Saturday, June 30, 2018

“Have You Not Heard?”

            After taking last Sunday off, in order to participate in a 4-day bicycle ride, I return to the pulpit for the 8:30 am service this Sunday (July 1st) at Christ United Methodist Church.  This weekend we continue our sermon series on the congregation’s eight favorite hymns.  Each Sunday the proclamation focuses on one these top hymns and the scripture which undergirds it. 

Sunday we focus on the hymn, “On Eagle’s Wings.”  This hymn was written in the 1970s by Father Jan Michael Joncas, a Catholic priest serving in Minnesota.  Originally, when he composed the hymn, Father Joncas intended for the verses to be sung by a trained cantor, with the congregation responding with the chorus.  The chorus goes like this:

“And God will raise you up on eagle’s wings,
 bear you on the breath of dawn,
 make you to shine like the sun,
 and hold you in the palm of God’s hand.”

In an interview, Father Joncas explained that he wrote this hymn for a friend, whose father suffered a fatal heart attack, and the hymn was first sung at the funeral service.[1]  Father Joncas based his hymn on Psalm 91, although that particular psalm does not explicitly refer to eagles.

            I have always associated this hymn with a different scripture passage, Isaiah 40:28-31.  So, my proclamation is grounded in that passage:

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.

Isaiah 40 is one of the most pivotal chapters in the scriptures.  It marks a key transition from the first part of Isaiah (chapters 1-39) to the second and third parts of Isaiah.  In the first part of Isaiah the Babylonian victory over Judah and Jerusalem is looming but has not yet occurred.  Now, in chapter 40, the crushing defeat has already occurred as a punishment for Israel’s sins.  Jerusalem “has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:2c).  Yet, against this background, chapter 40 offers a resounding word of comfort and hope—from its very first words, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your Lord.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…” (40:1-2a).  God is about to do a new thing in the world.  God will return to the world.

This leads to a familiar Advent passage for Christians, when we prepare to celebrate Christmas and God’s Incarnation through the birth of Christ.

“A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:3-5)

(In reflecting upon the importance of Isaiah 40 as an Advent passage, note that Isaiah 40:1-5 forms the scriptural source for scene 1 in Handel’s masterful cantata, Messiah.)

            As Isaiah 40 continues, we move into a series of questions:  “Have you not known?”  “Have you not heard?”  and other, similar questions.  These questions are not accusatory.  Neither do they offer the faithful new information.  Instead, the questions are intended to remind Israel of what it has already known but may have forgotten in the pain and suffering of defeat by the Babylonians.  The passage’s “…final purpose is to lift up, to increase strength, to bolster and rejuvenate (40:28-31).  The appeal here is not to something unknown or insufficiently grasped, but precisely to something Israel has known and heard and been shown from eternity…”.[2]

            The reassurance and encouragement found in Isaiah 40:12-31 comes to a climax in our four verses at the end of the chapter.  In these four verses, God focuses on the faithful’s weariness and exhaustion:

1.      The passage begins by reminding Israel that God never faints or grows weary.

2.      Instead, God gives power to the weak and strengthens the powerless

3.      Even though youth—who should be at their strongest—may faint and be weary.  And even though the young—who, again, should be at their strongest—will fall down exhausted. God will remain strong.

4.      Not only will God remain strong; those who are faithful to the Lord will have their strength renewed.  They shall mount up with wings like eagles.  They shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

The scriptural scholar Christopher Seitz observes:  “It is a difficult but essential discipline to learn how rightly to assess our degree of weariness and exhaustion in the walk of faith.  Sometimes these twins are directly responsible for our inability to hear God, and for misunderstanding how God is actively at work.”[3] 

I believe that this is a critical insight into the life of faithful discipleship, which our scripture addresses.  Could it be that weariness and exhaustion are especially prevalent among the faithful in twenty-first century America?  Could it be that the harsh pace of contemporary life—with all of its demands and activities and all of the information which we must process—generates such fatigue that we no longer have time or energy to hear God speak or perceive God’s Presence in our lives?

In my ministry, I find myself frequently referencing this passage of scripture as I provide pastoral care to those who are sick and face physical challenges, as well as when I seek to comfort those who grieve the loss of a loved one.

In Isaiah 40:28-31, we are reminded that God is always with us, and that God seeks to renew and strengthen us.  Even when we are overcome with weariness and exhaustion, God is there, seeking to strengthen and renew us.  Even when we are “sick of being sick” or we just cannot bear the thought of another session of physical therapy or another round of chemo treatment, God is there, seeking to strengthen and renew us.  Even when we are overcome by grief at the death of our beloved, God is there, seeking to strengthen and renew us.  Those who trust in God shall renew their strength.

Or, as Father Joncas wrote in his chorus:

“And God will raise you up on eagle’s wings,
 bear you on the breath of dawn,
 make you to shine like the sun,
 and hold you in the palm of God’s hand.”

If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us at Christ United Methodist Church this Sunday, July 1st. During our 8:30 am service, I will reflect on the hymn, “On Eagle’s Wings” and the message of strength and renewal in Isaiah 40:28-31.  However, I will not be preaching at our second service at 11:00 am.  That service will be a celebration of our church’s Fine Arts Camp, which was just completed.  At the 11 am service, the proclamation will be provided by the campers, who in their performance will reflect on the importance of recognizing that each of us is created in God’s divine image.  Come and join us at either service at Christ United Methodist Church, located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska. 

Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.

[1]Darlene J. M. Dela Cruz, “Response to ‘On Eagle’s Wings’ over the years humbling for composer,” Catholic News Service, 30 December 2013.  Accessed online at, 29 June 2018.

[2] Christopher R. Seitz, Commentary on the Book of Isaiah 40-66 in the New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 6, (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002), CD-ROM Edition.

[3] Ibid.

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