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 make a flying lightning fire table. As the table approaches closer to Ezekiel, 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, false, or impotent against powerful Babylon. But 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, 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 us 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’s Spirit 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 we were to 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.