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Farewell sermon, “On Eagles’ Wings”

Pastor Gary Wong, May 23, 2021

Isaiah 40:27-31

Why do you speak, O Jacob?O Israel, why do you say,“My way is hidden from the Lord, and justice for me is ignored by my God”? 28 Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the eternal God.He is the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired, and he will not become weary. No one can find a limit to his understanding. 29 He is the one who gives strength to the weak, and he increases the strength of those who lack power.30 Young men grow tired and become weary. Even strong men stumble and fall.31 But those who wait for the Lord will receive new strength.They will lift up their wings and soar like eagles. They will run and not become weary. They will walk and not become tired.


This was the day. This was the time. All of his hard work and training had come down to this moment. He was excited and nervous—but who wouldn’t be? After all, very few people have the opportunity to live out their dreams, as he was about to do. With laser like focus, he carefully took up his position at the starting line. Moments later, speed skater Dan Jansen skated the race of his life, winning the gold medal.

Dan Jansen’s victory in the 1994 Winter Olympics is one of the most heartwarming stories in all of sports. Not only had Dan won the race, he had triumphed over all of the obstacles and setbacks that could have derailed him from his journey to the winner’s stand. You see, Dan had been favored to win the gold medal in the previous Olympics. Instead, he had gone home to Wisconsin empty handed, except for the nightmarish memories of all the things that had gone wrong. Time after time, Dan would be sailing along and then—bam! He’d be down. With each succeeding fall, Dan was left more bewildered and discouraged. And just when he thought that things couldn’t get any worse, they did. Moments before his last race, he had spoken with his sister, who was losing her battle with cancer. His sister died. Dan lost.

I don’t know exactly how Dan Jansen felt after his first Olympics, but I can guess. Dan probably felt frustrated and maybe even angry. He might have thought, “Why me, God? What did I do to deserve this? I’ve worked and sacrificed my whole life, and for what? I could have slept till noon and eaten donuts and ice cream all day for all the good my training did me!” That kind of complaining and grumbling is nothing new. In our text, the children of Israel directed similar complaints against God. They said, “My way is hidden from the LORD, and justice for me is ignored by my God’” (Isa. 40:27). In other words, the Israelites felt that God didn’t care about them and consequently wasn’t doing anything to help them. That made the Israelites angry! In so many words, the Israelites were telling the Lord, “God—you were the one who chose us. You made us a mighty nation and gave us the Promised Land of Canaan. Every time we’ve been in trouble, you’ve bailed us out. For instance, you divided the waters of the Red Sea so that we could cross on dry ground and then you used the same water to drown the Egyptian army that would have wiped us out if not for your intervention. Now we’re being threatened by the Babylonians. We’ve called on you for help; but you haven’t answered our prayers. How could you abandon us, your own children, in our hour of need?”

The children of Israel got it all wrong. God had not abandoned them; they had abandoned God. They blamed God for all of their problems where they should have blamed themselves. All of their problems were the result of their unfaithfulness to God and his Word. The Israelites had not been acting like children of God; they had been acting like spoiled brats! They were arrogant, self-centered, and ungrateful. When things were going their way, they took all the credit; but when things weren’t going exactly the way they wanted, they wagged their fingers at God and said, “It’s all your fault!” People’s attitudes haven’t changed much since Isaiah’s day, have they? We live in a country that God has blessed in countless ways. The standard of living we Americans enjoy is the envy of the world. Our country was built by the hard work of the generations who had come before us who demonstrated a “Can do, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” kind of spirit. That spirit, however, can lead us away from the source of all our blessings. In our sinful pride, we might boast, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me” (Dt. 8:17). On the other hand, when things are not going well, we have the audacity to demand that God fix the problems that we have created!

Isaiah directs the spotlight away from us and focuses it on God. Can God help us? Absolutely! Isaiah declares, “Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the eternal God. He is the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired, and he will not become weary. No one can find a limit to his understanding” (Isa. 40:28). God, who created the universe and everything in it, certainly has more than enough power to help us. In his infinite wisdom, God can devise the perfect solution for our most difficult problems. God is not like us frail human beings. He doesn’t get tired or grow weary. When God sets his mind on doing something, he gets it done perfectly. God always accomplishes his will. So, it’s not so much a question of “Can God help us? “but rather, “Will he help us?” An equally important question is, why should he help us? If we only look at God’s law, the answers are not encouraging. In fact, they are devastating. Because we are sinners, we deserve nothing from God except his wrath and punishment. Isaiah closes his book of prophecy with this warning that those who reject God will suffer in hell where “their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched” (Isa. 66:24).

