A Sermon by The Rev’d Adrian Stephens

“To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory forever and ever. Amen.” 1 Timothy 1:17

If this sounds familiar, then you will recognise in these words the wonderful hymn by Walter Chalmers Smith. The first verse of that hymn not only reflects this sentence from 1 Timothy, but it also echo’s the reading from Ezekiel. Ezekiel describes the presence of God as light, as human, as creature, and as chariot. Primarily his description of God is storm, complete with lightening, and movement, and clouds. What Ezekiel describes is the glory of God concealing the presence of God. As we recall, no one has ever seen God. Many have been in God’s presence, but no one has seen God.

The hymn that I referred to is powerful and the first verse is this:

Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of days,
Almighty, victorious, thy great name we praise.

The vision that Ezekiel describes is both powerful and beautiful. Its beauty is increased many fold when we take into account that he is in exile with the people of the Hebrews. The nation has been taken captive and shipped off to Babylon. Their removal from the land has a dreadful impact. They believe that God has in some manner abandoned them. God is in Israel and they are in Babylon. They feel alone and God seems to be far away. This is reflected in psalm 137

1   By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.
2    As for our lyres, we hung them up on the willows that grow in that land.
3    For there our captors asked for a song, our tormentors called for mirth:  ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’
4    How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
5    If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill.
6    Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you,  

The vision for Ezekiel is reassuring and promising. Not only does he learn of the new message that he is to reveal to the people, he discovers that God is also in Babylon. The people have not been abandoned by God. God has not lost power. God is not living only in Jerusalem impatiently waiting for the people to return to him in that place. God is with them in Babylon encouraging the people to return to him in faith, not in physical proximity. There is a difference.

The details of the vision are extreme. In the first instance it is merely an approaching cloud, a storm maybe. It concludes with a golden chariot and living creatures with four faces and several wings. The four faces have been picked up and allocated to the four gospel writers. The Symbol of John is the eagle. The symbol of Luke is a winged ox. The symbol of Matthew is a winged man. The symbol of Mark is a winged lion. Does this sound familiar?

“As for the appearance of their faces: the four had the face of a human being, the face of a lion, the face of an ox, and the face of an eagle.”  Verse 10.

Is it too much of a stretch to accept that the four gospel writers are foretold in the same prophecy? Or is it that the images have been allocated as a retrospective action. In either case we have a continuing revelation of God. The gospel writers have seen Jesus, the Son of God, and they lead us through their writings to recognise the glory of God.

In a certain way we are lifted up in the gospels so that we may begin to see the glory of our creator and Divine Father. Maybe we do not see visions of strange beasts with four faces and four wings and human hands. Maybe we do not see visions of fire, wind and thrones. What we do see is God present among us wherever we may be.

The Hebrews discovered God to be present in the faraway land of Babylon. They had been convinced that God had abandoned them in rage and anger. They appeared to think that their relationship with God was over. The sorrow was that the God who had taken them out of slavery in Egypt and had given them a wonderful and productive land had now caused them to become slaves once more.

This changes dramatically with the vision of Ezekiel. God has not abandoned them. God has not simply rejected them and made them slaves once more. God was present with them, and God would lead them out of captivity once more. In due course they would have the opportunity to return to their temple in Jerusalem.

There are times when many of us might think that God seems to be far away. There are times when we might think of ourselves to be in our very own Babylon. There are times when we might feel that there is so much going wrong in our lives that God must have forgotten us, or ignored us. There may be times when we feel so alone and sorrowful that any thought of God is tinged with anger or apathy.

When this happens, we might think of this vision of Ezekiel. The people in Babylon must have felt all of these things. They must have felt that God was far away; they must a have thought that they were forgotten; that too many things were going wrong; that they were being ignored by God; they would be full of sorrow and perhaps their thoughts of God were tinged with anger or apathy.

For those of us who search for God and sometimes feel that God has turned away it is important that we understand that God is still with, and within us. We may not sense God’s presence, but that does not automatically mean that God is absent.

There is an old saying that reflects this experience of God and it goes like this. “If God feels to be far away, guess who moved.” Like all sayings it is not totally accurate for even when we endeavour to move away from God, God is still with us. It is, however, accurate in so much as indicating that we may disconnect from God, but God never disconnects from us.

The thoughts of the absence or the presence of God is acted out over and over again in our daily lives. It amazes me that the times when we need the comfort and encouragement of God the most, are the times when we are most likely to think that God has abandoned us.

For example, when someone we love dearly dies an untimely death and we are ravaged by grief and sorrow we might demand to know why God would let something so awful happen. Or when we see war and despair in countries around the world and we see the suffering of children and the innocent, some people will demand to know why God would allow such a horror to happen.

When we blame God for the selfishness, pride, and hate of humanity it is aberration to blame God, and to hate God, for our own actions.

Some years ago, there was a war in yet another country. One of the images in the media was of a man wheeling an injured person in a wheelbarrow. The question raised in a letter the editor was this. “Where is God?” my response was that God was weeping and wheeling the wheelbarrow.

It is true that people we love will die and we will question why this might happen. In our sorrow we will gain the comfort we seek when we stop questioning and blaming God, and then open our hearts, our grief, and our pain, before our God. That is where we will find comfort and strength.

In the same way, when God seems to have abandoned us, the best response will be to drop to our knees and pray. It is in prayer that our hearts will overflow with the knowledge, the glory, and of the presence of God.