When Ezekiel saw a vision of God, his immediate response was to fall to the ground in an act of humility.
Wake up calls are common when we travel. We call the hotel's front desk and we tell them when we want to be awakened. The next morning, the phone rings at the appropriate time, and a computer-generated voice can be heard telling us the time.
Sometimes wake up calls come in other forms. Our boss telling us one more mistake, and we are fired. Flunking out of school. A near brush with death.
Sometimes we are awakened in the middle of the night, by a knock on the front door or a phone ringing or a child crying or an animal prowling or by a dream. Such was Ezekiel.
I. Ezekiel's vision (1:1-28)
Ezekiel isn't on the list of history's best-known figures. If people have any knowledge of him, it's probably from the folk song, "Dry Bones," rather than the Bible. No biography exists of him, but we do know he lived in Babylon about 593 B.C., along with other Israelites who had been carried into captivity. He was the first prophet in captivity.
Some scholars, eager to discredit him, picture Ezekiel as mentally unbalanced, a victim of paranoia and hallucinations. Conservative scholars see him as a faithful spokesman for God, with whom the Lord communicated through strange visions.
Visions are a kind and benevolent term for what Ezekiel experienced. If Jacob had a dream (angels ascending and descending on a ladder), and Isaiah had a vision (God on his throne, high and lifted up), then Ezekiel had a nightmare. Granted the book that bears his name says, "I saw visions of God" (Ezek. 1:1), these visions of God were enough to wake anyone up from a night of slumber.
Ezekiel "looked and there was a whirlwind coming from the north, a great cloud with fire flashing back and forth and brilliant light all around it. In the center of the fire, there was a gleam like amber. The form of four living creatures came from it. And this was their appearance: They had human form, but each of them had four faces and four wings" (Ezek. 1:4-6).
The four faces of these creatures symbolized God's perfect nature. These four faces turned in every direction. In other words, each face faced a different direction. Our interpretation of his nightmare is limited because of the mystery surrounding God. But what Ezekiel sees, generally speaking, is the power and majesty of God. The four living creatures described as having the faces of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle portray the character of God.
Throughout history, these creatures have symbolically represented certain qualities. A man is the picture of intelligence, of understanding. A lion is always a picture of sovereignty, of supremacy. An ox is always the symbol of servitude, of sacrifice. An eagle is the symbol of power and deity, of soaring over all creation. The significant thing is that the four present exactly the same qualities exhibited in Jesus Christ. He appears first in the Gospel of Matthew as the king - the lion, the king of beasts, and the sovereign of all. He appears in the Gospel of Mark as the servant, the ox. In the Gospel of Luke, he is man in his intelligence, in his insight, in his understanding of life. And in the Gospel of John, he is deity. These four reflect the character of Jesus Christ. The vision of John in Revelation 4 parallels this vision of Ezekiel.
After he saw the four living creatures, Ezekiel saw wheels turning, one wheel within the other. This gyroscope, like wheels, had eyes. This image conveys the idea that God is present everywhere and is able to see all things.
As he watched, he also saw a firmament above, shining in splendor, and above the firmament, as he lifted his eyes higher, he saw a throne. And on the throne sat a man. The man represented God himself on the throne. In a similar way, Christ revealed God in human form, and prepared us for his message of salvation, not in a vision, but in real life.
While Ezekiel doesn't understand all of this, and even though he doesn't perceive the significance of his vision, he saw, nonetheless, the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Ezekiel saw as clearly as he could the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. He saw God more clearly than any other prophet.
II. Ezekiel's response (1:28)
His nightmare was a sight dramatic enough to arrest anyone's attention and waken them to action. Notice Ezekiel's response, "This was the appearance of the form of the LORD's glory. When I saw [it], I fell facedown and heard a voice speaking" (Ezek. 1:28). Ezekiel's response does not surprise me. It makes perfect sense. Few, if any of us, have experienced such a dramatic encounter with God; but the drama is not as important as the result. If we had seen what Ezekiel saw, we, too, would be on our faces before a holy God.
When we see God for who he is the only appropriate response is one of humility. We, too, will be overwhelmed by the holiness of God and aware of our own sinfulness and insignificance. We, too, will fall before God either out of reverence and awe for his mercy, or out of fear for his judgment.
Have you ever fallen down before God? Have you ever realized how great he is and how small you are? Have you come to terms with the awareness of how much you need him and how little he needs you? Have you ever taken the posture of humility before a holy God?
In a collection of children's letters to God was this letter from Wayne, age eleven: "Dear God, my dad thinks he is you. Please straighten him out." When we come before God, we need to be straightened out. But when we are straightened out before God, we become horizontal not vertical - lying facedown in the dirt in a posture of humility.
