It is not very often that New Year’s Day is on a Sunday. Last time was 11 years ago in 1995. It is a significant day of the year. It is a new year, a new beginning, a time of direction setting, making new year’s resolutions. As we sit together today, it is good for us to think about what will form the foundation, the direction for this new year?
The first time I was involved in building a house – it was a cottage at a Bible Camp – I was amazed at how much time was involved in making sure the foundation was straight. We had made a commitment to put up the house in one day. I wanted to get going on the walls, but the carpenter kept measuring and levelling until he had the foundation just right. Of course, it is important because if the foundation is straight, then the rest of the house will be straight and if it is not straight, then there will be trouble every step of the way from there on.
Today, I want to begin with something that will be a foundation, a beginning vision for the rest of the year.
At the same time, this morning, we will begin a series on the book of Ezekiel. In this first message, we will examine chapter 1. The first three chapters of Ezekiel describe God’s call to Ezekiel to be His spokesman to His people. In the first chapter, Ezekiel is given the privilege of a glimpse into heaven. Then in chapters 2,3, he is called to speak God’s Word to His people. The call is not a flight of fancy, but is God’s call to speak to real people in a difficult situation and thus communicates God’s involvement and concern for the situation. Through this call, the prophet’s authority comes from the word of God, not from himself or his office.
The call came to Ezekiel by the river Kebar. The river Chebar was a canal near the city of Nippur in what is now southern Iraq. Ezekiel was one of those who had been taken from the land of Israel and exiled to Babylon. The call came in the 5th year of Jehoiachin’s captivity. This comment anchors this date in a specific time in history. We will examine the time in history more in two weeks and also look at the call in more detail next week.
In the first verse of this chapter we read, “the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.” This is very exciting. It describes a glimpse into heaven, into the presence of God. What a marvellous way to start the year, to begin with a vision of God. My prayer is that the vision of God we will look at this morning will form a good beginning and direction for the new year.
The image of God’s glory we have here, sets a scene that is fantastic. It is beyond anything we have ever seen.
There are some pretty amazing things on earth. We have seen pictures of beauty, of power. God has created some very interesting looking creatures. Whenever we look at the natural world, especially the beautiful places we are amazed at what a wonderful creator we have. When we consider all the very different and interesting creatures in our world, we are in awe of God’s creativity and we praise Him for what He has done in creation.
The scene of the glory of God’s presence in this chapter begins on earth. We read in verse 4 that Ezekiel saw “a windstorm coming out of the north – an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light.” When we read the rest of the description, everything is compared to something else but in this opening description those comparatives are absent. It is likely that he actually saw this and recognized it. Perhaps it was a thunder storm coming across from the north with the setting sun shining through or perhaps underneath the clouds. It would be a scene of power with the wind and the storm and of beauty with the sunset. His vision begins with power and beauty on earth, but goes far beyond that.
Although earth gives us some pretty amazing images, the things described here are things that we have never seen before. The vision goes on to describe things that are far more impressive and much greater than anything we will ever see on earth. Throughout the description of the vision, we have the repeated use of the word “like.” It is used in Vs. 4, 5, 7, 10, 13, 14, 16 and 22. The reason for it is that Ezekiel cannot say it is anything that is on earth because the things described here are not on earth. They are above and beyond earth so he is limited to comparing the things he sees with things that are on earth.
I would challenge the artists in this congregation to try to draw what is described here. How would you draw what is described here? Some have attempted to do so and these are some of their images. I suspect any representation will fail to come close to the reality.
There are three sections in this picture.
In the first picture, from verses 5-11, he describes the four living creatures. My understanding of the text is that they are standing in a square because the tips of their wings touch each other. Standing thus, they have their faces looking out in every direction because each creature has four faces and so one is always looking forward, one to each side and one towards the middle and beyond. There is no place the four living creatures do not see. The covering of their bodies in the presence of God is for the purpose of respect. One writer has suggested the meaning of the four different faces in the following way. The face of a man represents that the being is supreme and first. The faces of the lion and ox remind us that these beasts are kings among the wild beasts and among domesticated animals. The face of the eagle describes the chief of the birds of the air.
