Ezekiel 1: 1-14
In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the River Chebar, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. On the fifth day of the month (it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin), the word of the Lord came to the priest Ezekiel son of Buzi in the land of the Chaldeans by the River Chebar, and the hand of the Lord was on him there.
As I looked, a stormy wind came out of the north: a great cloud with brightness around it and fire flashing forth continually and in the middle of the fire something like gleaming amber. In the middle of it was something like four living creatures. This was their appearance: they were of human form. Each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot, and they sparkled like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands.
And the four had their faces and their wings thus: their wings touched one another; each of them moved straight ahead, without turning as they moved. As for the appearance of their faces: the four had the face of a human being, the face of a lion on the right side, the face of an ox on the left side, and the face of an eagle; such were their faces. Their wings were spread out above; each creature had two wings, each of which touched the wing of another, while two covered their bodies. Each moved straight ahead; wherever the spirit would go, they went, without turning as they went. In the middle of the living creatures there was something that looked like burning coals of fire, like torches moving to and fro among the living creatures; the fire was bright, and lightning issued from the fire. The living creatures darted to and fro, like a flash of lightning.
I am a fan of a genre known as “Cosmic Horror.” In these stories the absolute smallness of humanity is compared with the grandness of the universe, and in the incredible dissonance, the mind begins to shatter. We cannot conceive of the size of some of the most distant stars from us, nor of the age of the universe that surrounds us. We who live our three score and ten on a single mote of dust in the sunbeam of a middle-sized star, cannot conceive of infinite time and space sprawling all around us. Thus, some of us find a strange comfort in personifying that terror in the form of unimaginable monsters and sleeping cities of strange geometry.
One of things I threatened throughout seminary, and might still someday do, is to take some serious time and compare how religious experience compares to cosmic terror. Afterall, we worship a God, “of which nothing greater can be conceived.” For such a being to enter our consciousness, we must be forced to imagine something larger than even the unimaginable stars distant from us. Something older than the universe whose foundations such a being set in place. To encounter God is to come to grips with the absolute finitude of the self and the absolute magnitude of the Divine.
Today we look at a prophetic vision that incorporates the terrible wonder of God with the knowledge of all the other aspects of God the prophets have shown us so far in our journey through their lives. The same God who is constantly making known the nature of God, that is revealing their own truth and oneness, and that is a Divine Personality we can know and feel alongside, is also something far beyond our scope of ever fully understanding. In this moment, God sends forward a collection of heavenly creatures as a welcoming committee, or perhaps a forward guard. The descriptions we read are bizarre, almost nonsensical, and they carry a great deal of power behind them.
Four creatures with multiple heads, their eyes locked in different directions and their wings spread out around them. They are vaguely person shaped, but are seemingly made of bronze, and covered in some kind of leather. Any attempt to draw them falls short of really capturing what this passage describes, and in our attempts to imagine them, we inevitably take a short cut to make them a little more intelligible. The reality is that what Ezekiel describes here is probably not terribly accurate to what he would have seen. His mind was grasping at straws to draw parallels in this world to something that was distinctly of another world. This first vision of several was already beyond his power of comprehension, and he had not even yet seen the wheels within wheels covered in eyes upon eyes.
Ezekiel is a prophet who has one primary purpose – to show the people in exile that there is a future ahead of them more wonderful than the past that they are nostalgic for. This is accomplished through a variety of visions – visions of a new Jerusalem and a temple at its center, visions of heavenly beings like no other, and visions of God as a man wreathed in flame and cast in metal. Nothing in this vision should be literal to us, it is simply an attempt of our faculties to grasp something beyond ourselves. Yet, it shows us something interesting about God. God’s immense nature, terrifying at first glance, eventually allows us feel secure. If such a deity, so great and terrifying to behold, so far beyond our own ability to even imagine, is on our side, then the extremity of the world’s troubles are suddenly much more moderate.
When we hear the wonders of Heaven revealed in Ezekiel, we are not being given literal diagrams of Heaven or of angelic ways of being, nor do we see them in Daniel or Revelation. Instead, we are being given a glimpse of something much larger than we are. This largeness manifests in one of two reactions. The first reaction is to try and constrain God, to make the descriptions Ezekiel gives exact and literal, and so constrain God. The second is much more exciting.
In this second reality we let the mystery of God continue to grow and thrive within us. The image of God, the image of the angels, the image of Heaven breaking through! These are not pictures of a moment captured and delivered perfectly to us, but are instead the shadow, as in a mirror darkly, of what glory we might one day know. There is light bursting out every moment in the dim recollections of our eyes, but that light is always filtered through a variety of prisms. We are able to engage and wonder at what God offers us, but there is always more to know and to see and to comprehend.
When we come together on Sunday we somehow join together with the entire Church everywhere and every time. If we try and turn make that something we can easily imagine, we lose it completely. When we take bread and juice and pray together to celebrate the Holy Eucharist we somehow, spiritually, eat Jesus’s flesh and blood. If we try to make that into something easily understood, then we become weird vampiric cannibals. The entire nature of the Church, from how we are baptized into death and simultaneously resurrection, to something as simple as prayers that never leave our lips but somehow land in the ear of God, all of it is mystery that we can never truly give solid form to.
One of the things I wanted to test out with this service was to see what the raw textual description of these beings in Ezekiel would look like if I asked an image generator to draw it. So the cover of our bulletin this week reflects what a non-human intelligence does with the raw words that are given in scripture. Looking at that, I’m not confident it is what Ezekiel saw, but I can’t say that it is wrong in terms of trying to put the description of these beings into something a bit more solid.
Computers, with their dedicated processors oriented toward the one goal of painting images, cannot begin to understand the nature of the divine. We with our much stronger, but much more involved organic processes cannot ever grasp an image of divinity for very long. Yet, in what Ezekiel, what Isaiah, what every prophetic voice in all of scripture gives us, is a glimpse into something greater. By them writing down what they saw we all can see, even for a moment, what heavenly wonders exist just beyond the veil of this life. As we encounter God, there are always moments like this, moments of liminality where the separation between what is visible and what is invisible seems inconsequential.
About the time I properly converted to the faith, I was in a worship service and had a religious experience that was not completely unlike Ezekiel’s. Gathered in that group of people, I saw all the world around me fall away, so that I stood on a single pillar of earth. From the pit below me rose a gleaming prism, a shapeless form that still kept some degree of form. I knew it was something magnificent, I knew that the Elders of Israel were granted to see the feet of God at the base of the throne. I asked that radiant shape in front of me to let me see even that, and a voice echoed through my mind to say, “Not yet.” That “Not yet.” Has sustained me throughout my life, because in the mystery of that moment, I was told that while presently I do not see glory, I will someday have it near to me.
Fast forward many years, and I found an icon, a devotional image, that had God the gather, throned among the Cherubim, and surrounded by a prism of light. I wasn’t alone in glimpsing a mystery quite like this, and I will not be the last. So see today, in your life and the life of the prophets, something beyond description. Rather than shrinking the wonder that you see, let is overwhelm and consume you. Finite as we are, we like Ezekiel are testaments to the infinite that sits just beyond our view. – Amen.
AI generated 4 Living Creatures
The Ancient of Days, a 14th-century fresco from Ubisi, Georgia