Icarus or Eagle?

Isaiah 40:21-31
Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?

It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in;

who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One.

Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.

Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God”?

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.

He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.

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.

 

The Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

One of God’s most under-rated miracles is the ability to hold the entire universe and the smallest details of one individual life all together within the same hands. As humans, we can usually look at the big picture or know everything there is to know about a handful of things, but we can’t do both. There’s a reason the president of the United States has so many aides and secretaries and assistants. It’s their job to become experts on their one specific area and to recommend when and how to get involved in them while the president balances the big picture. One person could not possibly do both things, and the U.S. is much younger and smaller than our planet, much less our universe. This is one of the many examples of how God’s ways are higher than our ways. God is over all things, but God’s not above getting intimately involved with them. We know this, because we’ve seen it time and time again through the Bible and the history of the Church and even in our personal lives. God is in control, and God cares about us as communities and children. It’s a tough thing to wrap our minds around, so we have examples from all across time and space in our history to help us understand what it means for the God who “sits above the circle of the earth” and sees “its inhabitants…like grasshoppers” also to strengthen one person fainting after a long, wearisome walk.

In this passage, the psalmist asks a lot of rhetorical questions to jog our memory about this. Haven’t you heard? Haven’t you been listening in the sermon every week? Haven’t you been reading your Scriptures? Haven’t you memorized the verses and acted out the stories and done crafts with paper plates and markers to make souvenirs from Sunday school to remind you? God loves you. God cares for you. God is enough for you. You know this. Remember this. You’ve heard it so often that it’s basically coded into your DNA at this point, but don’t let it get so commonplace that it goes unnoticed. This is still a big deal.

 

We are talking about the God of our people and the God of the universe, and it’s the same God. God created not just our world but all worlds, every single planet and star. And that creation isn’t flung across the universe willy-nilly, like spaghetti thrown against the wall to see what sticks. Each star has been carefully crafted, placed, and named. Perhaps to remind us of this connection, God has brought forth our very bodies from the same material as those stars. Popular scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson has said, ““The atoms of our bodies are traceable to stars that manufactured them in their cores and exploded these enriched ingredients across our galaxy, billions of years ago. For this reason, we are biologically connected to every other living thing in the world. We are chemically connected to all molecules on Earth. And we are atomically connected to all atoms in the universe. We are not figuratively, but literally stardust.” Isn’t that amazing? That just blows my mind. God is acting in creation on every conceivable level, from the atomic to the cosmic. What a tremendous comfort.

 

Stardust

 

Sometimes, though, we fail to recognize that comfort. Despite all we know about God, we have our doubts. When something comes up that worries us, we may pray at first but we may also start to work on our backup plan. When we’re feeling worn down and devastated, we may turn to God but we also start taking our own steps to make sure we will be taken care of, just in case God doesn’t show up this time. Especially when our struggles are long-term, we have trouble waiting on God without taking matters into our own hands.

 

In the United States we’re known as a society obsessed with instant gratification, particularly my generation. I’ve heard us called the microwave generation because we’ve got everything, even food, at our fingertips. We value constant communication through e-mails and text messages. “Binge-watching” TV shows is a completely legitimate pastime, meaning we will spend a whole weekend watching episode after episode of an entire series in one sitting like a marathon online, unwilling to wait a whole week to find out what happens next. But as much as we crave instant gratification, we also depend on instant correction for mistakes. That’s often how we judge whether a decision is good or bad—what’s going to happen if I do this? Will it happen today, tomorrow, ten years from now? The further away the consequence, the more abstract it seems and the more likely we are to rationalize our way into ignoring it. There are very few stories in Scripture where people are instantly punished for their sins—the earth opens up and swallows men who try to start a rebellion against God and Moses in the wilderness, a couple who essentially steals money from the church by hiding a nest-egg from their donation to the community are struck dead on the spot, Jonah gets thrown overboard and swallowed by a whale trying to escape God’s calling to go to Nineveh. Those stories are chilling, but at least they’re clear. The worst are the ones where we sort of think we’ve gotten away with it for a while. Most of our sins and most of our mistakes don’t come back to bite us right then and there. They usually kick off a chain of events that leads us somewhere we don’t want to go. Often, we sort of wake up way down the line and realize the rationalizations don’t work anymore and it’s time to face the music.

