Scripture: Ezekiel 2:1-3:3
Our Scripture lesson today came from chapter 2 of Ezekiel, but I want to back up a bit for a minute, back to chapter 1, when our prophet first becomes a prophet. Ezekiel, a priest from Jerusalem who has been exiled to Babylon, is hanging out on the banks of the River Chebar when suddenly he sees the heavens begin to open. I want you to hear his description of what he sees, and while you listen, I want you to close your eyes and try to picture what he describes.
As I looked, a stormy wind came out of the north: a great cloud with brightness around it and fire flashing forth continually, and in the middle of the fire, something like gleaming amber. In the middle of it was something like four living creatures. This was their appearance: they were of human form. Each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot; and they sparkled like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. And the four had their faces and their wings thus: their wings touched one another; each of them moved straight ahead, without turning as they moved. As for the appearance of their faces: the four had the face of a human being, the face of a lion on the right side, the face of an ox on the left side, and the face of an eagle; such were their faces. Their wings were spread out above; each creature had two wings, each of which touched the wing of another, while two covered their bodies. Each moved straight ahead; wherever the spirit would go, they went, without turning as they went. In the middle of the living creatures there was something that looked like burning coals of fire, like torches moving to and fro among the living creatures; the fire was bright, and lightning issued from the fire. The living creatures darted to and fro, like a flash of lightning.
Do you have a picture in your head?
He keeps going from here, though I’ll stop there. From here he sees four wheels, one by each of the living creatures (if you know the Gospel song Ezekiel Saw the Wheel, well, now you know) and the wheels move along with the creatures, and when the creatures flap their wings it sounds like thunder, or an approaching army. Over the head of the creatures there is a dome, and over the dome there is a throne, and on the throne, someone almost human-like, but with fire coming from his loins. “This,” writes Ezekiel, “was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.”
Once, in a college class I took on the prophets, we had to draw a picture of what we saw when we heard this. I sat at my desk paying really close attention, trying to make sure I got all the details right. But I think I missed the point, which is that you’re not supposed to be able to get all the details right. This vision is supposed to leave something to the imagination, and even beyond the imagination, because this is a vision of God’s glory that we are talking about, and how can you put something like that in words?
Visions like this are why I like to call Ezekiel the trippiest prophet.
When Ezekiel sees all this, he falls on his face, into a trancelike state, and he hears a voice, and the voice has a job for him. “I am sending you to the people of Israel,” the voice says, “a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me.” Ezekiel likes the word “rebel.” “You shall speak my words to them,” the voice continues, “whether they hear or refuse to hear.”
At this point we might expect the voice, which comes from God, to tell Ezekiel what those words are. This is what God usually does with the prophets. But instead, God does something different. God tells Ezekiel to open his mouth—not to speak, but to eat.
And God hands Ezekiel a scroll, with words written on both sides, “words of lamentation and mourning and woe.” And God says to Ezekiel, “Eat this scroll.”
At this point we may all be wondering: What’s going on?
Well, Ezekiel, as we heard earlier, is already in exile. But the worst has not yet come for the people of Judah. In 597 BCE, the King of Judah had revolted against Babylonian rule and in response got himself sent into exile along with all of Jerusalem’s ruling, elite class—like the priest Ezekiel. This was the “first wave” of the Babylonian exile. The second wave will come about ten years later, when the new puppet king propped up by the Babylonians in Judah also revolts, and this time they tear down the Temple and send everyone else they can get their hands on into exile too. Ezekiel, for the moment, is writing in between these two waves, speaking to both his fellow exiles and everyone left back in Judah, telling them there is more trouble yet to come, and furthermore, that they have brought it on themselves by their failure to be holy people, faithful to God’s covenant. As always, this is not an easy message. But Ezekiel is clearly not any old priest.
Eating a scroll, by the way, is not the only weird thing our friend the prophet Ezekiel does. In chapter 4 Ezekiel is commanded to draw the city of Jerusalem on an unbaked brick, then press a baking griddle against it as a sign of what is to come. Then he lies on his left side for 390 days, symbolizing the time that Israel is to be punished. Then he switches to his right side for 40 days, for Judah. Then God commands him to bake a cake over burning human excrement, because the people of Israel will be forced to eat unclean food; though Ezekiel does protest and get it switched to cow dung at the last minute. He shaves his head and does different things with his hair, in thirds: burning part of it, cutting part of it to pieces, and scattering part of it to the wind—the different things that will happen to the people of Judah. Ezekiel is a fan of what we call “sign-acts”: not just speaking the Word of God, but also acting it out. Other prophets do this kind of thing too, but Ezekiel is the king of sign-acts.
Since I’ve been talking a lot in this series about how we can “live more prophetically,” maybe I should specify that I am not necessarily talking about Ezekiel. Don’t be like Ezekiel. He is fascinating, but very weird and a little scary.
