The ivory billed woodpecker has been extinct for at least 60 years. This woodpecker used to be very common in The Big Woods, a span of 24 million acres from Tennessee to Arkansas. When people saw it, they’d be so surprised by its beauty and its large size, they’d exclaim “Lord God!” and, so they say, that is how it got its name, “The Lord God Bird.” The Lord God Bird, the largest woodpecker in North America was gone, completely extinct, along with most of The Big Woods, by the 1940s. Hunting and clear cutting were the main causes. All that’s left is 500,000 acres in Arkansas, dusty stuffed woodpeckers in taxidermists’ back rooms, and some gritty, fuzzy recordings of the bird’s call from 1935. The Lord God bird was no more.
And then on a gloomy day in February, 2004, a guy by the name of Gene Sparling was cruising through what is left of the swampy Big Woods in his canoe. And then, he says, “A large woodpecker flew into the channel from above the canopy. He was headed straight towards me." At first, he assumed it was the pileated, a large woodpecker that has similar features to the ivory bill, but this one had much more white on its wings. After vaguely mentioning the sighting on the internet, two men, Tim Gallagher from Cornell and Bobby Harrison, a college professor from Alabama, rushed to Arkansas to find the bird. With help from Sparling, they too, found the bird. "And then this bird just burst across in front of us at close range," Gallagher says. "About 65 feet away. And right in the sunlight. … And it was just, I mean, I dropped my paddle and almost fell out of the canoe. I mean it was like getting slapped in the face."
They knew exactly what they were seeing when they saw it - The Lord God Bird.
Could this bird have come back from extinction? Back from the dead?
These three men were convinced this was so.
The original audiences in our Epistle and our Gospel readings today were expecting Jesus to come back any minute. And they were waiting. And waiting. Generations have passed. They’ve buried those who knew Jesus personally. They are riding on dim memories twice removed and repeated stories told around the campfire. Luke was written something like 50 years after the death of Jesus. The temple has been destroyed. They are being persecuted. Things are falling apart, and they’re still waiting.
The dating of Hebrews is a bit contested, somewhere between 60 and 90 AD, but whatever the case, they, too, are anxiously awaiting Jesus’ return. They, too, are being mocked and ridiculed for worshipping a Jewish peasant who was crucified by the Romans for sedition. For both communities, things are getting uncomfortable. They’d suffered prison, the plundering of their possessions, and much hostility from their surrounding culture because they followed this humiliated, crucified Jesus. They are actively being forced out of what was once their native habitat. And Jesus is supposed to be coming back any minute now. ... Any minute now...
Jesus could come right now...then I wouldn't have to finish this sermon...
So both writers are trying to encourage their communities to hang on a little bit longer. A little bit of faith is all they need, a kind of trusting, waiting, a readiness for the unexpected. “Be sure of what you hope for,” they say, even when you are being ridiculed and feeling lost and disillusioned by the world around you. “Don’t be afraid,” they say, “for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Be ready, “be dressed for action and have your lamps lit” and the master will come home and you’ll be blessed. Hang on a little bit longer, and you’ll be home, God’s kingdom will come, you’ll be back in your natural habitat. You’ll see what you thought was forever gone.
Easier said than done.
These passages have, so often, been used to ridicule those of us who supposedly lack faith. If you just had a little bit of faith, they’d say, you’d realize that losing your job or your house or your relationship was a good thing, something God wants, what’s best for you. You’d realize this if you only had a little bit of faith. You know, the mustard seed and the birds of the air and the lilies of the field and all that. If you only trusted. If you only got rid of your doubt.
‘Cause see, the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour to snatch up all the good ones, the faithful ones, and you’re gonna be left behind. So we buy bumper stickers that say things like, “at the event of rapture, this vehicle will be unmanned,” “Know Jesus, No Fear, No Jesus, Know Fear” and “Jesus is coming, look busy!” We put our faith into trite sayings and quippy slogans to prove to ourselves that we’ve got “enough” of this thing called faith.
But then I think about these men who encountered the “extinct” Lord God bird.
They don’t have any pithy proclamations or bumper sticker slogans about what they hope to find or about their bird or about what it’s going to take to find it. When the bird was first rediscovered, the man wasn’t even looking for it, it just came to him. And when they did see it, they don’t even share the news. They entered the wilderness. They kept quiet. They watched and waited. They hoped that they’d see something. And when they didn’t, they came back out the next morning and tried again.
Meanwhile, maybe they enjoyed the way the oars felt as they sliced into the swampy water. Maybe they noticed the way the bark on the last of the first growth forest trees are patterned just so. Maybe they watched how the sun reflects and the way the shadows arc and the how rings expand when a dragonfly lands on the surface of the water. Maybe they were encouraged enough by these things to come back again tomorrow.
Gene saw the bird. He wasn’t even looking for it. It was extinct, after all. And with no proof or witness testimony from an expert, with no iPhone recording of the event, Tim and Bobby drop everything, come from miles away, to try to find it, too. They enter the wilderness - what is described as “one of the most exotic and most inhospitable environments in America, a vast primordial ooze, a place so wild, that the Big Woods have been called this country’s Amazon.” And they catch a glimpse, a tiny glimpse.