It is worth remembering the root of the word humility is humus that means dirt or soil. To humble ourselves before God does not mean we become dirt; rather it means we get down on the dirt. We recognize our place. And our place before a holy God is always prostrate.
It is interesting that God called Ezekiel "son of man" or "son of dust." God recognized the distinction between him and Ezekiel. Now Ezekiel recognized the difference.
I wonder if you and I do?
Journalist Tim Russert, NBC News Washington bureau chief, Meet the Press moderator, and former altar boy relates the time he had a private audience with Pope John Paul II. He states, "I'll never forget it. I was there to convince His Holiness it was in his interest to appear on the Today Show. But my thoughts soon turned away from NBC's ratings toward the idea of salvation. As I stood there with the Vicar of Christ, I simply blurted out, 'Bless me, Father!'
"He put his arm around my shoulders and whispered, 'You are the one called Timothy, the man from NBC?'
"I said, 'Yes, yes, that's me.'
"'They tell me you're a very important man.'
"Taken aback, I said, 'Your Holiness, there are only two of us in this room, and I am certainly a distant second.'
"He looked at me and said, 'Right.'"
When Ezekiel experienced the theophany - the appearance of God - only two beings were present. Ezekiel understood his place and the appropriate posture he should take. In humility, he fell facedown before God. We are never in a correct position before God, unless we are facedown.
III. Ezekiel's call (1:28-2:8)
It was in this posture of humility that Ezekiel heard from God. "When I saw [it], I fell facedown and heard a voice speaking" (Ezek. 1:28). Here's what he heard.
A. Stand up
"He said to me, 'Son of man, stand up on your feet . . .'" (Ezek. 2:1). God, like an Army drill sergeant, was barking the order: "Attention!" God wanted Ezekiel to be fully alert. He was about to receive orders.
B. Listen up
"'. . . and I will speak with you.' As He spoke to me, the Spirit entered me and set me on my feet, and I listened to the One who was speaking to me" (Ezek. 2:2). It was God's way of saying, "Now that I have your attention, listen to me. I've got something I want to say to you. So put on your listening ears. I don't want you to miss my instructions."
C. Go up
"He said to me: 'Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites . . .'" (Ezek. 2:3). God was saying, "Ezekiel, the task that I have for you requires action." Have you ever noticed that two-thirds of God is go. Always, there is an action component to the call of God. Rarely can we stay where we are, do what we've always been doing, and fulfill the call of God upon our lives. Ezekiel came to realize this and so must we.
D. Speak up
"'The children are obstinate and hardhearted. I am sending you to them, and you must say to them: This is what the Lord GOD says. Whether they listen or refuse [to listen] - for they are a rebellious house - they will know that a prophet has been among them. "But you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or their words" (Ezek. 2:4-6). God said, "I've got a message for my people. You will communicate that message. It's not your message. It's my message. Your job is to deliver it, whether they listen or not, and whether you are afraid or not." God's truth is not dependent on human response. God would not judge Ezekiel for how well others responded to his message, but for how faithful he was in presenting it. Ezekiel was a spokesperson for God, his very mouthpiece. God appointed Ezekiel as "a watchman over the house of Israel" (Ezek. 3:17). A watchman stood on the city wall and warned the people of approaching danger. Ezekiel's role was to be a spiritual watchman, warning people of coming judgment. There is a fundamental connection between being a watchman and warning, between being a spokesperson and speaking, between being a mouthpiece and opening our mouths to let words come out.
E. Open up
"'Open your mouth and eat what I am giving you' . . . So I opened my mouth, and He fed me the scroll" (Ezek. 2:8, 3:2). I find it interesting that the name Ezekiel means "God is strong" or "God makes strong." For him to be strong, he had to feed on the nourishment of God's Word. For The Word of God is life giving. Just as we need food for physical life, we need God's Word for spiritual life. When we digest God's Word, we find that not only does it make us stronger in our faith, but also its wisdom sweetens our lives. This means doing more than simply giving God's message a casual glance, like looking through a bakery window. It means making the Word part of our lives, like eating a balanced diet that sustains and nourishes us to health and productivity.
This was Ezekiel's call to be a prophet.
When the new preacher came to town, everybody at the Baptist church was talking about how good he was, and how much better he was than their old preacher. The town skeptic inquired, with great interest, of one of the deacons what this new man was preaching, that made him so different from the old preacher.
"The old preacher told us we were all lost sinners and unless we repented, we were all going to hell," was the answer.
"Well, what does this new preacher say?" the skeptic asked.
"This new preacher tells us we are all lost sinners and unless we repent, we are all going to hell," was the reply.
"Well I'll be damned if I can tell the difference," was the skeptic's judgment.