Except for this one thing, the part about eating the scroll. There we should be like Ezekiel.
You see, for Ezekiel, the Word of God isn’t just something that he hears and passes on, like he is passing a note from God to God’s people, or playing a divine game of Telephone. For Ezekiel, the Word of God has to be something he actually puts inside of himself, chews on, digests, perhaps that he is strengthened and nourished by—before he can deliver it to others.
For a prophet, the Word of God has to fundamentally become part of who he or she is—and I believe that is true not just for those biblical figures who are formally commissioned as prophets, but for all of us who hope to live a little more prophetically.
Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are, once got a card from a little boy names Jim. Jim had drawn a picture in the card, and Sendak thought it was charming, so he sent a card back with a hand-drawn picture of a Wild Thing in it. He wrote: “Dear Jim, I loved your card.” Later Maurice Sendak got a letter back from Jim’s mother, who wrote, “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.” Sendak said, “That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”
Do you love the Word of God like that?
I wonder what it would be like to eat the Bible, the Word of God? What would it be like to eat the Ten Commandments? The Beatitudes? Jesus’ parables? I imagine each of them might taste a little different, and have their own unique texture. The Ten Commandments would be brown rice, a dietary staple, but nutritious, too. The Beatitudes would go down sweet and smooth with their words of blessing. But then we might find they have a little kick to them, the kind that sneaks up on you. The parables would be sure to be nice and chewy. Maybe you can come up with some more! Then again, we can’t make too many assumptions, because the words Ezekiel ate were words of mourning and lamentation and woe and he said they tasted sweet like honey—maybe because they were the truth, that the people needed to hear, even if it was hard.
If that’s a strange thing to think about—what would the Bible taste like—remember, Ezekiel is a pretty weird prophet.
But here’s a less weird idea: instead of literally eating the pages out of our Bibles, maybe we just spend some more time with them. Maybe we read the words slowly, two or three times or more, instead of rushing through a familiar story and thinking we know what it means. Maybe we try some different translations and see how they illuminate those original Hebrew or Greek words from different angles. Maybe we sit back and close our eyes and allow ourselves to imagine being part of the story, or maybe we draw what comes to mind, like my professor had us do in college. And maybe we pray and listen for what God has to say to us through the words we are reading, and we read some background and we discuss it with others, and then instead of just moving on with our lives we let it roll around in our hearts and our minds for the next few days as we go about our lives, because maybe it will speak to us again when we least expect it.
Maybe we begin to live more prophetically by making the Word of God part of us that way.
My Methodist theology professor in seminary told us that John Wesley saw the whole world through Scripture-colored lenses. He spent so much time in it that he brought it to everything he encountered in life: This reminds me of when Jesus does this. This is what I think God might have to say about this. I believe it was this perspective that allowed him to speak up against the evils he saw in the world around him, from drunkenness to slavery to riches; and what allowed him to speak prophetically to the church, asking why faith seemed to have done so little to change the lives of so many Christians. Since my professor put it that way, I have always thought that that was the way I wanted to be. I want God’s Word to be such a part of me that it becomes part of my living, part of my day-to-day, part of my speech, something that I can’t help but share in word and action.
I think I still have a long way to go, but I also find that as time goes by God’s Word is more and more on the tip of my tongue and in the front of my mind; and if I don’t always act on that, well, that’s on me.
I wonder how often, though, we’re content to pass on God’s Word without really digesting it. We can quote Scripture and assume we know what it means without really taking the time to sit with it and pray about it and study it. We may fancy ourselves prophetic because we can quote a chapter or verse, sometimes out of context, to support or to condemn—but how much have we let that chapter and verse become a part of us?
Or maybe the opposite is true—that, because God’s Word hasn’t become a part of us, we’re afraid to speak it. It doesn’t come naturally to the tip of our tongues. And we’re not really sure we know what any of it means. We haven’t tasted the richness of it all. I think back to how God told Ezekiel not to be afraid of the rebellious people he spoke to, not to be afraid of their words or their looks, not to be afraid “though briars and thorns surround you and you live among scorpions,” and I can’t help but wonder if that was possible only because he ate that scroll, because God’s Word became part of him so that he couldn’t help but live and speak it out, no matter what people would say.
Even though we don’t eat Bibles around here, we do eat bread. And we do drink grape juice. And that’s actually not altogether different. I believe God speaks to us through those elements, too. I believe that when we eat and drink the body and blood of Christ, we are empowered to become, as we say, “for the world, the body of Christ redeemed by his blood.” Take and eat, God says. It’s a way that little by little, who I am can become part of who you are.
I’ll close with a story I read once a long time ago about a guy who was talking to a group of youth at a camping event, and at one point he held up a Bible, and they all expected him to say the kind of normal pious things that you might hear about a Bible at church camp. But instead he tossed it onto the wet, muddy ground and said, “This book is useless!”
Then, picking it up again, “unless you take what is inside this book and put it inside you.”