Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
When I was growing up in southern Minnesota, the sighting of a bald eagle was very rare. Often, an eagle sighting was limited to the weeks at Boy Scout camp in northern Minnesota. Living in Stillwater along the St. Croix River, however, the sighting was a daily occurrence- even in winter. Now the bird watchers among you may know this, but there is a phrase used to describe the nurturing habit practiced by eagles toward their young. It is called “stirring the nest.” Eagle parents are very attentive and keep their eaglets warm and protected until after the fledglings have grown all their feathers. Then the parents will “stir up the nest” uncovering the thorns, the briars and stickers that form the building structure of the nest. This “stirring of the nest” means tossing out all the soft nesting materials, rabbit fur, feathers, down and grass, so that the young eagles must stand on their own. This allows the eagles to strengthen their muscles and talons in preparation for adult life. The young eagles must learn to stand before they can fly. But “stirring up the nest” and uncovering the thorns has another purpose. It forces the eagles to leave the comfort of their nest, so that they can one day soar.
Unfortunately, we live in an age, when we no longer believe that stirring the nest and uncovering the thorns is useful or constructive in personal growth. We avoid the painful, prickly truths of life. We protect ourselves and our children from their sting. Instead, we lovingly provide everything that our families want or desire. And we pride ourselves on such an achievement. And yet, my friends, we may be making a grave mistake.
This morning, I would like to share with you my conviction drawn from the word of the prophet Isiah that thorns do play an important role in our personal and spiritual growth. Life’s hardships and calamities help us to embrace and develop an inner strength.
Over the course of this summer season, I have been preaching on the Old Testament prophets. We have heard the stories of Elijah , Elisha, Amos, Jonah, and Hosea, and their warning against the kings of the northern kingdom of Israel. In 722 BC, the northern kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians, all that remained of historic kingdom of David were the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin in the southern kingdom. Like King Jeroboam II in Israel, King Uzziah had ruled over Judah with great skill. As the champion of great buildings, he was second only to King Solomon. King Uzziah’s strength, however, became his weakness. He grew proud and tried to usurp the authority of the Temple’s priests. On one occasion he entered the Temple to burn incense on the altar, a privilege reserved for the priests. According to scripture, the king was so angered, that he broke out with leprosy on his forehead and was forced to live in an isolated house for the rest of his years.
It was in the year of King Uzziah’s death, that the new prophet Isaiah was raised up by God. It was precarious and dangerous time. A new king had taken power in Assyria named Tiglath-pileser III, was set on conquering his neighbors. No words of the earlier prophets could shake Israel’s self-reliance. Isaiah’s only hope for the fabled united nation of the King David, was the tiny kingdom of Judah- if they would turn back to the Lord.
Mind you, Isaiah knew the challenge that was before him. According to Jewish oral tradition, while Isaiah was walking up and down in his study he heard God saying, “Whom shall I send?” Then Isaiah said, “Here am I; send me!” Thereupon God said to him, “My children are trouble-some and sensitive; if you are ready to be insulted and even beaten by them, you may accept my message; if not, you would better renounce it.” Knowing the thorn and briars before him, Isaiah accepted the call.
Thorns are always a part of life, and also cause wounds. The distinguished American playwright Thornton Wilder, rote, “Without your wounds, where would your power be? The very angels of God in heaven cannot persuade the wretched and blundering children of earth as can one human being broken on the wheels of living. In love’s service only wounded soldiers will do.”
Consider the lives of men and women who have been wounded by their thorns- Wilder’s wounded soldiers. The thorn in the flesh could not extinguish the creative genius of George Frederick Handel. In the spring of 1741, he was poverty stricken and suffering from a paralyzed right side and right arm. And yet in the span of a few weeks he created his masterpiece Messiah. The majestic “Hallelujah Chorus” and the beautiful “I Know that My Redeemer Liveth” were written during a time of great adversity. George Fredrick Handel’s thorn in the flesh could not extinguish his creativity.
The thorn in the flesh could not diminish the character of the American humanitarian, educator and author Helen Keller. From only weeks after her birth she was blind and deaf, and yet, as presented in the story of Annie Sullivan The Miracle Worker, she learned to speak and read and write, and went on to complete her university education. She wrote, “Science may have found a cure for most evils; but it has found no remedy for the worst of them all- the apathy of human beings.” Helen Keller’s thorn in the flesh could not diminish her character.
The thorn in the flesh could not destroy the confidence and faith of the young Irishman Joseph Scriven. He was deeply in love with a young woman and their marriage plans were before them. Not long, however, before the wedding, she tragically drowned. For months Scriven was bitter and in utter despair. Out of this experience he wrote the familiar hymn which has brought consolation to millions of men and women. “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear!” Joseph Scriven’s thorn in the flesh could not destroy his confidence and faith. Thorns, you see, do not necessarily destroy the possibility of enjoying the fullness of life. Indeed, for these men and women, “uncovering the thorns” challenged them to discover and explore new possibilities.
No one likes thorns, least of all God’s faithful, holy servants. We all prefer a comfortable place without pain and sorrow. But as Isaiah wrote in his 40th chapter, thorns and suffering can drive us to a greater and more lasting source of strength and hope. “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God the creator of the end of the earth.” Too often, however, we are satisfied with too little and we never dare to soar. We are satisfied with the idols of the world that cannot ultimately provide what we need. Oh they promise many things, and we might be tempted to avoid the fear of failure, the denial of pain, the aversion to suffering, and the crass, materialistic belief that we deserve all of life’s pleasures here and now. And yet, like the adult eagles nurturing and protecting their young, it is ultimately in stirring the nest and uncovering the thorns that will give us the confidence that our loved ones will grow strong and mature. And hopefully, by God’s grace, to one day soar. That is what is waiting for those who trust in the Lord. “God does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.”
Surprisingly, when the fledgling eagles are old enough to fly, they do not always realize they are capable of flight. In fact, often they are terrified of falling out of the nest. Inevitably, the day comes when the parents have to kick them out for their own good. Some fledglings are terrified and become paralyzed by the thought of leaving the nest. The mother eagle must physically push them out, while the father eagle circles nearby waiting to catch them if they fall. This is the meaning of Psalm 91, “And I will raise you up, on eagles’ wings, lest you dash your foot against a stone. Uncovering the thorns allows the young eagles to grow strong and to learn to fly. Without the stirring of the nest and uncovering the thorns they would never fully mature. “To stir the nest” is actually an act of love, of independence, and of growth.
I would like to close with the playful and thoughtful observations by the legendary American radio commentator Paul Harvey. It was his own attempt, as a parenting eagle to stir the nest and uncover the thorns. He writes:
“We tried so hard to make things better for our children that we made them worse. For my grandchildren, I’d like better. I’d really like for them to know about hand-me-down clothes and home made ice cream and leftover meat loaf sandwiches. I really would.
I hope you learn humility by being humiliated, and that you can learn honesty by being cheated. I hope you learn to make your own bed and mow the lawn and wash the car. And I really hope nobody gives you a brand new car when you are sixteen.
When you learn to use computers, I hope you also learn to add and subtract in your head. I hope you get teased by your friends when you have your first crush on a girl. And when you talk back to your mother that you learn what ivory soap tastes like.
I sure hope you make time to sit on a porch with your Grandpa and go fishing with your Uncle. May you feel sorrow at a funeral and joy during the holidays. I hope your mother punishes you when you throw a baseball through your neighbor’s window and that she hugs and kisses you at Christmas time when you give her a plaster mold of your hand.”
My friends, do not be afraid to stir up the nest and uncover the thorns. It is the only way you will have truly soar. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.