The terror of the holy - Ezekiel 1

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 14th January 2001.

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A few years ago, Madonna was interviewed about her religious views. The interviewer began: "When you gathered your dancers around you in the "Blonde Ambition" tour and prayed, who were you praying to?" "Who was I praying to?" She repeats the question as if stalling for time. "Everyone in the room and my idea of God." "Is there a god?, asks the interviewer. "Yes", she quickly replied. "There’s my god. Everyone has their own god." "Tell me about him." "I can’t describe him." "You have a good idea though." "Yes". The voice was strained and quiet. "To me, sometimes, I don't know if it’s a being or more like the highest state of my consciousness, like trying to rise above everyday life and the things that bring you down, and mortality and things like that...It’s like calling on any power I have inside myself. It’s like a protector, an advisor, it’s soothing, comforting... and non-judgmental." "But is it a supreme being?" "I don’t know. You know I really have unformed ideas about it because I could change my mind in about half an hour. I think religion should be a very personal thing. It’s what you get your strength from." "So it’s an inner matter rather than an organised religion?" "Yeah, I think so." By this time she was almost whispering.

The polls tell us that many people living in Britain believe there is a God, but few, it seems, know what kind of God they believe in. Like Madonna’s god he or it is a vague power, more like a child’s comfort blanket than a serious deity. It’s soothing, it’s comforting, she says, something to hang on to when the going gets tough. You may remember the huge public outcry of grief there was when Princess Diana died, and many were crying out to what they hoped would be God, someone to help in a time of need. I guess that’s why programmes like the X Files still attract huge audiences. We long for confirmation that there is something out there, however vague it may be.

Now we might say that this is a brilliant opportunity for evangelism, and indeed it is. But the evidence suggests that it is not the Christian church which is affecting our society, but society affecting the church when it comes to thinking about God. Even among God’s people, God is treated more like a heavenly Jim’ll Fix It, rather than the awesome God of the Bible. We denude him of his fearsome holiness when we say he won’t judge; we rob him of his timeless morality when we say sexuality is up for grabs; and we pillage him of his graciousness when we say Jesus is just another guru. And yet all these things are being stated by those within the so-called people of God. And it’s not just the leaders. The Christian writer David Wells looking at the keenest of the evangelical churches in America suggests that there is a terrible sickness affecting the people of God. The sickness of making God weightless, believing him to be much less of a God than he really is. And so it is not at all surprising when the church loses it’s force in the country and becomes a small and ignored institution.

But the God of the Bible is very different. The God who has revealed himself to human beings is not a badge presenting comfort blanket, but the God of holiness and majesty who is be feared and obeyed. And what marked many of the lives of the great men and women of the Bible is that they knew the God they served. They realised just exactly what kind of God he is. Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah: They all saw God as he truly was, and it altered their lives for good. And that is why we are beginning this new year with a series entitled "How Big is Your God?" Because when we do see God in all his holiness and awesome majesty, then we will understand afresh what a privilege it is to know him and serve him and follow his ways. And tonight we begin with Ezekiel 1, where Ezekiel sees an incredible vision of God which changed his life. And from this vision we can learn three things about God:

 

1) God is the Loving God

2) God is the Awesome God

3) God is the Speaking God

 

 

1) God is the Loving God

Now at first glance at the book of Ezekiel, I guess the last thing we may be tempted to call God is loving. For the people of Israel were in a terrible situation. For they were in exile in Babylon. Verse 1: "In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month on the fifth day, while I was among the exiles by the Kebar River, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God." The problem was that despite God’s goodness to his people down the years in giving them the land and freedom in which to enjoy all God’s blessings, yet this stubborn people had rebelled against God. They had persistently refused to obey him and stubbornly followed other gods. And God had always warned Israel that one day if such disobedience persisted he would have to punish his people and that punishment would take the form of exile. And so it happened. The northern half of the kingdom was all but destroyed in 722BC by the Assyrians and then in 605BC the Babylonians invaded the southern Kingdom of Judah and defeated the people of Israel. And over a period of twenty years or so the country was systematically destroyed and its people dragged into exile.

Now when we meet Ezekiel the year is 593BC. And for this young man and his fellow exiles life is grim: They are hundreds of miles from their home; their Temple has been destroyed; their land reduced to burning stubble; their city a pile of rubble, and God’s covenant in tatters. There is nothing left for them except to rue their own stupid disobedience. Just imagine how you would feel if Britain was invaded and you were carted off to Northern Russia, never to see your country again, knowing that everything you have ever known and lived for has been destroyed. It is Ezekiel’s thirtieth year, and he was from a priestly family. His father Buzi had practised the trade before him. And thirty was the age at which you entered the priesthood. And Ezekiel had now come of age, but there was nothing for him. No doubt his father had been telling him all about his future job from when he was a young boy. But all those dreams lay in ruins. It may even have been Ezekiel’s birthday when he took that walk by the Kebar River, and looked out across the desert to see a familiar sight of a storm could coming their way. It was just another day in the miserable life that this young exile now led. It was a desperate situation.

