Sermon for Epiphany 2, Year C
Based on Ps. 36:7
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
I confess that I'm a bit of a birdwatcher. It gives me pleasure to look at the wide variety of God's fine-feathered creatures. Birds of all sizes, shapes and colours. Birds that if they were all gathered together, would make countless symphonies of sound, praising their God. One of the most pleasant experiences in life is to wake up early on a beautiful, peaceful morning, and listen to the birds sing. Another enjoyable experience is to watch birds in flight.
Now that I have made my confession, hopefully you will understand a little, anyway why Psalm 36:7 brought inspiration and sort of flew right out at me, larger than life! The psalmist writes: "How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings."(NRSV) Another translation (Psalms Anew), puts it this way: "To all creation you give protection. Your people find refuge in the shelter of your wings." Here, as well as in at least four other Psalms-see: Pss. 17:8; 57:1; 63:7; 91:4-the psalmist views God as being like a loving, nurturing, protective bird with us in or under the shadow of God's wings.
Why would the psalmist see God in such a way? Why would the psalmist picture God as a bird? One answer is that the wings here may have been associated with the wings of the cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple at Jerusalem. God was present there in the Temple in a special way. People who were in trouble or danger could go into the Temple because it was a place of refuge, where they would find protection, safety and security.
Later, Christians also developed the belief of refuge or sanctuary. Even today Christians still open their doors to refugees and other people in danger as places of sanctuary-as some Christians did right here in Calgary for an Al Salvadoran refugee, which made frontpage headlines a few years ago. It is interesting that even governments respect the practice of sanctuary, for they too allow refugees to enter and live in safety in their country. It is also interesting that when we care for, teach, guide, train, feed, clothe, shelter, and protect people; we often refer to these activities by saying: "we have taken so-and-so under our wings." Because God has provided us with protection, refuge and sanctuary under God's wings-we can respond by offering the same to others in need.
This image of finding protection under God's wings is true to real life in the bird world. For example, farmyard mother hens are very protective of their chicks. When a hawk flies overhead, threatening to swoop down and snatch the chicks, the mother hen will spread her wings over her chicks, keeping them safe until the threatening hawk is gone. She will protect her chicks even, if necessary, by sacrificing her own life.
However, there is another reason why the psalmist finds the picture of God as a bird with wings so compelling. That reason is deeply embedded in humankind's desire to be free by being able to fly. Long before the invention of aeroplanes, human beings had a passion for flying.
(Dr. William Stidger once spoke of) an interesting experience he had many years ago in the Pitti Palace, in Florence, Italy. He was talking with a guide and he showed Dr. Stidger a most interesting design of an airship made by Leonardo da Vinci, the great painter, sculptor, and all-around genius-he who not only was a master in the field of art, but also made musical instruments and wrote his own music; he who was a great military designer and drew plans for military defenses for his own city of Florence. But the most interesting thing he ever did back in the fifteenth century was to draw the blueprints of an airship. An even more interesting thing than that was a single line which he wrote as a caption beneath that drawing-a line which read with prophetic vigor: "There shall be wings!" (1)
This desire of human beings to have wings and fly continues to this very day. There is something wonderful, beautiful, graceful and awe-inspiring about watching birds in flight. It is marvellous to see an eagle soaring high in the sky, with its wings spread wide gliding along on the wind currents. Or to see a flock of Canadian Geese flying overhead in V formation, silhouetted by a sunset, and to listen to their honking-it's spectacular.
When Christianity spread into Scotland, the people had problems accepting the dove as the symbol of the Holy Spirit. So, what did they do? Well, they made the wild goose their symbol of the Holy Spirit. For the Scots, the wild goose symbolised dignity, beauty and freedom when it was in full flight. At the beginning of creation, Genesis 1:2 tells us that the Spirit of God hovered over the surface of the waters.
This picture of the Holy Spirit with hovering wings over us is a very comforting symbol for many people. Especially people who feel weak, vulnerable and insecure; people who are in need of tender nurturing and protection. The Holy Spirit with wings hovering over us is our Comforter, gives us strength, courage, confidence and lasting security, rooted in God's Very Self. Through the ups and downs of this world, it is very comforting to trust in God's eternal security-knowing that the hovering wings of the Holy Spirit are always over us.
The picture of the Holy Spirit as a bird with its wings in full flight, reminds us of God's wonderful freedom; of God's unhindered movement. This picture of the Holy Spirit also offers comfort, hope and strength to many people. For example, those Christians who languish in prison and have limited movement, remember how free and unconfined they are as their spirits soar with the free-flying Holy Spirit. Those Christians who suffer from economic, political and social slavery, know that they are set free with the freedom of God's Holy Spirit. Those Christians who suffer from the slavery of their own personal sins; are also offered the Holy Spirit's freedom to fly and move into new challenges, new opportunities, new directions, new adventures-which previously may have been impossible.
Today, we are still awestruck by wings and birds in flight. For instance, when something or someone fails, we use figures of speech such as: "that never got off the ground," or "it didn't fly," or "so-and-so has trouble finding their wings," or "so-and-so fell from the sky." However, when something or someone is successful, we use figures of speech such as: "that really flew," or "that really took wing," or "so-and-so is sure flying high today," or "so-and-so is really soaring."
When we remain in close contact with God the "Big Bird," God the Holy Spirit, we too can fly. Those powerful, beautiful, awesome, yet tender wings of God will protect us, be a refuge and sanctuary for us, provide us with eternal security; as well as give us strength to soar through life by basking in all of its fullness. Flying with the Holy Spirit takes out all of the boredom in our lives. So, all aboard! As we take wing with our God.
1. William L. Stidger, There Are Sermons In Stories (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1942), pp.123-24.
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