(a sermon for Sunday, July 15 — the second in a series, based on Psalm 90)
Now, you’d think that a year in which I’ve started a new job, moved to a new community in a new state, had my youngest son graduate from high school and have had with my wife to face the prospect of an empty nest for the first time in a quarter century (!) would be enough to give me some perspective on the passage of time, but I’ll be honest: what really did me in, the final conclusive evidence, as it were, was a photograph of my nephew Joshua and his new son Thomas which he just posted on his Facebook page!
It’s a great picture of Thomas and his Dad hanging out at Dad’s office, Thomas looking, as we say in New England, all “cute and cunnin’” and Josh with this incredibly proud and slightly goofy “new Dad” look on his face! But here’s the thing: when I see Josh in that picture, what I’m remembering is another picture we have of him when he was a toddler himself; right after he’d gotten caught raiding a bowl of grapes he’d found on a table, and had so quickly and busily shoved so many grapes in his mouth at one time that when we found him, Josh looked like a chipmunk storing up food for the winter! I’m sorry; there’s no way that this little kid with cheeks full of grapes is old enough to have a son of his own!
But it’s true, friends, time marches on; and 25 years later you make this shocking discovery that the children that one day were crawling around at your feet have suddenly grown up to become adults with lives and families of their own – and by the way, in the process, the rest of us – all of the rest of us – mysteriously got a bit older as well!
But that’s just the way of life, isn’t it? And there is, I must confess, a certain level of satisfaction in having gained that kind of life experience and the grey hair that goes along with it (each and every one of which I’ve earned, thank you very much!). The irony, of course, is that we live in a culture that doesn’t necessarily agree with that assessment; and in fact seeks to ignore, avoid and even reverse the process altogether!
If you don’t believe me, just open up a copy of just about any magazine and count the number of ads for cosmetics, vitamin supplements, health foods and more, all purporting to reduce, prolong or reverse the effects of aging – summer is actually prime-time for all of this. I wonder, for instance, how many magazines are on the supermarket racks right now that have a picture of some bikini-clad model on the cover and offer the solution as to how you and I can look that tan and that fit and that young! (speaking for myself, I can only say, “ain’t happenin’!”) For that matter, plastic surgery is a multi-million dollar industry in this country, much of it all about making those who can pay for it look younger longer. And then, of course, when all else fails, basically we lie to ourselves about getting older – we all know people who have tried too long, too hard and all too obviously to live and act like they were 20 years younger than they are!
The power of the Psalm we’ve shared this morning, however, is that God does not engage in that kind of deception. On the contrary, Psalm 90 is a bit of a reality check in that it gives us a keen sense of our own mortality – in fact, even as Harriet read it a few moments ago I was struck that the tone of this psalm is pretty stark: you and I, it says, are like the grass that withers; we’re the flower the fades, that which “in the morning …flourishes and is renewed,” but by nightfall has long sense gone by. There is most definitely no sugar coating to be found here, friends: we might live 70 years – “or perhaps eighty, if we are strong” (I love how The Message translates this: “with luck, we might make it to eighty”) – and what do we have to show for it? “Trouble. Toil and trouble and a marker in the graveyard.” (again, from The Message”) “Our years come to an end, like a sigh.”
To quote an colleague and friend of mine, who happens to be a Jewish rabbi, “Oi!” No question about it – like it or not, no matter how much we try to fight it the truth remains : you and I, we’re here today and gone tomorrow; passing this way once, and then only for a short time. Bottom line, our days are numbered (I know what you’re thinking – so much for an uplifting sermon this morning!).
The funny thing about this 90th Psalm, however, is that it’s not primarily about us or even the frailty of our human lives – read over the words of this passage again and you’ll find that this is a psalm that is mostly about the magnificent greatness of God! The message is that while our days might be numbered, God’s days are most decidedly not! “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God …a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.” There’s a real sense of the awesome quality of God in those words. In fact, Victor Pentz has written that in reading these first four verses of the Psalm, “you may have the sense that you are peering over the rim of the Grand Canyon into the vastness of God,” which I think says it very well.
