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On Eagles Wings, Isaiah 40:21-31, February 5, 2012

This is one of the most poetic and well-known texts of the Old Testament. The images of an eagle mounting an air current to take to the heavens, or a runner gathering new strength for a final push are enduring. But rather than a runner who's suddenly able to spurt to the finish line with boundless energy, our focus will be of a steady routine of living – the art of life without weariness.

A man by the name of Julian used to manage a church camp. Each spring involved a lot of work to get the lodge, cabins and grounds ready for the summer program. Once the summer program started Julian had a staff to do the counseling, maintenance and cooking, but in the spring, he had to rely on whomever he could hire on an hourly basis.

One spring he ended up with two employees. One was a vigorous young man who had just graduated from high school. The other was a retired farmer with a heart condition.

Guess which one accomplished the most work each day.

Yes, the farmer. The young man was willing enough, but the farmer, even with his heart problem, always got more done. One reason was that he just knew how to do things. He'd had a lot of experience from running his farm, and he didn't need much direction.

But he also knew how to husband his energy. He'd have to rest occasionally, but when he was on his feet, he did what needed to be done with a minimum of exertion so that he wasn't expending all his energy in a burst.

On one occasion, there was a new camp sign to erect. The young man put his strong back into the job and dug for all he was worth. When he got tired, the farmer took his turn on the post-hole digger as well, but when they finished, the young man was all used up for the day. The farmer was planning to go help his son with the evening milking of the cows!

Isaiah 40:

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 not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

Of course, these verses aren’t a commentary on the energy level of different generations. Isaiah, chapters 40-55, addresses the people of Judah in exile from their homeland, living as captives in Babylonia. The reference to mounting up with wings like eagles in Isaiah 40 may have been a reminder of how God had rescued the exiles' ancestors. In Exodus 19:4, God speaks to the Israelites after leading them out of slavery in Egypt, saying, "You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself."

In the Isaiah 40 context, God is about to be the eagle of rescue again, leading the descendants of the exodus Israelites out of exile. But at the time this is written, the people are still captive, so the prophet comes to announce to the people that God is about to deliver them.

When the Babylonians had defeated Judah, many of the Jews concluded that the gods of Babylonia were stronger than the God of Judah. So now, the prophet reminds the people of the power of God Almighty, using these rhetorical questions and dramatic comparisons in poetic form. The prophet's argument reaches its high point in these words:

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable. (v. 28)

Not only is God able to rescue them, but he is also willing to do so. And that's where the prophet begins talking about God's giving strength to the faint and powerless, so that those who wait on the Lord -- who rely on him -- will have a sustaining vigor that exceeds even that of the young and naturally strong.

In the context of the passage, the exiles are surely the ones who are faint and powerless. They have no say-so over what happens to them. Don’t surrender to despair. God is both able and willing to help. Wait on the Lord, and when you do, when  they do, when we do, says the prophet,

they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint. (v. 31b, c)

We, too, have a journey though life that can be exhausting and sapping, for there's no shortage of things that wear us down.

For starters, there are simply the demands of each day. At one 7 p.m. church meeting, a woman looked at another woman and said to her, "I see you're wearing your 'evening face.'"

Everyone present knew immediately what that meant. By the time we get to midlife, the energy that enables us to get things done tends to run out before the hours of the day do.
 

But there are larger issues that sap our energy, too. If we pay attention to the news, we can hardly keep a bounce in our step. Closer to home, there is stuff that undermines our vigor as well. We have problems at work, difficulties in our relationships, worries about our children, unwelcome interruptions in our plans and unexpected health difficulties.

The Isaiah passage is addressed to people who have been worn down. To them the prophet advises, "Wait for the LORD." Those who wait for the Lord will "not be weary." In other words, they'll be "un-weary." That's not a dictionary word, but it captures what this prophecy is saying. It is not saying, "Just trust God and you'll be supercharged in the race of life."

On the contrary, the image is more like that of the old farmer at the church camp who goes along, keeping energy expenditure to the minimum needed to keep moving and get the job done. He's not weary but neither is he fresh and buoyant. He's the un-weary runner.

But what does it mean to wait on the Lord? It's a way of describing the realm in which the meaning of our lives and the resources for the journey are found. That realm is contained within the boundaries established by the Bible, the church and the wide scope of the Christian faith.

