to mount up with wings like eagles

Isaiah 40:21-31

So working on the bulletin this week,
I googled “mount up on wings like eagles, images”—
looking for something to put on the bulletin cover.
And guess what popped up?
Well, the text, of course, typically in calligraphy.
And then, without exception,
beautiful pictures of majestic, powerful, soaring
bald eagles—
magnificent birds.
I’ve admired them in the Colorado mountains
and from the shores of the Choptank at Lillian’s farmhouse.
We saw one in a field east of here on our way back from a soccer tournament.
I can’t remember if we were on Glen Arm Road or Long Green Pike.

Here’s the thing.
Bald eagles have never existed in Palestine.
Golden eagles, yes.
Bald eagles, no.
Our national bird though. Our national animal.
And I know most of you don’t associate this verse with our country—
with any kind of triumphal chosenness,
but I tell you true,
there are many in this country who do.

And sure enough, there’s an all organic cotton classic t-shirt
from American Apparel for $23.95—
along with posters, coffee mugs, embroidery,
iPad cases, iPhone cases, mousepads,
refrigerator magnets, keychains, postcards, shipping labels,
jigsaw puzzles, canvas bags, neckties, sweatshirts, stickers—
and that’s on just the first two of 63 pages!
All with bald eagles and Isaiah 40:31.
You can get a similar t-shirt for $17.99 from Christian Apparel.
I started wondering what Christian Apparel might be.
If you order a shirt, you get a coat too?
Which got me to wondering if American Apparel is, in fact, made in the USA.
Which eventually reminded me to get back to the sermon.

So within all the familiarity,
and all the familiar claimed and commercialized—nationalized—
what do we even still hear in the words of Isaiah?

“Have you not known? Have you not heard?”
Get the order? Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Because yes, I’ve heard, but that doesn’t always mean I know.

I’ve told you the story before,
that furlough we were in Tennessee,
missionaries in residence at First Baptist.
I was in seventh grade, and I so wanted to believe.
My sister had already been baptized—
my younger sister. That was part of it.
And in church one Sunday, every head bowed, every eye closed,
one of the ministers said, “If you want to accept Jesus as Savior—
if you want to, raise your hand.” And I did.
“If you believe Jesus saves, leave your hand up.”
And I left my hand up.
I wanted to believe,
and I did believe that Jesus saved.
“Then John Ballenger, come on down,
you are the next believer on The Price of Salvation Is Right!”
Not really.
And I really don’t mean to mock that church or those people.
It was a good place to be. Good people.
But there was a profound disconnect
not acknowledged there for me
between what I did believe,
what I wanted to believe,
and what I could not believe.

So, yes, I’ve heard God is creator.
Yes, I’ve heard God is all powerful.
Yes, I’ve heard the stories.
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Yes. I was born into a preacher’s home.
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
See there’s that disconnect again!
Yes, it’s been told to me. Yes, I’ve heard.
But no, I don’t understand. I don’t know.

It’s almost like our poet’s assumed the logic of politicians:
if I say it enough, surely it’s true.
If I repeat it enough—if people hear it enough,
surely everyone will understand.
It doesn’t work that way!
Well, it doesn’t work that way for me.
It apparently does for more than I would have thought!
So I tell you, just to be clear,
worship here at Woodbrook is not about
beliefs and doctrines repeated over and over and over again—
affirmations made over and over again—
it’s not about a story told over and over again
in the hope and the belief that repetition
will lead to understanding and knowledge of God.
Worship here is rather about a story told and retold
and reframed and reimagined and reimaged
because we hope and we believe that reiterations of that story
might allow us to recognize that story in our living
and then claim it for ourselves.

Now it did occur to me,
thinking about hearing and knowing,
and then thinking about creation and creator—
because that’s how the text goes on—
it did occur to me that God spoke and all was created.
For God to be heard was and is for creation to exist.
So in some respect, to hear God is to know all that is, right?
Which is actually less interesting to me
than wondering about the possibility of the inverse.
To know all that is, is to hear God.
Is that true?

Can we hear the prophet asking us, “In what you’ve known—
in what you know, have you not heard God?”
Now that’s interesting!

Notice, by the way, the three occurrences of “have you not”.
A negative question expressing a certain wonder—
I can’t believe you haven’t heard God!
Not arrogantly or self-righteously dismissive, I don’t believe,
but honestly incredulous and ultimately hopeful.

