On the Wings of the Storm
Scripture: Ezekiel 1:1-21, 22-28
I once read Ezekiel chapter 1 to a Bible study group I led
at the House of Charity, a homeless shelter in Spokane. After hearing it one of the men in the group said, "Wow, if I saw something like that I would sober up."
You sort of wonder if Ezekiel needed to sober up. The
images in this chapter are bizarre and scary, even more so when you understand the symbolism. Ezekiel was one of the Jewish captives taken into exile by the Babylonians when they invaded Israel and surrounded Jerusalem. In certain ways Ezekiel's vision is a nightmarish reminder of that invasion.
For example, in verse 4 Ezekiel says, "As I looked, a storm wind came
out of the north." Here is a map of the ancient Middle East outlining what is called "the fertile crescent." [Slide 1: Map] The fertile crescent is the area of rivers that wrap around the northern edge of the Arabian desert. Babylon, as you can see, is almost directly east of Jerusalem, but an army coming from Babylon to Jerusalem would not try to cross the Arabian desert where there was no water; they would follow the line I drew around the Arabian desert and approached Jerusalem from the north. So a storm from the north would have reminded Ezekiel of the Babylonian invasion, and the wheels mentioned in verses 15-20 may have reminded him of the chariots driven by the Babylonian commanders.
Then there is the weird description of the creatures.
Ezekiel says he saw something like four living creatures. They were of human form except they had wings. And they did not have just one face but four faces: one like a human, one like a lion, one like an ox, and one like an eagle. And their feet looked like the hooves of calves. I would love to see this figure in a flannel graph story.
Actually I did see something once that reminded me of this
description. [Slide 2: Statues] These statues stand in a wing of the Louvre in Paris. They come from the area around ancient Babylon. As you can see, they have heads like a human, probably meant to look like the emperor, but they have wings sticking out from their back like a bird, and the body is reminiscent of a lion, with hooves like a calf. It is not exactly Ezekiel's vision, but you can see the similarity. Ezekiel's vision was a nightmarish reminder of these Babylonian statues, symbols of the Babylonian conquest. Even the description of lightning and fire would remind Ezekiel of the Babylonians burning down the cities of Israel. [Slide 3: Blank]
You know how dreams have a way of taking things that you
already feel insecure about and magnifying them. Before I came to Southminster to interview I had a dream that I drove here to the interview and could not find a place to park. I am sure my dream grabbed on to some of the experiences I have had trying to park in Seattle. I finally just pulled my car off the road in front of the church and went in for the interview, but when I came out it had been towed away. Talk about rejection. This dream was like a symbol of my anxieties.
Well, Ezekiel has a dream that incorporates some of his
worst anxieties. But then something happens. The vision changes. Now I invite you to follow along as I finish the chapter: Ezekiel 1:22-28.
[Read Ezekiel 1:22-28]
At verse 22 the vision changes. It's as if the camera,
which has been zoomed in on those four bizarre creatures and their wheels, suddenly pulls back and shows us the bigger picture. When we stand back and see the bigger picture, we see that above those four creatures is someone sitting on a throne. In fact the throne is carried on the backs of those creatures, as if they were the attendants carrying the king in a royal procession. But the one on the throne is not just a king. Verse 28: "Like the bow in a cloud on a rainy day, such was the appearance of the splendor all around. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord."
Now instead of a storm we see a rainbow, reminding Ezekiel
of God's deliverance from the flood in the time of Noah. And instead of Babylonian monsters, the winged creatures have morphed into cherubim. Verse 23 says, "Their wings were stretched out straight, one toward another." That is how the Bible pictures the angel-like figures that hovered over the ark of the covenant in the Jewish temple. The Babylonian monsters have morphed into God's angels. And the wheels are no longer the wheels of the Babylonian chariots but the wheels bringing God's throne to the people of Israel in exile. The eyes in the rims even remind us that God sees what is happening and will not abandon the people of Israel to their fate.
The whole vision is transformed by the last seven verses. The storm
which threatened to destroy the people of Israel has become the wind on which God rides to their rescue.
The best parallel I can think of to Ezekiel chapter 1, is
the story of Jesus walking on the water. If you remember the story, Jesus sends his disciples ahead of him across the Sea of Galilee while he dismisses the crowd and goes off by himself to pray. But the disciples are caught in a storm which threatens to swamp their boat. The Gospel of Matthew says, "And early in the morning Jesus came walking toward them on the sea. But when they saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, "It is a ghost" (Matthew 14:25-26).
I have always wondered why Jesus did that. I mean, why
didn't Jesus simply calm the storm from the shore? In a previous story when Jesus and the disciples are on a boat in a storm, Jesus stands up and says to the wind, "Peace! Be still!" And the wind stops and the waves are calm. Why didn't Jesus just do that from the shore? Why did he frighten the disciples by walking to them on the water?
The answer: to make a point. Jesus wanted the disciples to
know not only that he could calm the storm but that he could come to them on the storm, that the very waves threatening to overwhelm them could be the road on which Jesus came to them, giving them his peace.
William Barclay, a famous New Testament scholar, was once
asked what he thought really happened in this story of Jesus walking on water. Was it really true? He answered, "I have tried to understand what happened historically. I have tried to look at the text and its history, and I have many unanswered questions. But this I know: when my young daughter died a tragic death, this Jesus came across the sea and stilled the troubled waters of my soul."
That is what Ezekiel discovered in chapter 1, that God can
reach you even in exile, that God can come to you even when you feel separated from God by miles of desert and years of painful experience. In fact, God comes to you on the wings of the storm, on the very waves that threaten to overwhelm you.
That's the message of Ezekiel, chapter 1.