 

That’s the difference between relying on God and relying on ourselves, between relying on the sure support or eagles’ wings or trying to rig up our own like Icarus.

 

Do y’all remember the story of Icarus? Legend has it that Icarus’ father Daedalus was an inventor from ancient Athens. Daedalus created the Labyrinth, an elaborate maze to serve as a prison for a monster called the Minotaur on the island of Crete. When Daedalus got on the bad side of the king he’d created the maze for, though, the king threw Daedalus and his son Icarus in prison there themselves. In a desperate attempt to escape, Daedalus created two pairs of wings made out of feathers and wax. He warned his son that his inventions were strong enough to get them out of the maze and off the island, but they’d have to be very careful. If they flew too low the seawater could dampen their wings, and if they flew too high the sun could melt the wax. In either case, the wings would be destroyed, and they’d be out of luck. Icarus got carried away during their escape, though, and ignored his father’s warning. He flew too close to the sun, and as predicted, his wings failed and he crashed to his death in the waves.

 

The Fall of Icarus

 

Now Daedalus was a very skilled craftsman and the wings he’d made should have been enough to do in a pinch, but they couldn’t withstand a life of flying. In fact, they remind me of the idols the psalmist describes in the verses before our reading for today from Isaiah 40. In both examples, skilled artisans choose their materials with care to build something from scratch to meet their needs. Their creations are beautiful, representing the best of their abilities, but they can’t compare to the Living God. Ultimately, an idol will topple. It works as a symbol of a god for a little while, but in the end it does not last and cannot sustain us.

 

No matter how faithful we are, no matter how much we try to follow God’s will and think through our decisions and get good advice from people we trust, we will inevitably make mistakes. We will wind up feeling burned by our choices or our experiences, and that can sting like a wicked sunburn. When that happens we want to have wings we can rely on to keep us from crashing down. We need them to be sturdy and weather-tested to keep us in the air and moving forward. No homemade wings will do the trick here. We can’t just be wearing a contraption we’ve rigged up to feel free. We must be transformed into new creations by the God who created both us and the eagles. When we allow God to work in us instead of simply trying to knuckle down and figure it all out ourselves, we can trust in the support God gives us. God promises, “You will mount up with wings like eagles, lifting you higher, into your natural habitat, the heavens and the heights of my love for you and for the world I’ve created. But you can only get there with my help, not by building yourselves a tall enough tower or crafting makeshift wings out of feathers and wax.”

 

God is over everything, yet we still try to micromanage and make shoddy versions of God’s gifts for ourselves. We force the timing and the relationships and the opportunities. We rationalize our behavior to fit what we want, but there’s always that niggling little voice in the back of our heads reminding us that as long as we’re determined to rely on ourselves, we better stay out of the sun. As the 18th century Biblical scholar Matthew Henry (not to be confused with my Matthew Henry) has written, “If we go forth in our own strength, we shall faint, and utterly fall; but having our hearts and our hopes in heaven, we shall be carried above all difficulties, and be enabled to lay hold of the prize of our high calling in Christ Jesus.” It’s not safe to go alone, but thankfully, we never have to. God is with us through the presence of the Holy Spirit, the witness of Jesus Christ in Scripture, and the love and support of God’s people in our lives.

 

Whether we’re going through something right now or everything is smooth sailing, let’s make a conscious decision this week to live as people who know that we are held by the hands that hold the world. It’s tiresome always having to balance staying above the ocean spray but below the sun’s hottest rays just to stay aloft through our own devices. That kind of radically self-reliant lifestyle simply isn’t sustainable. Remember that God created us, so God knows our limits better than anyone. Take God’s word for it, then, that we need God’s help to truly fly free. Often in the Bible, the sun is a metaphor for the radiance of God’s face, watching over creation in power and glory. Why would we ever want to trust in wings that wither under God’s presence, especially when God provides an alternative that brings us nearer to the heavens with the confidence of birds who build their nests in the tallest trees and on the highest cliffs to be near the sky even in their sleep? This week, decide to accept the support that God is offering you in whatever form it presents itself. Try to take a moment to rest in it, letting the breeze carry you into the heights of God’s loving care where eagles soar.

 

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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