, they are themselves the very spirit of motion and travel, of being able to be any place at any time, of traversing the distance between heaven and earth. Though they are a Technicolor mindblast, the angels, the Cherubim could be described, they could be grasped, their purpose understood, they were carrying something.
The Cherubim carried with them a presence, something like a figure, or it would look like a figure if it could be looked upon, but to look upon the glory of the One the Cherubim carried was like looking at the heart of the sun to try to see its flames dance, the eyes are not built to contain such a light, the soul is not built to contain such glory, it was too much to be taken in, it looked the way a deafening thunderclap sounds, to stand before it was to be an outlaw standing in the presence—not of a judge—but before the entirety of the law itself in all its crystalline perfection and steel rigidity. To look upon the figure was to behold someone so beautiful that to love them would be to despair of all else out of unworthiness, unsure whether it be more fearful to never again see the light and so comprehend true darkness or to be embraced by the light and be burned moth-like into a cinder in a moment of splendor.
It was the presence of God. The Cherubim, the angels, they were carrying the presence of God. No longer would God be bound to one place in all the world, as God had said of God’s own self. God was not speaking a new word, a new revelation, a new vision of the presence of God able to be anyplace. Ezekiel comes as close as any person on this side of the veil of tears has ever come to seeing God face to face. Ezekiel sees God in the moment of his own deep need for God. The world as Ezekiel understood it had been destroyed and so he needed to feel the presence of God, and even though everything he knew cried out that it was impossible for God to be present with someone who was so far down the scale, Ezekiel has a vision of the presence of God who is with us even in times of trial, especially in times of trial, carried on the wings of angels beyond understanding.
Have you ever needed to feel God’s presence? Has your life ever careened out of control so wildly that everything that seemed to be of God was just a distant memory? Does the world and its events feel like a great untamed wild beast that has slipped its chains and now rampages from tragedy to tragedy, so many and so fast that it is impossible to know just how heartbroken it is proper to be when the next heartbreak is just one breaking news alert away?
If that sounds like you, or if that will ever be like you, take this lesson, then, from Ezekiel’s vision. The presence of God will find you, wherever you are in the world, however hopeless you may feel, you cannot go beyond the reach of God any more than you are capable of out running the cherubim, four faced and winged and wheeled, angels whose very reason for being is so that God can be anywhere. But friends do not be surprised either if when the presence of God finds you, the angels carrying God to your side do not look anything like what you expect.
God’s angels may be doctors and nurses working in the aftermath of terror or violence or diagnosis, with powder coated rubber hands, unseen mouths wrapped tight in surgical masks barking orders while minds like steel traps filled with knowledge work through the obscure and arcane workings of the human bodies, with hands so skillful it is like the tips of their fingers have eyes all their own, with needle and thread putting life and limb back together, carrying the presence of God in healing. Or perhaps God’s presence will be born aloft to you by angels with the appearance of a great and surging crowd of people, a vast and beautiful sea of brown and black skinned people marching down Michigan Avenue in Chicago, with peace in their feet and cadences chanted loud enough to drown out the siren song of Black Friday.
Or perhaps, o children of God, perhaps you will encounter that angel most unexpected in its appearance of all. Perhaps you will awake one day and see clearly in the mirror that you are that very day to carry the presence of God to another person who needs it. In the face of your first child, perhaps, you will see that the world needs the love of God and you must carry it. Or in the face of your aging parents, you may see bodies once hale now in need of feeding and washing and love and dignity. Or in the face of the stranger on the street, huddling nightly against the cold or tormented by addiction to substances that once brought comfort but now only compound misery, in the face of a one who has given up hope perhaps you will see yourself, with just one small change in how the cosmic dice land, and in knowing that we are all the same, show love and compassion, and bear the very presence of God to one who sits like the prophet Ezekiel in exile, waiting for a vision of God to break in upon their world.