On Eagles’ Wings (9/19/04)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
The text we heard read from the lectern this morning contains God’s words to Moses on Mt Sinai, in which God speaks of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt, saying, “I bore you on Eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” What a beautiful image—being carried by God on the wings of eagles, and arriving safely before the majesty of God.
But wait a second. We all know this story. Yes, there was that mighty miracle at the Red Sea, where the waters parted and Moses led the people out of Egypt. But where did they end up? In the Garden of Eden? No. In some paradise where the streets are paved with gold? No. In a fertile land where food grows bountifully and the water is so plentiful people never thirst? No. They ended up in the desert. The desert! No food, no water, just lots of sand and sunshine.
And were the people happy with Moses? After they witnessed this mighty miracle of God with the parting of the sea and the destruction of the Egyptian army, did the people hoist Moses up on their shoulders and start singing For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow? No! It didn’t take long for their stomachs to start growling, and they were quick to remind him that while it was no picnic being enslaved in Egypt, at least they did not starve. Before too long God comes through with some manna from heaven and some water from a rock, but still, this wandering around in the desert is not exactly what the people expected when they followed Moses out of Egypt.
Soon God will provide Moses with the Ten Commandments, and in about 40 years the people will finally reach the Promised Land—although Moses will die before setting foot there. But let’s not get ahead of the story here. God doesn’t say to Moses, “Just keep traveling and one day I will bring you to myself.” God tells Moses he has already arrived. God says, “I bore you on Eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.”
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Now, if this story is not resonating with you, I apologize. But let me tell you something. There are a lot of us who spend a considerable amount of time wandering in the desert. There are a lot of us who feel that life is a long, long journey, and can’t figure out where we’re going, or even why we’re going there. And while we have faith that God is with us on the journey, sometimes it sure doesn’t feel that way.
The Book of Psalms often uses the image of wings to express the power and protection of God, with beautiful metaphors such as, hide me in the shadow of your wings, I find refuge under the shelter of your wings, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy. And Jesus uses the image of protective wings to describe himself, in surprisingly female terms. In both Matthew and Luke, Jesus is quoted as saying, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.
What an image! Jesus describes himself as a hen, gathering her children under her wings. This should give us some pause, especially with regard to the male images of God we tend to carry around in our subconscious minds. I am not one to want to get rid of the term Father when we talk about God. I think it is a powerful image, and since it seems to have been Jesus’ favorite term for God, that alone makes it worth hanging on to. But that does not mean we should never think of God in feminine terms.
God as powerful provider—that is a fatherly image, especially the way people thought of fathers in the first century Jewish world in which Jesus lived. But God is also our loving nurturer, and that is a more typically motherly image.
Theologians and mystics have spoken for centuries about God being the womb from which we, God’s children, come forth into the world. For many, that is a much more personal and accurate image of God than the father in the sky. When we think of God in that mighty-father-in-heaven way, we automatically put a great distance between ourselves and God.
God is out there, somewhere, and we are down here, hoping God will look down now and then and watch out for us.
But when we think of God as our mother—as the womb from which our lives spring forth—that is a God we can have a very personal relationship with. That is a God who gives us life, and sustains our life, and nurtures us with devotion and love. For many of us, the God we envision in our prayers is more motherly nurturer than fatherly protector. Both images are important, but we should be cautious not to throw out the feminine image, just because our religious forebears lived in such a patriarchal world that they could not imagine God in anything other than masculine terms.
One of the things I have become acutely aware of in my ministry is that people are both fragile and resilient. Every person alive puts on a false front, a mask that says to the rest of the world, “I’m in control here. I know what’s going on. I am strong, and confident, and everything is fine.” But I have yet to meet the person who is not just one or two circumstances away from a complete meltdown. Really. Life is that fragile. We may like to think of ourselves as soaring eagles, but we are much more like the fragile shells sitting helplessly in the eagle’s nest, or the newly born baby birds who cannot fly, or feed themselves, and who nestle together for strength and security.
It’s true. We human beings are all show. Well, almost. Because even though we are each fragile in ways we refuse to admit, we are also amazingly resilient. We can take the worst fate has to offer, and even when life steamrolls over us and leaves us flat… we get up. Even in the face of unspeakable tragedy, human beings somehow manage to stand up and start walking again.
We’re amazing creatures—we really are. But we do ourselves no favors when we pretend we are not fragile. And we do ourselves no favors when we pretend we can make it through without God. Oh, we might last a year on our own, or a decade, or even a lifetime. But ultimately God has the final word. No one here gets out alive. And there is no time like the present to surrender to the mighty wings that offer to carry us through life and through eternity.
And we all wish that once we surrender to God—once we accept that we are created by something much bigger than ourselves, and that our little problems and giant egos are not in fact the most important matters in the universe—then everything will go smoothly. We want everything to be wonderful once we give our lives to God. I have a feeling that when Moses started leading his followers around the desert in circles, and when God appeared to him and said, “I bore you on Eagles’ wings and brought you to myself,” Moses probably wanted to say something like, “This is it? You picked this place for you and me to meet up? You undertook a series of mighty miracles, parting the Red Sea, sending down bread from heaven, bringing forth water out of rock… so we could meet here?!?!”
And something tells me Moses asked God, and himself, that same question many times as he spent forty years wandering around the desert with frequently disgruntled followers. Moses had to be thinking, what kind of mother hen is this God of ours to go to such lengths to establish a relationship with us and then to… test us like this?
