I often wonder what it is like for our soldiers in Iraq. These soldiers are so far away from home in a part of the world completely unlike anything they have known before. They are away from their family and friends. And with the things that go on in any war zone it must, at times, seem like hell on earth. I have to imagine that at least some of the time they must feel like they are in a place where there is no God. It must have felt something like this for Ezekiel and his fellow exiles as well.
Ezekiel is a weird book. So weird, in fact, that some have speculated that Ezekiel suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or something like it. Some scholars have speculated that the trauma of exile made Ezekiel see and do some very odd things. Whether we agree with that assessment or not, it at least speaks to just how odd Ezekiel was in his prophecy. So its no surprise that in chapter 1 of Ezekiel we read about a very strange vision. We hear about a storm cloud that resembles fire and glowing metal and out of the storm cloud comes four strange creatures, each with the face of a man, an eagle, a lion, and a bull. These creatures also have wings on their human shaped bodies while they have the appearance of bronze and the ability to dart back and forth like bolts of lightning. The spirit of these creatures is also somehow connected to the wheels which accompany each of them. As we will hear more about next week, above these creatures is God seated on his throne.
While these all sounds very strange to us, this kind of vision was actually somewhat typical in the ancient near east. There are numerous examples of ancient artwork in which a nation’s god or king is depicted is just this way. The king or god’s throne is held up and carried by magnificent creatures as a way of representing that king or god’s importance and honor. It will not do to have your god ride around in a regular old chariot. To really convey the honor and transcendence of your god, he needs other-worldly beings to chauffeur him around. Ezekiel’s very strange vision is really no different, it speaks to the honor, glory, and transcendence of the God of Israel. The magnificence of this vision is meant to convey the magnificence of the God who is seen in the vision.
But in all this other-worldly magnificence, what is probably most significant for our understanding of this vision is something as boring, mundane, and unmagnificent as a bit of geography. We hear in the opening verse of Ezekiel that this vision takes place on the banks of the river Chebar in Babylon. I mentioned before that the situation of Ezekiel and the exiles might have been something like that of our soldiers, only it was probably really much worse if you can imagine that. Ezekiel and his fellow exiles were taken against their will to this godless foreign land after watching their home be destroyed never knowing if they would return In fact, to get a sense of the anger and grief of these exiles, all you have to do is read Psalm 137. This Psalm tells of exiles who sit on the banks of Babylon’s river, grieving the loss of their homeland. And at the end of the Psalm we hear these grieving exiles say “O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one, how blessed will be the one who repays you with the recompense with which you have repaid us. How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rocks.” The pain of these exiles runs so deep that they are calling blessed the one who will have the opportunity to take the Babylonians babies and throw them against rocks. There can be no doubt that these exiles find themselves in a lonely, painful, and seemingly God-forsaken place.
And that is why it is significant that Ezekiel has this vision on the banks of the Chebar River. Ezekiel does not have this vision in the safety and security of his homeland. He does not have this vision in the sacred space of the Temple. Instead, in the very place where the exiles sat and wept for their homeland, in the very place that the exiles wished that the babies of their captors would have their heads dashed against the rocks, in the darkest place Israel had ever known, Ezekiel saw God.
Not only did Ezekiel see God but this God has got wheels! Ezekiel sees God seated on a chariot. As any teenager can tell you, wheels represent mobility, freedom, access to a whole new world. Their meaning is no different here. Ezekiel’s vision of God seated on a chariot means that God is not bound to the Temple in Israel. God did not die when Israel was defeated. God did not cease to be present with Israel simply because the Temple had been destroyed. Because this God is free to roam wherever he likes, free to go wherever he pleases, and he chooses to go to places like God-forsaken Babylon. God chooses to meet us at the river banks where we have shed our most painful tears. God makes a habit of showing up where we least expect him.
During assembly this week, Kay and Lindell Browning, our missionaries to the Eastern Mediterranean region spoke about their time in the Middle East. Lindell spoke about how much he loved the nation of Iraq (modern day Babylon) and he talked about how God was working there and in countries like Yemen (even though there are only two house churches) and Turkey (where its 99% population of Muslims regularly persecute Christians). Even in these seemingly God-forsaken countries, God is at work.
The question for us is not whether or not God is at work, the question is whether or not we have the eyes to see that God is present where we least expect – on the banks of the Chebar River, in modern day Iraq, and in those dark and painful places in our own lives.
Even in those dark, dirty, dangerous, disreputable places in our own town - those places that good church folk like ourselves would never be found – God is present and at work even there and he is calling us to be a part of that work with him. Our God is not limited by our church building or any building. I wonder what would happen if the same could be said about God’s people?