The book of Ezekiel opens with a vision and a call fully reminiscent of the vision and call of Isaiah. Ezekiel was stunned off his feet, for in the confusion of storm fire and noise he had glimpsed something that looked like the glory of God coming towards him. Now there is a gap of more than a century between these two prophets yet the extraordinary thing is not this passage of time but the passage of place. Ezekiel, you see, is writing from the city of Nippur, south of Babylon and is among the exiles living along a tributary of the Euphrates.
In the ancient world God is invariably associated with place - consider Solomon’s Temple with its outside courtyard for sacrifices, an inner vestibule or hallway leading finally to the holy of holies housing the Ark of the Covenant and there it is all built on the hill of mount Zion. God was there, up high, inaccessible. In Isaiah’s vision we remember that the lower hem only of God’s robe filled the whole Temple. People might almost unimaginably hope to partially approach him like Moses and the burning bush but this would be granted to very few, like the Devir to the priests alone and then only one day a year.
Ezekiel and the exiles are far away, they have long since stopped blaming the Babylonians for their troub;les but are filled with the sense of their own sin, their own distance from their God, their Temple destroyed as a punishment for all they had done wrong.
So, Ezekiel seeing God coming towards them, there by the rivers of Babylon is completely outside and beyond all expectation. Separated from their Temple they are separated from their God yet he is coming to them. By chapter 34 of Ezekiel’s prophecies this has become very personal: “For thus says the Lord God I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of thick clouds and darkness.”
We think mostly of sheep in flocks, but I have rescued single solitary sheep, snipping the wool of one entangled in barbed wire, gathering a lamb with its surprisingly oily fleece, (which looks so fluffy from a distance) they do really get lost and need seeking out and I hear Ezekiel telling me that the Lord will gather all the sheep “gathering them from the countries” and bringing them back to their own land to be fed on rich teaching and to lie down peaceably and in safety.
Make no doubt about it this is a big change - God is among us now, no longer far away in Jerusalem on mount Zion but here with all of us, looking down the ravines, up at the crags, in the marshes looking across the whole world. We no longer need a Temple or dare I say for all that I love them a church building. We can carry God with us wherever we are for God is mobile and God will never be far away again.