The light and color are also representative of impressive things – the creatures are in the midst of the fire, their feet, like those of a calf, gleam like burnished bronze, there is fire and there are flashes of lightening moving between them. The presence of human hands suggest the ability to do things. I suspect that these descriptions are merely representative and that these creatures are even more amazing than the description given here.
The next picture, from verses 12-21 describes their movement. Once again, I suspect that what is described here is something that we can only imagine. They don’t turn, but move in any direction according to the spirit within them. Their movements are rapid, like flashes of lightening. Then there are the wheels. It is hard to understand what they represent, but they have something to do with their movements. They are not earth bound, but can rise from the earth at will. The movement of the creatures suggests that they are not standing still, but are present everywhere. The eyes on the rims of the wheels indicate that these creatures see everything. The indication of the presence of the spirit suggests that they are connected in thought and action.
In verses 22 – 24 there is a third part of the description and that is of the expanse which they support. This time the description is of what happens above the heads of the creatures where there is an expanse. The description of it is also representative and it looked like sparkling ice. This time there is also sound involved and 3 comparisons are given – rushing water, tumult of an army and the voice of the Almighty. To me this conveys powerful sounds.
How do we imagine these creatures and their movements? It is difficult to say. What do they represent? I believe that they represent something that is beyond us, that is above earth and we are not to have a clear picture of it, but we are to understand that in the presence of God, we can take the best of what is on earth and multiply it greatly to even begin to know what God and His presence are like. Seeing Niagara Falls, a tropical beach, a majestic mountain is nothing compared to the presence of God.
As we read on, we come to a description of the actual presence of God. Above the expanse which is held up by these creatures Ezekiel goes on to describe a throne. It is made of the precious metal, sapphire. Sitting on that throne we have one of only a very few descriptions of the actual presence of God. God is not fully described because He cannot be, but the description we have is enough to realize that He is awesome.
God is described as being like a man, but after that the description gets a little unclear. The upper body is like glowing metal full of fire and the lower body is fire. His presence is surrounded by brilliant light and there is a rainbow all around. It is a picture of radiance, light, wonder, mystery, power and great awe. The description concludes in verse 28 with the words, “this was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.” One writer says, these are “graphic similes and convey well the idea of God’s awe fullness, heard with the ear as well as seen by the eye.”
The whole picture begins with something that is a recognizable scene on earth and extends to pictures that are fantastic and wonderful. The image focuses in coming from far and carefully drawing near. The image of God is not precise as was the image of the creatures, likely because the presence of God is and must remain a mystery to us.
What impressions does it leave? The appearance of God in Babylon is important. It communicates a message that will be repeated in future chapters that they should not look to Jerusalem for now. It comforts the people that God is also in Babylon with them. The image of God suggests power, the Lord as a warrior. It is a wonderful picture which is not of this world. It gives us an amazing understanding of the reality of what God is like.
But what happens when we have a glimpse of the presence of God? The last verse has a message for us.
The first response is that of Ezekiel in verse 28. He writes, “When I saw it, I fell facedown…” There are a number of manifestations of the presence of God in the Bible. In each one the response is similar. In Genesis 17:3, God appeared to Abram and there it says that “Abram fell facedown.” In Matthew 17:5, God appeared to Jesus and the disciples on the mountain where Jesus was transfigured before them. When God spoke to them from within the cloud, the text says in verse 6, “When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground.” In Revelation 1:17 after seeing the risen Christ, John the apostle “fell at his feet.” The manifestation of the presence of God which Isaiah had at the beginning of his ministry, in Isaiah 6, does not describe that he fell down, but it does describe a deep sense of uncleanness and a consequent deep humility.
The similarity of every response to the manifestation of God is something that we need to learn from. The presence of God is so amazing, so powerful, so pure, so awesome that when he is seen, complete and utter amazement results in a powerfully humbling, awe-filled experience. When we read Ezekiel’s response we notice that he did not just fall down on his knees, but down on his face. It is a physical expression that communicates absolute surrender and astonishment.
