Imagine for a moment what it must like to live in a refugee camp – living far from home, separated from family and friends, a stranger in a strange land. Fearful of the future. That’s the situation many Syrian refugees find themselves in today, for example, and it’s the situation that Ezekiel experienced in the year 593BC.
Ezekiel was a Jewish exile in Babylon (modern-day Iraq). He lived with his fellow exiles beside the Kebar River – in the refugee camp of his age. Five years earlier, the Babylonian army had invaded Israel and taken its leading citizens away as captives. Ezekiel was one of those exiled, probably because he was from a priestly family.
As we join our passage this morning, Ezekiel is now thirty years old – the age he became eligible to actually serve as a priest in the Jerusalem Temple. But of course he couldn’t. He was stuck in Kebar, one thousand miles from home, struggling to survive as an exile in a strange land.
Ezekiel and his fellow exiles must have doubted whether God was with them. How could the God of Israel let his country be captured and his people forced to endure exile? I bet the Babylonians mocked the Jews for their faith – “Where is your God now?” I’m sure they said!
If you are a Christian here this morning, then you too are an exile in a foreign land. You are a citizen of Heaven, but currently living far from home. The New Testament describes us as are exiles and foreigners in a hostile world (1 Pet 2:11). A world of sin and suffering. A world in which God can sometimes feel very, very distant.
If that’s you, then take heart from the vision we have described for us in Ezekiel chapter 1 today. Initially it all sounds pretty strange, and you may be tempted to wonder whether Ezekiel was having some kind of hallucination, or a strange dream – or even a UFO encounter! But no. Because for his 30th birthday present, God gave Ezekiel a glorious vision of himself. A glorious vision of God’s presence and power that gave Ezekiel comfort and hope. A vision that reinvigorated his relationship with God. And I hope it can do the same for us today.
Eight years ago I was sitting on the beach at Southport in Lancashire, looking out to sea. Suddenly I saw two small black dots on the horizon. Within a couple of seconds I heard a huge roar, and moments later two RAF Tornado fighter jets shot right over my head, only a couple of hundred feet up. And just as they passed over a simulated explosion took place about fifty metres in front of me, where the beach reached the sea. I was at the Southport Airshow, so knew in my head what was going on, but for a few seconds I still had feelings of apprehension and awe. It all happened so fast, I experienced sensory overload!
Ezekiel must have had similar feelings when he saw God’s glory approach him in verse 4 of our reading this morning. At first it looked like “a violent storm coming out of the north, an immense cloud with flashing lightening”. But as it came nearer, it quickly became obvious to him that this was no ordinary storm. It had more in common with the cloud and fire that many years earlier had led the Israelites on their exodus out of Egypt. The same cloud and fire that had covered Mount Sinai when Moses was given the Ten Commandments. In other words, this fiery cloud was a sign of God’s presence. A visible sign that God was around and about to do business. A sign that God was still present with his people, even though they were exiles in a foreign land.
Verse 5 onwards tells us that as the fiery cloud drew nearer, Ezekiel saw a strange object in the middle of it. An object containing four creatures, wheels within wheels and a wonderful throne. I think perhaps the best way to describe it is as God’s chariot, or even God’s car!
I’m a fan of Top Gear, and I enjoy watching its presenters test out some weird and wonderful vehicles. But none of them can compare to the chariot that Ezekiel saw that day. A chariot designed to remind Ezekiel (and us) about God’s glorious qualities. A chariot that was as a visual aid to help Ezekiel know God better. (After all, you can always learn something about someone by the car they drive!)
The first thing Ezekiel noticed about God’s chariot – was its passengers. It contained “four living creatures”(v.5). They all had human bodies, but calves’ feet and angels’ wings. Strangest of all, they each had four faces on their heads (v.10). One face was human, one was a lion, one was an ox and one was an eagle.
In the ancient world these four animals represented the pinnacles of the animal kingdom. The human was a symbol of wisdom and reason. Lions represented strength and stamina. An ox personified creative power, and an eagle exemplified speed and energy.
So by having these passengers in his car, God was reminding Ezekiel of his wisdom, power, energy and creativity. If God could make creatures with these qualities, how magnificent must he be! If God has these qualities, he must be more than capable of helping his people – both then and now. Here is someone with the power to answer our prayers.
