How to encounter the presence of God – Ezekiel 1, Part 5

Photo by Marek Piwnicki on Unsplash

We started this five-part series on Ezekiel 1 asking, “How long has it been since you encountered the presence of God?” Has it been a long time? Maybe you can’t say that you’ve ever experienced the manifest presence of God?

We’ve been following the vision of Ezekiel 1, and so far Ezekiel has encountered four living creatures, terrifying and amazing, that seem to making a flying lightning fire table. As the table approaches closer to him, what he sees on top of the table takes the vision to a totally different level.  Read Ezekiel 1, verses 25-28.

Guess what? We learn that this flying table is not a flying table.  It is instead a majestic transportation vehicle for a throne.  God’s throne!  And presence of God is there!

This is astounding on many levels.

First, the vision itself is amazing and indescribable.  So much power and speed and light.  This is unlike anything Ezekiel saw before, and he has a hard time describing it.  Notice how often he says it is “like” something.  He is grasping at the edges of his ability to find words for this.  The throne was like sapphire.  The figure was like a man.  It appeared as glowing metal.  Like fire.  Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds.  He literally cannot describe it, so he has to say that the presence of God was so amazing that it was kinda like this and kinda like that, but there is truly nothing that can fully describe it.

Why? Because this is the indescribable glory of the presence God!  What this means is that our normal understanding of God’s glory is likely nothing close to what it actually is like.  Our images of God are far too basic.  When people actually encounter the glory of the presence of God, they are just simply shell-shocked.  There are no words.  That is what Ezekiel sees on the banks of Kebar River in Babylon, and he is dumbfounded.

Wait…the Glory of God?  Is in Babylon???  This was new.  And shocking.  This is the second way that this vision of the glory of the presence of God is astounding. God’s glory was supposed to be 900 miles away in the temple, in Jerusalem.  Not in Babylon.  What does this mean???  We don’t know yet what it means.  Ezekiel doesn’t know yet.  But the disaster of Jerusalem’s downfall, the horrible 900 mile walk to Babylon, and the five years of exile have given the Jewish exiles a lot of time to wonder if God’s presence was gone, was false, was impotent against powerful Babylon.  And shock of all shocks, the presence of God is now there in Babylon!

So Ezekiel does what everyone in the Bible does when the glory of the presence of God shows up.  He falls face-down on the ground.  That is the appropriate response.  Have you ever experienced that? 

The palpable presence of God is sometimes called the Mysterium Tremendum, the Tremendous Mystery of the reality of God.  Ezekiel in no way expected to encounter it there in Babylon.  His worldview, from the day he was born, to that very day 30 years later, taught him that the presence of God was found only in the Temple in Jerusalem.  This really was for Ezekiel a tremendous mystery.  It broke his worldview into pieces.  God was in Babylon?  What does this mean? 

We’ll explore the meaning of God showing up more fully in the chapters to come.  For now, chapter 1 concludes with another surprise, God speaks!  But it is a cliffhanger.  What will God say?  When we begin chapter 2 (on June 28, as I’ll be taking a week’s break from the blog), we’ll find out.

For now, I suspect that we need a dose of what Ezekiel experienced.  We don’t need God to explode out of heaven on his flaming throne chariot.  Instead, we view our relationship with God from a different vantage point, that of the new covenant between God and his church.  What I am referring to is that we need to realize the amazing presence of God that is always with us.

This past week I participated in a prayer workshop.  It was excellent.  The presenter reminded us that God’s presence is not something we only encounter on special moments.  We Christians are always in his presence.  The Spirit of God lives with us.  As Paul wrote in 1st Corinthians 6, our bodies are the temple of the Spirit. 

What can it look like for us to be astounded by the glory of God in our regular lives?  Or are we so distracted that we rarely think in terms of encountering God?  Ezekiel absolutely did not expect to encounter God that day.  My guess is that most of rarely think we will encounter him either.  What a travesty!  Especially when God’s Spirit lives with us.

This is where silence in prayer can be so helpful. In the last few years, this is something I have been learning about prayer: we need to make room to be silent and enjoy the presence of God who is already with us.  One of the ways to do that is to fill our minds with Scripture.  Could be a verse.  Could be a phrase. Could be a word.  At the prayer workshop, the presenter read us Psalm 131 and asked us to think about the words of the Psalm.  Was there any word or phrase that was most meaningful to us?  Then remember that word or phrase as we sat quietly and enjoyed the presence of God.  My word from Psalm 131 was “hope.” The presenter suggested that if our minds wandered, as mine definitely did, then we could remember the Bible verse or word to retrain our hearts and minds on God. 