"Oh there's a big difference," answered the deacon. "This one says it with tears in his eyes."
That, of course, is the mark of the true prophet. The true prophet makes his judgments and pronounces his warning, with tears in his eyes.
Often we think of a prophet as being a foreteller, one who predicts the future. Actually, most biblical prophets were not foretellers, they were "forth tellers." They had a message from God to tell, usually a message of warning and judgment. And often prophets had to tell it to a less than receptive audience, in a less than pleasant time. It pained them to tell of impending judgment. Like the beloved preacher, they proclaimed their warnings, with tears in their eyes.
So why would someone want to be a prophet? Why would someone want to share a message to a group of people who would rather have their head on a platter than hear the message? Why would someone pronounce a judgment that brought such hurt and pain to them and their audience? The answer is because the prophet was called.
What ambassador would think of going to a country as representative of his homeland, without being sent? What solider would go to a war torn country risking life and limb, without orders? What missionary would go to a foreign country to endure the pain and hardships of a sacrificed life, without being commissioned?
Os Guiness in his book, The Call, explains, "Calling is the truth that God calls us to himself so decisively that everything we are, everything we do, and everything we have is invested with a special devotion and dynamism lived out as a response to his summons and service."
Ezekiel was called. One can substitute the words sent, ordered, commissioned, or ordained. He, like all called people, could never choose to do something else. They were created for this task, like a fish is made for the sea, like a bird is made for the air.
A Baptist preacher felt compelled to speak out in the middle of a recent racial crisis in his small southern town. In a sermon, he charged his congregation with being more influenced by their surrounding southern culture, than by the Bible they professed.
When his board of deacons complained to him about his sermon, his reply was, "Look, I'm a preacher. You pay me to preach the Bible, not what you (or I) think. You think I enjoy preaching like this?"
His board sat for a moment in silence. Then they applauded him and went on with their business. Their pastor had reminded them that for him to be "ordained," meant that he was "under orders," that he was called.
IV. Our response
I know some of you are thinking, What does all of this have to do with me? I'm not a prophet. I'm not going to the mission field. I don't want to be a pastor. So what's the point?
In the movie The Blues Brothers, a couple of ex-convict-wanna-be-musicians were trying to raise money for an orphanage. Anytime they were asked about their work, they had a standard response: "We're on a mission from God." They always said it, as if they believed it. The very idea that two inept, unworthy human beings could be on a mission from God was, of course, the central joke of the whole story.
Here is the story of your life: You are on a mission from God.
God is calling you. God's calls are not exclusive to pastors and missionaries. He calls plumbers and managers as well. For that matter, he calls some to be electricians, doctors, lawyers, teachers, chemists, sales persons, and housewives. He calls some to secular vocations, others to sacred vocations. A calling is not something reserved for those going into full-time Christian service.
Granted, we don't hear much about calling anymore, because our society is educated to think in terms of career. A calling is something God chooses for me. A career is something I choose for myself. A career promises status, money, or power; a calling generally promises difficulty and even some suffering - but it's a mission, an opportunity to be used by God. A career is about upward mobility; a calling generally leads to downward mobility. A career ends with retirement and lots of "toys." A calling isn't over until the day you die. The rewards of a career may be quite visible, but temporary. The results of a calling may never be seen on this side of eternity.
Often we think that ministry requires a calling and the marketplace is choosing a career. But that is not true. It is quite possible to turn a ministry into a career that focuses on advancement and achievement. On the other hand, it is quite possible to make a business a calling that is truly done to serve God and others.
In the eleventh century, King Henry III of Bavaria grew tired of court life and the pressures of being a monarch. He made application to Prior Richard at a local monastery, asking to be accepted as a contemplative and spend the rest of his life in the monastery.
"Your Majesty," said Prior Richard, "do you understand that the pledge here is one of obedience? That will be hard, because you have been a king."
"I understand," said Henry. "The rest of my life I will be obedient to you, as Christ leads you."
"Then I will tell you what to do," said Prior Richard. "Go back to your throne and serve faithfully in the place where God has put you."
When King Henry died, a statement was written: "The king learned to rule by being obedient."
Conclusion: Ezekiel was obedient to the call of God upon his life. Are you being obedient to the call of God upon your life? God can turn your career into a calling. Sometimes the end of a career is the beginning of a calling. At other times, God chooses to take people out of the security of their careers and call them into a Christian ministry. Since everyone has one, what is your mission from God?
Is God trying to break through to you? Is he waking you up to a specific calling? Do you need to humble yourself before God? Get in a posture to really hear from God? Or maybe you have heard from God, you know the call of God upon your life, but you have failed to put it into action. Do you need to get serious about God's wake up call for you?