“Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them” (Matt 6:26).
Although Jesus was obviously not an ornithologist in the narrow sense, he often invoked birds in his teaching and enjoined his disciples to learn well from their own observations of them, saying, “Look at the birds...”
Granting the great snowstorm that has blanketed our area of late, we’ve been given some time to consider the birds fluttering around and through the yard, seeking a meager sustenance. We’ve been interested in birding for around 12 years, but I don’t think Jesus is talking about chasing all over a region for a sneak-peak at some rare warbler or any such thing. Rather, he’s commanding us to take our otherwise mundane perceptions of the avian world around us and bring those perceptions “captive” (2 Cor 10:5) to God speaking and revealing himself in Christ and the Scriptures. With such a reference point, we cannot only learn about the birds, but much more importantly also about God, the world and ourselves—and God’s mission to redeem all of it in Christ.
Here, then, are a few observations that came to me today as I “looked at the birds” in our snow-covered yard.
1) Especially in the early morning, viewing the birds against a snowy backdrop is best done looking through the steam of a hot cup of coffee.
2) In the above text, we’re immediately struck with the absolute Kingship of God’s reign over all of creation, even to the least of details. In conjunction with Matt 10:31, which reads, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father,” Jesus is teaching us that God, our Father, sovereignly and providentially governs all things.
Our environment, the world around us, is not stumbling through time and space blindly, under the direction of mere impersonal natural forces. No. This is a personal universe; this is our Father’s world. Even the death of sparrows is part of his glorious eternal, redemptive plan and purpose for his creation. And any science, ornithological or otherwise, that fails to bring every minutia of the natural world in reference with the revealed plan of God is not science at all.
Is there an obvious regularity in the world around us? One that is available to all regardless of their relationship to God? Of course, by common grace and their irreducible capacity as God’s image bearers, all men not only get to enjoy our Father’s world, study it, draw helpful and true inferences from and about it, but even in their rebellion and hatred toward him, he responds by superintending things so that it operates for their good and health (Matt 5:45f; Acts 14:17). Nevertheless, the very regularity unbelievers recognize in nature, by which they go on to use to argue God’s existence away, is there only by means of the God they hate. As Van Til would say, “They must sit on God’s lap in order to reach to slap his face...Antitheism presupposes theism”
3) Jesus’ point in the above verse is primarily meant to eradicate worry (not work!) in us, his often anxious disciples. He argues a fortiori with the following rhetorical question: “Are you not of more value than they?” (Matt 6:26). “Of course!” is the assumed answer. If this God, who Jesus declares is a Father to those whom he has adopted by grace, is Who and What Jesus says he is—and he is—then it is truly as irrational as it is faithless to spend time frivolously worrying about even our most basic necessities.
Tertullian echoes this conclusion in To His Wife, IV: “Far be all this from believers, who have no care about maintenance [of mundane life], unless it be that we distrust the promises of God, and his care and providence...who, without any labor on their part, feeds the fowls of the heavens.” Origen infers likewise from our text, saying, “And the words of the Gospel...teaching us not to be disturbed with anxieties about our food and clothing, but, while living in plainness, and desiring only what is needful, to put our trust in the providence of God” (Against Celsus, XXIV).
“Do not be anxious” is nearly synonymous with the most frequent command on Jesus lips: “Do not fear!” Of course, our salvation entails all manner of future glories, however, how often do we consider our blood-bought freedom from the bondage of anxiety and fear in this age? “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore” (Gal 5:1). We are set free from seeking, even desiring, those things which bring the whole world into bondage through their insatiable search of fleeting pleasures. Nevertheless, this freedom results in another search and an all-consuming priority. “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (6:33). It is not, therefore, that we must blindly abandon all concern for the simple, most basic things of life, but come to realize that we, as elect children of our Father, will find them satisfyingly as we press into the Kingdom prepared for us by our Father.
