Text: Psalm 90
We have read some much-loved Psalms in recent weeks. Psalm 1 – “Happy are those who delight in the law of the Lord… they are like trees planted by water.” Psalm 139 – “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Psalm 148, which sees all of creation, from the stars and the heavens to the trees to cattle to even seas monsters praising the Creator. Last week, we looked at the 23rd Psalm - “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” There are many treasured Psalms, but Psalm 90 is probably not going to make a lot of favorite Psalms lists. It is one of the more sobering, if not downright depressing of the Psalms.
Speaking of the years, the Psalmist writes, “You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning…in the evening it fades and withers.” Psalm 90 is the only Psalm attributed to Moses. You may remember that Moses, the great leader and prophet, did not himself live to enter the Promised Land. Like everybody else, his days were numbered.
One of the realities of living in a university community is that while those of us who stick around keep getting older, the students stay young. We are so glad to have new and returning students with us here this morning. And we need the energy and creativity and gifts and enthusiasm that students bring. But if you look around the sanctuary – or look around your screen on gallery view – you will see folks who came here as students – 10 or 20 or 30 or 50 years ago - and basically never left. We all get older.
We had our men’s breakfast this past Tuesday at Perkins. Several years ago, I would tell people that the Men’s Breakfast was basically me and a bunch of old guys. Now, it is just a bunch of old guys.
Psalm 90 looks at life through a very realistic lens. Just as the leaves fall from the trees, just as the grass withers, our days too are numbered. “All our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh.” This Psalm our finitude very seriously.
Which is more than can be said for most of us. And certainly more that can be said for our culture. Death is something we do not want to face, do not want to talk about, and even now I know there is a certain amount of discomfort with this sermon. We don’t enjoy thinking about death.
Former Indy race car driver Scott Goodyear talked about fatal crashes at the Indianapolis 500. “You don’t go look at where it happened,” he said. “You don’t watch the films of it on television. You don’t deal with it. You pretend it never happened.” The Speedway itself encourages this approach. As soon as the track closes the day of an accident, a crew heads out to paint over the spot where the car hit the wall. Through the years, a driver has never been pronounced dead at the racetrack. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Racing Museum, located inside the 2.5-mile oval, has no memorial to the 40 drivers who have lost their lives here. Nowhere is there even a mention.
Many of us take this same approach in our personal lives. Death is something that we just don’t want to think about.
But we come to scripture and find that the Bible has no such qualms about dealing with death. It is approached as a part of life, and Psalm 90 is one of the best examples. It was set to music by Isaac Watts in that great old hymn, “O God Our Help in Ages Past.” “Time like an ever-flowing stream bears all of us away,” we sing.
This Psalm would have us know that time is indeed fleeting. Nothing will last forever. Like sock hops and pet rocks and beanie babies, all of us will come and go. The Psalm says that we may live 70 years, or maybe 80 if we are lucky. That was far beyond the average life expectancy when the Psalm was written. Today, we have a number of members of our congregation in their 90’s and it is not uncommon for people to live past 100. But no matter how short or how long our life may be, none of us live forever.
Psalm 90 begins: “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or you formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting, you are God.” While we exist “from generation to generation,” God is “from everlasting to everlasting.” While God is eternal, our lives are fleeting.
Now, if that is where we leave things, this would be pretty depressing. This would be a terrible way to start a new school year. “Welcome back students, and by the way, we are all going to die.”
But you know, there is a real freedom in facing our mortality, in knowing our limits. Facing death can allow us to truly live.
Sharon Salzberg (in A Heart as Wide as the World: Stories on the Path of Lovingkindness) tells of a friend, normally a fairly healthy person, who came down with a terrible case of pneumonia and was very close to dying. While he was recovering from his illness, she came home and found a message from him on her answering machine. Just as she was about to call him back, the phone rang. The caller happened to be a mutual friend, and when Sharon told her that she had to get off the phone to call this friend, she said in response, “Do you know that he almost died?” Sharon told her that she knew that, and they ended the conversation so she could give him a call. But just as she hung up, the phone rang again, and it was another mutual friend. And the same exact thing happened. Once more, she told the caller she needed to get off the phone to speak to this friend who was sick, and she immediately said, “Well, do you know he almost died?”
When I finally managed to reach my friend, I said, “I think I may now expressly refer to you as ‘He who almost died.’” My friend replied, ‘Well, it’s better than being known as ‘He who almost lived.’”
