Sunday, February 07, 2021

Epiphany V

 Isaiah 40

28 Do you not know?

Have you not heard?

The Lord is the everlasting God,

the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He will not grow tired or weary,

and his understanding no one can fathom.

29 He gives strength to the weary

and increases the power of the weak.

30 Even youths grow tired and weary,

and young men stumble and fall;

31 but those who hope in the Lord

will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;

they will run and not grow weary,

they will walk and not be faint.

Often called the king of all birds, we might better say the eagle is the king of all symbols.

If we begin in the middle of the story, we arrive in Rome, where the symbol of the eagle is second only to a certain shewolf and a couple of hungry lads. Rome’s legions took the eagle on campaign, where it became symbolic of both the might of Rome and the fate of individual legions. This would be the moment to recommend Rosemary Sutcliff’s wonderful book The Eagle of the Ninth, exciting interest in Roman Britain since 1954.

After Rome, the eagle remains a symbol of empire, with various royal houses sporting the bird, wings outstretched, sometimes adding an extra head or two for effect. This, of course, crosses the Atlantic, where our pretentious neighbour to the south adopts the eagle as their own. To be fair, they were trying to recreate the Roman Republic in America, so the eagle makes a lot of sense.

That’s the forward view, how about looking back in time? Among Canada’s First Nations, the eagle is considered a messenger to the Creator, lifting prayers to the Spirit world, providing courage and strength. It was no accident that Elijah Harper held an eagle feather while defending the rights of his people back in 1990, a moment that is considered a turning point for Indigenous people in Canada.**

Within the Christian church, the eagle is most often associated with St. John the Evangelist. Beginning in the second century of the Common Era, thinkers such as Irenaeus made the connection between John’s homily to the Word (found in John 1) and the eagle, symbolizing “the gift of the Spirit hovering with his wings over the church.” We’ll have to leave Matthew (a man), Mark (a lion) and Luke (an ox) for another day.

In the Hebrew Bible, the eagle is a symbol of swiftness (often related to conquest), nurture (offering shelter), and renewal. It is this last attribute that takes us to the reading Marlene shared today. But before we look at Isaiah 40, there appears to be one passage where swift rescue, shelter, and renewal happen all at once. From Mt. Sinai, the LORD spoke to Moses: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself’ (Ex 19). The Lord then asks for faithfulness, and a willingness to keep the covenant God made.

On to Isaiah 40, where we heard what is the second most familiar part of this remarkable chapter. The first most familiar of is best shared in the language that G. F. Handel knew:

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

So the context of Isaiah 40 is forgiveness, an end to exile, and a return to the land. And without jumping to the end of the story, we already know that the renewing spirit of the eagle is for those returning from exile, those charged with rebuilding the holy places. This, then, is the context for those who first heard these words:

Even youths grow tired and weary,

and young men stumble and fall;

But those who hope in the Lord

will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;

they will run and not grow weary,

they will walk and not be faint.

This is the moment that the preacher encourages you to make your own homily, connecting our time to the anguish of exile, the desire for return, and the need for strength. I’m not saying these sermons write themselves, but we live in a time when the need for shelter and renewal has never been greater. Likewise, our need to trust in God has never been greater, but it is this trust that cries out for greater understanding, as much as connecting exile to our time. For a place to start, I might recommend Proverbs 9.10:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

The first dimension of trusting God is acknowledging that we can’t fully understand God. In this case, fear seems more a case of bewilderment, or confusion, which is always the starting point for gaining wisdom. To say you don’t understand something, or you need to learn something, is the first step on the journey to gaining wisdom. And this takes us back to the middle section of Isaiah 40:

25 “To whom will you compare me?

Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.

26 Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens:

Who created all these?

Those who love the Book of Job will immediately hear God speaking from the whirlwind, reminding Job that God is God and Job is not. To be fair to poor Job, he was simply talking to his mates when the Most High finally had enough of their ignorance. And the question they asked—why do people suffer?—remains a question for all time. Where is God in the midst of plague and disaster? Is God cause or cure? Or both? (Spoiler alert: I do not believe that God sent COVID or caused it to happen).

But I know I’m not the first to imagine—if only for a moment—that COVID is some form of punishment for our misdeeds. Climate change, loss of habitat, unsustainable farming practices: all these trends have a hand in zoonotic diseases, those moving from animal to human. And the spread of the disease, more active under populist and authoritarian regimes, just adds another layer to this question of human foolishness.

Back to the Book of Job, we know that there is no connection between wickedness and suffering, yet we also know that God remains unsearchable. We can never fully understand the ways of God, but we can trust that God will bring rescue, shelter, and renewal in the midst of crisis. We can trust that God will bring comfort and forgiveness in the midst of our foolishness. And we can trust that God will give us new strength, to soar on wings like eagles, to run and not grow weary, to walk and not faint.

In John’s extended description of the Last Supper, Jesus offered comfort to his disciples, he washed their feet, and he promised the gift of the Holy Spirit. “Soon,” he said, “the Holy Spirit, whom God will send in my name, will teach you and remind you of all that I have said to you.” This is not a promise to reveal the unknowable mysteries of the Most High. This is a promise to help us remember everything Jesus said and did. It is a promise to send the sustaining power of the Spirit upon the church, and it is a promise to send the Spirit of the eagle—so that rescue, shelter, and renewal will come to us, now and always, Amen.


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