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Faithful in Exile (1): Wheels in Wheels

. 7 min read

2014/07/06
Christ Church, Mountain Top; Holy Communion
Prayer,
Psalm 29
Children,
Matthew 17.1-9 (Transfiguration)
Message,
Ezekiel 1.3 – 2.2, 3.1-3, 3.12-15
A
year ago, on the first Sunday of July 2013, I preached here for the first time
as the new pastor of Christ Church. The passage was one of my favorites –
Isaiah’s vision of the LORD Almighty in the temple after the death of King
Uzziah (Isaiah 6). It is a vision that is related to Ezekiel’s, a vision
including amazing angel creatures, poetically described in vivid details and at
the same time leaving many details to the imagination. It is a vision that
totally destroys Isaiah. He cries out, “Woe to me! I am undone!” “Oy! I am
melting!” Ezekiel has a similar reaction: “I fell on my face” (Ezekiel 1.28)
and “I sat there stunned, for seven days” (3.15). In both visions, the prophets
experience their call to ministry. Isaiah hears God wonder, “Whom shall I send
and who will go for us?” and jumps up to declare, “Here am I, send me!” Ezekiel
is too stunned to speak, too deep in grief to react. God picks him up, as if by
the shoulders, and carries him about, declaring, “Mortal (the traditional “Son
of man”), I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who
have rebelled against me” (2.3). Isaiah, too, gets the difficult task of
preaching to people who have no interest in listening. “Say to this people:
Keep listening, but do not comprehend” (Isaiah 6.9). I’m grateful that I am
sent to people who listen (mostly).
As
much as these two passages have in common, there are huge differences. Isaiah’s
ministry comes when Judah, the southern kingdom, is still vibrant and stable,
though they have begun the always deadly walk away from their God. He speaks of
a coming catastrophe, of conquest and exile. And, in the final portion of the
book, he addresses the future exiles – long before their birth – with comfort,
with the promise of return – return to their LORD, return to their land.
      Ezekiel’s ministry happens in that gap. He
is part of the first generation of exile, and Judah remains a vassal state of
Babylon. He is part of a brain drain (Darr, intro), a deliberate and cynical
attempt to take the head of the civilization so that there will be no more
rebellion, no more declarations of independence, no more “Tel Aviv Tea Parties”
– just empire. But these exiles do not need comfort, they need a dose of
real-politic, and a total dismantling of their sense of privilege in the world.
They still believe that Judah will rise, that their return and triumph are
imminent, that – as God’s chosen people – this is just a bump in the road.
Ezekiel declares otherwise: Judah and Jerusalem face total destruction, exile
will be longer than your life, and you have no spiritual privilege that exempts
you from the call to live in obedience to God.
There
are also huge differences in the personalities of the prophets. They both
preach judgment to people who won’t listen. Yet, Isaiah’s life and message are
filled with beautiful songs, texts that even today we keep putting to new
music. The songs that come from Ezekiel? Spirituals, slave songs, music for the
oppressed, not music for the privileged. Ezekiel saw the wheel. Them bones,
them dry bones. (I do have to say that some of the Isaiah songs are for the
oppressed as well – but they were songs to begin with, not converted into songs
later.) Ezekiel grieves, but he shows no emotion. He sees incredible visions –
many of them – unlike most prophets who mainly hear from God. He uses absurd
imagery and weird sign acts – laying siege to a figurative Jerusalem by lying
on his side immobilized by God for 390 days, shaving his hair with a sword, and
cooking his food over dried cow dung. Among all the eccentrics who served as
Israel’s prophets, Ezekiel takes the cake.

