In our world, people who talk about hearing voices and seeing visions are liable to be thought to be eccentric, odd or perhaps seriously mentally ill. All of these options – and more – have been proposed by biblical scholars who study Ezekiel to characterize the prophet whose physical prophecies included dramatic performances: lying in the dirt for months at a time, first on one side and then on the other, shaving his head and beard with a sword and sharing visions of flying back and forth from his refugee camp in Babylon to Jerusalem held aloft only by the hairs of his head and that one about the walking dead who weren’t quite zombies, just to name a few. And then there was the conversation he had with God about excrement in which one might argue that he proved that he was holier than God, at least the way he wrote it.
And then there was Ezekiel’s theology. That was really crazy. He believed that the God of Israel was not confined to Israel, that his God had not been defeated when Judah was defeated and their temple was destroyed. And everyone knew that that was how it worked. Wars were won by the people with the strongest God. And Israel and Judah lost. And Ezekiel swore that he saw God, in exile, in captivity, in Babylon – and everyone knew that the holy land was in Israel and Judah.
Ezekiel even claimed that he saw God and lived despite what the stories about Moses said. But because God is invisible, Ezekiel said he saw the “appearance of the likeness of the glory” of the God who is enthroned above the cherubim – and he saw them too, not their sculpted images on the now-missing Ark of the Covenant, but the living, flying originals. Ezekiel claimed that God followed God’s people into exile and was even now accompanying them in their sorrow.
And as if that wasn’t enough, Ezekiel turned centuries of theology – including the sacred stories that had been passed down for generations and were now being written down as scripture on their head. Ezekiel taught that people did not suffer because of their parents’ or ancestors’ sins but only because of their own. And Ezekiel taught that God prefers forgiveness to punishment. Ezekiel’s “Old Testament God” was more tender, loving parent than fire and brimstone thunderbolt hurler in this regard – in spite of everything around them suggesting the contrary.
And on one level, everything around them denied the existence, power and presence of God. The dirt under their feet was the foreign soil of Babylon where they had been force-marched in defeat. The rivers by which they sat down, by which their psalmists chanted that they hung their harps on willow trees and refused to sing the Lord’s songs in a strange land did not empty into the River Jordan, Reed Sea or even the Salt Sea. These were strange waters, danger waters. The very air was full of the scent of incense burning to strange gods. Their ears heard cursing and mocking of them, their army, their king, their God and the multitude of laments from other conquered peoples added to their own. And their hearts were full of grief, when they were not frozen with numbness and post-traumatic shock.
The Judean Israelites had lost more than a war; the only world that they knew crumbled before them under the hatchets and hammers of their enemies, and then everything that they knew and loved was put to the fire or looted. They were the survivors of Assyria’s decimation of their once twelve-tribe nation one hundred and thirty-six years ago. And now they too had been destroyed as a nation. They had lost their king. They had lost their queen-mother. They had lost their army. They had even lost their bureaucrats. [I don’t know that any one missed them much.] They had lost their land. They had lost their homes. They had lost the house of God.
What if anything did they have left? God. While Ezekiel lacked the poetry of his predecessor Isaiah, Ezekiel preached his own version of Immanu-El, God is with us. Ezekiel’s visions were proof that God was with God’s people in exile while the voices he heard taught that God had not been defeated. And God’s word to God’s people in the disaster they could never have imagined, was one of comfort:
As I live, says the Sovereign God, I do not delight in the death of the wicked, rather that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn, turn from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?
Swearing by God’s own eternal life, God swears that God’s desire is for repentance, not punishment and, that no matter what their eyes see and ears hear, they, their people and even their nation are not doomed to destruction. The God of Life will preserve their lives as surely as God lives forever and ever.
All they have to do is repent. Turn, turn away from everything that separates them from God and turn, turn back to God. God doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about sin here. God simply acknowledges that everyone in the community bears some guilt. There is no one who does not need to repent. There is no one whom God wants to lose; no one from whom God wants to be separated. And it is not too late to seek God’s forgiveness and restoration. Even in the hell of their captivity, it was not too late for their redemption, release and restoration.
All of these things came to Ezekiel in visions no one else could see and voices no one else could hear. It would have been easy to write him off as a crazy person, or even a dreamer. Dreamers and visionaries often seem like impractical people in the harsh, cold light of reality with practical needs, real contexts and deep skepticism of the non-rational, improbable, improvable and particularly the supernatural.
But God calls dreamers, daydreamers and visionaries, people who see the world beyond the world, the world as it is and the world as it could be. God calls to people who believe in the supernatural, and sometimes those who don’t. And God speaks to hearts and minds and even ears. Perhaps not everyone who hears voices hears from God, but that does not mean that God is not speaking. I don’t hear from God the way Ezekiel did, but I do hear from God. I’m a thoroughly modern woman, yet I believe in what I can’t see and in what perhaps only I can see. And I listen, with my heart and head and hands.
I pray with the psalmist:
Teach me Holy One, the way of thy statutes and I shall keep them unto the end. Let me ask you All Saints, are you letting God teach you even if God chooses to do so through dreams and visions and voices?
What about the voices and visions, like those of Ezekiel that have been preserved for us? Do you read and study the scriptures? Do you teach the scriptures to your children? Do you read the lessons of the week? Do you know where and how to find them? Do you read the lessons of the day? Do you know where and how to find them?
Teach us Holy One, the way of thy statutes and we shall keep them unto the end. We need to be taught, all of us, clergy and lay. There is so much we don’t know about the scriptures and yet we claim as our redeemer, a rabbi, a teacher. Teach us Holy One, the way of thy statutes and we shall keep them unto the end.
God spoke to Ezekiel, not for his own sake, but for the sake of his community. God came to God’s people when they were in desperate need, at the point many would have said that it was already too late. In our own times of desperation, are you listening to and looking for God? Are you the visionary dreamer through whom God will call us once again to faithfulness, to repentance and ultimately to restoration? In the words we teach our children: Stop! Look! And listen!
If we were serious when we prayed the psalm earlier, we asked God to reveal Godself to us, to teach us and guide us. The psalm does not place any conditions on God: “I’d appreciate it if you’d remember that this is the twenty-first century, and we are modern professional people who scoff and sneer at the supernatural. So please don’t send us any wild-eyed preachers hearing voices. We are Episcopalian after all.”
Rather, we prayed:
Psalm 119:33 Teach me, Holy One,
the way of your statutes,
and I will observe it to the end.
34 Give me understanding, that I may keep your teaching
and observe it with my whole heart.
35 Lead me in the path of your commandments,
for I delight in it.
36 Turn my heart to your decrees,
and not to selfish gain.
37 Turn my eyes from looking at vanities;
give me life in your ways.
38 Confirm to your servant your promise,
which is for those who fear you.
39 Turn away the disgrace that I dread,
for your ordinances are good.
40 See, I have longed for your precepts;
in your righteousness give me life.
Ezekiel invites, and perhaps compels us to embrace the mystery of a God who transcends all that we see, hear, think and feel. Teach us Holy One, the way of thy statutes and we shall keep them unto the end.
In the Name of the Author, the Word and the Translator. Amen.
The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D.
All Saints Episcopal Church