Additionally, in the silence we can listen if God might speak.  Not that he must.  But in those moments, primarily, we are remembering who he is, his glory, his presence.

In the past I’ve written about Brother Lawrence who sought to practice the presence of God in all the moments of his life, whether he was at work, or with friends, or by himself.  He attempted to maintain an ongoing conversation with God, aware of God with him, at all times.  His book The Practice of the Presence of God is free online, as it is 400 years old.  It is quite encouraging.  Practice is a key word.  We can and should practice the presence of God with us.

Ezekiel and the flying table? – Ezekiel 1, Part 4

Ezekiel's Visions of God—Ezekiel 1:1

In the previous post about the vision of Ezekiel 1, Ezekiel watches shocked as four living creatures powered by the Spirit of God fly out of a thunderstorm into close proximity to him. Now read verses 15-21 where Ezekiel describes these astounding beings further.

Near the feet of each creature, Ezekiel sees some unique wheels, covered in eyes, symbolizing the all-seeing knowledge of God.  Each wheel is actually made of two wheels intersecting at right angles. The wheels don’t turn, but they do move with the living creatures, forward, backwards, up and down, as the Spirit guides them.  This is a major theme in Ezekiel, the work and leading of the Spirit. Clearly, God is in this vision.

What Ezekiel describes next is that the four angelic creatures do not travel independently of one another. Instead, in unison, they form a very unique mode of transportation.  This vehicle almost seems like a table in which each of the four living creatures are like a leg of the table, and each leg has wheels.  But this table doesn’t just move along the ground.  It flies, because the living creatures have wings, and more than that, it flies incredible fast, as fast as lightning.  Most importantly of all, it is led by the Spirit. 

Let’s keep reading, as the vision unfolds further.  Read Ezekiel 1, verses 22-24.  Now the table top comes into view.  The NIV calls it an “expanse, sparkling like ice.” That word “expanse,” is sometimes translated by our English word, “firmament.” The same Hebrew word is used perhaps most famously in Genesis 1, which describes the creation of the universe. In Genesis 1, verse 6, we read that God created an expanse, or firmament, that separated waters below and waters above, and it was called sky. Symbolically this expanse refers to the separation between the dwelling of humanity and the dwelling of God. Now connect that idea to the table in Ezekiel’s vision, as it is a hint. What does it mean? Stay with me, as we’ll find out in tomorrow’s post.

For now, Ezekiel writes that the movement of the four creatures’ wings is essentially like a motor powering this astounding table, and they make a super loud noise.  Ezekiel can barely describe it, so he tries three ways.  It sounds like the roar of rushing water, or like the voice of God Almighty, or like the tumult of an army on the move. 

This is quite a vehicle!  It is powerful, it is led by the Spirit. 

Interestingly, the four living creatures stop their movement, lowering their wings.  Then the vision goes to a totally different level, which we’ll learn about in the next post.

Ezekiel and the Spirit-led creatures – Ezekiel 1, Part 3

The Four Living Creatures With Four Faces—Ezekiel Chapter 1

This week we began studying Ezekiel chapter 1 (starting here), and so far in verses 1-4 we have learned that Ezekiel was part of a group of 10,000 Jews that were exiled from the city of Jerusalem to Babylon. After five years of living there, on the banks of the Kebar River, Ezekiel sees an ominous storm cloud.

In Ezekiel chapter 1, verses 5-14, we read that Ezekiel sees, bursting out of the storm, four living creatures, and they are bizarre to say the least.  Each creature, though humanoid in form, has heads with four faces, three of which are animals.  Each creature also has two sets of wings.  Notice in verse 13 where Ezekiel tells us the creatures are glowing like burning coals or torches.  Not only that but fire moves between them, and lightning flashes out of the fire.  Finally, the creatures are moving fast, back forth like lighting. 

There is a precedent for these creatures, especially when you consider their wings.  They resemble the wings of the cherubim that were on the Ark of Covenant in the temple of God.  The Ark of the Covenant was basically a fancy box that held (see Hebrews 9:4) the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 25:16), a jar of manna (Exodus 16:33-34), and Aaron’s staff (Numbers 17:10).  It was kept in the most holy place of the temple in Jerusalem.  On its lid were angels, called cherubim, that had wings a lot like the wings of the four living creatures in Ezekiel’s vision.  But the four living creatures in Ezekiel were much more complex, with four wings each, whereas the cherubim on the Ark only had two wings. 