What’s interesting about this particular psalm is that it is titled as “a prayer of Moses,” and as such, it is perhaps the oldest of the psalms that we have – so when you consider these words in the context of the history of Moses’ time (the Pharoah, the Pyramids, the Hebrew slaves who labored for generations and generations in the building of those pyramids), you do get a sense of the power and wonder of God far surpassing the passage of time from a human standpoint. In other words, what we find in this psalm is an affirmation of God as the God of history, the God of pre-history, the God of creation, and the God of eternity – the God who is truly God “from everlasting to everlasting.”
And honestly; you and I, we have a hard time wrapping our minds around that. Maybe you’ve heard the old story about the Jewish rabbi who’s having a conversation with God, and he says, “God, is it true that a million years for you is but a second?” God answers, “Yes, that it true.” And then the rabbi asks, “Is it true that a million dollars for you is but a penny?” And God once again says, “Yes, that also is true.” The rabbi pauses for a moment and then says, “God, can I have a penny?” To which God replies, “Sure …just a second.”
The point is that God’s time is different from our time; God’s entire point of view is eternal and holy; broader and grander and fuller than anything you and I can even begin to comprehend! Friends, this is an important truth that we would do well to recognize – what this psalm does is to remind us that, no, the universe does not revolve around us, we are not the “next big thing,” and in fact, where the cosmos are concerned, in the scheme of things we are little more than a speck of dust, ultimately “swept away …like a dream.” And that would be pretty dismal and hopeless, except that as tiny and puny and utterly transient as we are, we are also created in love by that same mighty God who does indeed have compassion, who “satisfies us in the morning with …steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” What we have here is the divine truth that while by every criteria of the universe, you and I are nothing, in the Lord’s eyes we are truly something to behold!
And so the question becomes, if our time is that short, then what will be do with it? That’s the prayer of this song of Moses – “…teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” Or, as some translations put it, “teach us to number our days,” which is not to calculate how much time we have left, but rather that in this present moment (which, truthfully, is all any of us is guaranteed), we might learn to live wisely and well.
I would suggest to you this morning that getting “a heart of wisdom” begins with the conscious effort to reassess and realign the priorities of our lives with eternity’s values in view. Or more simply, to live unto God’s purposes in this life rather than our own.
How many times have we heard it; how many times have we said it ourselves: life’s too short for this! Beloved, life is just too short not to forgive and move forward. Life is too short not to let the people around you know how much you love them. Life is too short not to take the initiative to reach out to a neighbor or a friend, to take the risk to help. Life is too short to stay caught on an unending cycle of self-loathing and self-destruction; it’s too short to let ourselves be unhappy, or beaten down, or burdened with ancient regrets and heartaches. Life is just too short not to know what respect, and integrity, and love is all about, to not take that leap of faith to trust God to bring you through life’s hardship and struggle, that you might discover its joy.
Life is too short not to live it with God at the center!
I don’t know what kind of mind is driven to put this kind of thing on the internet, but did you know there is actually a website called deathclock.com, that will actually calculate exactly how much longer you have to live – to the second – and then puts up a clock on your computer where you can watch the seconds tick away! (The home page of this site, by the way, says this is simply “the internet’s friendly reminder that life is slipping away.”) What it is, folks, is depressing – I don’t recommend staying on that site for very long!
On the other hand, how would it be if we viewed the seconds we have left in life as a new opportunity – to let God’s work be manifest in us; to have our very lives be examples to our children, our friends, our community and our world of God’s amazing redemptive healing power; to assure that by our very efforts, all would see that “the favor of the Lord our God [would] be upon us, [and that God] would prosper for us the work of our hands.” Wouldn’t that be the kind of life we want to live? Wouldn’t that be a legacy for our children and grandchildren? Wouldn’t that make us the kind of Christians, the kind of church we ought to be?
Life is too short, friends, not to live that way. Because like it or not, our time is ticking, ticking away, and as Benjamin Franklin once observed, “Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that’s the stuff life is made.” It’s as simple as that.
So thanks be to God who teaches us to count our days, our minutes, and even our seconds: that we might gain a wise heart.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2012 Rev. Michael W. Lowry