Ezekiel 1:1, 4-10, 22-28a
Tonight isn’t about literal truth, or about logic or proof, but about visions. Ezekiel said, “I was among the exiles by the River Chebar; the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God”.
In Revelation we read, “after this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open”.
Tonight’s readings are about visions; visions of heaven, visions of glory, visions of God.
I don’t know what you made of Ezekiel. Ezekiel paints a picture, but it’s almost impossible to visualise what he describes. And perhaps that is his point. Mere words can never do justice to the vision.
Ezekiel was a priest, a relatively young man in his twenties. He had experienced the siege and conquest of Jerusalem by the Babylonian army in 597BC. Along with the King and his fellow priests, he was taken off into in exile in Babylon, a thousand miles from his beloved homeland and from the Temple, the place where it was believed God’s Presence dwelt on earth. Despite now being a priest without a Temple – what a poignant bereavement that must have been for a young man – it seems that Ezekiel and the Jewish exiles continued their religious observance and probably met for daily prayer by the river – so it is likely that it was in the context of worship that Ezekiel saw his vision – ‘by the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered thee, O Zion’.
What did Ezekiel see? Well, it began with a stormy wind from the north; a great dark cloud, with fire flashing forth from it – we might think of an electric storm; but the cloud had a centre, and the centre shone with brightness, perhaps like a sun. Ezekiel looked closer, and what he seems to have beheld was nothing less than the throne of God himself, imagined as a huge chariot, wonderfully bright. In the brightness he could see that the throne was mounted upon mysterious living creatures – human in form but each with four faces and four wings, with cloven feet, and a sparkling appearance. The faces were four-fold – the face of a human, a lion, an ox, and an eagle – human, animal, bird – as if symbolising all things living. Of the four wings, two touched another of the creatures and two covered their bodies. In chapter 10 of Ezekiel, these are identified as the cherubim, mysterious heavenly beings, a representation of which stood in the holiest part of the Jerusalem Temple, where the divine Presence was localised. In the midst of them was something that looked like burning coals – was this symbolic of the offering of incense – a kind of burning holiness, purifying and refining fire. And then Ezekiel sees the wheels of the chariot, shining like precious stones, wheels bisecting wheels and all of them moving in different directions, full of eyes, as if symbolising omniscience and perfect wisdom; all seeing, all knowing. The wheels and the creatures were clearly intrinsically related, and it’s impossible to imagine exactly what Ezekiel was seeing – this is something beyond the knowable. But he does describe the noise of the wings – like mighty waters, like the thunder of the Almighty, like tumult in the midst of a battle; the classical sounds of theophany. God’s chariot-throne, bright as sapphire, is above the cherubim – and above the throne was one ‘that seemed like a human form’ – and yet Ezekiel goes to speak of brightness like gleaming amber, like fire, bright and splendid, almost as if you could hardly tell the form from the light – such, he says, was ‘the appearance or, perhaps manifestation, showing forth of the likeness of the glory of God’.
And that is the first point I wish to stress on this Trinity Sunday; if Ezekiel is saying anything to us, it is about the mystery of the Majesty of God. Trinity Sunday is an annual reminder that our pictures of God are too small. We reduce God and limit him; we become comfortable with him, and domesticate him. Whereas for Ezekiel, the vision leaves him flat on his face, deeply disturbed, overwhelmed, spent. Here is something of the God who is holy Mystery, over-powering, all-encompassing, slaying, overwhelming, wholly Other, from which we shrink back and fall down as though dead – and yet also something compelling, something that draws us nearer, that invites, that beckons.
Second, it is a remarkable thing, that at this lowest point in the history of Israel – in captivity, in exile, God was not absent from his people. Indeed, this passage blows away narrow and limited views of the presence and activity of God. Because, if you read on in Ezekiel, you will see that yes, in chapter 1 the King and priests had been exiled, but the Temple in Jerusalem was still standing, and there was the hope of a home-coming. But Ezekiel’s message was that Jerusalem would be destroyed, Temple and city, because of the rebellion of the people against God, and so, indeed, in 586BC, both temple and city were utterly laid waste following an unsuccessful rebellion. So the point is this: God is not at all confined to a hill-top in Jerusalem; rather, he is the Lord of creation, no place is beyond his presence. Indeed, the very symbol of a chariot with ever-moving wheels is itself a symbol of a God on the move. And that is another lesson for today. I would invite you to think of Trinity Sunday as ‘God on the move’ Sunday. This is not least because, in the life of the Trinity, we see a dynamic movement – the movement of mutual love between Father, Son and Spirit into which we are drawn. But also a movement in mission – the eternal Son praying to the Father to send the Spirit; the Spirit himself revealing the presence and power of the Son, whose healing and reconciling work continues; the Spirit inspiring our praise and prayer which we offer through the Son to the Father. Remember, it was at the lowest point that God revealed his Presence to Ezekiel. Perhaps it is in worship, that we sense where this on the move God is at work now, inviting and challenging us to join with him in his mission.
Third, this is where our reading from Revelation comes in. The parallels with Ezekiel 1 are obvious. John, like Ezekiel, is in exile, because of his testimony to Jesus. He also receives his visions in the context of worship; he draws on Ezekiel’s language and imagery. Like Ezekiel, the vision fells him, and it is the prelude to his prophetic calling.
It is tempting to see John’s vision as a heavenly ‘clothing’ of earthly worship. We perhaps picture John’s assembly: a bishop or church leader, flanked by presbyters and deacons, standing round the Table of the communion. The community are worshipping, perhaps echoing the song of the heavenly choirs. Suddenly, heaven descends; the Table becomes God’s throne; the presbyters, the 24 elders; Ezekiel’s cherubim, the four living creatures appear; the whole scene is transfigured in a light and beauty, defying description. All heaven joins in the earthly song, as glory is given to God by all living things. If we were to read on we’d find the slaughtered Lamb appears in the midst of the throne, the Presence of Christ himself mediated in worship, and so glory and worship are given both to the One who sits on the throne and to the Lamb. And before the throne are seven torches, symbolising the seven spirits of God and on the Lamb himself, are seven eyes, interpreted as the seven spirits of God sent out into all the world. Seven, of course, is a symbolic number of perfection; and at the beginning of the book, the greeting is:
Grace to you and peace from him who was and is and is to come,
and from the seven spirits that are before his throne,
and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead.
It seems that John here is using a stylised reference to the Holy Spirit; the seven-fold Spirit of God.
So worship as heaven descending; in which we experience not only the Presence of the Trinity, but God as Trinity: the One who sits on the throne, the Lamb in our midst, the Holy Spirit, sent among us; and by whom earthly worship is transfigured. I wonder if we have eyes and imaginations to see it. Certainly, our worship should help us. And can we ignore the voice and call of God, as it came to Ezekiel, as it came to John the Seer?