A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Sunday 5 December 2021 by Revd Sally Hitchiner
Reading of address: Ezekiel 47: 1-12, 48: 35
How do we engage with Christmas in this strange time? I’d like us to embrace the strangeness and come to Christmas this year from the perspective of the Old Testament. Through a fluke of the rota I’m down to preach this week and next week so I’d like us to look in more depth at the Old Testament book that speaks most about Advent. We’ll look at his story from two angles.
Next week we’ll look at heart but this week our theme is home. You only know what home means when you’ve been away from it for too long.
Ezekiel was 25 year old. He had been training to be a priest in the temple in Jerusalem, at the time of the first Babylonian attack of the city in the turn of the 6th century BC. Babylon was the largest nation in the region. Israel had started to be irritating to them. They spared the city but they took some of the most interesting Israelites back as slaves, including the king, the aristocracy and some of the priests. They marched them 500miles from Jerusalem to Babylon, in the region of modern day Iraq. And Ezekiel was among them.
The book of Ezekiel begins 5 years after all that. In chapter 1 we find him sitting in Babylon by an agricultural canal near his Israelite refugee camp. It’s his 30th birthday. This would have been the day he should have graduated as a fully qualified temple priest in Jerusalem. He has spent his whole life preparing to be at the heart of the city of God, serving in God’s house. But he’s not in Jerusalem and he can’t get back there. Home is far, far away.
Knowing where your home is matters. If you know where you belong it changes who you are as a person. In the case of the Israelites they belonged where God was. God had said, you are my people. You will show my glory to the nations and everyone will know that you are my people because I will make my home with you. So God’s presence was found in an arc, then in a tent, then in a stone temple. Every year people would travel to the temple to engage with God.
It’s understandable that Ezekiel’s first definition of home is that it is a particular place: the temple in Jerusalem.
But as he is sitting alone, contemplating his graduation day if he was back there, Ezekiel has a vision. He sees a storm-cloud approaching then inside the cloud he sees a fantastical vision of four creatures on four wheels carrying a throne and on that throne is a human like being with light shining out from him. Then Ezekiel realises what he is seeing. He says “It is the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.” The images in the vision are very similar to the depictions of God’s presence over the arc of the covenant in the temple. So what is God’s glory doing in Babylon?!
What stands out are the four living creatures holding the image of God’s glory… and the wheels. The word “Glory” means weighty or significant. But according to this vision, the weighty presence of God is now mobile.
God’s glory doesn’t simply reside in a fixed place. Which is good, because the fixed place isn’t all that.
In his next vision, he goes on a virtual tour of the temple in Jerusalem and he sees what is happening in his absence. Like many who wistfully long for a physical place that is home, the reality isn’t as they remember. The Israelite God is being ignored and the temple has been reordered around new statues to other gods. The vision ends with the throne and glory of the Lord moving up and away from the temple, heading East towards Babylon.
This does not sound good. For people who are committed to the idea of home being the physical Temple in Jerusalem, this is a disaster. They wanted to believe that whatever was happening to them, God was back home, perfect and untouched by their mess, waiting for them to return. But the vision suggested the glory of God could leave the temple. God’s home could be somewhere else.
The next contender for the definition of home is that home is where we are safe. This is the definition of home by people who have been beaten down by life.
This is where Ezekiel takes on a certain Gretta Thumberg quality.
He holds a mirror up to the Israelites that shows them the folly of the their methods to try to secure their physical home but ignoring God. He gives two challenges.
First he challenges his people to stop complaining at God for letting them be carried off into slavery and reflect on their own treatment of the covenant. Even before things got bad, they had become as loving as “a burned stick” to God. He says they’re like a wild animal caught in a net, thrashing around or like someone with a sex addiction, using everyone they can find without purpose or satisfaction. They’re called by God. They should have focus, direction, purpose.
He challenges their attempts to find stability by grabbing religious practices of their surrounding nations. As their luck failed, Israel had tried appealing to the gods of Egypt and Tyre. But the vision points to these countries also being overcome by Babylon. However big and strong these other nations are, they are also just creatures – vulnerable to the violence of life too. Destruction is not just found in Israel. It can happen anywhere.
Home according to God, isn’t to be kept pristine in a place far away, nor is it found in being in the right place but randomly thrashing around grabbing other gods in a bid to make the place more prosperous.
