Sunday, August 11, 2019 “When the Heavens Open Up”

The message for Sunday, August 11, 2019 “When the Heavens Open Up” by Pastor Erik Goehner, heard during the 8:00, 9:30 and 11:00AM Worship service.

When the Heavens Open Up

We were in a foreign place.  No, it was not somewhere in South America or Europe.  It was Louisiana.  I was in New Orleans with our High School Youth Group for a National Youth Gathering. During our trip there we wanted to experience some of the unique geography of the region.  What better way to do that than with a swamp boat tour?  (first slide)

On our way out to the bayou we passed houses up on stilts surrounded by moss covered trees unlike anything we had seen in California.  Our guides spoke English, but with an accent and colloquialisms that were foreign to us.  We boarded the boat and continued our adventure outside our normal comfort zones as we saw alligators lurking in the tall grasses and even got to hold a baby one.

Then suddenly our guide got a call on his radio.  After the call he quickly announced to us. “A big storm is coming, y’all!  We gotta get back to the dock!”  He turned the large fan on the back of the boat to high and soon we were speeding back to the dock.  About halfway there the skies burst open and the rain began to pour down.  Even above the deafening roar of the engine we could still hear the thunder.  Between the speed of the boat and the velocity of the rain coming at us, the drops of water felt like steel pins pelting our faces as we pulled down the hoods on our ponchos and bent our heads to the wind. The rain began to soak through our clothes causing us to shiver.   (slide)

Fortunately, it didn’t take too long and our guide got us back safely.  As we disembarked, we were drenched to the bone.  Although we were feeling cold and miserable, at the same time we felt exhilarated.  We had survived the storm!  We checked on our friends in the other boats who were pulling in.  We laughed together as we all saw how soaked we were.  We commiserated over how hard the rain had come down and how cold we were.  As we boarded the shuttle, our spirits were high.

There is a phrase that is sometimes used when a storm blows in quickly and the rain begins to pour down from the sky.  The phrase that is sometimes used to describe this kind of situation is, “the heavens opened up.”  That afternoon our group also opened up to one another as a result of our shared experience in the storm.  Our excursion had been cut short and the whole thing had not been comfortable, but we bonded and became closer as a group in a way that would not have happened if we had not gone out together on the boat.

We hear that the heavens open up in the prophet Ezekiel’s vision in our first reading this morning. When Ezekiel has this vision, the Bible tells us that he is standing next to the Chebar river.  We also hear that he is there among the exiles.  These two details give us a clue about both Ezekiel’s physical and spiritual location.

The Chebar river is most likely a reference to a tributary stream of the Euphrates River which is in modern day Iraq.  The fact that Ezekiel is next to this river standing among the exiles places him with the Israelites who have been taken captive by the Babylonian empire and forced to leave their homes after their city has been destroyed.  Physically, Ezekiel and those exiled are in a foreign place.  They don’t know the language and the people have strange accents.  They are way outside their comfort zones in a different culture with a different religion.  Spiritually they are left wondering why God allowed this to happen to them and wondering if God is as powerful as they had believed or were the gods of the Babylonians more powerful?

This is where Ezekiel and his people are at when suddenly the heavens were opened and the prophet has this incredible vision of animals, light and wheels. (next slide) It is a vision that has inspired the imagination of artists over the years.  This first artist picks up on the beginning of Ezekiel’s vision where he says a stormy wind came out of the north with a great cloud.  We don’t know if any of the other exiled Israelites saw what Ezekiel saw, but this image of the cloud certainly fits with the heavens being opened.  Whether or not there was any rain that came falling down after the stormy wind we don’t know.  It is clear, however, that there is lightning and flashing fire that occurred which would have certainly gotten Ezekiel’s attention for the rest of the vision that followed.

