Sermon from July 19: What Did Ezekiel See?

What Did Ezekiel See?
Pentecost VII (O. T. 16); July 19, 2020
Ezekiel 1:4-14

I remember learning the song in elementary school music class:

Ezekiel saw the wheel way up in the middle of the air,
Ezekiel saw the wheel way in the middle of the air.
Now, the little wheel runs by faith and the big wheel runs by the grace of God.
Ezekiel saw the wheel way in the middle of the air.

It’s an American folk song, with its roots in African-American tradition. It’s one of the many examples of African-American spirituals capturing the rich tradition of the prophets.

Ezekiel had a remarkable vision; I read you part of it. And from the midst of the amazing thing he saw, he heard the voice of God. He fell on his face, and the voice of God said to him, “Mortal, stand up! I have something to say to you.” And that was the beginning of his troubles.

What did he see? Did you have a picture in your mind as I read it to you? Did it look something like this? Goodness I had fun looking for images for Ezekiel’s wheel; one of the more interesting ones was a flying saucer, which responds to the question I was asked to consider for today’s sermon: ancient aliens. The fire in the midst of the wheel and the sparks flying among the living creatures have made some people think of a propulsion system for a spacecraft. Ezekiel, they claim, was visited by ancient aliens.

The History Channel, in particular, has given lots of coverage to the ideas of those who claim that humanity in ancient times was visited by aliens from another planet. Plus some of us remember Erich von Däniken’s work in the 1960s; he and the folks on the History Channel gather an impressive array of evidence to support their contention that aliens visited our ancestors. Now, you may be tempted to scoff, but I prefer to listen to people on their own terms, so let me summarize the evidence briefly and then respond as a preacher.

There seem to be two primary lines of evidence. One is the amazing accomplishments of our ancestors, feats of engineering that we imagine to be beyond the technology of their day. Consider the massive rocks of Stonehenge; how could such pieces be moved and erected into place? Consider the pyramids of Egypt and the Moai of Easter Island. Did human beings without modern construction equipment really build those? Or were they assisted by aliens with superior technology? Likewise, think about things that can be recognized only from the air, created by people who had no means of flying. When I lived in Ohio, I visited the Serpent Mound. It’s a massive earthwork; viewed from the air it looks like a serpent. But it was made in the eleventh century; the makers could never have seen it. So why did they make it? Or what of the Nazca lines in Peru? Now, they can be seen from nearby hills, but they are best seen from the air. And they are older than the Serpent Mound. Was their construction supervised by beings who were looking down on them from the air?

The second line of evidence are stories from the ancient world that are easily interpreted from a technological point of view. For example, Ezekiel’s wheels: a rocket described in the sixth century BC might seem to be what he wrote. The fire that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah: might that not have been an atomic bomb? Van Däniken and the History Channel cite examples from other cultures, too, but these two from the Bible are enough to think about for today.

Personally, I hope that we are not the only people in the Universe. As the line goes from my favorite movie, Contact, “If it is only us, it would be an tremendous waste of space.” And one of my prayers is that First Contact will happen during my lifetime, even though there is a sizeable list of reasons for contact being unlikely. When one of you asked me to address this matter, I picked today to consider it, since tomorrow is the fifty-first anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s “one small step.” And I acknowledge the likelihood that if our ancestors met visiting aliens with advanced technology, they may be viewed as gods. As Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I do not dispute the possibility our ancestors were visited by aliens, but as a preacher I want to respond to the two lines of evidence I described.

First, I believe in letting the Bible’s stories stand as they are, without trying to explain them. The Bible’s sacred story teaches us about the encounter of human beings with the Living God; they no doubt have kernels of history within them and some are more factual than others. But in every case, leave the story alone. Whether we’re talking about Ezekiel’s vision or the feeding of the 5,000 in the wilderness or anything else, “what really happened” simply isn’t a concern. The stories are as they are and tell us what they do about God in the form in which they are. If Ezekiel saw a vision of living creatures and wheels and fire and this was how his senses interpreted the presence of the Living God, then leave it be. What is God like? What the Prophet saw is, well, frightening, and probably more accurate than the domesticated God modern American Christians seem to prefer.

Maybe you’ll like this response better; Pastor Cindy reminded me of it this week. Remember Occam’s Razor: when you have two explanations for the same phenomenon, the simpler explanation is more likely to be correct. Which is more likely: that the Prophet Ezekiel had a vision of the Living God, or that an alien spacecraft landed, the inhabitants spoke fluent Hebrew, and they pronounced judgment against the people for violating the ways of God? The Living God is quite bizarre enough for me; ancient aliens need not apply.

But what of Stonehenge and the pyramids and the Nazca lines and Serpent Mound? Don’t sell our ancestors short. Although why some of them were built is still a mystery, we have a pretty good idea of how they were built. Sure, it could have been done faster and with less effort with the help of Kiewit – or the Minbari equivalent – but our ancestors were capable of doing it. In my experience, human beings are capable of much more than we are willing to give ourselves credit for.

I have seen a mother who claimed to be weak at the sight of blood deal very well with transfusions, when they were sustaining the life of her son. People who have claimed to be powerless have lost weight, dealt with addiction, or made other positive changes when they found they needed to for some larger reason. Human beings can be quite remarkable and capable; we don’t need alien assistance.

And there is a social justice implication to my assertion. In the face of systemic injustice, we have no excuse; we dare not say, “That’s the way things are and there’s nothing we can do.” Remember the very first Star Wars movie? Obi-wan Kenobi told Luke to get ready to go with him to Alderaan to fight the Empire; Luke replied, “It’s not that I like the Empire; I hate it, but there’s nothing I can do about it right now.” And, of course, the point of the whole series is that uniquely he, Luke Skywalker, could do quite a bit about it, far more than he knew.

We are living in a time of profound challenges to the public health and to human well-being in general. Somehow all that has made this just the right time to confront as well the racism that has plagued our society for four centuries. As much as I hope to meet aliens, we don’t need aliens to come show us what to do; among us we are discerning what to do. Our reading from Isaiah (64:1-4) gave me the hint of what we do need: faith and the grace of God. Remember the song:

Ezekiel saw the wheel way up in the middle of the air,
Ezekiel saw the wheel way in the middle of the air.
Now the little wheel runs by faith and the big wheel runs by the grace of God.
Ezekiel saw the wheel way in the middle of the air.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska