Under His Wings

by Pastor Bill Hybels

God is a refuge for his children in times of danger and distress.

In certain parts of the ancient Middle East, where populations were spread out, societies weren't well organized, and judicial systems were few and far between, people kept the law and order by a rather aggressive form of tribal crime and punishment.

For example, if someone in your family lost his or her life at the hands of another person, your family would call a meeting. You'd discuss the situation, and then appoint someone who became known as "the blood avenger." This person would become the representative from your family whose job would be to track down and kill the person who killed your family member. Then a celebration would ensue. Justice had been done.

A problem arose in the middle of that culture, however. There was no provision for accidental homicides, for unintentional deaths.

In the Old Testament books of Deuteronomy and Numbers and Joshua, we see God step into this situation. He addresses the problem by establishing cities of refuge. Joshua 20:23 says, "to designate the cities of refuge as I instructed you through Moses, so that anyone who kills a person accidentally or unintentionally may flee there and find protection from the avenger of blood."

God established six cities. They were spread out for easy access. They all had paths going their way and signposts pointing to the city of refuge. If a person committed an unintentional homicide, he or she would take off running. If the offender go to the city of refuge before the blood avenger tracked them down, they were safe inside the gates. After a time, a fair trial would be held. If the person were innocent, he or she would be set free. If the person were guilty, the blood avenger would do his thing.

But look at what God provided in the middle of this situation. He provided a place to run to, a shelter, a hiding place till a fair trial could be had. And look what God named these cities-cities of refuge.

The idea for these hiding places, these shelters, flows out of the very heart of who God is. It is bound up in the nature and character of God to provide safety and refuge to people who are feeling oppressed or hunted down. It is in the heart of God to provide safety and refuge to people who are running fast but wearing down. It is in the heart of God to provide safety and refuge for people who are hearing footsteps and who desperately need a hiding place. Have you heard some unfriendly footsteps in your life recently? Are you under enormous stress right now? How many of you feel as if you're being tracked down, as if there are some unfriendly people or forces that you just can't seem to escape?

If I asked how many of you came here this morning thinking that about the greatest gift you could receive would be a temporary hiding place, a secure and safe place just for a time, I bet a lot of hands would go up.

You need to understand that our God is a refuge-providing God. He delights in that role. He only asks that you would avail yourself of the refuge that he provides.

Physical refuge relieves the frightened.

A month or so ago, there was a story in the news about an American soldier and his son who were on a skiing vacation in Italy. There was a blizzard. They lost their way and went down the wrong side of the mountain. They were lost for eleven days. People gave up hope that they would ever be found alive.

But by the end of the first day, the father and his son had found a little crevice, a couple of feet high, tucked way back in under the rock. If you asked that man and his son after they survived that ordeal for eleven days, what a physical refuge felt like, they'd say it felt like that cave.

There was shelter from harsh elements. There was a protected environment where they could regroup and recuperate and reorganize. There was safety and security in that place, from which they could eventually plan their best approach for getting rescued.

Sailors know what a physical refuge feels like. The open sea in a violent storm is as hostile an environment as exists on this planet. When a sailor steers his boat into a small, well-protected harbor, he has found shelter from the harsh elements, an opportunity to recuperate and reorganize a safe place from which to plan the next leg of the voyage. You can't stay in the harbor forever. You must continue your journey sooner or later. But every sailor knows the full weight of the words of the old hymn that talks about "a shelter in the time of storm."

Spiritual refuge relieves the burdened.

Psalm 46:1 says, "God is a refuge." He is a temporary shelter from the harsh forces or realities that are pressing in upon you and wearing you down. It feels like a protected environment, in which you can rest and recuperate temporarily, a secure place from which you can plan your next move.

One of the most beautiful pictures of this is Psalm 91:4: "He will shelter you under his wings." What a picture.

Have you ever seen little chicks hopping around chirping, pecking, doing chick stuff? All of a sudden, the chicks and the mother hen all become aware that there's a predator in the vicinity. The mother hen lifts both wings simultaneously, and within just a few seconds all the baby chicks disappear under them. They hide there. They're sheltered there. They regroup there. The chicks say to each other in the darkness, "My heart, my heart. Did you see the size of the teeth in that wolf?" But they're okay under the wings for a time. Eventually they have to crawl out to face the real world, but for a time there's nothing quite like being sheltered under wings.