EXAMPLE: If you are struggling with the meaning of your life, you could select an answer from the broad field of philosophy. Among them are

1) that there's a God but he doesn't supply meaning,

2) that there's no God and life has no meaning, or

3) that meaning comes from God, even if we cannot see it.

Three options, but if you have committed yourself to living in the realm defined by the Bible, the church and the Christian faith, then you have to eliminate options 1 and 2.

Even if you cannot sense any meaning to your life, you have to conclude that there's meaning nonetheless, and that it comes from God.

Accepting that, then, you can go on, operating on the assumption that God knows the meaning of your life even if you do not. And therefore / you have reason to continue the journey. You may not be an energetic runner, / but at least you are un-weary.

In short, waiting on the Lord means carrying on with the tasks at hand in a state of trust. When we do that, the continuing on itself can become the medium through which God strengthens us.

In 1999, Kirk Johnson, a New York Times reporter, ran the nation's toughest ultra-marathon, the Badwater. Unlike regular marathons, such as the 26-mile New York event where runners compete against each other, ultra-marathoners compete against the course itself. That's because ultra-marathons are set in places of extreme hardship. Thus, if you finish within the established timeframe, you have won. It's a personal contest.

Badwater is the worst of the ultra-marathons. It's run across Death Valley in -- get this -- July. The footrace begins at Badwater, which at 282 feet below sea level is the lowest and hottest spot in the Western Hemisphere.

The race goes 135 miles from there to the trailhead of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states. The trailhead is at 8,360 feet. Runners, who must have a support team accompanying them, have to complete the race within 60 hours. They encounter temperatures of 120 degrees and higher, 40-mph headwinds and lightning storms.

Johnson was 41 years old and of average athletic ability when he learned about the race from a woman who'd done it. His decision to run it himself came after his older brother, without warning or hint of trouble, and without explanation, committed suicide. Struggling to comprehend his brother's surrender of life, Johnson gradually determined to run the race.

That decision led to months of training, and during that period, many of his coworkers at The New York Times questioned his plans. Johnson could give no clear answer, but he acknowledged that something other than logic drove him, something beyond himself.

The run proved to be every bit the grueling ordeal Johnson expected. During the dark hours of the second night, he hallucinated from exhaustion. Still, he finished. Forty-two runners started but nine dropped out, including some younger than Johnson. He came in second to last, but, of course, speed was never the issue.

Johnson ended with something far beyond an evening face, but Badwater became the medium through which the inner struggle with his brother's suicide resolved. Johnson later wrote:

Running Badwater isn't about limits and boundaries at all, as I'd once thought, but rather about going on and never giving up. For all its imagery of death and the severity of its climate, Death Valley and Badwater are about choosing life.

And when I figured that out, I finally understood that I hadn't entered the race to get closer to my brother ... or to honor him at all, as I'd imagined at one time, but rather for totally opposite reasons -- to put some distance between us, and to refute the terror and uncertainty that his death had introduced into my life. Badwater exposed that fact -- brutally and honestly and with no gauzy sentimentality. I go on. (286)

"I go on." Johnson became an un-weary runner.

We may arrive at the end of any given day with an evening face, but by waiting on the Lord, we can be un-weary runners, people with the resources for dealing with what comes up during the day, and we will arrive at the end of our life's journey with the energy to continue on into God's great eternity.
        
I’d like to close with this one last illustration. The poet Annie Johnson Flint died in 1932. Born in Vineland, New Jersey, she was orphaned at age 6 and severely afflicted with arthritis in her teens. Before reaching adulthood, she was unable even to walk. She had wanted to be a composer and concert pianist. When illness deprived her of the ability to the play the piano, she turned to poetry instead, pounding out the words on a typewriter with her knuckles after the disease rendered her unable to open her hands. She eventually came to see poetry as her calling from God. Here's her witness in one of her poems:

He giveth more grace as our burdens grow greater,
He sendeth more strength as our labors increase,
To added afflictions He addeth His mercy,
To multiplied trials He multiplies peace.

When we have exhausted our store of endurance,
When our strength has failed ere the day is half-done,
When we reach the end of our hoarded resources
Our Father's full giving is only begun.

His love has no limits, His grace has no measure,
His power no boundary known unto men;
For out of His infinite riches in Jesus
He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again.

The energy that results from "waiting on the Lord" is not boundless vigor, but the ability to carry on.

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 not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. Amen.

 

 

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