The warning visions continue until in chapter 33, a refugee arrives, breathless, and announces that Babylon has attacked the city of Jerusalem again and this time it’s final. The city has fallen. Home is
gone forever. The temple is destroyed. The place where God can be found on earth, now is a pile of rubble.
There’s silence, you can feel everyone’s hearts pounding as they try to take in such monumental news. The most precious thing they had, the place they met with God, is gone, forever…
If this was the story of your life. This would be the moment of your death. And it’s not a good death.
But just when all hope has died, a new story begins. A story that was really the real story all along.
From utter desolation, Ezekiel has three visions of a bigger concept of home in God’s new creation. They may sound far out but they are promises for our lives too.
God promises a new Israelite leader. A new King David. The Temple in Jerusalem may have fallen but the Temple was conceived by David and another David could come, to bring a new one.
Ezekiel then sees a huge valley filled up with human bones and skeletons. A lot of people had literally died in the Exile but this is a metaphor of their spiritual state. This would have jarred with Ezekiel and his hearers. The Jewish definition of a good death was to be buried complete, with your bones in order, in your homeland, sleeping with your ancestors. Even with modern DNA testing, no team of archaeologists would attempt to reassemble a whole valley of random bones into individual skeletons belonging to distinct human beings. Without their proper place, these are not people, this is just a heap of bones. The story has gone wrong and they have run out of pages for a better conclusion.
But God starts their story again. God knows the proper place of even the tiniest of their bones and God breathes and a wind blows life into the bones so they move! They reform as their skeletons, then gain muscle and skin and eventually come alive. This vision for the recreation is mimicking the breath of God forming humanity for the first time in the garden of Eden from a mixture of dirt and divine breath. It’s a vision that draws Israel back to before they were chosen as a special people in a special land. It’s a vision that speaks of God’s involvement with them simply because they are human… and, interestingly story of the garden of Eden is thought to have originated from somewhere in what is now modern-day Iraq. They don’t need to go back to Jerusalem for God to heal. God breathed humanity into being on this land.
But even with the promise of God recreating them in this new land, what’s to stop the violent cultures all around them coming to destroy them again?
Ezekiel’s next vision deals with the safety of the land… when you are anxious about dangers your mind is reaching out to this person or that place and it’s very hard to be present. But in this prophesy God deals with all that could make their minds dislocated with worry.
All of the destructive nations around them are wrapped up in one mythological military leader. His name is Gog and he is from the land of Magog.
The name Gog is not any person but all the destructive violence in every nation past and present… imagine the evil of Hitler, and Pol Pot and Ide Amin and Attila the Hun, even the destructive violence in you, drawn out into one leader and one army. The lie of evil is overcome, it becomes containable, limited, destroyable.
In this vision this Gog and his armies face so much annihilation by God’s world it doesn’t even make sense. First they are consumed by an earthquake, then by fire, then for good measure God strikes it down in the field where they lay unburied for all to see. All the destructive violence in the entire world is well and truly GONE.
Then, having destroyed evil, we have a new home prophesied. We heard it read in our first reading. Let it open up into a rolling landscape in your mind.
He sees a new temple, each angle bigger and more majestic than the old. There’s a new alter, new priests, a whole new system of worship. Then God’s chariot throne that Ezekiel saw at the start of the book comes back from Babylon to live in this new temple.
It’s striking that we’re not told this is Jerusalem. This temple could be anywhere in the world. But there is a home, a centre for Israel. Though the whole world will be safe again, this space is theirs.
This home is not insular. Flowing from the temple is a stream that becomes a river. It flows down through the city out into the desert, to the most desolate place on their earth: the Dead Sea valley. The river leaves behind it a trail of trees and life and the Dead Sea is transformed into a living fresh water lake with banks teaming with plants and animals.
The book ends in the very final verse with the big reveal. The name of this garden city will be “The Lord is There” Immanuel. God with us. God doesn’t stay statically in one place but goes with you into Exile.
And God will build a new home for you where God will walk with us in the cool of the day. But this time Adam and Eve can’t be cast out of it because there is nowhere else. The whole creation is touched by this river. The universe will be free from evil and destruction and everywhere you could go will be an experience of life not death, even the most desolate places will become a garden by the river that flows
from the temple in the city of God. Because The Lord is not just here but also there, and there… and there.