Beyond Words, Walls, and Temples: A Sermon

When I was little, I had a fuzzy blue blanket that I took with me everywhere. I called it my “blankey.” I would suck my fingers while I rubbed one of the soft corners. Apparently I would also pitch a fit if I couldn’t find it! Why was this blanket so important? Because it brought me comfort when I felt stressed or frightened. My four-year-old self believed that as long as I had my blankey, then I would be safe.

If we’re honest, it’s not just children who cling to these comforts. Many athletes wear lucky socks on game day, and some people wear medallions of saints, crosses, or other amulets. Whether we call them amulets or not, all of these items reveal the same assumption of their owners: if we can just hold onto IT, whatever IT is, then we’ll be alright.

For the ancient Israelites, we could say their “blankey” was the Temple of Solomon. Solomon’s Temple was gorgeous: in 1 Kings 6 we read that the fragrant cedar planks inside the Temple were carved with gourds and open flowers. The inner sanctuary of the Temple was completely covered in gold, so that “the whole house might be perfect”(1 Kings 6:22). We read opulent descriptions of of cherubim angels that marked the holiest place in the Temple. 1 Kings 7 describes bronze stands one cubit deep and basins four cubits wide that the priests used for the Temple offerings. The Bible even names not only the Temple craftspeople, but also the outside pillars of the Temple (1 Kings 7:21)!

I’m initially inclined to skim over these strange details when I read the Bible. Some of us may call these the flyover verses — what is a cubit, and who cares how many were needed for the basins? And for goodness sake, who names a pillar?!

We may be tempted to ridicule the Israelites for naming the pillars of their Temple. Yet how many of us have names for our cars? I do. If my childhood blanket was named “blankey,” perhaps it’s not so strange that the Israelites had names for the Temple objects. When we name something, we declare that it is precious and valuable. Anything with a name is no longer just an object, but it has a special relationship with us.

Which leads us to another important question: did the Israelites have a name not just for the pillars of the Temple, but also for the Temple itself? Turns out, we read in 1 Kings 8:20 that the Temple is the house of the NAME of God. The Temple came to represent God’s glory, power, and God’s NAME. No other name would be suitable for this building except the name of the Lord, a name so holy that no Jewish person even today would dare to say it out loud.

For the ancient Israelites, the Temple was the blankey to end all blankeys.1 Kings 8:20 tells us God’s very NAME was attached to that Temple. As long as the Temple stood, then everything would be alright. The people would be protected, and they’d know peace and comfort. At least that’s what the people in the time of the prophet Ezekiel believed.

1 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. 2 On the fifth day of the month (it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin), 3 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 — Ezekiel 1:1–3.

Ezekiel lived through quite a maelstrom. He tells us right of the bat that he was writing in exile. The Babylonians, the world superpowers of the day, have taken him captive. He now lives in the land of his cruel and harsh oppressors.

Ezekiel is a Jewish priest, a man who is very familiar with the Temple in Jerusalem. By the time of today’s passage, the Temple has been the center of Jewish worship for 400 years. But Ezekiel tells us in verse 2 that he is writing in the fifth year of “the exile of King Jehoiachin.” The Babylonians took King Jehoiachin, along with Ezekiel and other leaders of Israel, into exile in the year 597 BC. Scholars tell us Ezekiel is therefore writing in the year 593 BC, and has not seen his Temple in Jerusalem in five years.

To attempt to understand Ezekiel’s pain and confusion, imagine what happens to us when the electricity in our homes stops working. Citizens of Houston, Florida, and Puerto Rico have faced this reality in recent times. When the power goes out, how do we keep our food in the fridge from spoiling? How do we charge our cell phones? How do we wash our clothes, or watch TV, or check the internet? All of these things require electricity.

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What happens when something that we have depended on for our entire lives is no longer available to us? Ezekiel has been wrestling with this question for five years. Our friends in the path of hurricanes have done everything they can to restore power. I imagine Ezekiel is doing everything he can to remember the Temple. He probably sings songs about the Temple, he tells stories about the Temple, and he worships God as best as he can away from the Temple, hoping for the day when he can return to Jerusalem. All eyes are on Solomon’s Temple.

So here we are, by the River Chebar in exile with Ezekiel in Babylon, and “the heavens were opened.” Ezekiel tells us in verse 1 that he saw “visions of God,” and in verse 3 that the “hand of the Lord was on him.” What does Ezekiel see?

