Sunday, August 15, 2010

Ezekiel 4-5: Symbols and Signs and Images

From Garden to City reading:  Ezekiel 4-5

A few years ago I attended a worship retreat, and one of the themes was captivity.  As in, Satan holds us captive, but God releases us to worship, to serve, to create art.  At the time, God was speaking to me about exactly this thing, and it was a powerful retreat.

And on Saturday night, someone went around and put fake handcuffs on each of us, and we were supposed to pray, asking God to release us, and then we could take off the handcuffs and lay them on a cross and write down an area where God was giving us freedom.  Or something like that.

I say, "Something like that" because the idea of fake handcuffs that I could take off at any time just made me laugh.  And I didn't really take the exercise seriously.

Another time we were all given fake crowns and told to lay them at the foot of the cross.  A sign of submission, I think.  Taking off a fake crown without any real value isn't the same as taking off real crowns, and I didn't take that exercise seriously either.

I love verbal metaphors, but when we have actual symbols that substitute for something else, I pull back a little bit.  I just want to explain things.  I love words.

And so this next section of Ezekiel is a little strange to me because God doesn't just use verbal metaphors.  He instructs Ezekiel to do things.  And the things he does become visual representations of the things God wants to communicate.  We see symbols, signs, and images.

For example, he tells Ezekiel to go inside his house and lie on his left side for 390 days, bearing the sin of Israel.  And when he's done with that, he's supposed to lie on his right side for 40 days to bear the sin of Judah.

I guess he can get up periodically because he's supposed to set aside some grains for bread.  But he's supposed to bake the bread using human excrement as fuel.  That represents the defiled food the people will eat while they are exile.

Ezekiel tells God he's very uncomfortable with that because he has never defiled himself or eaten anything unclear.  So God says, "Okay, Ezekiel.  You can use cow manure instead of human poop."

And so on.  Ezekiel is supposed to shave his hair and his beard and divide up the hair.

And I wonder why God has Ezekiel do such strange things because it really is strange.  I don't have an explanation, exactly, but I do wonder what effect it had on the people.  We have the written word we can refer to over and over, but very few people could read in those days and so symbols had enormous power to speak and to tell the story over and over.  And the things Ezekiel were quite strange and odd, but I'm guessing they actually said things to the people in Israel.

We have powerful symbols in our world too.
Waving an American flag on the Fourth of July says powerful things.  Without using any words.
Burning an American flag says powerful things.  Without using any words.

Sometimes words get in the way of meaning.
And so we have communion.  The bread and the wine become the body and blood of Jesus.  His body was broken for us, and so we break the bread and eat it.  He becomes a part of us. His blood was spilled for us, and it becomes our life.  Words cannot express what this means.  In fact, when early Christians took communion, they were accused of being cannibals.

And I have been moved to tears when I take communion.

And we have baptism.  We go under the water, representing death, and we are brought up out of the water, and that represents new life, resurrection, now and in the future.

And both these things sound symbolic and strange.  But participating in these actions speaks to our hearts.  And the symbols and images are often louder than words.

Symbols and signs and images have power.

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