Now the glory of the God of Israel went up from above the cherubim, where it had been, and moved to the threshold of the temple. Then the LORD called to the man clothed in linen who had the writing kit at his side and said to him, “Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.” Ezekiel 9.3-4.
When I was a teenager there were no such things as emails, text messages and the like. So if we wanted to tell a girl how much we thought about her and were too shy to do so face to face, we wrote her love letters using pen and paper and put them in envelopes and sent them to her through the post. (Yes we did – really!) Not only that, but often, on the envelope, we would put a little cryptic message: an acronym such as HOLLAND (Hope Our Love Lives And Never Dies) or the one which I’ve used as a title for this post – SWALK. It stands for Sealed With A Loving Kiss … and it popped into my mind as soon as I read the verses from Ezekiel I have set out above.
Why would those verses bring SWALK to mind? Well, in Hebrew, the word translated “mark” is actually “taw” and “taw” is the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet which in ancient times was (as ancient Samaritan coins bear witness) written like an “x”. In other words, the man with the writing kit was, in Ezekiel’s vision, called upon to put an “x” on the foreheads of all those who shared God’s abhorrence at what was going on in Jerusalem and who thereby were showing themselves to be God’s people, not just in name but in their hearts. They were to be signed with the sign of the cross. They were to be sealed with a loving kiss.
Making a sign on someone’s forehead has, from ancient times, been a way of declaring ownership. Throughout the ancient world it was customary for masters to set their mark on slaves so as to distinguish their slaves from the slaves owned by others. In the Hindu religion, priests have long borne a special mark on their forehead to indicate the particular god – Shiva, Devi, or Vishnu – to which they belong. And in many denominations of the Christian church it is of course customary to recognise that someone has become one of Christ’s flock by marking their forehead with the sign of the cross. Thus, in the Church of England, immediately before baptism, those who are about to be baptised affirm that they have turned from evil and are turning to Christ, at which point the minister makes the sign on their foreheads saying: “Christ claims you for his own. Receive the sign of his cross.” They are sealed with the loving kiss of the God who went to the cross for them in Jesus.
In the book of Revelation, John visualises that mark becoming visible at the End. “Then I looked, and there before me was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion, and with him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads” (Revelation 14.1). 144,000 (12 x 12 x 1000) is, by the way, a number which – far from expressing limitation as I was once taught in the Plymouth Brethren – expresses, in Jewish imagery, that which is all-inclusive, perfect and complete.
It is God’s desire that one day, you, me and all his lost children will stand before him, marked with the sign of the cross, sealed with a loving kiss.