4 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. 5 In the middle of it was something like four living creatures. This was their appearance: they were of human form. 6 Each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. 7 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. 8 Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. And the four had their faces and their wings thus: 9 their wings touched one another; each of them moved straight ahead, without turning as they moved. 10 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; 11 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. 12 Each moved straight ahead; wherever the spirit would go, they went, without turning as they went. 13 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. 14 The living creatures darted to and fro, like a flash of lightning.

15 As I looked at the living creatures, I saw a wheel on the earth beside the living creatures, one for each of the four of them.16 As for the appearance of the wheels and their construction: their appearance was like the gleaming of beryl; and the four had the same form, their construction being something like a wheel within a wheel. 17 When they moved, they moved in any of the four directions without veering as they moved. 18 Their rims were tall and awesome, for the rims of all four were full of eyes all around. 19 When the living creatures moved, the wheels moved beside them; and when the living creatures rose from the earth, the wheels rose. 20 Wherever the spirit would go, they went, and the wheels rose along with them; for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. 21 When they moved, the others moved; when they stopped, the others stopped; and when they rose from the earth, the wheels rose along with them; for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.

22 Over the heads of the living creatures there was something like a dome, shining like crystal, spread out above their heads. 23 Under the dome their wings were stretched out straight, one toward another; and each of the creatures had two wings covering its body. 24 When they moved, I heard the sound of their wings like the sound of mighty waters, like the thunder of the Almighty, a sound of tumult like the sound of an army; when they stopped, they let down their wings. 25 And there came a voice from above the dome over their heads; when they stopped, they let down their wings.

26 And above the dome over their heads there was something like a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was something that seemed like a human form. 27 Upward from what appeared like the loins I saw something like gleaming amber, something that looked like fire enclosed all around; and downward from what looked like the loins I saw something that looked like fire, and there was a splendor all around. 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.

When I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of someone speaking.

If we want to talk about the word “awesome,” today’s reading is a good place to start! In verses 4–14, we read about stormy winds, flashing clouds, sparkling flying creatures that are half human, and half animal. In verses 13–21, we read about something like coals and burning torches, as well as mysterious wheels with eyeballs. Verse 22 regales us with something like a crystal dome above these strange flying creatures and wheels. And as we gaze increasingly upward, verses 26–28 chronicle something like a throne, where we see the glory that is like rainbow and fire and amber. Y’all, this truly is an AWESOME vision!

As we explore today’s wondrous vision with Ezekiel, three things stick out. Firstly, the vision highlights God’s mysterious holiness. The word “holy” literally means “set apart,” or “distinct.” Whatever these creatures are in verses 5 to 14, they are distinctly terrifying. They have four faces, four wings, and the feet of a cow. They sparkle like bronze, and have human hands. And their faces are not only human, but also the face of a lion, ox, and eagle. I can’t even imagine such a strange creature. Truthfully, I’m afraid even to try.

This is such a strange vision, that Ezekiel doesn’t even have words that can adequately describe what he saw! He keeps saying something “LIKE a wheel,” “LIKE gleaming amber,” “LIKE torches,” “LIKE a dome,” “LIKE the sound of mighty waters and an army.” This is no ordinary vision! In fact, the sheer weight and AWE of it is so great that at the end of chapter 1, in response to everything he has seen and heard, Ezekiel falls on his face. He cannot even stand in the presence of God.

When do people typically fall on their faces? In my mind, this happens in very dangerous situations when there is war or an active shooting. We fall on our faces in natural disasters as we seek to protect ourselves. We fall on our faces when we acknowledge a power that is so great, we cannot bear to look at it. Ezekiel falls on his face in response to God’s holiness.

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In addition to God’s awesome and scary holiness, today’s reading secondly reveals God’s beauty. Verses 26–28 are stunning as Ezekiel attempts to speak about the glory of God that he saw:

and above the dome over their heads there was something like a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of the throne was something that seemed like a human form. Upward from what appeared like the loins I saw something like gleaming amber, something that looked like fire enclosed all around; and downward from what looked like the loins I saw something that looked like fire, and there was as splendor all around. 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.

Ezekiel’s description of this vision has us imagining precious stones beryl and sapphire, crystal and amber. We see flashes of lightning, burnished bronze, and rainbows. Even as Ezekiel makes his best attempt to describe what he saw, we know that his words don’t fully capture God’s beauty and majesty.

Today’s reading highlights God’s holiness, as well as God’s beauty. It thirdly reveals another key aspect of God’s character. We read today about wind, wings, spirit, and wheels. We read about mighty waters and moving torches. What do all of these items have in common? Ezekiel’s vision is an ACTIVE one. The wind is howling, the wings are flying, the wheels are spinning. This vision is one of movement and mobility. As Ezekiel has moved from his beloved Jerusalem to exile in Babylon, these holy creatures are moving at the leading of the Spirit. Unlike the Temple, which has been stuck in the same place in Judah for 400 years, this vision highlights how God goes wherever God pleases. The Spirit is on the move.

