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Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany — February 4, 2024

The pressures of our lives can leave us withered and exhausted. But when we remember our story, we will find the wind that helps us take flight, bringing us home, writes Teri McDowell Ott.

Isaiah 40:21-31
Year B 

Reading Isaiah 40:31, the somewhat saccharine chorus to “On Eagle’s Wings” might come to your mind (no judgment, I love it, too). But I also can’t read these words of Scripture without hearing them in a Scottish brogue. As a track athlete in college, my favorite scene in the movie “Chariots of Fire” was of Eric Liddell, Scotland’s Fastest Man, reading Isaiah 40:31 from the pulpit before running and winning the 400 meters in the 1924 Olympic Games. These are the motivational words everyone needs ringing in their ears:

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.

But Scripture comes to us in different seasons of our lives and resonates with different needs. As I read this passage today, I note its theme of weariness, of exhaustion, of God’s people falling faint.

As 2023 came to a close, I couldn’t maintain my usual morning routine: wake up at 5:30 am, grab a cup of coffee, start writing. My body craved more sleep; my circadian rhythm telling me to hibernate in the shorter, darker days of winter. But I’d also had an exhausting few months of work, full of travel, speaking engagements, and pressing deadlines.

Isaiah’s words are meant to inspire a beleaguered people in exile. When I travel, I come home exhausted after a week. The Israelites lived in exile for almost 50 years; then came home to foreign rulers. We don’t realize the importance of being settled and secure, of having a place to call “home,” to our physical, mental and spiritual well-being — until we go without.

Chapter 40 of Isaiah announces the end of Israel’s exile. As the people celebrate this good news, Isaiah reminds them in verses 21-31 that God, the Creator of the universe, is the source of their strength, their only lasting comfort, their true home. “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” (v. 21, 28). Isaiah implores the people to remember all that they have in the Great Comforter who knows each of us by name, the Good Shepherd from whom no soul goes missing (v. 26). God has been there for us from the beginning. God will be there for us to the end.

One spring, living in Western Illinois near the Iowa border, I discovered explore.org (the world’s largest virtual “zoo” without cages) and one of its webcams installed above an eagle’s nest in Decorah, Iowa. The webcam offered 24-hour livestreaming of a mother and father eagle, and their three eggs. As the three baby eaglets hatched, clawing, pecking and wriggling their way out, they became an internet sensation, receiving over 90 million hits.

An eaglet’s first flight usually happens about three months after birth. To prepare for this momentous leap of faith, they flutter around the nest, flapping and testing their wings, and take short “hop flights” above the nest. Parent eagles begin leaving food on nearby branches, encouraging the young birds to fly farther, trust their own wings. The eaglets keep returning home, their still-weak hunting skills supplemented by their parents’ food deliveries, their wings exhausted from the unfamiliar work. Until finally, something clicks, instinct for the eagle, remembering what she has been taught, who she is, who her parents are, and for what she was created. At this moment, she spreads her wings to find the wind ready and waiting — the thermal current that catches and carries her higher than she ever believed she could soar.

The pressures of our lives, the exiles we must survive, the temptation to solve our problems with superficial idols, can leave us withered and exhausted. But when we remember our story, who we are, who our God is, and for what we are created, we will find the wind that helps us take flight, letting us fly, bringing us home.

Questions for reflection

  1. What thoughts, feelings, ideas or images arose as you read this passage?
  2. What kind of exile have you experienced? From your home? Your church? Your family? What helped during this period of exile?
  3. What exhausts you in your life of faith? How does God help?

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