Wheels on Fire

 

This sermon delivered by Sue Mosher on December 16, 2012, was inspired by a recording of the gospel song “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel” by the Charioteers. Many thanks to Richard Hurst, whose fascination with the lyric "Satan wears a number 11 shoe", led us to listen deeply to this song and hear in it a message appropriate for the days before 12/21/12. 

In addition to the sermon, the call to worship, readings, hymns, and benediction used in the service at Universalist National Memorial Church, Washington, DC, appear below, at the end of this post.

Well, here we are at last – in the final few days of the 26,000-year Mayan “long count” calendar, the one that has spawned so many books speculating about the end of the world. Of course, these are also the last few days of Advent – and the darkest days of winter, for Friday marks the winter solstice, the day with the least amount of daylight and the longest night.

Dark days indeed, when our spirits are tried and we know not where to turn for solace.

However, our Biblical text today recalls neither the waning sun nor the Star of Bethlehem, but other lights in the sky that fired the imagination and passion of the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel. Some in our time have linked his description of a fiery “wheel in a wheel” to visits by intelligent races from other planets. And why not? The psychologist Carl Jung theorized 50 years ago that reports of UFO sightings in our time are modern expressions of the desire for assistance from forces beyond human understanding – from what the ancients would have called “the gods”. We look to the heavens for deliverance: It is in gazing at the sky that we experience infinity. Perhaps some of you even felt the magnitude of the universe last week by staying up late to observe the Geminid meteor shower.

Particularly relevant to Carl Jung's study of UFOs was that the most commonly reported shape was that of a “flying saucer” – a round vehicle echoing the mandala wheel that has been a symbol of wholeness in almost every culture. We even see it here behind the altar, in the wheel-head of the Celtic cross, and at the chancel rail, in the circles that contain the images of the four authors of the New Testament gospels – those images themselves derived from the spectacular creatures of Ezekiel's vision: human being, lion, ox, eagle.

A wheel appeared also in the great vision of the Sioux holy man Black Elk:

Then I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. . . . And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.

Again, wheels within a wheel.

The end of the world … the death and rebirth of the sun … visits from space aliens … a wheel within a wheel way up in the middle of the air … what these all have in common is the visionary's sense that radical change is as inevitable as the turning of a wheel. Many who look at climate statistics and track the sale of arms and the death of species and the melting of the glaciers would agree. Yet if we focus only on the numbers, only on the tragedies, only on the physical changes taking place in our world, we may miss the moment of truth. Master storyteller Michael Meade reminds us that “behind the serious crises occurring in both culture and nature, there is a crisis of meaning and a loss of the sense of the world as a place of ongoing creation”.

The “End” is near. The world we knew is dying, and we ourselves are dying to that world. It has, in fact, always been this way, although with varying degrees of urgency as each era faces its own catalog of changes. But, in our sleep, we forget and need to be shocked into remembrance. Thus Bob Dylan sang:

You know that we shall meet again
If your mem'ry serves you well.
This wheel's on fire,
Rolling down the road.
Best notify my next of kin –
This wheel shall explode.

We each feel this transition differently – but almost never as a fiery wheel in the sky or the massive shadow of “the end of the world”. It works on us in far more subtle ways, like the deep sense of unease that we can't shake when we feel powerless in the face of today's headlines.

From this situation come some key questions of meaning:

First, if the world really is ending and being remade, what part would we discard if we could? What part would we retain? Jesus offered answers in his many parables about the Kingdom of God and what is truly important, and perhaps we can explore those together another day.

First Vision of Ezekiel from the St. John the Baptist Church in Kratovo, Macedonia

First Vision of Ezekiel from the St. John the Baptist Church in Kratovo, Macedonia

This morning, though, I want to focus on another question – What is our own role to play in this transition? What are we ourselves supposed to be doing? Let me call on Ezekiel to be our teacher. From the words of our hymn:

The little wheel run by faith,
and the big wheel run by the grace of God,
a wheel in a wheel,
way up in the middle of the air.

Faith and grace meet in the middle, as interlocking wheels, mutually interdependent. We are not to sit on our hands, earthbound, but to rise into the realm of spirit, turning our own little wheel, the one that runs on faith, even the faith of the poor in spirit, and – in the middle, away from our comfort zone – we await the coming of the grace of God.

