2 August – A God to like

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Pentecost 9

Ezekiel 1:1-28
Matthew 14:13-21

In a sentence
We can’t really say quite what God is like, and this means that God is free to set us free

For 2500 years, Ezekiel’s extraordinary vision on the river Chebar has captured the imagination of mystics and wackos alike. Winged creatures with strange faces, eye-balled wheels within wheels, a throned figure and fire against a thunderous soundtrack – what is not marvellous in this striking account?

Artists, naturally, have also been caught up by the vision, with all manner of attempts to capture Ezekiel’s vivid description as an image. And yet, for all the enthusiasm about what it was Ezekiel saw, there is one word in his account which goes largely overlooked in all these musings – the little word ‘like’.

In fact, ‘like’ (or ‘likeness’) appears 25 times in this account of Ezekiel’s vision, and ‘appeared’ (or ‘appearance’, both in the sense of ‘looking like’) is found another 8 times. The last three verses illustrate the point most intensively (NRSV):

26 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. 27Upwards from what appeared like the loins I saw something like gleaming amber, something that looked like fire enclosed all round; and downwards from what looked like the loins I saw something that looked like fire, and there was a splendour all round. 28Like 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.

The problem with any attempt to portray what Ezekiel sees here is that while we can draw, say, a picture of a person and saw that our drawing is like the person, how do we draw something which is itself like a human person? ‘Like’ a human being is not a human being. ‘Like’ a throne is not a throne, ‘like’ amber is not amber, and ‘like’ fire is not fire. This is to say that representations of Ezekiel’s vision with human figures and shining jewels and fire and a throne are representations of what Ezekiel did not see, for what he was ‘like’ these things.

This might seem rather a subtle distinction but consider the last line of what we heard today, which punches the point home. Ezekiel sees ‘only’ the ‘appearance’ of the ‘likeness’ of the ‘glory’ of the Lord. ‘Like’ language removes God as many as three times from what he actually sees. He sees not the Lord but the glory of the Lord, and not the glory but the likeness (or semblance) of that glory, and not the likeness of the glory of the Lord but something which appeared like the likeness of the glory.

Ezekiel’s account is of a kind of ‘space-holder’ for where God would be or what God would look like, if God were anywhere or looked like anything. To put it differently, here we have an account of the transcendence of God, of God’s being utterly beyond all in the world, and yet – the ‘and yet’ is crucial – still present to the world, pressing upon it. This is a transcendence not primarily ‘over’ or ‘beyond’ the world, but for it.

To capture this, God is indicated not by describing God rather but what God is ‘like’; ‘not-God’ stands in God’s place. God is thus always at least one step removed from anything said about God, properly in the background to what we think we see and name as ‘God’. This is not about the poverty of language to express God, and it is not an evasion by God. In this God is not to be elusive but free.

Throughout the book of Ezekiel we will hear the refrain ‘[and] you/they shall know that I am the Lord’ (in fact, over 50 times). Here the name ‘Lord’ is crucial, as is the fact that this refrain is never ‘you shall know I am God’; it is ‘Lord’ and not ‘God’ which matters here.

‘Lord’ is here the divine name given to Moses in the burning bush episode. We usually say that name in English as ‘Yahweh’ (‘Jehovah’, in the old money). The meaning of ‘Yahweh’ is itself somewhat elusive but we know that it implies self-determination. ‘Who are you?’ Moses asked. ‘I am who I will be’, God answers, or, ‘I will be who I will be’. This is a name which communicates the fundament character of the one whose name it is: I will be as I will to be. God here names Godself as the one free to be God’s own.

(While we’ve remarked on the prevalence of ‘like’ language in Ezekiel’s vision, it’s worth noting here that there are several things which are not described as ‘like’. The ‘wheels’ are apparently not like wheels but are, in fact, wheels. So also for the eyes in the wheels, and the spirit which animates them to move ‘chariot-throne’ – if we might call it that. At this great cultural distance any particular symbolism in the wheels or the eyes is difficult to identify with confidence, but we can comprehend at least the ‘every‑direction’ freedom of movement the wheels have, and the every‑direction vision of the eyes. The one seated on the chariot-throne is free to move, and sees all. There is nothing ‘like’ freedom here but freedom itself.)

God’s transcendence is not about God’s location – over, above, beyond – but about God’s freedom. Ezekiel’s encounter is with a God who relates to the world – as creator, lover, judge, redeemer – and yet is not part of the world, is at best only ‘like’ this or that thing we already know.

The question which might tempt us here is ‘What use is a God like this?’

It is a tempting question because useful things seem to us to be what we most need. We assess our situation and determine what it demands. We are building things and protecting things. Or future seems to us to be in our hands and what is ‘useful’ aids us in our work towards these projected futures. What is free – radically free – is precisely what our projects seek to overcome, because free things break with order and challenge the status quo, be it the wild child, the raging storm or the advanced tumour. Free things disrupt our own stories about ourselves.

A God we cannot get a handle on – who is only ‘like’ this or that familiar thing and so is really unlike anything – is a threat to our stories about ourselves. This the case whether those stories are positive or negative. When our stories about ourselves are arrogant and proud, such a God would reveal to us death, would reveal that our kingdoms are not God’s kingdom. When our stories about ourselves are bleak and desperate, such a God would reveal to us hope, for God sees further than we do.

What might we say such a free God is ‘like’ today?

There is among us at the moment something ‘like’ God in its freedom, at least – a radical disrupter revealing to us that our best laid plans are susceptible to the threat of death, for what else is the virus but such an unfettered interruption? We will, doubtless, yet discover useful tools beyond what we already have, and bring this terrifyingly free agent of death under some likeness of control. Our prayers are with those charged to fashion these tools, be they regulations to keep us safe or the magic of advanced medicine.

But, to add to the tentative reflections of last week on the relationship between the virus and God’s judgement, perhaps we could see in the virus not quite God but a likeness of God’s own freedom to approach us in times and places least expected, whether on the banks of the river Chebar in 593BC with condemnation and promise, or here-and-now with whatever will shake us down into a richer humanity. For as then so also now, it is only such a free God who might be able to dislodge us from our arrogance and self-delusion, our indifference and self-satisfaction, and our grief and fears.

Do we not need such a jolt?

All of this is to say, with Ezekiel, that when the God who is like nothing we know comes to us, it is to reveal that tomorrow belongs not to us with all our plans and projects but belongs to God.

And, unlike a virus which simply wipes tomorrow away, God comes to call us to meet him in that tomorrow, where condemnation resolves into grace, darkness yields to light, weeping gives way to joy.

What, in the end, is not to ‘like’ about such a God as this?