Then we have three positive affirmations:
God sits above the circle of the earth,
stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
spreads them like a tent to live in.
God brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

The first two affirmations concern the power and the authority
of God as creator—
God as maker of the heavens—maker of the stars—
significant in Babylon, that city of star-gazers and worshippers.
The third affirmation though,
is about God as unmaker of princes and rulers—
and that in the capital city of successful, powerful empire—
which makes our text explicitly political as well as pastoral—
Have you not heard?
Do you not know?

There follow three occurrences of the word “scarcely,”
each emphasizing the fleeting nature
of those princes and the rulers of the earth—
their kingdoms and empires—their power.
Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
God blows upon them, and they wither,
and the wind blows them away like dust.

Notice the passivity of earthly power compared to God’s activity—
their responsiveness to God’s initiative.
Who’s in charge? Who’s in control?
Who’s not?

And again, imagine these words offered in the heart of the empire—
words of resistance—words of rebellion.
May the force be with you!
And you hear (how can you not hear?) the implicit exhortation:
consider your allegiance.
To whom do you make it? To what?
Is it worth it? Is it worthy of it?

So in the city of empire,
the power of empire is dismissed
in comparison to Creator God.
What is military power?
What is this economic prosperity you think is such a big deal?
What is victory? What is conquest?

To whom will you compare me,
who is my equal? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see.

Nice—nice writing, by the way.
Are we going to look up on high to see God’s equal?
We look up to the stars, worshipped in Babylon,
only to hear the prophet go on,
who created these?
These are all subordinate to the one who made them—
the one who brings out their host and numbers them,
who calls them all by name.
Because that one is great in strength,
mighty in power,
not one is missing.

Now there’s a claim!
Within the vastness of the night sky—
so much more impressive back then before all our light pollution—
reclaimed in some of the Hubble pictures
I’m sure you’ve seen.
Not one of those stars goes unnamed.
Not one goes missing

So why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
“I feel like I’m hidden from God.
I don’t feel like God cares about me”?

Why do they say that?
Why do we say that?
Because that’s the way we feel.
Don’t you know they felt unknown—
manipulated by the very power
the prophet so casually dismisses,
and unable to see God confronting that power on their behalf.

Again, none of this should be read, in any way, dismissively,
but pastorally—

In what you know—
even your aloneness, your exile, your fear,
have you not known God?
In what you hear
in the world around you—
in the depths of your being—
in your own questions and doubts and frustrations,
have you not heard God?
For God is there.

The Lord is the everlasting God,
Creator of the ends of the earth.
God does not faint or grow weary;
God’s understanding? Unsearchable.
God gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.

All those stories you’ve heard of old?
Those stories of God as creator? God as redeemer? God as sustainer?
They’re still happening—
still unfolding.
Creator God is still creating,
and creating within the chaos of your own living—
creating possibility—creating hope—
the power and strength to endure—
to persist.

We are reiterations of the ancient stories
that we tell to help us recognize just what story’s still going on—
all around us and within us.
Have you not known? Have you not heard?

Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and never fall weary,
walk and never grow faint.

Now whom does the prophet address here?

Many of you will know (or recognize when I start reading)
the sonnet, “High Flight,” written by the pilot, John Magee,
who was actually raised in the anglican church

“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth,
and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds,
and done a hundred things You have not dreamed of —
wheeled and soared and swung high in the sunlit silence.
Hovering there, I’ve chased the shouting wind along,
and flung my eager craft through footless halls of air.

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace,
where never lark, or even eagle, flew;
and, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
the high untrespassed sanctity of space,
put out my hand and touched the face of God.”

I think that’s precisely what is meant here in our text.
But it is also precisely not to whom these words are addressed.
These are not words written to a trained pilot
who knows these feelings from his own experience—
who has climbed and soared and hovered and seen—
who anticipates what he has known.

These are words addressed
precisely to people who don’t know such experiences—
who imagine them—
who dream them—
written precisely to earth-bound people
who have no basis from which to understand what they’re hearing.
They’re written for a captive people—a people in exile—
a broken-hearted people—aching—
so far from feeling young—
so far from feeling energetic—
so weary—
fainting in in their living—
fainting in their believing—
fainting their hoping—
fainting in their trusting.

“The concluding verses state a drastic … either/or,”
writes Walter Brueggemann.
“Either folk will be faint, weary, and exhausted
indeed even youths ….
Or those who hope and wait and expect Yahweh
will have strength to fly, to run, to walk
with no weariness or fainting.
Yahweh is the single variable
either weakness or Yahweh”
(Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66
[Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998] 27).

