“Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Is. 40:31).
My sources tell me that the word we translate as “eagle” in the Bible actually describes a variety of birds found in the ancient world, rather than any particular kind of eagle or vulture. Eagles are celebrated in the Holy Scriptures for their swift flight (Deut. 28:49), and their commanding vision (Jer. 48:40); also, for their strength (Ezek. 17:3). In Exodus, God says “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagle’s wings and brought you to myself” (Ex. 19:4): a reflection of the Hebrew belief that the eagle could carry its young to safety, much as God had preserved his People at the Red Sea.
But our reading from Isaiah, and our psalm, make a different association. The Hebrews believed that the eagle had powers of regeneration, perhaps based on the renewal of its plumage. The eagle shed its feathers and grew new ones, and so it was a figure of new life. We have in our psalm, “He satisfies you with good things, and your youth is renewed like an eagle’s” (Ps. 103:5): a verse that, like our reading from Isaiah, makes the eagle a prototype for a more general revival of the life of the nation.
This image of renewal speaks to me this Advent, as we reach a new point in our pandemic response. Surely, if there were ever people in need of revival and new life, we would be those people! Of course, we’ve got plenty of company, because pandemic is a world-wide phenomenon. It’s disrupted old patterns, and created a new context for business, leisure, worship, and family life. It’s challenged us in new ways, and caused us to reevaluate our old lives. There have been grievous losses of life, and much to mourn. Even now, as we come back to something approaching a “new normal,” we wonder exactly what that will be.
“Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Is. 40:31). The words of the prophet Isaiah are full of promise: that God will supply the gifts that we need for the task at hand. If we rely upon God, we will have the strength to be able to sprint when we need to, and to walk without collapsing. We will, however, need to wait upon the Lord, as we move forward into the future that God is always creating for his People. We don’t hold the key to the future: God does. We’ll walk through the door when he’s ready to open it.
I’m conscious that I’m speaking to leaders tonight: folks who might well have a reason for weariness or for feeling faint. Vertigo might be the best descriptor for life in the time of pandemic, as each news cycle brings its own dizzying prognostication on new threats and new issues. Part of the scientific method is that we grow in our knowledge as new facts are discovered. There’s also been much else going on, beside the pandemic, both politically and culturally. It’s been bewildering at times. Leadership, both lay and ordained, has been stretched by the challenges of these times.
God’s way, of course, is always to use instruments like us to work his will. “We have this treasure in earthen vessels” (2 Cor. 4:7), St. Paul writes in Second Corinthians, precisely to show that the power belongs to God. He worked through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to show the power of new life. We are the vessels that God has at hand. He’s chosen to use us.
Here, I think, the eagle-image of renewal may be helpful. As leaders in the church, we’ll be equipped with the feathers we need for the long flight ahead. God will grow within us new capacities and new ministries that will carry us forward. It will be, I think, an organic process rather than an artificial one, relying more upon our faithfulness and our imagination than it will upon technical adaptation. Our own cleverness will only carry us so far.
God supplies the gifts for renewal at critical junctures in the life of the church. God has furnished us with all the resources we need for the ministries that we’re called to. Advent is a time of waiting, as we look for God to renew the members of his church, both in our faithfulness and in our capacity to imagine the ways that God might use us. Remember, “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Is. 40:31).