What are we to make of this vision so far?  On one hand, it would be amazing to see.  I looked up a couple videos on YouTube to see how artists rendered it.  When you read the vision, what do you picture in your mind?  It’s really wild, right?  How would you draw it?  There were lots of options on YouTube, and I have no idea if any of them are even close.  The vision is glaring with bright light, moving so fast, that it is hard to know what Ezekiel saw.

Furthermore, we would do well to remember that prophecy is often highly symbolic.  In a vision a prophet might see one thing that means something else.  This is why prophecy can be daunting.  We don’t want to understand it incorrectly, but it is very easy to misunderstand.  I think this is why we often avoid it.  As we dive into Ezekiel, I cannot guarantee that I am going to interpret it right. But I’ll certainly try!

Let’s look at some options for understanding what symbolism might be present in the four living creatures.  First, there are four of them.  This could represent the four corners of the earth, which of course does not have any corners.  But in the ancient world the idea of the four corners of the earth referred to “everywhere on earth.”  Symbolically, then, that can refer to completeness.  Why completeness?  Perhaps that what God is trying to communicate through this vision will have world-wide, or complete, significance.

Second, the creatures themselves are also likely symbolic.  The four animals of the four faces of each creature likely refer to the apex of four categories of animals.  Humans are the rulers of all creation.  Lions are the king of the beasts.  Oxen are the strongest of the domesticated animals, and eagles are the rulers of the skies.  So there is great strength and power represented in these creatures.  Whatever the vision is trying to communicate, it will indicate great power and strength.

Third, look at verse 12, where we read that the living creatures follow “the spirit.”  In Hebrew the word “spirit” literally means “wind” or “breathe,” but it is also used for the Spirit of God.  Therefore, it really seems the idea Ezekiel wants us to understand is that these four creatures are following the Spirit of God. 

I imagine Ezekiel is watching this vision dumbstruck. Things are about to get even more wild. Check back to tomorrow’s post to find out how.

Would you want to receive a vision from God? – Ezekiel 1, Part 2

Photo by Илья Мельниченко on Unsplash

In the previous post, we began studying the book of Ezekiel in the Hebrew Bible. In chapter 1, verse 1, Ezekiel tells us that he was among exiles by the Kebar River.  Psalm 137:1, a psalm written by exiles in Babylon says, “By the rivers in Babylon, we sat and wept, when we remembered Zion.”  Zion is another name for Jerusalem.  We don’t know precisely what body of water the Kebar is, or where it is located, but it was likely a canal connected to the great Euphrates River.  In the ancient world, rivers were often places of prayer, and it seems that was the case for the exiled Israelites. They would go to bodies of water like the Kebar and long for a return to Jerusalem.

There, Ezekiel tells us in verse 1, the heavens open up and he saw visions of God.  That one phrase is amazing.  He saw visions of God. I thought about that and wondered if I would want to see visions of God.  On the one hand, I do, out of curiosity’s sake.  I also do because it would help me deal with lingering doubts.  Yes, even we pastors have lingering doubts about the existence of God.  And we, too, would love God to just break out of the heavens and reveal himself in a vision.  But on the other hand, whenever there are visions in Scripture, the visions pretty much freak people out.  My guess is that God gave us a vision, it would freak us out too.  There is a safety in the routine experience of life.  Ezekiel had that routine too.  Even there in Babylon in exile.  From the moment this vision arrives, though, Ezekiel’s routine changes.  What results is anything but a mundane life.  Ezekiel is about to describe the vision for us, and I’ll think you’ll see why it is so life-altering.

Before describing the vision, notice how verse 1 is written in the first-person, where Ezekiel refers to himself as “I,” but in verses 2-3, someone else is writing, talking about Ezekiel in third person, “him.”  This is the only place in the entire book that a narrator speaks.  Verses 2 and 3 are likely a later editorial comment by a scribe or compiler, helping us understand the context of this amazing vision. 

In verse 2 the narrator repeats what we already knew about the exile, as I mentioned in the previous post.  Then the narrator adds that the events of Ezekiel 1 take place five years into the exile, an important detail to keep in mind.  In verse 3, the narrator reveals that Ezekiel was the son of a priest.  That answers why Ezekiel was exiled in the first place, because he was in a priest’s family, and the Babylonians, when they defeated Jerusalem, carted off the priests. 