And I guess the question on Ezekiel’s heart was "Where is God now? Is there really any hope?" But this day would be different. Because that dark cloud that was fast approaching was to have a silver lining. For God himself was about to meet with this young priest and call him to be a prophet. And the truth that Ezekiel would learn that day was this: God never gives up on his people. Ezekiel saw visions of God. It was into Ezekiel’s darkest day that God stepped, and into Israel’s darkest hour that God came. You see for all God’s righteous judgement on Israel, still he never completely rejected his people. And throughout the dark chapters of Ezekiel there is always the silver lining of God’s love shining through, his willingness to start again, and give his people a new heart.

And it is the way God still works today. He is willing to step into our lives in the very darkest of hours and rescue us. Maybe you feel absolutely rock bottom tonight, a thousand miles from God. Well be assured God doesn’t give up on you. He will always have you back. Like a good shepherd he will come looking for his sheep and receive them back into the fold. For God is a loving God. In the midst of the exile of a rebellious people, God came to give them another chance. He was and is still the true and living God. He is the loving God.

 

2) God is the Awesome God

But not only is God the loving God who never gives up on his people, but he is also the awesome God. And this awesomeness is seen in the vision that Ezekiel receives from God. Whist everyone else sees a storm brewing, Ezekiel is given eyes to see something far more astounding, indeed someone far more astounding. Now many people down the years have been quick to denounce this vision as one of the earliest recorded sightings of a UFO. In fact I was listening to the radio some years ago and I heard a man say just this, referring to Ezekiel 1. The figures and wings and wheels are all describing a space ship so we are told. But we don’t need to degenerate into fantasy in order to understand what the prophet is telling us. Rather Ezekiel is using apocalyptic language to describe for us this amazing sight of the chariot throne of God. And it is nothing new. Several prophets in the OT struggle to describe their incredible vision of God. Moses, Isaiah and Elijah all describe what they see in limited terms. In the NT John describes his vision by means of apocalyptic imagery, picture language. It is the easiest way for people to grasp what he is saying. He draws pictorial images which gives a true message. They are not intended to gives us all the details, just the main picture. So what does Ezekiel see and what does it mean?

Well in verse 4 he tells us that he sees "an immense cloud with flashing lightening and surrounded by a brilliant light. The centre of the fire looked like glowing metal and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures. In appearance their form was that of a man, but each of them had four faces and four wings." These four creatures have the faces of a lion, an ox and eagle, as well as a man. And each of these three other creatures is representative of the best animals in the animal kingdom. The lion is the strongest and most regal of the wild animals, the ox of the domestic animals, and the eagle is swift and keen sighted. So these creatures are the very best of all creation. And their wings form a sort of box shape. Many commentators have seen that this seems to resemble the ark of the covenant. On the ark were four cherubim, heavenly creatures. And above the ark was said to dwell the very presence of God. And that seems to be what Ezekiel is seeing here. But there is something very different about this ark. Whereas the ark in Jerusalem stayed put, this one has wheels. It can move, verse 15. Verse 20: "Wherever the Spirit would go, they would go, and the wheels would rise with them."

But the ark is only the supporting act. The best is yet to come. Verse 22, we discover that there is a vast expanse above the ark, like an icy blue sky. And verse 26, "above the expanse was what looked like the throne of sapphire, and on this throne was a figure like that of a man." Now it is at this point that Ezekiel begins to run out of words. Brilliant light and fire surround this figure, but all Ezekiel can do is qualify his description with the words likeness and appearance. And so in verse 28 we read that "this was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord." And yet Ezekiel was completely overwhelmed. He falls on his face, unable to look at this awesome God. Like many before him, when confronted with the majestic holiness of God, Ezekiel cannot stand. He grovels before God in humble subservience.

Now what is this vision meant to convey? Well it is pretty clear that for all the strange details, God is an awesome God. Fire and brilliant light surround him, he is indescribable, and all Ezekiel can do is get a glimpse which is enough to throw him on his face. And amazingly the God who was present in Jerusalem is also present with the exiles in Babylon. Now that would have come as an incredible encouragement to those dejected exiles who believed God had left them. Instead Ezekiel comes back and says that God is alive and well. He’s the King of the whole world. He isn’t confined to one city like the gods of Babylon. He is mobile, and he’s here in exile with us.

