The Peculiar Bird

Exodus 19 describes the arrival of the people of God at the foot of Mount Sinai. This is a respite, of sorts, for what is a long and arduous journey. It is a journey out of the house slavery which was their reality in Egypt, during the whips and beatings of their oppressors, and now delivered by God through the plagues that broke Pharaoh’s will and sent them fleeing through the Red Sea. As they arrive at the now iconic Sinai, they reach the place where God will give His Word, His 10 commandments, a thing which will set apart His people from all others. Upon arriving at Sinai, God says to Moses, “Tell the people of Israel: You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself.” What a powerful image, deliverance by God pictured as being rescued on the wings of an eagle. I wonder if Tolkien had this text in mind when the eagles show up to deliver the hobbits out of sure death in his famous writings.

This image of God as a type of heavenly bird, a deliverer which can swoop in and snatch life from the jaws of death, is a powerful illustration, to be sure. To be born on eagles’ wings is to be provided something beyond what you yourself are capable of. Indeed, that is what God has done for His people. Not only did they escape the host of Pharaoh by walking through the Red Sea on dry ground, but as they journeyed along God continued to care for them. When the water was bitter and unsuitable for drinking, God sweetened it and quenched their thirst. When they were hungry and worried about starvation, God provided manna which was gathered fresh every morning. When the Amalekites attacked, God provided salvation for His chosen ones. This is what it is to be carried on the eagle wings of God, to be delivered over and over again.

Therefore, God’s people are called to look back, to remember what He did, recall where they have come from and how God was at work bringing them to this place, to Mount Sinai. So, the faith of the people of God was rooted in what had happened. By looking backward, they had the confidence to go forward. For if God had done all that, if God had carried them on the wings of an eagle, then surely, He would not abandon them now. Certainly, He will continue to do what He has said He would do, not only today, but tomorrow and the day after and the day after that. This is precisely what happens. The events of the great exodus of God’s people, His care and provision through the wilderness wanderings, all of it becomes the sure ground for their confession. People today are always quick to leave the past behind to move on to the promise of tomorrow, but our faith is rooted in history, in the mighty acts of God, especially in these great works of deliverance.

But this image of God as a bird, or at least using the wings of eagles as an image of His deliverance, reminds me of another time the image of a bird is used. It is found in Matthew’s Gospel as our Lord is lamenting over Jerusalem and its rejection of who He is and what He has come to do. There Jesus says, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Here the bird image is not about a swift deliverance, about escaping the perils of the journey. No, it is the image of a hen sheltering her chicks under her wings. It is the image of protection or shelter as the storm begins to bear down upon them.

What I love about this image is how it is filled with so much emotion. Jesus is in the midst of speaking His oracles against the Pharisees, against those who stand firmly in opposition to Him. There is a longing and desire to gather them to Himself, to protect them, take care of them, and provide them with shelter. But they are unwilling. They only seek to put Him to death, to hold on to their own glory, their pride, and position. Yet, it is only in Christ that there is shelter, only in His actions is there lasting hope and assurance. So, you are left with this heartbreaking scene of compassion and love on one side and rejection on the other. There is a great song by Johnny Cash, called When the Man comes Around, about the return of Christ. Mr. Cash has a great line which goes, “’Til Armageddon, no salaam, no shalom. Then the father hen will call his chickens home.” He will rescue His children.

But there is one more image of a bird that I think is worthy of our attention. It is not found in the pages of scripture, and it is a bit peculiar to be honest. It has shown up in Christian imagery for centuries. In fact, at the seminary in Saint Louis where I went to school, the recently installed, all new stained-glass windows in the chapel. On one of them, beneath a dramatic image of the crucifixion of our Lord, you will find the strange image of a pelican which is vulning itself. That is, the pelican is piercing its own breast to feed its hungry children with its own blood. While pelicans do not actually do this out in the wild, there is a tradition that speaks of this peculiar bird doing this very thing. It was thought that at times when food was scarce and life depended on some sort of nourishment, the bird would open its own breast to feed its young. And the Christian Church, especially during the Middle Ages, took ahold of this image as yet another powerful depiction of our God. Here it is not a bird of swift deliverance and rescue, and neither is it a bird of protection and shelter. No, this is a bird which feeds and provides life for its young.

If you think about it, this is a perfect image of Christ’s own sacrifice for you. He provides for your salvation by His death. As we confess in the Catechism, He “purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the Devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.” The pelican is an image of self-sacrifice. In fact, Dante, in the Divine Comedy, refers to Jesus as ‘nostro pelicano’ or ‘our Pelican.’ He is the One who submits to the Law. He endures the wrath you have earned in order that you might be spared, so you can live. All this, of course, flows to our gathering around the Lord’s Table each Sunday. “Take, eat, this is My body… Take, drink, this is My blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” His blood given and shed for you to drink for forgiveness, for salvation, for life, and not just temporal life, but life eternal.

And our God continues to work. He continues to be the wings of eagles, the protection of the hen, and the sacrificial pelican. The same God who delivered the Israelites out of the house of slavery and brought them to the Promised Land, is the God who came to His own and longed to gather His people under the wings of Christ, even as they fought against Him. He is the God whose heart breaks as they rise up in anger and hatred, but He still goes forward, He still provides the sacrifice, He still gives of Himself for their salvation and for your salvation. This is the same God who gives, who invites you to His table and gives to you all He is. He gives you His righteousness, His perfection, and His sonship. He gives you His own lifeblood, so you might live.

That is why, as the people of God encounter this peculiar bird of salvation, God says, “If you will indeed hear My voice and guard My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” What can we say to that? You have a divine rescuer, a protector, and champion. All we can say is, “Amen, come Lord Jesus!”