But there’s more we need to consider about priests that relates to Ezekiel’s situation.  The Mosaic Law, in Numbers 4:3, mentions that the earliest a person qualified for the priesthood was their 30th year.  So when you tie that fact to Ezekiel’s reference in verse 1 to “the thirtieth year,” it seems to confirm that he was 30 years old when this vision came to him.  What this means is that instead of becoming a priest, God has a different plan for him.  We read in verse 3 that the word of the Lord came to him, that God’s hand was on him, and thus Ezekiel would become not a priest, but a prophet.

With those details in mind, look at verse 4 which is where Ezekiel begins to describe the vision he received there in Babylon beside the Kebar River.  In Ezekiel 1, verse 4, we read: “I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north—an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light.”

So far, the vision doesn’t seem like a vision at all. It seems like a normal meteorological event.  A bad thunderstorm.  Wind, clouds, lightning.  Nothing out of the ordinary yet.  We had some of these this past week where I live in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and you’ve seen them too where you live.

As we keep reading in the middle of verse 4, the vision begins to take an unusual turn: “The center of the fire looked like glowing metal…”

Now that is not a normal thunderstorm! Something is in the middle of the storm, and it is glowing like metal that has been heated super-hot.  What is it? 

Check back tomorrow, and we’ll find out!

When God’s presence is gone – Ezekiel 1, Part 1

Photo by Billy Pasco on Unsplash

Think about the last time you encountered the presence of God.  When was it?  How did it happen?  In a worship service singing a song?  In Bible study?  In nature?  Maybe at a youth retreat around a campfire? 

Now think about how long has it been since you encountered the presence of God?  Maybe a long time?  Maybe never?  Do we need to experience the presence of God in our lives?  Should we have an expectation that we will experience it?  Has God promised us that we will have such an experience?  Is something wrong if we don’t experience the presence of God on a regular basis? 

Last week we met a man named Ezekiel.  This week we will study Ezekiel 1, which describes his shocking encounter with the presence of God. 

In verse 1 we read that it was the 30th year, 4th month and 5th day, but of what?  We’re about to find out.  More on that in a post later this week.

Ezekiel also says that he was among the exiles.  What exiles?  In 2 Kings 24:14, we read that this exile happened during the rule Judean King Jehoiachin, when the powerful nation of Babylon defeated the city of Jerusalem and took 10,000 people from the city, including Ezekiel.  Think about the exile for a moment.  Last week I gave a brief overview of the history of the nation of Israel, from the perspective of their covenant relationship with God.  That covenant was a relational agreement between God and Israel, such that his powerful presence would be with them. His presence guided them from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.  Then his presence resided in the temple.  The physical presence of God was their foundation for hundreds of years. 

In 2 Kings 24:14, we met another powerful presence, the Babylonian military, and that military conquered Jerusalem and exiled the people.  The unthinkable had happened. It seemed like the presence of Babylon had defeated the presence of God. That was unfathomable.   What do you do when what you believe is impossible all of a sudden happens?  It shakes your worldview foundations.  You start to question, “Is everything I believed actually wrong, a lie?  What is true?” 

Many of us feel those doubts when we go through difficult times.  For Israel, it was an exile in which the presence of God didn’t seem to matter. Of course, they should have been aware that they were the ones that broke covenant with God, and God was doing exactly what he said he would do if they broke the covenant, which was to allow them to face the consequences of their sin.  But you and I well know that we can struggle to have the humility, the teachability and self-awareness to say, “Yeah, my bad, God, I deserve this punishment.” 

Rather than look at our own sins, what we often do is turn our fear around on God, and make it out to be his fault. 

When people die of natural causes, I’ve heard people say, “God…why???  Why did you do this?”  I imagine God thinking to himself, “I didn’t do anything…they were in their 90s and had been struggling with poor health for years.”  But we don’t want to hear that, so we start blaming God, or we have a crisis of faith, wondering if God was ever real, or if all we believed was always false.  This happens not only when we have a health crisis, but it can happen when we go through anything difficult like a job loss or a broken relationship.  In those moments of pain, God seems distant. When God’s presence seems distant, we can question him.  That was surely happening in the hearts and minds of those exiles. 

Who were these exiles, and why was Ezekiel among them?  One scholar says that “Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the Babylonians, only deported the most prominent citizens of Judah: professionals, priests, craftsmen, and the wealthy. The lower-class peasants were allowed to stay.” (Jewish Virtual Library)  So Ezekiel must have been part of one of those upper-class families. We’ll learn more about this in a coming post this week. For now, think about how people were forcibly separated from their families, friends and homes. Do you think the Babylonian soldiers were nice about it?

