On the Banks of the Wissahickon

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken May 18, 1997

Sadly, at the end of this month it will be time to close our Window on the World for the summer. Before we do, I want to remind you why we opened it in the first place. Week after week we take something that is happening in the world and examine it from the vantage point of Christianity. By doing so we are learning to think biblically about God’s world. This is what the Bible means when it tells us to take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). We are to take every idea in every area of human endeavor and bring it under the lordship of Jesus Christ.

Tonight I want to think biblically about ornithology, the study of birds. The great theologian of the Reformation, John Calvin, advises us “not to pass over, with ungrateful inattention or oblivion, those glorious perfections which God manifests in his creatures.”

Yesterday I paid attention to the glorious perfections which God has manifested in birds. I left my apartment at 5:00 am to go on a bird walk with a friend along the banks of the Wissahickon Creek. The Wissahickon Valley is one of Philadelphia’s treasures. It helps satisfy our desperate longing for a garden in the city. Edgar Allen Poe considered the Wissahickon to be “of so remarkable a loveliness that, were it flowing in England, it would be the theme of every bard” [“Morning on the Wissahiccon”].

Birds find the Wissahickon as lovely as Poe did, especially in the spring. As soon as we set foot on the path we heard the chirps and chatters, the trills and twitters of dozens of different birds. Fortunately, my friend knows nearly all their songs, so we were able to identify and locate most of them. There were gnatcatchers buzzing high in the trees, warblers flitting about the bushes and water thrushes singing by the river.

In three hours we identified 43 different species: chickadees, ducks, finches, flycatchers, orioles, tanagers, thrushes, warblers and woodpeckers. Each bird was a testimony to the power and beauty of Creator God. Some birds praise God in joyful numbers, like all the robins we saw. Some birds praise God with their song, like the Swainson’s thrush, whose pitch rises with every note. Some birds praise God with their strength, like the broad-winged hawk we saw sailing over the meadow.

Still other birds praise God with their beauty. A week ago, on the City Light Retreat, we drove up the Delaware Water Gap. As we turned off the road a small flock of brilliant yellow warblers scattered all around us. Closer inspection revealed that they were prothonatary warblers near the end of their spring migration. While we were still admiring them, we saw a patch of brilliant red across the highway and spied a scarlet tanager.

It does not surprise me that God takes care of warblers and tanagers. Their colors are so beautiful anyone would care for them. The wonderful thing about God is that he even takes care of sparrows. We see sparrows all over the place, even in center city. They are a dime a dozen, or even cheaper. In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father” (Matt. 10:29). In the Gospel of Luke the arithmetic is a little different. There Jesus says, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God” (Luke 12:6).

Some have viewed these two verses as a contradiction. According to Matthew, a sparrow is worth half a penny; according to Luke, two-fifths of a penny. So which is it? I suppose the difficulty could be solved by appealing to fluctuations in the Israeli sparrow market. But there is a better explanation. Jesus knew the going rate for a pair of sparrows was a penny. But he also knew that if you bought two pair, the seller would throw in an extra bird for free.

Sparrows had so little value that sometimes they counted for nothing at all. But they still counted to God, and if they count, you count. No matter how you add it up, Jesus’ point is still the same: “You are worth more than many sparrows” (Matt. 10:31). However much God cares for birds, he cares for his own children all the more. So much so that he sent his own Son to die for our sins.

I was reminded of God’s loving care early one morning when some men from the church met in this sanctuary for prayer. We began our prayer time by reading a portion of Song of Songs 2:

My lover spoke and said to me,

“Arise, my darling,

my beautiful one, and come with me

See! The winter is past;

the rains are over and gone.

Flowers appear on the earth;

the season of singing has come,

the cooing of doves

is heard in our land” (Songs 2:10-12).

As we prayed, I gradually became aware of a mournful cry coming from the eaves of the church. It was the unmistakeable cooing of a mourning dove. Since the cooing of doves is just what the Song of Songs promises, I took it as a special sign of God’s favor. God is like the lover who comes and tells us that the winter of sin is past, that flowers will appear on the earth and that the cooing of doves will be heard throughout the land. The cooing of the mourning dove in the sanctuary reminded me that all God’s promises are true, down to the very last bird. If God is so good to us then we should praise him as loudly and as joyfully as the birds do.

© 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church.

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For Internet posting, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Tenth Presbyterian Church.

Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org