And
he has a lot to say to us disciples of Jesus in the US of A. Though our
Constitution says that Congress shall make no law respecting an “establishment
of religion”, in this nation we had a long running cultural compact. Prayer in
the schools, the Ten Commandments on the wall at the courthouse, a nativity set
at the municipal building, and no stores open on Sundays. But times change, and
the cultural compact has dissolved. Many grieve that loss, hoping, like Ezekiel’s
exile community, for a return to that state of privilege. And it won’t happen.
Our national values have been secularized and our population is becoming more
and more diverse – and that can be a good and holy thing for us and our mission
as disciples of Jesus Christ, if we are willing to learn some lessons from this
unusual prophet.
There
are three key dimensions of the exile experience that are important to
recognize in the context of this text, and to recognize – in dim parallels – in
our own experience.
      First, is the displacement of change.
Robin gets her hair done, and it is different. I tell her that she’s beautiful
and that I’ll have to get used to the new hair. She’s used to this by now,
after almost 25 years. Even good change displaces us – new carpet (but it’s not
my favorite color), new leadership, new music, whatever. I just wish we all
drove buggies and wrote hand written letters delivered by the Pony Express,
like the “good old days”. Of course, the maternal mortality rate was huge, we
had separate but equal accommodations, and domestic abuse was tolerated. No
matter how much we may struggle with change in general or change in the church,
we’ve got nothing on Ezekiel and the exiles of Judah. They were forcibly
relocated from their native land, and they directly witnessed the slaughter,
torture, and rape of family members and friends.
      Second, the loss of anchor traditions.
Despite wandering from God, they still valued the temple, they still believed
in God’s promise to the house and lineage of David. Now, however, there was no
place for worship, no traditional duties for a priest like Ezekiel, no king. In
the words of Psalm 11, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the
righteous do?”
      Third, the pressure to assimilate. “Resistance
is futile. You will be assimilated” (Star
Trek). Once the traditions that anchor us are lost, how do we preserve our
values, how do we pass them along to our children and grandchildren? Is it best
to become total oddballs, or to totally fit in, or is there a third way – an
alternate path to faithfulness that does not require the comfort of the
familiar?
Into
this context – one of painful change, disorienting loss, and severe pressure –
the glory of God appears to the priest Ezekiel. Four living creatures serve as
the chariot throne of the LORD, each with four faces and four wings, each with
gyroscopic, eye-studded wheels. After that, Ezekiel struggles to describe the
center of God’s glory, over and over using the phrase “something like”.
Something like crystal, a throne, sapphire, a human form, glowing amber, fire
enclosed, a rainbow.
      As a total aside, a word on faithful imagination:
The popular descriptions we hear or read of heaven and the glory of God pale in
comparison to the vivid words and overwhelming encounters that are reported in
the Scriptures. Do we domesticate our dangerous God? Do we water-down the glory
of the LORD? Do we tell the story in a way that makes Jesus seem boring?
The
glory of the LORD appears to Ezekiel. There are a few themes, of many, that I
wish to lift up from the vision to support and inform our discipleship, whether
or not we share the visionary gift.
      First, mobility. The throne of God is not
bolted to the temple floor or found in the king’s palace, or even up in some
separate heaven. The throne of God is on the move – wings, wheels, darting “to
and fro like a flash of lightning”. It is because of this mobility that Ezekiel
knows that all is well with God even if all is not well with Jerusalem. And it
is because of this mobility that Jesus says to a would-be disciple, “Foxes have
holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head”
(Matthew 8.20-22 and Luke 9.57-62). Jesus calls us to step out, out of the four
walls, out of our comfort zones, because we worship a mobile God who does not
let the grass grow under foot.
      Second, creation. The rule of God extends
far beyond the boundaries to which we routinely limit it. The apostle Paul
echoes this theme when he declares that the “entire creation waits in eager expectation”
(Romans 8). The four living creatures have four faces – human, lion, ox, eagle.
The sound of their wings is “like the sound the sound of mighty waters”, a
phrase used throughout the Bible for the jumble of multiple voices, as an image
for all humanity. Even empire, even Babylon the Great, will fall under the rule
of God, whether for judgment or for blessing or both. Honor and care for all
that God has made, and welcome the diversity of the human race, even loving our
enemy.
      Third, word. It is reassuring, to me at
least, that the LORD comes to this prophet not only in vision but in word. He hears the word of the Lord and, even
better for a guy like me, he eats a scroll containing the word of the LORD “and
in my mouth, it was as sweet as honey” (3.1-3). There is no need for us to
desire an encounter with God that runs counter to how God has made us. And,
especially, there is no need for us to seek visions – we must seek only Jesus.
If God sends visions, well and good, but seek Jesus. For every one of us, the
Word is accessible. Read it, devour it, taste it, digest it. And, if reading is
not your strong suit, there are a number of ways to get the audio for free.
Ezekiel’s
language and imagery for the glory of God shows up in the gospel stories of the
Transfiguration and in John’s visions in the Revelation. John’s gospel
describes the glory of God as Jesus’s death on a cross. In the Revelation
visions, both sides of glory are combined – crystal, rainbow, throne, angel
creatures AND the Lamb slain. Today we share in Holy Communion and we come face
to face with the glory of our LORD.
Resources:

Katheryn
Pfisterer Darr, 2001, Ezekiel, in The New
Interpreter’s Bible, Vol VI,
Abingdon Press: Nashville.