The next thing that caught Ezekiel’s eye were the four wheels on God’s chariot. They are described for us in verse 16: “they sparkled like topaz, and all four looked alike. Each appeared to be made like a wheel intersecting a wheel. And as they moved, they would go in any one of four directions”.
It seems that these wheels enabled the chariot to move effortlessly in any direction – to the four corners of the earth, to wherever God’s Spirit wanted them to go. It’s a helpful reminder to Ezekiel and all of us that God is everywhere. By his Spirit he is with us wherever we are. When you go to work tomorrow morning, God is there. When you try to share your faith with a friend, God is there. When you go through tough times, God is still there.
Another surprising feature of these four wheels appears in verse 18. The rims of the wheels “were high and awesome, and full of eyes all around”. Wherever God’s chariot went, whatever direction it travelled in, its eyes were looking outward. Again, this strange sight is teaching us something. Its teaching us that God sees everything everywhere. Nothing is hidden from his sight. Whatever situations or circumstance we find ourselves in, God sees. Whatever trials or temptations we face, God knows and cares.
Last but by no means least, Ezekiel looks up and sees a throne. At the top of God’s chariot, resting on a crystal floor, was a beautiful seat. A throne that of course symbolises God’s sovereignty. God is the king of creation and the rightful ruler of all our lives. Prince Philip may have had to stop his royal duties – but God never does. We all owe our Heavenly King our loyalty, obedience and love.
Its no surprise that when Ezekiel saw this awesome sight, he fell face down on the ground. Confronted with this glorious chariot, with this mind-boggling vision of God’s glory, Ezekiel responded with whole-hearted worship and awe. Here was a God he could trust. Here was a God Ezekiel could have confidence in. Here is the glorious God worth our worship and trust today.
Any marriage, in fact any healthy relationship requires two-way communication. We learn more about someone by listening to them than just by looking at them. And the same principle applies to God. To know him, we need to hear him.
So it comes as no surprise that God spoke to Ezekiel on his thirtieth birthday. Ezekiel’s remarkable birthday present was an audible as well as a visual experience. In verse 3 we are told that “the word of the Lord” came to him. In verse 25 a voice came from the throne, and in verse 28 he also hears God speaking.
The words God spoke to Ezekiel are recorded in the rest of his book. They included words of instruction for him to obey. Words of warning that he needed to heed. Words of hope for him to hold on to. And words of promise for him to trust – including a promise that one day they would return home to the Promised Land of Israel.
The same is true for all of Scripture. In the Bible we read words that God spoke at various times and various ways. Words given through priests like Ezekiel, prophets like Moses and apostles like Paul. Words that guide us through the challenges of daily life, as well as words that make us wise for salvation. Words that point the way to Heaven – the ultimate Promised Land – through faith in Christ alone.
One of my prayers for us all at St.John’s is that we all become much more familiar with God’s word in the Bible. Because no Christian can survive without feeding on God’s Word. Without it our faith will be lukewarm, misinformed, fragile and unfruitful. As Ezekiel discovered, God really does speak – so let’s listen to him!
Before I finish, you may have spotted that there was one important element of Ezekiel’s vision that I skipped over. Because the throne Ezekiel saw in his vision wasn’t empty, was it? In verse 26 and 28 he tells us that “on the throne was a figure like that of a man. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD.”
Do you notice the hesitant language? Ezekiel can’t quite believe what he is seeing. He can’t quite believe that God would appear to him in human form. In fact he can’t quite believe that God would appear to him in any form at all. Surely God’s face must always remain just above and beyond the limits of human sight.
Well if we are Christians we know differently, don’t we? We know that God is willing to show himself to us in human form. We know that the glory of God was once fully seen in a human face. Christians know that six hundred years after Ezekiel, God himself walked on earth in the person of Jesus Christ. God could be clearly seen and heard in Christ. He was fully human yet also entirely divine.
You may well feel that Ezekiel’s vision in our reading today is a bit weird, a bit hard to understand. That’s because it was never intended to be God’s full and final revelation of himself. That revelation came when Jesus was born. At that first Christmas our glorious God came fully into focus. In Jesus the character and qualities of God were made crystal clear. In Jesus we have a vision of God that would make even Ezekiel envious. So this Christmas let’s look afresh at Jesus, listen to him, and put our faith in him.
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