Now let me ask, what kind of God do you believe in? Is it the God of the Bible, or is it your own god, made up to suit your own desires. The God of the Bible is a fearsome God. We should never trifle with him. All too often we treat God as if he were a heavenly Jim’ll Fix It, as opposed to the awesome God of holiness who confronted Ezekiel in the desert. He is the God who demands 100% obedience, the God who sets high moral standards for his people, and the God who is completely trustworthy. This is the God who will never let you down, he’s the God who always keeps his promises and he’s the God will act in justice at the end of time. Is that your God, and does your life reflect the awesome God you believe in?

In the eighteenth century there lived in Cambridge a man called Charles Simeon. He was a vicar and he sought to lead young students to become Christians. And one of those students was a man called Henry Martyn. Henry Martyn believed that if God was the true God and had done so much for him, then there was nothing that he should not do for God. So Henry Martyn gave up his glittering academic career and went to India as a missionary. It took him a year to get there, and almost immediately his health declined. He lasted only seven years before he died at the age of 31. And yet in his short life, Martyn translated the NT into Urdu, Arabic and Persian, through which many came to Christ. Before Henry Martyn left for India, Charles Simeon received a portrait of Martyn which he put in his study. Simeon used to say that Martyn’s eyes would stare at him and say "Don’t trifle, don’t trifle." Years later I would pray with friends at university every week in the room where that portrait hung, and it would say don’t trifle, don’t trifle.

You see Martyn’s life was so radical because he understood the awesomeness of God. He realised he served a big God, and he refused to trifle. He gave his all to God, refusing to treat God as a pathetic weightless deity, but the as the truly awesome holy God that he is. Have you understood how great God is? Or do you continue to trifle, treating your life as your own, treating God as pick-me-up for difficult times. He’s infinitely more than that. You can’t pull the wool over his eyes, and he is not to be trifled with. That was what Ezekiel learnt that day. It is not surprising that Ezekiel tells us in chapter 3 that he was overwhelmed for seven days! For not only is God the loving God, but he is also the awesome God.

 

3) God is the Speaking God

But then finally Ezekiel discovered that God is the speaking God. For the remarkable truth is this awesome revelation of God was simply the warm up for the rest of the book in which Ezekiel would receive words from God to tell the people. It was as if God wanted to show Ezekiel just what sort of God he was before he gave him the message. Notice the end of verse 28: "When I saw the glory of the Lord, I fell face down and I heard the voice of one speaking." And then we reading chapter 2 verse 1: "He said to me…" And so it will continue throughout the book. God will give his prophet messages to tell the people. And this is the staggering truth about God, that though he is holy and awesome and fearful to look at, yet he is a God who wants to have a relationship with his people. He reveals his character through speaking to us. You see I could show you an amazing picture of my brother, with all his hunky looks and blonde hair and muscular physique. But there is no way in the world you can say that you know him. For all you know he may be a Colombian drug dealer. But until he speaks to you, you will not get to know him. Only then will he tell you that he is actually a hotel conference manager who works in Watford, and who wastes his hard earned cash watching Watford football club every week. Words reveal who we are. And so it is with God. He is a speaking God and he reveals himself to his world in his Word.

And the even more amazing truth is that just 600 years or so after Ezekiel has this vision, three men would be on the top of a mountain looking at another man figure transformed into brilliant light. But this time he would not be indescribable or unapproachable; he would be a man, and the voice from the mountain would say: "This is my Son, listen to him." Yes, Jesus would become the Word made flesh, God incarnate, and the disciples would glimpse something of his glory at the transfiguration, when Jesus would momentarily be seen in all his indescribable divine glory. And the command is to listen to him. For in Jesus we can know this great God personally.

Now surely if we have understood who God is, then we’ll be desperate to hear what he has to say. We’ll long to dig deep into the riches of his word and most importantly we’ll obey the Word, Jesus. Perhaps that is why the church has lost sight of this great God, because it has sidelined God’s Word. The word written has been discarded as an outdated text, and the Word incarnate has become just a guru. You cannot divorce God from his Word. If you claim to follow God, then you must obey his word. The two go hand in hand. For he is a speaking God and when the King of kings speaks, he must be obeyed. So will you listen? Or will you be like the people of Ezekiel’s day who we are told in chapter 2 are a rebellious people? God is a speaking God.

You see, what is clear from Madonna’s interview is that she doesn’t have a clue about who God is. And looking at the evidence of the modern church, many professed Christians don’t seem to know or understand the God of the Bible. But the truth is that God has revealed himself. He has shown himself to be the loving God, the awesome God and the speaking God. And the challenge Ezekiel leaves is this: which God will you follow? The true and living God or a god of your own making. And ultimately there is only one valid choice to make.


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