“How do you mean that?” I asked. “Do you mean it like, ‘He who almost escaped with his life but at the last moment didn’t?’?” “No,” he said, “More in the sense of how we can spend a lifetime almost living, rather than being truly alive.”
I was listening to 70’s on 7 in my car this week and a one hit wonder from 1979 came on. The song was “Born to Be Alive.” Anybody remember that? It was a disco song and that phrase, “Born to Be Alive,” was 75% of the song, but both the music and the meaning stick in your head. We were born to be alive. Psalm 90 is not actually disco, but that theme is there.
It is possible to go through life never quite living. To be known as “the one who almost died” is one thing, but how much worse to be someone who “almost lived.” Facing the reality that we only have one life and that it will not last forever can give us the freedom to fully live and the motivation to pursue those things that really matter.
Senator Theodore F. Green from Rhode Island had the distinction of being at the time the oldest senator to serve in the U.S. Congress. If you fly in to Providence, you will land at the TF Green Airport.
Sen. Green was once at a dinner party when his hostess caught him looking at his date book. “Now Senator Green,” she said. “Are you already looking to see where you’re going next?” “No,” he replied, “I’m trying to find out where I am now.”
Like Senator Green, We would do well to find out where we are now. We can spend so much of our lives either looking ahead to the future, or back to the past, that we miss the present moment. Gunther Bornkamm, the Bible scholar, noted that it was that way in Jesus’ time. There were those like the Pharisees who tried so hard to live by the law inherited from past generations that they failed to get into the now. Then there were those who looked so forward to the apocalypse, when God would bring an end to the present order and separate the righteous from the unrighteous, that they likewise failed to live in the now. Bornkamm says that Jesus made it possible to live fully in the present without denying the reality or importance of either the past or the future.
Facing the fact that our days have a limit helps us to live in the present moment. As the Psalm puts it, “Teach us to count our days that we may have a wise heart.”
John Robert McFarland is a retired Methodist minister. Years ago, when I was in Illinois, he pastored a church in a neighboring town. He is a cancer survivor and wrote a book with the wonderful title, Now That I Have Cancer, I Am Whole. He writes, “I think God has used my cancer to free me from fretting the future (worrying about what I’m supposed to do next) and regretting the past (worrying about things I left undone) so that I can live right now. I get more “right now” time in a day than I used to get in a year.”
John Robert went on to say, “I think that surely this is what is meant by eternal life, not just life that goes on forever and ever, but that quality in which all the future and all the past come together in the present, when all life is right here, in the “eternal now.”
Think of the present with both meanings of the word in mind. The present is a gift, and it is now. Each day is a gift to be lived fully. “Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”
Sometimes you will hear somebody say, “Life is too short.” It’s true. Life is too short to be petty. It is too short to hold grudges. It is too short to wait to do the right thing. Life is too short to waste our time on things that are hurtful or destructive or take away joy.
At the end of their lives, people do not regret time spent with family. They do not regret efforts to make the world a better place. They do not regret the time they took to be with friends or care for others or enjoy the world God has created. They don’t regret that they danced or went hiking or played the piano. They don’t regret that they took time to worship, that they were part of a community of faith. They don’t regret their efforts to serve others.
The point is not to keep busy. There is a bumper sticker that says, “Look busy, Jesus is coming.” This is about knowing what matters in life. Jesus put it this way: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”
Today is Johnie Hammond’s birthday, and it is great to have so many family members wiht us today. Johnie and her family love to have parades. A birthday, some kind of achievement by a family member – which could be anything from a new job to doing well with potty training, good news of any sort – it doesn’t really matter, at the drop of a hat they will bang pots and pans, march around and have a parade to celebrate. You do not regret that kind of celebration.
What people tend to regret is years wasted in a pointless argument with a loved one. What they regret is working 24/7 with no time for the things that really matter. What they regret is getting so wrapped up in small things that they could not see the big picture. What they regret is pursuing power or money or fame or what they think is security rather than pursuing joy and goodness and community and following the way of Jesus.
“Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”
The Psalmist knew that life would not last forever. When we acknowledge our mortality, our limitations, it frees us to live fully, right now and give attention to those things that matter the most. It can save us from being “the one who almost lived.”
“Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations – from everlasting to everlasting, you are God.” Isaac Watts’ hymn captures the essence of this Psalm – there is a sobering recognition of the fleetingness of life. But there is also a freedom, and a great hope that God gives both for now and for all eternity. “O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.” Amen.