“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…and there was a splendour all round. Like the bow in a cloud on a rainy day, such was the appearance of the splendour all round. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD.
When I saw it, I fell on my face… “Ezekiel 1.26-28
These verses conclude the vision that opens the book of Ezekiel. There are many strange, disturbing passages throughout the book, which is perhaps why it’s not one often preached on, but this vision stands at the beginning and sets a theme for much that follows.
Ezekiel was a disorientated, uprooted refugee, torn from his homeland by an imperial power, forcibly emigrated and left to build some sort of life in the midst of a foreign city. The centre of his religion – the Jerusalem temple – would be looted and destroyed. The holy city would be abandoned in ruins. There was horror all around. Such was the reality of the eviscerated people of Israel in the sixth century BCE. In the midst of this trauma Ezekiel has a vision. You get a sense of language itself straining to describe what he’s seeing: appearances, likenesses, seeming. He sees mysterious angelic creatures, a great whirling chariot, wheels within wheels, fire, and then this vast and radiant throne. He is comprehending something holy. The experience is overwhelming.
Ezekiel’s great chariot-vision gave birth to a stream of Jewish mysticism called merkabah (Hebrew for ‘chariot’), a practice of meditating on God’s throne that led one closer to contemplating the utterly holy and other God. Some scholars suggest that it was just such merkabah mysticism that Saul of Tarsus was practising on the Damascus Road when he was confronted with the shocking realisation that the person he was contemplating was the risen Jesus. I particularly like the suggestion that this is God in his wheelchair: close to us all, even those whom we think may be broken.
Scripture is full of the vast radiance of God, from Moses’s face shining after he has met with God to the majestic visions of the new Jerusalem that close Revelation. Yet Scripture also attests to the intimacy of God, the way God knows us better than we know ourselves, God’s concern for the intimate details of human life. In theological terms this is the transcendence and immanence of God, the wholly other and the wholly present. Isaiah’s visions attest to both these truths, singing of the one who made heaven and earth, yet also the one who has the name of his people engraved on the palm of his hand.
What do we gain from this vision of God? We are invited to be drawn further in to this vast radiance.
Within such a radiance we know ourselves to be small. The wonder and grace of life is not that God becomes part of our story, as if our own existence or even humanity were the centre of all concerns, but that we are drawn into God’s story. In gentle grace God allows us to participate in what she is doing in the world. Our perspectives are broadened, our eyes lifted, our spirits invited to soar.
As we are embraced by radiant love we are invited to surrender and to trust. At the very heart of existence there is a presence of love. At the farthest, vast reaches of the cosmos and the deepest, most intimate places of our hearts, there is love. The most fundamental reality of our lives, above and beneath and beyond all else, is that we are loved. In all our lives the most authentic experiences of human love – between lovers, between parents and children, within families and friendships – teach us the importance of a gentle surrender, of delight in another’s presence, of trust that can be built on love. These are but fragments, small icons, of God’s vaster, gentler, kinder, truer love for us.
Is this religious escapism? Throughout the ages the mystics have been written off, caricatured as ethereal, navel-gazing and self-indulgent. Certainly all areas of the spiritual life have their excesses and dangers. Yet the very nature of this radiance, of this love, means we do not lose ourselves in endless, rapturous contemplation. The God at the heart of such a vision is a God who wishes us to be involved with the world she has made and loves. There is a mission to join in with.
The book of Ezekiel closes with another extraordinary vision: life-giving water flows from a renewed temple, healing and cleansing all that it touches, bringing abundant life. Trees grow on the banks of this river of life, with fruit and leaves for healing. We might think of the one who invited all who were thirsty to come and drink, promising rivers of living water (John 7).
Too many people on our island and in our world live lives bereft of radiance. Isolated, neglected, marked by trauma and poverty and constant, chaotic struggle, they know that the world is a harsh, uncaring place. Is this reality?
What does this radiance look like in our world today? How do we become people marked by this vast and intimate radiance of God in our lives, in our land, in our world? What do our homes and churches look like filled with such a gentle love, always willing to accept the poorest and most needy? What does our economy look like when invited to partake of the abundant radiance that does away with the existence of rich or poor people? Where are the tender places and spaces of healing, for ourselves and a groaning creation?
Our vision of God is not some overly-spiritual escapism. Our vision of God determines who we are and what we are called to be and do.
Written by Michael Manning