What would Ezekiel think about God’s mobility? Here is God, appearing to Ezekiel in the oppressive country of Babylon. God actively Ezekiel in exile. Ezekiel is not alone. What a comfort!

…But what about the Temple? I mean, Ezekiel is in exile, but the Temple is still standing in Jerusalem, right? What does this vision to Ezekiel mean for the ultimate blankey of the Israelites? If God can leave the Temple to come visit Ezekiel in Babylon, does that mean the Temple no longer contains God’s glory?

Today’s reading was not only a comfort, but also a deep challenge for Ezekiel and others who had worshiped at the Temple for generations. For 400 years, Ezekiel and his people traveled to the Temple to find God. Their entire universe revolved around the Temple. So what is God saying now? As some of y’all may know, the Temple was indeed destroyed just a few years after this vision. Many Jewish leaders like Ezekiel started their exile assuming they would be gone for just a few years. They thought their time away was temporary, and that they would quickly return to their familiar lives and homes. Turns out, they were wrong.

I’m wondering what are our blankeys here today? For four-year-old Melanie, it was a fuzzy blue cloth. Today, it is often my morning cup of coffee. For some of us, our blankeys may be our cars or cell phones. Or perhaps we depend on something as simple as the electricity in our homes? What if we went to stay with a friend for a few days after a hurricane, and came back home to discover that our lives as we had always known them would never be the same again?

Ezekiel lived in a time of unimaginable change and loss. Stalwarts he assumed would always exist simply disappeared. Where was God in this?

Photo credit: ankakay on Visualhunt / CC BY

The Book of Ezekiel goes on to tell us how the people of God had not been faithful to the covenant that supported the Temple in the first place. God’s covenant promises made demands on Judah. Because Judah had not upheld their part of the covenant, because they had exploited the people they were supposed to protect, and because Judah had worshipped foreign gods in Solomon’s Temple, God’s glory would leave them to reap the consequences of their sin. The uncertain times of Ezekiel were an invitation to turn back to God and to remember their first love. They were an invitation to look for comfort not in the works of human hands, but in the promises of a God who governs all earthly kingdoms as well as the entire universe.

I want to be careful in saying what this vision means for our own time, with its own uncertainties like the time of Ezekiel. Why did these hurricanes hit? Why is there so much cruelty in the news nowadays? Only God is a righteous ruler, and only God can accurately judge us. We can nonetheless respond like Ezekiel, and fall on our faces in worship of an awesome God.

In addition to worshipping God in uncertain times, we can also test ourselves with a simple question: do we care more about our blankeys, or about God? Here is an easy way to answer that question: deny yourself your blankey for a day. After you deny it for a day, then try to deny it for a week. Such fasting can be extremely difficult, yet it reveals God in a way not unlike Ezekiel’s visions.

God had to teach the people of Ezekiel’s time how to live without the Temple. God will also need to teach us how to live without some comforts. Is it scary? Absolutely. But if we open our hands to let go of our blankeys, then we are free to receive even better gifts.

Almost 600 years after Ezekiel, Jesus Christ promised us that He was an even better Temple than one built of brick and mortar. The Jewish people had built a Second Temple at the time of Jesus, but it took over 46 years to build. Jesus promises us in John chapter two that he would be raised as a better Temple in just 3 days. Jesus is the cornerstone of the Temple that earlier builders had rejected. And in Colossians 1:17, we read that Christ himself holds all things in the entire universe together.

Not only does God give us Jesus, who is a better Temple than the one at the time of Ezekiel, but God also gives us the Holy Spirit. Because of the Holy Spirit, we can ALSO become temples of God! In 1 Corinthians chapter 3 verses 16–17, the apostle Paul reassures us, “do you not know that YOU are God’s temple, and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”

As I look around today, even in uncertain times, I also see some beautiful temples! God is doing an awesome work in us and through us! What amazing news that God works in the universe through our hands and our feet!

So, temples of God, how are you doing? Do you feel beautiful? Do you feel holy? If you are feeling pretty crummy right now, more like a pile of rubble than a gorgeous building, then talk to God about that.

God has great plans for us. God is cleaning and sweeping each of us from the inside out. How can we cooperate in God’s Temple work? Are we helping God, or are we hindering God’s transformational efforts? I invite you to open your hands and to put before God whatever is currently in your grasp. Lay your blankey at the altar. Only then will our hands be open to worship God, as well as to receive even better gifts. Amen.

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