Please understand. Because we are sinners, there is no reason that God should help us. To the contrary, he has every right to walk away and let us suffer the consequences of our sin. Isaiah, however, also points out that our holy God is also a God of love and grace. Even though we don’t deserve it, he showers us with his love. According to Isaiah, our merciful God “gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak” (Isa. 40:29). Now, in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul points out that we were once “dead in our sins and transgressions” (Eph. 2:1). We had no strength to fight the devil or the temptations of this sinful world. We were absolutely powerless to save ourselves from eternal death. Knowing that, God demonstrated his love by sending his Son to be our Savior. Jesus willingly carried the burden of our guilt on himself. He was lifted up on a cross where he shed his holy, precious blood to pay for our sins. Because of his perfect sacrifice, God raised Jesus from the dead and has exalted him to the highest heaven. Through the water of baptism and the power of his Word, God has given us new life in Christ. The gospel gives us the motivation and the power to live as children of God—to strive to do his will and to praise him for his mighty acts.

Even though the new man in us lives for Christ, we still have an old Adam who doesn’t want to have anything to do with God. Consequently, our journey on earth isn’t an easy one. The path that eventually will lead us to heaven is filled with potholes, roadblocks, and detours. As we make our way down that narrow road, it’s inevitable that we will stumble and fall. Isaiah points out, “Young men grow tired and become weary. Even strong men stumble and fall” (Isa. 40:30). Understand that no one gets through this life without falling down—not you, not me; not even a world class athlete like Dan Jansen. God uses those times when we fall to teach us a lesson. Sometimes God slams on the brakes so he can turn us around and point us back in the right direction. Sometimes he knocks us down from our high horses so that we’ll look up to him for help. God uses the problems we have to remind us that we aren’t perfect, and that we cannot rely on our own strength and smarts—we need God. When God knocks us down, he also gives us the strength to get back up because he wants us to cross the finish line and receive the victor’s crown of life.

When I began my ministry twenty years ago, I was a not so young forty-seven-year-old Seminary graduate with a wife and four young boys. In terms of ministry experience, I was a mere youth. I had been more familiar with a dental drill than the drill of God’s law. I was more comfortable filling a tooth with silver than filling a hurting soul with the gospel. Yet, I was filled with the love of Christ and eager to share the gospel with my members and the community. The training I received at MLC and the Seminary stood me in good stead, and the encouragement I’ve received from fellow workers and from you has been invaluable. Whenever I stumbled, God picked me up with his gospel. He has used you to lift up my spirits. You have been incredibly loving and encouraging; for that I will be forever grateful.

I can hardly believe it, but today, I preach my last sermon in the full-time public ministry. A huge chapter of my life is closing; and only God knows what is in store for me and my family in the next chapter. One thing I do know is that I thank God and I thank you for the privilege and joy of serving as your pastor. As I leave, I pray that you will remember and take to heart these words of encouragement from Isaiah: “Those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (Isa. 40:31). Isaiah paints a beautiful picture of a mother eagle with her young. When an eaglet is born, it is helpless, unable to do anything. His mother patiently nurtures, teaches, and trains him. The problem is he doesn’t want to leave the nest—it’s too comfortable! So, his mom makes it uncomfortable. She ruffles his feathers and pushes him out. Under her watchful eye, he tests his wings. She was always nearby in case of trouble. If he faltered, she was ready to swoop down and catch him in her strong wings and bring him back to safety. With more experience and training, he was ready to leave the nest and soar. Our heavenly Father is like that mother eagle. He nurtures our faith with his Word and sacraments and tirelessly watches over us. When we stumble, he is ready to lift us up. Through the gospel, he renews our strength day by day until the day when he will bring us to our heavenly home.

Dearly beloved brothers and sisters in Christ—this is the day. This is the time. Although I am leaving the nest at Courtland / Zion, you will always have a place in my heart. I look forward to the day when we will soar together in heaven. Amen.


“On Eagles’ Wings” (CW 440)


You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord,

Who abide in his shadow for life,

Say to the Lord: “My refuge,

My rock in whom I trust!”


Refrain

And he will raise you up on eagles’ wings,

Bear you on the breath of dawn,

Make you to shine like the sun,

And hold you in the palm of his hand.


Snares of the fowler will never capture you,

And famine will bring you no fear;

Under his wings your refuge,

His faithfulness your shield.


Refrain

And he will raise you up on eagles’ wings,

Bear you on the breath of dawn,

Make you to shine like the sun,

And hold you in the palm of his hand.


For to his angels he’s given a command

To guard you in all of your ways;

Upon their hands they will bear you up,

Lest you dash your foot against a stone.


Refrain

And he will raise you up on eagles’ wings,

Bear you on the breath of dawn,

Make you to shine like the sun,

And hold you in the palm of his hand.


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