Do we believe that?

How is this not just words?
How is this real? How is this true?

So, first, there’s nothing “just” about words.
Right? They’re “just” words.
Words created all that is.
Words continue to create.
Words are how we take shape
and shape our place in the world.
We believe in words made flesh—
then and now—
words that shape relationship
and possibility.
We believe in words of truth—
words that name what is,
and we believe in words that build up—
that raise up—
that soar,
and create, in their being shared
and in their being heard, the possibility of dreaming—
of hoping.
That’s first. There’s no “just” to words—”just” words.

And second, I know we’re not in exile—
a captive people in a foreign land,
but you talk to just about anyone.
We are weary.
We are wary of promises of rest and energy.
We fall to bed exhausted.
We wake up not rested.
We’re over scheduled.
We’re over booked.

Many of us have watched our children
after church on a Sunday morning, running—
after supper on a Wednesday night, running—
running through the facilities,
and after saying, “Stop running!”
added, “What I wouldn’t give for just a little bit of that energy!”
And sometimes more materialistically—capitalistically,
“Boy, if we could bottle and market that!”

So what do words offering the promise of soaring exhilaration—
of joy and refreshment mean
for us us today as to them so long ago?
How are they true? How are they real?

Well, for us, I guess—I hope,
they can serve as reminder of “those moments.”
Because there are “those moments.”
There are church moments of community and conversation.
Whether those are in here—in this room—
in the dark everyone holding candles in a big circle singing “Silent Night”—
everyone here in a line down the center aisle
to receive the sign of the cross in ashes on their foreheads—
sitting here watching someone be baptized—
remembering the saints.
Or in Fellowship Hall: eating together, praying together, sharing life.
In a Sunday School room,
in a hospital room, a funeral home,
in Kentucky, on the Eastern Shore.
There are those moments.

There are those moments when the Bible illuminates.
And you see, sometimes just for a moment,
so much more than you had before.
Or you catch a glimpse of how much more there is to see.
Like those moments you catch a glimpse of someone
in an unguarded moment, often a vulnerable moment,
and you realize whether you really like them or not
how much you love them.
There are such moments.
I hope you’re now thinking of some you’ve known.

So I certainly don’t mean to dismiss—deny—
the straightforward imagery of our text—
the promise of transcendent moments.
But when I remember the context—
the exiles—
the captives,
I would also say this:
sometimes it takes that kind of word power—
that kind of image energy,
not to feel exhilarated—
not to feel like gliding above the clouds,
but just to make it through the day—
just to keep your head above water.

You mean this is just exaggeration?
I mean it’s the assurance required for the moment—
the assurance and reassurance needed in the moment for the moment—
the reminder of transcendence
which we sometimes need not to transcend,
but to survive—
not to soar, but to limp.

I know of a ninth grade girl
who woke up one day with compromised vision.
Doctors could not figure out what was going on.
They could not figure out what had caused this.
They could not figure out what to do about it.
The best they could offer her was this:
“Maybe one day you’ll wake up
and everything will have gone back to normal.”
So she has to live with this terribly challenging condition
as if it will never change,
hoping every day she wakes up that it will have.
Now you can’t do that
without having both a stark acknowledgment of what is
and a transcendent vision of hope.

Who knows what Jesus was thinking in Gethsemane—
sweating blood—grieving—praying for an alternative way.
We know he knew Isaiah.
What if it was these verses—
not in triumphant glory—
“I’m going to soar right out of here—right out of this.”
But in the committed, “Nevertheless, thy will.”
Nothing soaring about that “nevertheless,”
but who has ever flown higher?

Maybe today you soar.
I hope so.
And maybe you even want a t-shirt!
It won’t get the fullness of your experience,
but I’ve got a Bar Harbor t-shirt that doesn’t either!
I would encourage you to try and find one with a golden eagle on it!
Perhaps more often though, it’s not about reading scripture
and thinking, “Oh, yes. I know this. I experience this.”
As much as reading and wishing—
reading and dreaming—
reading and hoping—
reading and thinking, maybe one day,
and getting through this day
with a modicum more grace—
not having given up on love.
And that’s really nothing that could go on a t-shirt.
It’s nothing of which to make a product,
but words—images—assurances
with which to maintain a faith.

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