Birds in the Pulpit
When the preacher steps into a pulpit, he may carry a few things with him. A Bible. A sermon manuscript. A bottle of water. Perhaps a little something that’ll serve as an object lesson as he preaches. But whatever he brings, I hope every Sunday he includes two birds. For without these two birds, his pulpit, no matter how full it may be of other things, will be but an empty vessel. More on that in a moment. Let’s first talk about a story from long ago.
Near the close of his one-year-and-ten-days voyage on the ark, Noah sent out two birds: one a raven, the other a dove. And these two birds, in their own way, became emissaries that conveyed two different messages to Noah.
The raven “flew here and there until the water was dried up from the earth,” (Gen 8:7). This bird did not return to the ark. It came back with no good news. It winged its way here and there around the surface of the earth, but it remained outside the ark. It was not a herald of peace, completion, and comfort. All it did was fly and noise abroad its caw.
The dove was sent out three times. The first time she “found no resting place for the sole of her foot, so she returned to the ark,” (9:9). The second time that Noah released her, she returned to the ark at “evening; and behold in her beak was a freshly picked olive leaf. So Noah knew that the water was abated from the earth,” (9:12). And the third time she did not return to him. The message was clear: the flood was over, the wrath was abated.
I have always found it intriguing that “pulpit” can also mean a raised platform on a ship. Here the vision is clearest. In this pulpit, as on the ark, Noah-like preachers stand to speak to those of us who await words from God. And flying from the mouths of these preachers are raven-words and dove-words.
He sends out the raven of the law. This bird is of God yet it cannot bring us to God. As Luther remarks, “It is characteristic of the Law that its teaching cannot make fearful consciences sure, strengthen and comfort them. Rather it frightens them, because it does nothing else than teach what God demands from us, what He wants us to do. Moreover, it bears witness against us through our consciences, because not only have we not done the will of God revealed in the Law, but we have even done the opposite,” (Genesis Commentary, AE 2:158). The law always flies about cawing its accusations against us for it always finds something within us to accuse. It announces no peace, no harmony, no forgiveness, no abatement of wrath. It is from God. God wants the raven to fly, to caw, to accuse. It is a dark bird with a dark message for sinners. One we must hear that we may realize how hopeless is our situation if left to ourselves.
But the preacher does not merely send out the raven; from the pulpit flies forth the dove of the Gospel. This bird is of God and brings us back to God. In her mouth is the olive leaf, a token of peace with God in Jesus Christ. Again, Luther says, “God wanted the branch of a green olive tree brought to Noah by mouth, to make us realize that in the New Testament, when the Flood or era of wrath comes to an end, God wants to reveal His mercy to the world through the spoken Word,” (AE 2:162-163). This word that is spoken is from the Holy Spirit, who himself appeared in the form of a dove at the baptism of Jesus. He announces that the flood is over, the whole world has been reconciled to God, his anger has been forever put away in Christ. The Gospel dove never caws an accusation but always coos an absolution.
When the preacher stands within the ark of the sanctuary, in the pulpit, he is as Noah, who himself was a “preacher of righteousness,” (2 Peter 2:5).. He sends forth two birds with two distinct messages. Both from God, but one declaring us sinners and the other declaring us righteous. They wing their way through our ears into our hearts and souls. And by them God reveals who we are if left to ourselves and who we are in Jesus Christ.
With these two birds, the preacher is never in an empty pulpit, but one filled with words from God, whose flights preach us into the kingdom.
What we need in our fragmented world, full of hurting people, is the love of Jesus Christ, who welcomes home sinners with a grace that knows no bounds. My book Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, is packed with reflections that go that extra mile of grace. Again and again, they present the Christ who is crucified and risen for you. Please take a moment to check it out here. You may also be interested in my collections of hymns and poetry entitled, The Infant Priest, which you can purchase here. Both books are also available on Amazon, as is my booklet Why Lutherans Sing What They Sing (also on Kindle). Thank you for your prayers and support!