And with the report of these two sightings, people began donating millions of dollars to search for this bird without any significant, scientific proof that it existed. All they had was the testimony of a few dirty outdoorsmen armed, not with surveillance cameras and infrared scanners and night vision goggles, but with some trail mix, some beef jerky, a canoe and a couple pairs of binoculars. And with that they formed teams that have spent over 15,000 man hours looking for this bird. A photographer spent 241 days in this wildest of wildernesses before he saw the bird, and still didn’t get a good shot. Finally, after all this work, they got a four second, blurry video of the bird in flight.
And there are still skeptics out there who don’t believe them. People who will never believe them unless they see the bird with their own eyes. And maybe they will. Maybe they’ll go out into the wilderness themselves and wait and float along for days and finally, finally see it. Or maybe they’ll get out there and spend 241 straight days in the wilderness and experience nothing but sore canoe butt and arms and legs full of mosquito bites. Or maybe they’ll stay put in their air conditioned offices, completely content to deny the bird’s existence.
The question is, what do we do with this four second blurry video of the bird in flight?
What do we do with these two-thousand-year-old testimonies, often blurry, often perplexing, of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection? What do we do with the hope that Jesus will come back again, and yet the distinct, pestering realization that Jesus is really hard to see around these parts, that maybe Jesus really is extinct, that those who claim to see him are all hallucinating and delusional? We have the hope of all that we wish is true, and the stark, depressing reality of the world around us. How do we carry both of these things together?
What do we do with a four second, blurry video of a bird that is supposed to be extinct?
Jesus tells us to not be afraid. To light lamps. To put your treasure in the things that will lead to the kingdom. To be dressed for action. Be ready to open the door as soon as God comes and knocks. Go out into the wilderness, put your oar in, pull out your binoculars, listen and look hard. Maybe we’ll catch a glimpse of the resurrected Christ.
And yet. There are people like John Fitzpatrick, who is a leading authority and expert on North American birds. He has spent his life studying birds. He has worked countless hours to help protect the landscape and to learn more about the ivory billed woodpecker. He has written politicians and raised funds and studied the evidence and searched and searched himself for this elusive bird. And he’s never seen it. Never spotted a glimpse. And yet he still works for its protection. He believes that it exists. He fights to protect its habitat. And all he’s gotten in return is a four second blurry video.
Asked if he is upset that he has never seen the bird for himself, he says, "I don't really get frustrated at that. Right now I would love to see this bird. I can't lie at all. I'm so glad that other people have," says Fitzpatrick. "I mean, I've wept at stories of people describing it. It's an extremely emotional thing, this bird. I could happily go to my grave and not see it if we could find out what's going on and save it."
We could do everything Jesus calls us to and still never catch a glimpse. We could believe and believe and believe and never be fully sure. We could have been given a glimpse and never truly be certain about what we have seen. Never - at least - in our lifetimes.
But could we “happily go to our grave and not see it if we could find out what’s going on and save it?” Could we be content with the forever searching and seeking and waiting for Christ?
I can’t think of a better thing to wait for.
These men - and these early followers of Jesus - entered the wilderness. They were quiet. They watched and waited. They hoped. But they didn’t really know what they were looking for. They lit some lamps and got up early and some of them spent 241 days in the wilderness before they saw a glimpse. They came out bruised and and dirty and tired. Or they are still waiting to see a glimpse.
In the meantime, the scientists and birdwatchers are fighting to protect its natural habitat. They’re working for the preservation of these wild, exotic, dangerous lands where the Lord God bird finds its home. They’re telling their story again and again to anyone who will listen - partially to encourage others to believe in this strange, unlikely encounter, partly to convince themselves of what they’ve seen.
And the Early Christians were doing the same. They lived together. They shared what they owned. They struggled and suffered and were victims of their own harsh landscape. They shared meals and told the stories of their own encounters with God. They reminded themselves over and over again of the one whom they were seeking. They’d tell their story again and again to anyone who would listen - partially to encourage others to believe in this strange, unlikely encounter, partly to convince themselves of what they’ve seen.
They’d remind themselves that Jesus told them to be ready like servants waiting for their master to come home from a wedding banquet. They’d remind themselves of the stories of their fathers and grandfathers: Jesus told them that the master would serve the servants. That Jesus would be back, and just as they served each other, Jesus would serve them. They’d remind themselves that Jesus himself didn’t even know when he’d be back, or how it’d happen.
And here we are. Longing to see a glimpse of this Lord God. Aching to find some meaning in this boggy wilderness of violence and materialism and judgment. Here we are trying to believe, amid all our doubts and fears and amidst all the evidence to the contrary, that Jesus is real and God is True, and that Christ is resurrected and will come back again.
So, we try to protect God’s landscape - those places in the world where God’s will is truly being done, those times in life when we get a speck of meaning and understand just a tiny bit - who we are and who we were created to be. We are forever searching and seeking and waiting for Christ.
We tell the story - the Good News of Christ among us as well as the Christ who came before us, who has been since “before” the beginning of time. We see that we are part of that story. We sit quietly and listen to where we are being called to extend the story. We ask others to enter in to the story. We celebrate what we find, even if it is just a blurry four second video of a life, death, and resurrection of an unlikely God in our very midst.
Is there anything better in this life to wait for?
Thanks be to God.