“On Eagles’ Wings”
Super Bowl Sunday, February 4, 2018
Today is the Super Bowl, and our Philadelphia Eagles are the underdog facing the New England Patriots. The Eagles have certainly soared this season. One newspaper columnist wrote that their success comes with the price of ending an entire genre of Eagles jokes. Why is it always a good idea to date an Eagles fan? Because she’ll never be expecting to get a ring! What do you call a Philadelphia Eagle with a Super Bowl ring? A thief. What did the Eagles fan say after the team won the Super Bowl? “Why’d you wake me up, Mom? I was having an incredible dream!”
Amid the football frenzy, however, we now know that football players who have concussions risk life-threatening debilities. Perhaps you may remember hearing Eagles running back Kevin Turner speak at a prayer breakfast at our church. He was later diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE. He died in 2016 at the age of 46. His brain was mush.
Yes, there is a darker side to football that we sometimes forget. Super Bowl Sunday is the day each year with the highest number of domestic abuse cases reported. That’s tragic. Major cities spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build elaborate sports stadiums while public school teachers often must use their own salary to pay for student supplies because we are told that there aren’t enough tax dollars to pay for pencils and paper. Last year, more people were killed by guns in Philadelphia with a population of 1.5 million than in New York City with a population more than five times greater. These are realities that we Christians must confront.
This year’s Eagles team, however, is truly remarkable. They have three chaplains who support them. Quarterback Carson Wentz speaks openly about his faith and inspires others to follow Jesus. Every Saturday night, he leads a Bible study for players on the team. Because of his willingness to share his faith, three members of the Eagles have asked to be baptized. Safety Malcolm Jenkins leads the team with 119 tackles this season, but many are struck by how he raised a fist during the national anthem and was supported by teammates and owner Jeffrey Lurie. His protest against social injustice ended when the NFL vowed to bring about changes, starting with a $90 million pledge to help improve impoverished communities. Truly, these Eagles are a very special, gutsy and gritty group of athletes.
The Bible mentions eagles 33 times but does not make a single mention of patriots. Eagles 33. Patriots 0. Perhaps that will prove prophetic. It also seems providential that today we read Isaiah 40:31, which says, “they shall mount up with wings like eagles.” Read only once every three years, this Bible reading falls on this Super Bowl Sunday. Perhaps it’s another sign! Because it’s Epiphany, every mainline minister and Roman Catholic priest across the country and overseas is wearing Eagles green today! That’s got to help the cause!
The book of Isaiah which speaks of eagles was written by three different authors over a period of 350 years. Chapters 1-39 were written in the 8th century B.C. by a man in Jerusalem, who became a friend and counselor to kings. Isaiah was a fierce critic of national policies. If he were alive today, he would be critiquing governmental priorities and reminding us that it is not enough to have our economy soar if our values plummet and we neglect the needs of widows, orphans and refugees. Isaiah embodied high ethical, social and spiritual qualities which made his pronouncements serve as the voice of God to the people.
By contrast, we know little or nothing of the author of Second Isaiah, who wrote about being lifted up on eagles’ wings. What we do know is that he wrote after the Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem in 587 B.C. and had forced the Israelites to become their slaves and marched them to Babylon. He knew what it was like to suffer, yet he spoke in an ecstasy of joy, in a glow of hope and with a certainty of salvation. For him, the black night of exile was coming to an end, and a new day dawning.
So, he sounded a note of joy amid sorrow, defeat, and disaster. He told his listeners that God would shelter his people and care for them. God’s love is more than equal to the task of saving humanity. He uttered his words when his people were in a foreign land surrounded by imposing temples, each dedicated to a different god. To the prophet, all of these images paled in comparison to Yahweh, who guided human fortune and would not fail them, but rather God would lift them up on eagle’s wings so they could soar once again.