Then imagine how the journey of the exile took place.  They didn’t board airplanes.  They were forced to walk to a distant land.  Get this: the journey from Jerusalem to Babylon some estimate took four months to cover 900 miles on foot.  So just the process of the exile was difficult.  Think about how that might impact your relationship with the Lord.  Four months, walking 900 miles, and God’s presence was nowhere to be found.  So on top of the fall of Jerusalem, add the emotional and spiritual pain when you are ripped away from all that was familiar to you, then the physical exhaustion of an arduous exile, all the while wondering what in the world you were in for.

Once they arrived in Babylon, what life was like for them? Another scholar tells us that “Although the Jews suffered greatly and faced powerful cultural pressures in a foreign land, they maintained their national spirit and religious identity. Elders supervised the Jewish communities, and…prophets…kept alive the hope of one day returning home. This was possibly also the period when synagogues were first established, for the Jews observed the Sabbath and religious holidays, practiced circumcision, and substituted prayers for former ritual sacrifices in the Temple.” (Britannica)

So hope was not lost.  But God’s presence was 900 miles away in the temple in Jerusalem.  The exiles longed for return, for God to show up. But he didn’t.

Do you know the feeling?

If so, we’ll see, as we continue studying Ezekiel 1, that there is hope. Check back in tomorrow!

Are you experiencing the dark night of the soul? – Ezekiel 1, Preview

Does God seem distant to you? Ethereal? Maybe even a mirage or a fiction? Many people feel that way and wonder if something is wrong with them. Many feel guilt or shame when they have doubts about God. They wish they had a closer relationship with God. They wish their experience of God was more personal, intimate. They hear the stories about people describing an encounter with God that is vibrant and palpable, and they become discouraged or jealous wondering if they’ll ever experience God like that.

If you have those kinds of thoughts, you are not alone. Even a luminary like Mother Theresa experienced what some people call “the dark night of the soul.” In this article, we learn the surprising news that, “[Mother Theresa’s] letters revealed that, except for one short period, Teresa had been afflicted with a deep sense of God’s absence for the last half-century of her life.” Think about that! She felt that God was distant or even gone for 50 years!

Amazingly, Mother Theresa plodded on, serving the Lord. Are you thinking, “I don’t know if I could do that? 50 years?” Or maybe you are thinking, “I get it…that’s my experience too, and I don’t like it.” I was recently talking with a friend who said that his wife recently mentioned to him, “I want more of the Holy Spirit.” How about you?

This coming week on the blog, we will study Ezekiel chapter 1, and it seems to me that Ezekiel and his friends were having those very thoughts. They were experiencing the dark night of the soul.

Right in the middle of his longing, though, something shocking happens to Ezekiel, and it is wild. I don’t believe I can exaggerate how fascinating is this chapter of the Bible.  See for yourselves.  Read Ezekiel chapter 1 this weekend. Try to figure out what is going on.  It might be tempting to think that it is a chapter of the Bible that has absolutely nothing to do with our lives in 2021.  Think again.  What I found as I studied this bizarre chapter of the Bible, convinced me that it is meaningful and practical for us in a very important way, particularly for those of us who wonder if God is distant, or if God doesn’t actually exist.

I’m looking forward to next week as we talk about Ezekiel chapter 1!

How a prophetic word can change your life (and the world) – Intro to Ezekiel, Part 5

Photo by Josh Hild on Unsplash

I am excited to start studying this prophetic book of Ezekiel.  Prophets are often conceived of people who predict the future.  They seem glamorous.  They hear from God.  What I have come to learn, and this is only bolstered by my introductory studies of Ezekiel, is that the prophetic life is not glamorous, and it rarely involves predicting the future.  Instead, prophets tell the truth about the current world, and it is often a truth that we don’t want to hear.  We know it is true deep down, but it is a truth that says, “This situation is messed up, and there needs to be a change.”  In a word: “Repent.” 