And there we have the essence of life, the nature of living in this world of ours. God never promises to make things easy for us. God only promises to be with us—with us in the laughter and the tears. God doesn’t promise to take away our pain—only to suffer the pain with us. God doesn’t promise that our journeys will never go through the desert—only that God will go through the desert with us.
Now, if I could explain this to your satisfaction, I would go down in history as the greatest philosopher-theologian of all time. I can’t explain it. I can’t figure out exactly why God would part the Red Sea so the chosen people could escape… into a desert. But that’s the way life seems to work. It’s a part of the grand design of things. Maybe we can look to that image of God as the mother hen, or mother eagle, to get a glimpse of why things are like they are.
Envision the way an eagle comes into our world. Eagles build their nests from large sticks, and they are built to last. Some nests last for over 100 years, being used by many generations of eagles, and growing to the size of a small truck. They are built in the midst of large trees, or sometimes on the sides of cliffs, where they are virtually inaccessible to humans and other predators.
After a mother eagle lays her eggs, she sits on them for up to 50 days before they begin to hatch. Once the chick starts pecking on the inside of the shell, it takes about 15 hours for the chick to finally break a tiny hole through the egg, and another 40 hours before it manages to completely free itself from the shell. The baby that emerges is completely helpless, weighing only about three ounces.
And now, let’s jump forward about 10 weeks. The mother eagle has gone to great lengths to protect her babies, before and after they came into this world. She’s kept her eaglets warm and dry by keeping them under her wings until they grew all their feathers. She’s fed them by gently dropping pieces of meat into their tiny beaks. And I imagine those little eaglets wonder what’s happening when mom starts stirring up the nest. She literally scratches up all the soft feathers and rabbit fur she has used to make the nest comfortable, and tosses it out of the nest. The eaglets have no way of knowing that ridding the nest of all that soft material is the only way they will learn to stand on their feet, which will strengthen their muscles and talons for what lies ahead. Hmmm. Suddenly that passage from Deuteronomy starts to make sense (32:11), where it says “As an eagle stirreth up her nest…so shall the Lord lead you.”
I imagine the eaglets are thinking mom suddenly developed a little bit of a mean streak when they see all that soft fur and feathers falling over the side of the nest. But if they think momma eagle is having a psychotic episode, they haven’t seen anything yet. Many birds coax their young out of the nest with food. Not so with eagles. In fact, baby eagles know instinctively not to even go near the edge of the nest—which remember, can be the size of a small truck.
Imagine you know nothing about eagles. You’re sitting on the side of some remote mountain, binoculars in hand, and gazing across a great valley you see an eagle’s nest on the cliff of a nearby mountain. You’re ready to see the beauty of nature, the glory of creation, and here is what you see.
Momma eagle walks over to one of her babies, and half carrying it in her beak and half kicking it with her claws, she literally pushes her baby out of the nest. And the baby eagle tumbles head over heels through space, down the side of the cliff. That’s the only way it will learn how to fly. And if you’ve ever seen a grown eagle in flight, you know it is one of the most majestic sights in all creation. But it would never happen if its mother hadn’t pushed it from the next.
Maybe that has something to do with all those times in life when it seems like God is pushing us out of the nest. Right when we think we have God figured out—just when we are convinced life is a nice, big, soft, feathery, fur-lined nest, we find ourselves tumbling through space down the side of a cliff. We finally peck our way through some shell and find love waiting for us on the other side, and then everything goes crazy. I pecked my way through that shell for this? I crossed the Red Sea for this? I tried to live a good and caring life, filled with love and compassion, and this is what I get in return?
But the fact is we would never learn to fly if we didn’t get pushed out of the nest. The times we grow emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, are those times we are pushed out of our comfort zones. It isn’t until we find ourselves falling into the abyss that we realize we have wings. And as much as we hate to admit it, it is those times that life throws unwanted changes in our paths that lead us to greater things.
We all have more examples of this than we care to remember. If your first love from high school hadn’t dumped you for the quarterback or prom queen, you never would have met the true love of your life. I remember thinking my life was coming apart when the General Motors plant in my hometown laid off me and about 15 thousand other people, shutting down the factories and, effectively, the town. I was making more money than I knew what to do with, had a benefit package that was amazing, lots of vacation, and was basically stuck. It would have been irresponsible to leave such a great job, even though I hated every second of it.
I lost that job. Lost my house. Ended up moving halfway across the country to find a job and go back to school. It was the best thing that ever happened to me, but there was nothing you could have said to me at that time that would have made me believe it. And if God had confronted me as I walked out the doors of that factory for the last time and said, “I bore you on Eagles’ wings and brought you to myself,” my response would have been neither holy nor respectful.
But it was true, in the strange and convoluted way things in this world turn out to be true. And as I look back, I can count most of the tragedies I’ve endured as positive life experiences. I grew as a result of those experiences. I didn’t like getting knocked out of the nest, but I learned to fly.
And that leads me to a final thought about this metaphor of God as mother eagle. Occasionally there is an eaglet that does not open its wings. Momma kicks him out of the nest, and he falls down, down, down, too panicked to spread his wings. Do you know what happens then? The mother eagle plunges down like a rocket, swoops under the falling baby, and rescues it by spreading her wings beneath him. And she returns him to the nest… where she once again pushes him out, until he finally learns how to fly.
As we look back, isn’t that a metaphor for our lives? It seems like we are constantly moving between three states: resting safely in the presence of God, falling off the side of a cliff, or being rescued when we least expect it. I think that is the very nature of human life. And so be it! Because whether we’re gliding or falling, God is always watching. And through it all, there are days—many days—when we actually fly.