Because we don’t see God, we sometimes become too familiar with him. Because God has also revealed Himself in Jesus as one who is “our brother” we sometimes approach Him rather casually. But let us never forget this other vision, a picture of such power, holiness, wonder and awe that we cannot help but bow down before Him.
What does it mean to fall on our faces before God? As I reflected on this, four things came to mind.
First of all, it is a recognition. It is an “aha” moment. For once we see things as they really are, we see God as He really is and recognize what we are in His presence. Falling on our faces affirms this recognition.
Furthermore, there is awe here. Another way to say this is that there is too much for us to take in. Sometimes people try to describe things that are hard to grasp. The other day our son showed me a website that was calculating the cost of the US military involvement in Iraq. A number, already in the billions was visibly scrolling numbers before our eyes as the cost was escalating by the second. Sometimes people try to describe the length of something by describing how many times it would reach around the earth. These attempts to get a handle on something beyond us are hard to grasp. Sometimes something is just too much to grasp. This is certainly true of the presence of God. What we can grasp and understand is amazing, but it is even more and bigger and more powerful and more amazing than that. Falling on our faces before Him communicates awe.
The third response is fear. In the presence of God, people are struck down and made silent. We are sometimes impressed with our ability and power and try to fight sometimes even against God, but in His presence, we quit fighting because we know that we will never win. The children of Israel were afraid in the presence of Goliath, there was no fight left in them. The fear we have in the presence of God is exponentially greater. Falling on our faces expresses our fear.
The other response is submission. When we see who God is and how awesome He is we finally get to the place where we have no choice but to submit to Him and acknowledge that He is Lord! In bowing on our faces in His presence, we declare that we submit our hearts and lives to Him in obedience.
As we begin this year, my prayer is that this vision of God’s presence will motivate us to bow down before Him and acknowledge His power, authority, awesomeness and allow that vision of Him to bring us to respond appropriately to Him in love, holiness, obedience and service throughout the year.
The other response we notice in this text is an encouragement to us. The last thing in this section is that Ezekiel says in verse 28, “I heard the voice of one speaking.”
Although a frightening experience, yet God speaks. This is an amazing reality in the awe inspiring, powerful presence of God.
The picture of God on the throne could communicate an image of God who is so far above human beings that he barely knows we exist. If God did not care about human beings, he would ignore us. But God speaks!
The picture could communicate an image of God who is so powerful and holy that he can’t come near to us. If God in His holiness was angry with us because of our un-holiness, he would yell, he would manifest His wrath and power and would have every right to do that. But God speaks!
The holy, amazing awesome God who sits above the cherubim, speaks. This means that He has a message for us, He loves us enough to want to communicate with us. The fact that God speaks is an evidence of God’s care for us, it is an evidence of God’s plan for us.
What are the implications for us that God speaks? If this awesome God has spoken, we must listen! Are we listening to the voice of God?
The glimpse of the presence of God which we receive in Ezekiel is a rare glimpse. There are only a few descriptions of the presence of God which have been given to people on earth. There are only a few instances in which God has pulled aside the curtain of heaven to let us have a look within. Ezekiel saw it and has described what he saw and it is fantastic. We have not seen it and have only a verbal description of it and therefore, we can only imagine what it was really like.
Sometimes you receive a description of a place when you have never been and you wonder what it is really like. Your imagination can provide some of the details, but never give the whole picture. The same is true in this picture. We have a description of the place we are going. It is an amazing description, but when we will see it, it will be so much more and so much better than we have imagined.
The description of God’s presence is enough to let us know that it is fantastic. It is not dream or imagination, it is real. How will this image impact us in the coming year? May the knowledge of the wonder of God’s presence, God who is there, God who is watching, God who is drawing, God who promises that we will see Him, God who speaks to us, give direction to our lives this year. May we measure what is important by this vision. May we walk calmly into the year because we know God who is there. May we keep listening to the one who speaks to us.