Generally, people, humans, do not enjoy hearing that we need to repent.  We do not enjoy it when someone confronts us.  Most of us don’t like to confront others, and we don’t want others to confront us.  We would much rather exist in a false reality where things are just fine, like a dreamworld, a fantasy.  But we live in the real world, and we need to embrace and welcome the prophet in our lives.  We need a person to tell us to repent, to restore what is broken.  Repentance is sometimes conceived of a 180 change of direction.  That’s not wrong, but it is not the full picture.  Repentance is better understood as a restoration of relationship between God and creation.  When we repent, we return to God, we renew our relationship with him, and of course that means we will stop sin, fight against sin, receive his forgiveness, and pursue him anew, including restoration in our human relationships and restoration of justice in our world. 

This is the vision of restoration that we will see in Ezekiel, and it is one of his major metaphors, that of the transformation of the heart.  Israel was hardhearted.  A hard heart symbolizes a will, a desire and resulting action to live in such a way that breaks or goes against covenant relationship with God. The hard heart also has a permanence about it.  It is set in stone, it is concrete, unchanging and dead.  That is very bad news.  It certainly describes Israel.  They were dead to God.  God, through Ezekiel, says that Israel needs a new heart, a heart of flesh, a heart that is alive to him, and he will give them that heart. 

Thankfully we can know the end of this story in our lives now!  Through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, God did the very thing Ezekiel says he would do.  He made it possible for us to have a transformed heart.  When we believe in him, God the Spirit lives with us and transforms us, so that the life of the Spirit energizes us and flows out of us.  This is called the Fruit of the Spirit, and it grows in us and is visible for all to see in our interactions with other people.  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control.  They are the evidence of a transformed heart.  This is precisely what God, through Ezekiel, says will happen in his people who repent and are restored to him in covenant relationship.

Furthermore, this transformation will envelop the land in justice.  What we will see in Ezekiel is a vision of societal transformation.  We participate in the first-fruits of the Kingdom of God now when we usher in the Kingdom of righteousness and justice in our community.  Is it the fully consummated Kingdom?  No.  That will only occur when Jesus returns.  Instead, what Ezekiel helps us see is that our work of pursuing God’s heart of justice in our community is in line with what Jesus prayed in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

When God feels distant or fictional – Intro to Ezekiel, Part 4

Photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin on Unsplash

Does God feel distant, or have you wondered if God is just a thing of the past? Maybe he wasn’t even real back then? While the stories of God’s work in the past sound great, and might even be encouraging and inspiring, what we really want is for God to show up in our lives now.  Ever thought something like that?

We can be battling all sorts of issues in our lives, frustrated because the issues linger and linger and don’t seem to get resolved.  We might have a health struggle that persists, even after seeing doctors, getting treatment, trying medications, having surgeries, and still we don’t feel right.  We might have years upon years of just barely making it financially, and the day comes when we pay off a loan, super excited to have some extra cash each month, only to have the car break down.  Right on the heels of paying off one loan, we have to start another.  It might be a relationship that has been difficult for years.  The person in your family or friend group that gets under your skin and you’ve tried to deal with it, but to little avail.  What is the struggle in your life?  In the middle of those struggles, we don’t want to hear, “God is there for you, and we know this because of the great things he did in the past.”  We want to hear and know is that, “God is there for you, and we know this because of how he is doing great things right now.” 

As we study the prophet Ezekiel, we find him addressing that concern through one of the repeated phrases God gives him: “I am Yahweh.”  Do you remember what or who Yahweh is?  It is the actual name of God.  It is translated as “I am” or “I am what I am” or “I will be what I will be.”  Through Ezekiel, God is declaring to the people of Israel that, though they had been enticed to follow and worship foreign false gods, he, Yahweh, will be making it clear to all that he is the one true God.  Remember that the people are hearing this while they are in exile.  Especially because they were exiled, even though it was because of their unfaithfulness, they could still be wondering if their God, Yahweh, is the one true God.  All those stories from centuries before, especially when he freed their ancestors from slavery in Egypt, sound great.  But that’s ancient history.  Are those stories even true?  What if all that was made up?

Ezekiel tells the exiles in Babylon, exiles who are wondering if Yahweh is real, wondering if God is who he says he is, that God is actually at work right here, right now. This is a reminder that can be so helpful to us as well. God IS at work now. God IS alive and well. Let us tell the stories of how we see God at work in our world. Please comment below with your stories.

When I hear that the exiles likely questioned God, I think, “What right do those people have to question if God is who he said he is?”  The Israelites were disobedient to God.  They broke the covenant between themselves and God.  It wasn’t God who denied them.  The people of Israel are at fault, so they don’t have any right to question God.  Still God says to them “You will know, all will know, that I am Yahweh.”  It reminds me of Paul’s words to Timothy that even when we are faithless, God is faithful, because he cannot deny himself.  That’s a powerful thought.  We need to dwell on that.  God is faithful, because he cannot deny himself.  We will know that God is God. 