4) Again, we must remember that it is worry we’re saved from, not work. “Therefore,” Jesus concludes, “do not be anxious” (6:31). John Piper, remarking on this verse, says, “[T]he all-providing fatherly care of God is one of Jesus’ sweetest and most persuasive teachings” (What Jesus Demands From The World, 95). Elsewhere, he reminds us that, “What we see when we look at the birds is not a lesson in laziness. They dig their worms and snatch their bugs and pad their nests with stings and leaves. But Jesus says it is God who feeds them. Birds don’t anxiously hoard things as though God will not do the same tomorrow. They go about their work—and we should go about our work—as though, when the sun comes up tomorrow, God will still be God” (Ibid. 116). [Birder’s Note: Piper’s generalization about birds not “hoarding things” is true, as far as the generalization goes. However, this hoarding behavior is a distinguishing characteristic of the Acorn Woodpecker, which bores small holes in select trees, holes that are exactly designed to receive acorns. These acorns then provide the bird sustenance through the lean winter months.]
5) One night last week, Fanny left the office of her place of work with some co-workers to find three little, emaciated Carolina Wrens lying together, dead on the snow. Carolina Wrens are not exactly gregarious, but they do oft-times feed in small, loose groups. In this context, especially with the extreme weather, disease can spread rather easily. In spite of the snow, our temperatures have not been uncommonly low. So, the best-case answer would appear to be that the little dickybirds died from starvation.
This brings me to another point. We are made in the image of God, and thus are to imitate his omni-benevolent character. “Be ye imitators of God,” so Paul commands us (Gen 1 – 2; Eph 5:1). It follows therefore that in feeding the birds, especially in the winter, we are imitating our heavenly Father “who feeds them.” In even this, we find ourselves, in God’s providential government, a means to his sovereign end—to care for the seemingly insignificant details of his creation.
What is it about our Father that we reflect when we feed the birds? We reflect God’s omnipotence, though in a creaturely sense, when we provide the life-giving sustenance to the needy birds of winter. We are doing for them what they find impossible for themselves. Likewise, for the salvation of his people, God provides the Bread of Life, that thereby they might flourish when they find and feed on the life-giving sustenance of Christ the Lord.
6) Furthermore, we are doing for the birds something for which they are powerless to return. The idea of keeping an account or exacting usury from our subjects, the birds, is an unnatural thought at best. But what is perfectly natural is to enjoy the beauty of the plumes, and the chorus of thanks that the birds provide us, once they have been satisfied with that which we offer up for their good. Just so, we are impotent to match or return the inestimable gift of the Savior slain on our behalf and the power of his resurrection. As natural as the bird-song, though, do we then, having partook of the fullness of God in Christ, plume ourselves in the righteousness of Christ, putting on the new man, and shine like stars in the kingdom of our Father; we adorn the courtyard of our God in all the earth. We sing a new song unto our God; we offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving, rejoicing in his truth in the inward parts of our being. We become all-satisfied singers, having once been feed with the all-satisfying Savior.
What, then, do we learn about ourselves in this? We learn, having tasted and seen that the Lord is good, to utterly rely on the promises of God in the gospel; that he will never fail us. Birds use bodies of water as markers in their migratory journeys. But we have also experienced identifiable individual birds return to our feeders year after year, knowing that they will find plenty to meet their needs for the pilgrimage that still lies ahead of them. The typical notion that God provides us with eternal salvation in Jesus and then from there we go on to figure out how to live up to that is not gospel; that’s not grace. The gospel is eternal salvation, which begins the moment God turns our heart to Christ, and then every succeeding moment after that, God the Holy Spirit applies Jesus’ finished work to our lives. This is power for the pilgrimage; this is whole-gospel life: living every day on the blood-bought mercies of God in Christ and his ever-presence by through the Spirit.
7) Finally, imitating God by feeding the birds has a deeper lesson: Imitating God’s general love for all humanity; not only for those, like the birds, who cannot repay (Lk 6:33), but also for those who will not love but will hate in return (Matt 5:46; 5:11). If we are to keep the command of the Master, “You therefore be perfect, and your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48), then we must extend the love of God to both the “evil and good...the just and the unjust” (5:45). Like the birds, for the “evil...and unjust” there is not within them the power to return the love we must show them. To image God’s love one must first be impressed with God’s love. To the unregenerate, God’s love is repugnant, so impossible for them to reflect. Nevertheless, as sure as the Father sends the sun and rain upon the earth for the benefit of his enemies, we too must cast the seeds of his love on all, indiscriminately and without partiality. Of how much more value are men than birds?
I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.
St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4
St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4