Surely, though, this visionary setting is purely the stuff of saints and prophets and thus totally irrelevant to us ordinary folk! And yet, is this not the very promise of Advent, the promise of Christmas, that we shall be visited by One who can shine a light on our darkness? That the truth of our existence will enter into the door of our hearts, in the form of a small child? That the faith of a young mother will be met in the middle of the air by angels proclaiming that the grace of God has favored humankind?

The Nativity story indeed is one of a succession of angels and other visitors: The angel visits Mary and says, “Fear not.” Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, and their infants recognize each other, even in the womb. Joseph and Mary visit Bethlehem. The angels visit the shepherds – again with a joyful “Fear not!” The shepherds visit the holy family, and the wise men, too.

If we enter into this story of the birth of Jesus, we cannot help but yearn for a holy visitation of our own. As the Charioteers sing in another version of the “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel” gospel song:

A star in the East, a star in the West,
I wish that star was in my breast.

We wish, we pray for a star to fall from heaven and spark us into new life, into an understanding that answers all our many “Why's”, into a sense of security that gives us peace in the midst of all the worries and strife of daily living, in the midst of all the violence and suffering that we cannot avoid seeing.

Yet, as we are reminded by David's beautiful solo from Handel's Messiah with its text from the prophet Malachi, these visitations are not always sweet annunciations. They do not spare us from the awesome power of God and its ability to unmask us:

Who may abide the day of His coming,
and who shall stand when He appeareth?
For He is like a refiner's fire.

In the 19th century, Baptist pastor C. H. Spurgeon founded what may have been the first modern “mega-church” at London's Metropolitan Tabernacle. Although he preached to massive crowds, some of his messages were deeply intimate, as he shared a very personal sense of the divine presence. Spurgeon observed that while many spiritual visitations are “sharply searching” – like the “refiner's fire” of Malachi – others are “sweetly solacing” and that in those moments, we may be “persuaded that there is no great actual distance between earth and heaven. The distance lies in our dull minds”, he wrote.

Such visitations, he contends, can come to anyone but they come particularly in the middle of the night – either the literal night . . . or the dark night of a soul alone . . . or the shadow of despair that overtakes us in the face of incomprehensible events, like the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. When such healing visits come, such occasions of solace, they touch not our eyes and ears, but the inner senses described so beautifully by St. Birgitta of Sweden:

While I was thus agitated in my heart and alone with myself, entrusting all my hope to God, at that very moment, it came into my head to consider God's great power, how the angels and all creatures serve [God], and what [God's] indescribable and unending glory was like. As I was wondering at all this, I saw three wonderful sights. I saw a star, but not the kind that shines from the sky. I saw a light, but not the kind that glows in the world. I sensed a smell, not of herbs or anything like that, but indescribably sweet, which quite filled me up so that I felt like jumping for joy. Right then I heard a voice, but not from a human mouth. I was quite afraid when I heard it and wondered whether it was an illusion. An angel of God then appeared before me in the fairest human shape, although not in the flesh, and [the angel] said to me: "Hail, full of grace!"

A star, but not in the sky. A light of another world. A scent that defies description. A voice, but not a human voice. A human shape, but not in the flesh. Do such visions carry with them the obligation to follow where the star leads? Or do we draw back, timid because we are so enwrapped in our familiar comforts and identities, even if they cannot truly keep us warm in the winter's deep darkness?

Perhaps there is another approach, “way up in the middle of the air”. Perhaps there is a way for us to experience what sadly feels like the beginning of the end … also as the end of the beginning.

In the Outer Hebrides, the islands off the western shore of Scotland, it was only in the 1960s, with the coming of television, that the focus of the celebration in the dark of winter moved from the solstice to December 25th. Folk belief drew a line between those two dates, suggesting that the Christ Child was born actually with the solstice, with the growing sun, with the return of the light, but that the holy infant remained hidden for those first critical days, becoming visible to the world on the day we now celebrate as Christmas.

Could that light live in us? Jesus says clearly in the Gospel of John, “I am the light of the world. Anyone who follows me will not be walking in the dark, but will have the light of life.” Christians for more than a thousand years have, at the time of the winter solstice, chanted their yearning for the light in these ancient lines:

O Dawn of the East,
brightness of everlasting light
and Sun of Justice,
come and enlighten those that sit in darkness
and in the shadow of death.