(Next slide)  This artist tries to pick up on the rest of those details in the vision which can appear strange to us.  There are four creatures and four wheels within a wheel moving in all four directions with eyes everywhere on the wheels looking down.  The image also shows what is at the end of the vision in chapter one of Ezekiel, which is a throne with a rainbow above it.  Throughout the years these symbols have been interpreted in many ways, but I want to share one interpretation that I have found helpful.  In ancient stories and mythology the number four is often tied in with the four corners of earth so when you combined that with all the eyes on the wheels you get an image of God who covers all the earth and can watch over all of creation.  The wheels that Ezekiel would have been familiar with would have been the wheels of a chariot.  In Babylonian mythology the god Marduk road his chariot across the skies to show his power.  In Ezekiel’s vision it is Yahweh the God of Israel who appears to be riding on the wheels of a chariot. At the end of the chapter, the image of the rainbow would of course evoke God’s promise to be with Noah after the flood.  (blank slide) 

So imagine Ezekiel sharing such a vision with the people in exile.  Imagine Ezekiel reminding his people in exile that despite their lands being conquered, God was still the One really riding the chariot in the sky. That despite the temple where they worshipped being destroyed, God’s presence still covered the four corners of the earth and was watching over them. And despite feeling like things might be coming to end for them in this foreign place, God would still be with them.  Such a vision would have bonded the people of Israel closer together as a group.  It would have given them strength and brought them closer to God.

Centuries later, the Israelites are back in their homeland, but many of them are feeling discouraged and despairing because they are being occupied by a foreign power through the Roman Empire.  Many of them have been waiting for a new sign from God that a Messiah is coming.  They are not physically in exile like their ancestors and yet they might feel spiritually in exile, for many of them have become disillusioned with their religious leaders who seemed to sometimes collude with the foreign power and enforce rigid religious rules.  Many of them are searching for a sign so they have gone out of their comfort zones, out onto the shores of the Jordan river where they have heard a man named John the Baptist preaching, who seems to be a prophet.  He is sharing a vision of repentance and people are being baptized. They are being washed with water and spirit so that they might feel as if they can have a fresh start.

Then into water wades Jesus, (next slide)  and as he is being baptized, the Bible says the heavens were opened and when the heavens are opened you know something is coming down. In this case it is not rain, but it is the spirit of God in the form of a dove.  A voice comes down as well and says, “This is my beloved son.”  As with Ezekiel, when the heavens are opened, God’s presence is made known to the people, but this time, instead of an imposing mysterious vision, it is a comforting dove.  This time, it is revealed that God’s presence will be made known in a very personal way in Jesus—a way that the people can relate to and connect with.  (blank slide) 

In my third year of college I connected with a friend named Katie.  Katie sang in the choir with me, and during times when we would hang out we would talk about spiritual matters and faith.  She shared with me that she had never been baptized which surprised me because I knew she was a Christian and attended chapel at our college.  Katie explained that she was from the Baptist tradition.  In that tradition they dedicated babies, but they believed that for baptism a person needed to be old enough to decide for themselves.  I was still surprised that she had not decided yet, because she seemed to be a person of faith.  In listening to my friend further, however, I learned that she had still had questions about God, so she wasn’t sure if she wanted to make that step of baptism or not.

That same year, both Katie and I applied for a study abroad trip to Ghana, West Africa.  We were both accepted and in our last semester of College we found ourselves in a foreign place where English was only spoken by some and the geography was very different.  We were there with a group of other students from our Lutheran college, many of which had participated in chapel or campus ministry at the school.  We were there studying development and taking academic courses while doing service work as well. The organization who was hosting us was a Christian faith-based organization whose Executive Director was a Baptist Pastor.

We were confronted with many challenges over the course of the trip which took us outside our comfort zones.  Being in a different culture caused us to examine our own cultural assumptions and as we attended local churches and organized our own times of prayer, the trip also became a kind of spiritual experience.  Katie and I continued to have some conversations about faith.  Towards the end of the trip she surprised me by saying she had asked Dr. Mensah, the pastor and director of our host organization if he would baptize her.   He had said yes!  I was so excited for her! (next slide) The next weekend our whole group and some of the local students and staff went down to the Nassia River near the project site. Katie made a profession of her faith and her desire to be baptized then she was immersed in the waters of the river. (next slide)  Afterwards we clapped, and I sang her a song I had written for the occasion.  In that moment it felt to me as if the heavens had been opened a little and our group was brought closer to God.   (blank slide)

Although we may not ever know what it is like to physically be in exile, there are times when we might feel spiritually exiled.  There might be times when we feel as if we feel far from God and we can wonder where God is as we feel like we are in a foreign place.  But sometimes it is in those very moments, outside our comfort zones in a place that feels foreign, where the heavens can open up in a surprising way, revealing that God is still with us. Sometimes it is through those experiences where we actually grow closer to a community of believers and closer to God as well.  Amen.

-Pastor Erik Goehner