Though God is absolutely faithful in the midst of our faithlessness, that doesn’t mean he ignores the fact of our faithlessness. What we will see is that God’s message through Ezekiel is aware, very aware, of Israel’s sin, of the fact that Israel broke the covenant between God and Israel.  Therefore, Ezekiel’s prophetic message will call Israel out over and over throughout the book, focusing on two main sins.

First, we will hear that the people committed idolatry, the worship of false gods.  That will give us ample time to consider what idolatry might look like in our day and age.  Do we American Christians practice idolatry?  Absolutely. Of course we don’t want to hear that we might be idolaters, but we need to hear it.  So let us be teachable and humble and receptive to how this message might relate to us. 

Next, God’s message through Ezekiel calls out injustice.  I know that the word “social justice” has taken on a political tone in our culture.  But the reality is that God has a heart for justice, and that will be very clear in Ezekiel.  Remember that God wanted his people to be a blessing to whole world (see the first post in this five-part blog series introducing Ezekiel).  When the people of God blessed the world, the world would get to know the righteous heart of God, and justice would increase. Sadly, what happened in Israel was they sometimes treated people with injustice, such as when Solomon used slaves to build buildings.  As we learn about God’s heart for justice, we will strive to apply it to our day and age. 

I remember coming home from a mission trip to Chicago in the summer of 2010.  There we worked with our sister church, Kimball Ave, as they taught about God’s heart for justice in the big city, and how they were striving to apply it.  In Chicago there was injustice, seemingly, at every corner.  Poverty, Hunger, homelessness, violence, corruption, and on and on.  Back here in Conestoga Valley, though, there is gorgeous farmland and wealthy suburbs, all in an excellent school district.  It doesn’t seem like there is injustice.  As the months and years went by, we kept looking, and we found it.  There is homelessness, poverty, some racial injustice, broken families, and more.  Its why we work with CVCCS, its why we help with their summer lunch club, and why we help fight injustice in our community.  Because it flows from God’s heart for righteousness and justice.

Ezekiel will be a wonderful guide to us continue to pursue God’s heart of righteousness and justice, reminding us that he is at work even now. 

Why prophetic ministry is not glamorous – Intro to Ezekiel, Part 3

Photo by mwangi gatheca on Unsplash

The late singer Keith Green once gave a talk about prophets, saying that he met people who considered him a prophet and people who wanted to be prophets too. Green’s response was, “You might not realize what you’re hoping for.” Prophetic ministry can actually be very difficult. This week (starting here) we’re meeting Ezekiel the prophet, and his prophetic ministry is an example of what Green is referring to.

The messages Ezekiel receives are very unique to say the least, and therefore his prophetic ministry is too.  For starters, he prophesies as an exile, from the place of exile.  Most of the other biblical prophets ministered in Israel.  Ezekiel also has some bizarre prophetic methodology.  Normally when we think of a prophet, we think of a guy getting a message from God and declaring that message to a person or a group of people in the form of a speech or a written letter.  While Ezekiel had some of that, and eventually his prophecies were recorded in written form in the book we read, he also had some other very unique prophetic methods.  First, he used sign acts, what we might call street theater.  He would literally act out some of his prophecies in the public square, right outside where all could see him.  One prophetic sign act involved Ezekiel, tied up, laying on his left side for 390 days, then again on his right side for 40 days, all the while eating food cooked by using human excrement as fuel. Some of the theater is so weird, it has been labeled as psychotic or schizophrenic.  It wasn’t.  It had a purpose, and it was from God, calling the people back into covenant relationship.

But there’s more.  Ezekiel communicates through allegories or parables.  A vine.  An eagle.  A lioness.  And even fantasy characters, that remind us of The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia.  Ezekiel would also have prophetic visions that almost seem like God was transporting Ezekiel physically from Babylon to Jerusalem.  I wondered what this might have been like. It made me think of a drone pilot.  Some of you maybe have drones that have cameras, allowing you to pilot them from far off.  Those drones can travel miles away, so that you can’t see them, and you have to rely on the camera to pilot them.  A couple years ago, my wife’s uncle was in town for her sister’s wedding, and he brought a pretty fancy drone with him.  One day he was flying it in Amish country, and decided to follow a buggy.  The video feed from the drone camera to the iPad, which he used to control the drone, was not nearly as high quality as the recording.  So when he played back the recording, he was shocked to realize that he had flown the drone right through high tension electric wires.  A near miss!  I don’t know precisely what Ezekiel’s prophetic transport visions were, but you will see that they are quite unique.  Perhaps most famous of all is the vision of the valley of dry bones. 

Ezekiel’s methodology also includes something called the Prophetic Stare.  Nine times in the book we read God telling Ezekiel to “set his face against” something.  The mountains, false women prophets, the south, the city of Jerusalem, some foreign countries.  Scholars tell us that we should not understand this as God telling Ezekiel to travel to those places.  Remember the story of Jonah and Ninevah?  He was commanded to travel with his message, but not Ezekiel.  Instead, Ezekiel’s prophetic stare included a message, say, about Pharaoh, King of Egypt, that was intended for the hearing of the Israelites in exile, and likely never made it to Pharaoh. 

This bizarre methodology did not result in people clamoring to Ezekiel to hear more. In fact, we will read God say to Ezekiel that he, Ezekiel, will go through all of this, and the people will not listen. Ezekiel’s prophetic ministry would not only be difficult, it would also be ineffective. That’s what Keith Green was getting at. Please hear me: prophetic ministry is vital, and that goes for today. In Ephesians 4, Paul writes that God calls some in the church to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds/pastors and teachers. We need prophetic ministry. But don’t expect it to be glamorous.

Why prophets (and the rest of us) need to practice humility – Intro to Ezekiel, Part 2

Photo by Karl Fredrickson on Unsplash

Yesterday we met the prophet Ezekiel, whose ministry occurred during some of Israel’s years of exile in the land of Babylon. Who was Ezekiel?

Ezekiel was the son of a priest, and before the exile, he likely grew up in Jerusalem, where it would have been expected that he, like his father, would become a priest one day.  But Ezekiel was growing up, unfortunately for him, during the time when Judea was growing in wickedness to the point where God allowed the regional superpower Babylon to conquer the land.  In approximately 597 BCE, Ezekiel, along with many others, was exiled to Babylon.  He was probably 25 years old.  Five years later, still in Babylon, God calls Ezekiel to be a prophet, which we will read about next week in Ezekiel chapter 1.  Eventually we will learn that Ezekiel was married, but he would experience the sudden tragic death of his wife.  There in Babylon, he would be in prophetic ministry for about 23 years. 

What was life like for Ezekiel?  In exile in Babylon, the Jews for the most part were not persecuted or enslaved.  They could preserve their national identity, practice their religion, etc.  But they were still in exile, forced to live away from their land, from their homes, families and friends.  Babylon had not emptied Judea of all people, so a remnant remained in the land of Palestine.  Those in exile certainly longed to return to their homes, their friends and family.  Scholars tell us that they began to ask serious questions: “Was God’s divine presence limited to Palestine?  Was God impotent against the gods of Babylon?  Could Yahweh be worshiped in a strange land? The theology of Ezekiel was suited to this new situation.”  (Lasor 358)

Before we look at some of the theological themes of Ezekiel’s prophecy, themes that will help us answer these questions, it is important to understand a bit about Ezekiel’s attitude about himself.

We’ll notice Ezekiel calls himself “Son of Man” quite often.  When you read the Gospels, you might notice that Jesus also calls himself “Son of Man.”  But there is almost certainly no connection between the two.  Quite literally a son of man is a human, a mortal.  What this indicates is likely that Ezekiel wants his audience to be clear that, though he is a prophet and thus a mouthpiece for God, he is a mere person like the rest of us.  Ezekiel is humble.  He doesn’t want to be a celebrity, he doesn’t want to be the focus of attention.  This is important because you can imagine that the prophets could easily be worshiped as celebrities.  Think about it…they were hearing messages from God.  That alone puts them in a really unique role, one in which they would have been viewed by others as special and privileged.  They could turn that role into an opportunity for fame and fortune if they wanted to.  But not Ezekiel.  He repeats over and over the proper view, that he is a Son of Man, and thus, the people should focus their attention on God and the message from God. 

How about you? Do you practice humility, pointing people to God? Or think about what might have enamored you? What do you worship? Who do you worship? It is easy to become focused on celebrity rather than on God.

Ezekiel’s message from God will call the people back to focus on God. Check back to the next post, as we’ll look more closely at the content of those important prophetic messages. Let me give you a preview…Ezekiel’s messages were bizarre!