The eagle was the monarch of birds, which inspired many prophets. Eagles were famous for their cruising range (Deut. 28:49; Prov. 23:5), their nurture of their young (Deut. 32:11), the swiftness of their flight (II Sam. 1:23; Lam. 4:19) and their ability to nest in inaccessible places (Is. 40:31). The ancients were impressed that the eagle lived so long. In fact, they believed that the eagle could actually renew its youth (Ps. 103:5). Hence, the first theologians chose the eagle as a Christian symbol. They also believed that the eagle was the only creature that could stare directly into the sun and not be blinded. So, the eagle became the symbol of the Gospel of John, whose writings are believed to soar the highest into the mysteries of God.
Yet, eagles do not fly. They soar. Now, that may sound very simple, but let me explain. The eagle’s wingspan can reach seven feet across. Eagles build their nests at great elevations, in treetops or on the side of cliffs. When an eagles wants to fly, it waits for just the right wind current. Then it lifts its majestic wings and barely moves them, but catches the wind beneath its wings.
Do you remember the actor Steve McQueen, who starred in the movie The Great Escape? He used to fly gliders high above the Rocky Mountains. One day he caught a special wind current called a thermal, and he decided to see how high he could fly with it. He kept going up and up until he was flying 18,000 feet above the ground. When he looked out he saw eagles beside him. They looked as if they were asleep, for their wings barely moved, but they were soaring. What powered them was not their huge muscles but the wind beneath their wings. Hence, Isaiah says,
[God] 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. (Is. 40:29-31)
Eagles soar because they take advantage of the force of something beyond themselves. How about you? Are you flapping your wings like crazy and not getting where you want to go, or have you learned how to harness the Holy Spirit so that you can soar?
We can never be the vital Christians that God has designed us to be unless we work with the Holy Spirit, nor can we be a dynamic Christian on our own. We receive the Holy Spirit at Baptism, and it is there throughout our life to lift us up. We should never settle for Christian mediocrity, when God created us to soar spiritually like eagles and to inspire others to fly like eagles as well.
God is not worn out. God is never exhausted. God is directly attentive to the faint, to the powerless and to those who have no energy. God sustains those who have no intrinsic power of life of their own. It is the exiles, who have no resources, the faint, who are weary, and the powerless, who are shackled by adversity, that God fills with hope. The Bible tells us that we will either be faint, weary and exhausted – even young people who seem to have unlimited energy – or we will hope and wait and expect God to help us fly, run or walk without weariness or fainting. God is the single variable that makes the difference.
Last August, the Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive end Chris Long watched helplessly on television as hundreds of people were marching through the streets of his hometown in Charlottesville, Virginia, many of them in support of white supremacy. Long was so disgusted with the hatred he saw that he made a decision to give away his salary from the first six games of the season to fund scholarships in his hometown. “That ugly sort of stuff is a reality that affects a lot of people on a daily basis,” he said, adding, “It was time for me to walk the walk.”
Days after the march in Charlottesville, he took his first social justice stand during the singing of the national anthem at an Eagles preseason game by placing his arm on the back of teammate Malcolm Jenkins, who had raised his fist in protest of racial injustice. “I just told Malcolm, ‘I’m here for you,’” said Long, adding, “I think it’s a good time for people that look like me to be here for people that are fighting for equality.” When the President and many in our nation sharply criticized NFL protests against racial injustice, Long said, “If you don’t see why you need allies for people that are fighting for equality right now, I don’t think that you’ll ever see it,” adding, “And I wish there was more categorical denial from some very important people in this country who have had the opportunity to strike it down but didn’t.” In October, Long chose to give away the rest of 2017 salary to start Pledge 10 for Tomorrow – a national campaign to help improve educational equality. Now, that’s someone who soars like an eagle and inspires others to do the same!
So, I ask you, what can you do to fly like an eagle? Who can you lift up this week on eagle’s wings and nudge them to rise out of their nest and not to be afraid and let the currents of the Holy Spirit propel them higher? Who do you know that is facing a challenge whom you can put your arm around and say, “I’m here for you.” And if you are facing a great trial of your own, I want you to trust that Jesus knows what’s troubling you and has already worked out the solution. I urge you to share your concern with this community so that we can surround you and lift you up on eagle’s wing so that you can soar once again and give hope to others. Amen.