This is very near the heart of God. It is bound up in the very character and essence of God to provide a kind of hiding place for his children under his wings. Just like God provided cities of refuge for those who were running from blood avengers, today God delights in spreading his protective wings and in folding his frightened, weary, beaten-down, worn-out children under those wings. He says, "Hide here for a time. Get out of the danger for a time. Regroup. Rest. Renew your strength."

Then when the time is right, when strength has been renewed, when souls have been restored, then he lifts his wings, and we venture back out into the world-a little calmer, a little stronger, a little more secure.

Some of you feel that when you come here. Some of you come here with anxious hearts. By some mystical provision that God provides, you walk out of here with a little less anxious, a little more peaceful, a little more centered. Some of you find that in your small group. Some of you find that during our worship times at the New Community. You come, and your heart is overwhelmed by the pressure in your life. But after a half-hour of opening your heart and worshipping God, there's a new perspective. It's that refuge that God so freely provides.

Hurting people need a refuge from their distress.

Who needs a refuge? If you have to ask, you probably haven't needed one yet.

Cities of refuge didn't mean much to the average person on Old Testament streets. But to the person who had a blood avenger hot on her heels, cities of refuge were the most important places on the planet.

She runs for her life, bursting through the gates of the city of refuge just ahead of her pursuer. She falls down on the street inside the city of refuge, and she says, "Yea, God, I would have been dead were it not for this safe place."

Some of us have said similar kinds of words when we have come into God's refuge. "Yea God, I couldn't have gone another day except you hide me under your wings."

Psalm 9:9 spells it out clearly. It says all who are oppressed may come to him, and he is a refuge for them in their time of trouble. Throughout the Psalms, there is an invitation by God himself to come under his wings.

Who needs a refuge? Oppressed people do. Troubled people do. Weary people do. Grieving people do. Worried people do. Disappointed and heart-broken people do. Lonely people do. Last week I had the opportunity to pray with scores of people after our New Community services. In some of those brief, private moments when just a few of us had our arms around each other, praying together you could almost feel the wings of God gather us under to form a refuge. It was as if God were saying to some very oppressed people:

"Let me shelter you for a time. Let me shelter you from those angry, cold-hearted spouses that some of you come from. Let me shelter you from devious business partners, from frightening medical reports, from overwhelming financial need, from parents who don't understand. Let me shelter you from children who are saying and doing hurtful things."

You could almost feel the wings of God gathering us under; you could almost hear the whisper of God saying, "Stay here for a time."

Some of you don't know what that's like, and you just keep running and running and running. There is a city of refuge nearby, and the gates will swing open to you, friends. We have a refuge provided in God. His irrational love for us makes it a joy for him to hide us for a time.

We must seek the refuge of God.

The first move is yours. It's a big one, and it's a hard one. It goes against the grain of many of us who like to consider ourselves independent and self-sufficient. It is the move from independence to dependence on God.

Psalm 91:15 says, "When he calls upon me, then I will answer him. When he calls upon me, I will be with him in trouble. I will rescue him and honor him."

What is the first practical step toward accessing God's refuge? It's to call out and admit that something or someone is chasing you down and wearing you out. It's admitting that-unless you find a city of refuge, a hiding place, wings to crawl under-you're done. You have to say, "I can't outrun this one. My only hope is a city of refuge."

These days, you don't have to run to a city or a monastery to access God's refuge. You don't have to drive to the church to do it. You don't have to call a minister to do it. You can access the refuge of God any time, anywhere. But the first step is for you to move from independence to dependence on God. You've got to call out. Some of you need to call out today.

The second practical step is the move from silence to spilling it all out to God. Psalm 62:8 is a favorite verse of mine: "Pour out your hearts to God, for he is a refuge for us."

The first step is calling out. The second step is pouring out.

In Psalm 62:8, God invites us to explain to him what it is that's vexing us so. The passwords that open the gates into the refuge of God are the soul-wrenching words that flow out of our pain-filled hearts when we finally decide to trust God. When we tell him how bad it is, how weary we are, how hopeless we've become, how discouraging our situation really is, it's as if the password hits the heart of God and the gates open and the wings extend. I've felt his arms extend and the gates open.

The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah was called as a young man. God said, "Be my spokesperson to the nations." Jeremiah was a little tentative about it. God says, "I'll be with you. I'll give you words; I'll give you protection."

So Jeremiah spoke the words of God, but everywhere he turned, he found resistance. He spoke to the rulers; the rulers said, "Take a flying leap." He spoke to the priests; the priests said, "Get out of here." He spoke to the people; they said, "Get lost." Every time Jeremiah spoke the words of God, he got a resistive hearing.

