The wonderful poet and prophet Isaiah (the one we call second Isaiah) wrote to a suffering people,
‘The Lord is the everlasting God ..those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall soar as on eagles’ wings; they shall run and not be weary, walk and not faint…’
It is one of the most sublime bits of the Bible. Nowadays you can watch videos on Youtube that show you from a camera placed on the back of an eagle what it would really be like to soar on eagles’ wings… to glide high up in a clear blue sky. And it looks somehow effortless, wonderful… and we can all imagine it and our hearts can swell at the thought.
There’s one school of preaching that tells the preacher to look carefully at the verbs in a Bible text, look at the doing words and see what happens. And so I offer you six words that this passage includes; and I wonder which ones resonate most powerfully with you today, or with the people we all are in a time of pandemic.
Here are words like ‘faint’ ‘grow weary’ ‘fall exhausted’ and then…. ‘soar’ and ‘run’ and ‘walk’.
I saw a cartoon this week which showed a person with a great bubble full of words on his back – under which he was buckling – words like: people are dying, we haven’t seen our families for months, every meeting I have has to be on Zoom, I’m working longer shifts, holidays are cancelled, people are dying… And the caption at the bottom was simply ‘And you are wondering why you are feeling tired?!’.
I’ll wager that, for most people right now, living through this time, the set of words about being faint and weary and exhausted are the ones that seem most apt. And we all know that feeling tired and weary and fed up is not just about physical tiredness. Feeling weary and faint can be as much about emotional and spiritual exhaustion as anything physical. And there are days when we would be grateful for the opportunity to tire out our bodies with a swim or a visit to the gym or a horse ride or whatever it is for you – because they might actually help us feel better. But right now we are tired and faint because (as someone put it this week) there just seems to be always another bit of bad news; another death of someone we know, another diagnosis, another variant to this wretched virus, more months of waiting, another thing cancelled or postponed, someone else saying they can’t do it any more…
I read this passage this week and looked at those verbs about soaring, running and walking – and I thought well there are some days at the moment when the people I know best would be glad to be able to stand; let alone walk, run or soar! And there are days when I feel that too. Who wouldn’t right now? But for most of us, there are days when, to be honest, putting one foot in front of the other seems more than we can manage.
We are tired. Tired of all this. Tired of months and months of this. The passage in the Bible chimes in with us; ‘Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted.’ Even them – sometimes especially them, right now.
But if we feel like that – then we are feeling just like the people to whom the prophet wrote. And so we must look at the other verbs too; the ones about soaring and running and walking, the ones that have inspired and encouraged and strengthened the faithful since way before the time of Jesus. Because the prophet, says, ‘Have you not known? Have you not heard? Have you not understood?’ God is not tired. Even if you are exhausted, God does not grow faint or weary. God is still full of inspiring energy and God will renew your strength. God is not tired. And you will soar, and run and walk.
This prophet poet called Isaiah must have known the story of the Exodus and of how, as God says in Exodus 19:4, ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.’ God, like a mother bird, carries us on wings to freedom. God is not tired.
And we can read in Deuteronomy 32: 11, that God cares for us just…
‘As an eagle stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young; as it spreads its wings, takes them up and bears them aloft on its pinions..’ Just so does God cares for us. God is not tired. When we are weary or suffering or weak like newborn birds God who is strong takes us on God’s wings and helps us soar.
So the message of the poet prophet is that you may be tired and fainting with exhaustion. But you are not alone, and God is not tired, and God is lifting you up. Have you not known? Have you not heard?
There is a bit of late 19th Century commentary on this passage from one George Adam Smith: who says this about those great words about soaring, running and walking…
“Soar.. run… walk! Is the order correct? Hope swerves from the edge of so descending a promise, which seems only to repeat the falling course of nature… and is not the next stage, a cynic might ask, standing still?
On the contrary, it is a natural and a true climax rising from the easier to the more difficult, from the ideal to the real… from what can only be the rare occasions of life to what must be life’s usual and abiding experience.”
There is wisdom hidden here in this rather flowery Victorian language. Eagles glide easily and smoothly. What is hard is the coming down to earth, to run and walk every day. But God promises to take us on eagles’ wings, to give us those soaring moments that will enable us then to slow down, to come to earth, to adjust to the pace of the world in its walking and to live well at such a pace – even in times like these.
These times that we are living through are difficult days, when we must walk carefully and slowly, but our God, who is not tired, is with us. There may be in our memories, days of soaring with God, but right now God promises that we will walk and not faint. And for today, that feels miracle enough.
God gives us the strength to survive even such times as these. God rescued the people from slavery in Egypt, which must have been a great soaring moment of freedom, before they had to learn walk in the wilderness. They grew weary, but God did not. And God can still be the source of the strength we need.
Let me tell you about a time when I learned what it can be to soar in this world on wings like eagles, even when you are faint and weary. It was once my privilege to lead worship in an immigration detention centre… I remember that one of the detainees gathered for the service was built like Arnold Schwarzzeneger and he told me that he was a body building champion back home in Moldavia. I wouldn’t for a moment have questioned this. He was very physically strong. But what impressed me about him and the other detainees who had gathered for worship was their spiritual strength and energy. Their praise of God was so confident and sure. They had no doubts at all that God was with them and that God was giving them strength. Though they were locked up in a strange land on Sundays – worshipping in the visitor centre – they were soaring on eagles’ wings, and I had no doubt that they would run and not feel faint, march on and not grow weary. And when I left after the service, I felt that I could do the same. I knew that, however tired I might be, God is not. And the soaring love of God can get me on my feet and keep me there, even when days are drear.
Today we have welcomed three precious people into membership. They have each journeyed through quite a bit of life so far and are living, as we are, through tough times. They have made a decision to walk with us – and I pray that here, with us and with God, they will find a place to soar and run and walk. And I know that they will find in the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ, someone who is never tired, faint or weary, who will carry them as an eagle carries its young, who will lift them up and hold them fast, who will renew their strength – so that they shall run and not be weary, walk and not faint. The promise of the poet prophet is for them and for all of us. Have you not known? Have you not heard? They shall mount up with wings like eagles. May it be so, Amen.