Maybe that's how the guiding star is born in our breast – not by our striving, but by faith and grace – hidden in the darkness, hidden often even from our own conscious minds, until it rises as a beacon that guides us over the hill that kept us from seeing our true destiny. The English poet David Whyte was on such a road when he wrote his poem “The Star”:

…remember
to practice
the nobility
that comes with promise,

to drive out west, 
the eyes level or lifted
the mind cleared;

the steering wheel
invisible
below the eye
but still

charting the needed course
and the body at tiptoe,
leaning toward
the windscreen,

the breath held
and the eyes
a-shiver for
a falling plume of sky;

the clear, pinpoint star 
that just appeared
above [the tide-kissed village],

one you
did not realize
you were following.

In the end – or in the beginning – the flaming wheel is not in the sky, but in our hands, as we steer “the needed course”. If the sky falls, if the stars explode, let them tumble into our hearts, bringing heaven down to earth as we hold our breath and welcome with wide-open eyes the angel who says again, “Fear not”, as dawn spreads in the east over a new day. For the sun rose today. And it will rise tomorrow. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

Responsive Call to Prayer

From a 4th century C.E. Jewish hymn

Lovely face, majestic face, face of beauty,
face of flame, the face of God robed in praise –

Whoever looks at God is instantly torn;
the divine beauty melts all who glimpse it.

Beloved servants, swift servants,
who stand behind the throne of glory
and wait upon the wheel of the chariot –

When the sapphire of the throne of glory
whirls at them, when the wheel
of the chariot hurls past them,

Those on the right now stand on the left,
and those on the left now stand to the right.

Those in front now stand in back,
and those in back now stand in front.

All: Happy is the ruler who has such servants,
and happy the eye that feeds upon this wondrous light!

Readings

Ezekiel 1:4-11, 15-21 (Revised English Bible)

In my vision, I saw a storm-wind coming from the north, a vast cloud with flashes of fire and brilliant light about it; and within was a radiance like brass, glowing in the heart of the flames. In the fire was the likeness of four living creatures in human form. Each had four faces and each four wings; their legs were straight, and their hoofs were like the hoofs of a calf, glistening and gleaming like bronze. Under the wings on each of the four sides were human hands; all four creatures had faces and wings, and the wings of one touched those of another. They did not turn as they moved; each creature went straight forward. This is what their faces were like: All four had a human face and a lion's face on the right, on the left the face of an ox and the face of an eagle. Their wings were spread upwards; each living creature had one pair touching those of its neighbor, while one pair covered its body.

As I looked at the living creatures, I saw wheels on the ground, one beside each of the four. The wheels sparkled like topaz, and they were all alike: In form and working, they were like a wheel inside a wheel, and when they moved in any of the four directions, they never swerved from their course. I saw that they had rims, and the rims were covered with eyes all around. When the living creatures moved, the wheels moved beside them; when the creatures rose from the ground, the wheels rose; they moved in whichever direction the spirit went; and the wheels rose together with them, for the spirit of the creatures was in the wheels. When one moved, the other move; when one halted, the other halted; when the creatures rose from the ground, the wheels rose together with them, for the spirit of the creatures was in the wheels.

An excerpt from Carl Jung’s 1958 essay “Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies”:

Anyone with the requisite historical and psychological knowledge knows that circular symbols have played an important role in every age…. There is an old saying that “God is a circle whose centre is everywhere and the circumference nowhere.” [God’s] omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence [form] a totality symbol par excellence, something round, complete, and perfect….

The present world situation is calculated as never before to arouse expectations of a redeeming, supernatural event….. It is characteristic of our time that the archetype [of wholeness] … should now take the form of an object, a technological construction, in order to avoid the odiousness of mythological personification. Anything that looks technological goes down without difficulty with modern man. The possibility of space travel has made the unpopular idea of a metaphysical intervention much more acceptable. The apparent weightlessness of the UFOs is, of course, rather had to digest, but then our own physicists have discovered so many things that border on the miraculous: why should not more advanced star-dwellers have discovered a way to counteract gravitation and reach the speed of light, if not more?

Hymns

“People Look East”, #226 in Singing the Living Tradition

“Ezekiel Saw the Wheel”, Traditional

“O Star of Truth”, #293 in Singing the Living Tradition

Benediction

May the Dawn of the East, 
the brightness of everlasting light and the Sun of Justice, 
come to enlighten all of us who sit in darkness, 
encircling us with a refining fire,
wide as daylight and as starlight, 
that burns away all but what is needed for the path ahead. Amen.