There came a point where people got sick of him speaking God's words, and they beat him mercilessly. They put him in stocks by the city gate so people could laugh at him all day long. When he was finally released from those stocks, Jeremiah needed a refuge desperately.

Jeremiah poured his heart out to God, and it was messy. This isn't a well-rehearsed prayer. He just starts pouring it out. Listen to some of his words from Jeremiah 20: "God, I've become a laughing stock. Every time I speak your words, the result is derision and reproach all day long."

Then he says, "Cursed be the day when I was born. Cursed be the man who ran out saying the news to my father that a baby boy has been born." You have to be pretty blue to say, "I hate my birthday. I hate my mother. I hate the guy who passed out cigars saying, `It's a boy.'"

He was pouring his hear out to God. While he was doing that, his pain-filled words were the password. The gates of the city of refuge opened, and the wings extended, and God brought him underneath his protective care. Shortly thereafter, Jeremiah says these words:

"The Lord is with me. My persecutors will not prevail. I will not be forgotten. Sing to the Lord. Praise his name. He has delivered the soul of a needy one from the hand of evildoers."

What has changed? He'll go out tomorrow and speak the same words to the same resistant crowd. But he'll do it with a renewed strength and perspective and source of hope that comes from being sheltered for a time.

Christianity never promises that adversity will be removed from your life if you trust Christ. It just says that there will be provisions made for you to be able to walk a day at a time. His grace will be sufficient for you.

It's time for some of you to pour your hearts out to God. It's time that you tell him all about the footsteps you're hearing, the opposition you're feeling, the pressure you're facing, the burden you're carrying, the fear that's tearing you apart.

For the last decade, I have started almost every day with an open spiral notebook journal. No one has ever read my journals, thank God. They'd throw me out of ministry if they did, because there is some stuff written there that sounds a lot like Jeremiah. Almost every day I need to pour out my heart to God and say, "God, this one is a heart-wrecker. I've just got to tell you about it again today."

Now there is a consistent sense that the refuge of God is available to me - any time, anywhere. If I tuck under his wings for a time, I can eventually crawl out of there and face what it is God wants me to face and lead what it is that God wants me to lead, and speak the words he wants me to speak. But I couldn't do it without the refuge - nor can you.

Some of you are in extreme distress. Scripture would advise you to orient your whole life, your schedule, your relationships and your activities around refuge times. Jesus himself, the Son of God, would take some safe friends to a safe place, and they'd huddle together and seek refuge under God's wings of love.

The night of his arrest, Jesus (Yeshua) was in the Garden of Gethsemane with a few friends-safe place, safe people-under the refuge-providing wings of God. When his arresters came, he said, "Take me. I'm ready."

Some of you are facing such unbelievable amounts of adversity; the only way you're going to live above the line of despair is to orient your life around safe people and safe places and the refuge that God provides. But he provides it! It's available any time, anywhere. Tuck under his wings.

Will there be an eternal refuge?

The Bible teaches us that there is an ultimate city of refuge in which we can be totally safe and protected forever. It's called heaven.

Those of us who have trusted in the Messiah and have been adopted into his family will enter that final city of refuge the moment after we draw our final breath. The Bible says it's absolutely safe there. You will never hear footsteps. There will be no one breathing down your neck. There will be no more fear, no more oppression, no more loneliness, no more physical limitation.

That final city of refuge is open and available to any that would chose to access it through Messiah. Yeshua (Jesus) is saying, "Come on in."

This is at the heart of who God is: providing refuge for the faint-hearted in this world and total, absolute refuge for all of us in the next.

Pastor Bill Hybels is the founding and senior pastor of Willow Creek Commuinty Church, and is well-known for his relevant and insightful Bible-based teaching. He is also somewhat controversial. Bill Hybels had a Moslem cleric preaching from his pulpit after the September 11th attack on the WTC. Many feel this was the wrong thing to do, and I certainly would not have done it, but nevertheless, I never throw out the baby with it's dirty bath water. Bill did not kiss the Koran like the Pope did in 1999. That is truly an ungodly act, Bill's was not. Pastor Hybels teaching "Under His Wing's" is a very good teaching, and I have enough grace in me to use this mans good teachings to bless my readers.

Remember, In essentials, Unity. In non-essentials, Liberty, and in all things, Charity (Love), that is part of MHM Confession Of Faith, and we will stand by that statement! So please do not write us ugly letters because we will not responded.

"For my mouth will utter truth;
and wickedness is an abomination to my lips."
Proverbs 8:7