A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by Andrew McKearney on 18 June 2017
I wanted to offer a short reflection this evening on the way in which birds, and in particular eagles, are used symbolically in the Bible. The eagle is a bird that evoked a great sense of wonder. It’s ability to soar to great heights, it’s youthful sense of energy and the immense power in it’s wings. It is a magnificent bird!
In our Old Testament reading we heard the rescue of the people of Israel from the Egyptian army referred to, and in the description of that rescue it’s as if God had born them on eagle’s wings (19.4). Those powerful wings, used here, as an image for God’s ability to save.
Elsewhere it’s the eagle’s strength and energy that are used to describe God at work in our lives. The Psalmist, for instance, ‘blesses God who satisfies us with good things and renews our youth like an eagle’s’ (103.5).
That would be a fine thing!
Well, the prophet Isaiah got there first! Only last week we heard this prophet offer encouraging words for us all: ‘Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted’ he wrote; ‘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’ (40.30-31).
So the strength of the eagle’s wings is used as an image both of God’s power to save and also to describe the inner strength that God gives us.
Bird’s wings are quite a common image throughout the scriptures, though not specifically the wings of an eagle. And in these references to the wings of a bird it’s usually about being under them that’s important, rather than being on them as is the case with an eagle.
Probably the reference most familiar to us is the one originally from a psalm, but then used in the service of Night Prayer or Compline:
‘Keep me as the apple of your eye’ and we reply,
‘hide me under the shadow of your wings.’
The bird referred to here is not an eagle since being under the wings of an eagle is a menacing place to be – eagle’s wings are great to be carried on, terrifying to be under! In the prophet Jeremiah, Moab is under the wings of an eagle and it’s clearly a threatening place to be:
‘For thus says the Lord’ says Jeremiah the prophet,
‘Look, he shall swoop down like an eagle
and spread his wings against Moab.’ (48.40)
That’s clearly an image of intimidation!
But when the scriptures refer to being under a bird’s wing it’s normally a more positive image, referring to God’s protection and care.
Perhaps the story that comes most readily to mind is when Jesus likens himself to a mother hen, gathering her brood under her wings (Matthew 23.37), hiding them there from predators.
Then there’s the strange vision of God in the prophet Ezekiel that is echoed in the Book of Revelation. Around the throne of God are four living creatures, according to Ezekiel, the first like a lion, the second like an ox, the third with a face like a human face, and the fourth like a flying eagle (Revelation 4.7). These four creatures were later ascribed in the Church to each of the four evangelists, with the flying eagle allocated to Saint John because the fourth gospel pierces further into the mysteries of heaven than any of the other gospels – the eagle, soaring to great heights just as the gospel of John does!
So to sum up, the imagery provided by a bird expresses God’s involvement and engagement with us. The power in the wings of an eagle can describe both God’s ability to rescue and carry us and also God’s ability to renew and strengthen, enabling us to mount up with wings like eagles. It’s also used to describe God’s protection and care of us, sheltering us under his wings like a mother hen. And then the mysteries of heaven, revealed in the pages of Saint John by an author whose heart and mind could soar like an eagle, to heights far beyond our reach.
Finally there’s a lovely passage from the Book of Proverbs that I want to end with (30.18-19).
‘Three things are too wonderful for me;’ writes the author there, ‘four I do not understand.’
I wonder what they are?
The first one is ‘the way of an eagle in the sky’, the second ‘the way of a snake on a rock’, the third ‘the way of a ship on the high seas’. So what’s the fourth?
I think the fourth is the one we tend to see most around Oxford, especially at this time of year.
Regrettably no eagles in the sky, thankfully no snakes on rocks, and unfortunately no sea nearby for ships to sail on! But plenty of the fourth thing which so intrigued the author of the Book of Proverbs; any ideas?
The way of a man with a girl!