May 24, 2020
1 Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. 2 Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. 3 You turn us back to dust, and say, “Turn back, you mortals.” 4 For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night. 5 You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; 6 in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers. 7 For we are consumed by your anger; by your wrath we are overwhelmed. 8 You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your countenance. 9 For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end[c] like a sigh. 10 The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span[d] is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. 11 Who considers the power of your anger? Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you. 12 So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart. 13 Turn, O Lord! How long? Have compassion on your servants! 14 Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. 15 Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us, and as many years as we have seen evil. 16 Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. 17 Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands— O prosper the work of our hands!
It was only a few short years ago that I asked Callie to marry me, and just in case there was any doubt, well, she said yes, thank goodness. It was, as you would imagine, an exciting and memorable moment. But yet, apparently the planning and anticipation and suspense of it all was more than I could handle, as the very next day, when I went to work at my previous church, I unexpectedly threw out my back, a ‘I can’t stand up’ kind of throw out my back. And who did I call to have come pick me up and help me out of my misery?Well, Callie of course. And as she saw me lying on my office floor I just looked at her and said, you know what they say in weddings, right?‘For better or worse. For better or worse.’ Sadly, I don’t think she thought it was as funny as I did.
Nevertheless, what I was reminded of in that moment was a very real and pressing sense of my own frailty, or mortality for that matter. It was yet another reminder of just how un-invincible I am, as if that was ever in doubt in the first place.
And in many ways, that’s what our Psalm today, Psalm 90, really tries to drive home. That you and I are mere mortals, especially when compared to God himself, a God who existed before anything in creation ever did. It’s a reminder that you and I are frail, that life is fleeting, and maybe the most sobering truth of all is the reality that you and I will someday die.
The Psalmist compares you and I to something as temporary and as fragile as a blade of grass, something that grows quickly, yet dries to a crisp in the summer heat or is covered by a foot of snow in the winter freeze.
Or that we’re like a dream, a fleeting moment or thought, something that seemed so vivid and real in one moment, but yet we struggle to piece together the details as soon as we get out of bed.
And then later the Psalmist says, 10 The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.
It’s impossible to miss what the Psalmist is reminding us of here. Life is short. We are frail. And you and I will one day die.
Now, at this point I need to call a quick timeout here. When it comes to the message so far, you might be thinking to yourself, ‘My goodness, this is depressing.’ Yet another Debbie Downer sermon? Last week a message on lament, this week one on mortality and death? Really, Daniel?
I know, I get that. But I want you to hang in there with me. Because here’s the thing. I’m convinced, based on what this Psalm teaches us, that it’s by remembering death, by acknowledging our own morality that we gain wisdom and experience joy. Where oddly enough, one of the ways we can live a meaningful and fruitful life is by remembering death.
And I’ll explain more how that’s possible in a minute or two, but I wanted to get that out there now in case you were beginning to second guess whether or not this was how you wanted to start your morning.
Anyway, in some ways, this Psalm functions as a wake up call, or smelling salts if you will, to the reality and inevitability of death. And truth is, we live in a world, in a time in human history that in many ways allows us to hide or delay the affects of aging and the reality of death. We can color our hair when it goes gray, put on lotion to hide the wrinkles, and have access to medicine and technology and surgeries that allow us to live longer than previous generations. Now, to be clear, none of those things are bad, I’m simply acknowledging that we’ve found ways to literally cover up our age and the reality of death. Or consider this – for almost all of human history, people have died within their homes, and so family members watched their loved ones die up close. Yet today, many deaths take place in sanitized, professionalized settings that many people rarely visit. Again, that’s not a bad thing, it’s simply to say we’ve never been more distant or separated from the reality of death as we are today.
Yet the truth is, as the saying goes, ‘Death waits for no one.’ Or as they say in the world of sports to an aging athlete, ‘Father Time is undefeated.’ The Psalmist reminds us that we too will die. And at a time, where we are nearing 100,000 U.S. deaths from the Coronavirus, maybe this truth is as real to us as ever before.
And in light of all this, in light of that reality, here’s what the Psalmist says, here’s his plea to God, on our behalf –
12 So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.
Or as another translation says, “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”
That is to say, ‘God, help us to see that life is short and that death is near, that we may grow in wisdom.’
Earlier I mentioned that acknowledging our own morality is one of the ways we gain wisdom, and that’s true in a couple different ways.
One way is that our future death sharpens our focus and encourages us to make the most of our time here on earth in a way that brings glory to God. That is to say, if we think our time here on earth is of infinite length, then we’re more likely to waste or squander it. But yet, if we know that it’s finite we’re more likely to steward it as best as we can.
I recently read a story about Kirk Cousins, he’s a professional football player and quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings, and a Christian too. And in front of his house, in between a few shrubs, stands a curious tower, roughly four feet tall, And the whole thing is filled with stones. And the point of it all is to remind him that he’ll one day die. You see, each month Cousins takes a stone from the jar and carries it with him. And month by month as he takes out stone after stone, Cousins has a visual reminder – right outside his front door, no less – that his time on Earth is getting shorter and shorter. The whole thing was an idea from a bible teacher of his, on this very verse,
12 So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.
And Cousins says these stones remind him about the importance of leaving a mark and making a deposit in people's lives in a way that matters and encourages him to ask questions such as, ‘What impact are you making, not only today, but for eternity?
You see, there’s wisdom to be found in knowing that our days here are numbered. After all, In our modern age, in a world filled with abundance, time is likely our most precious resource. Sure some are better looking than others, others have more money or possessions, but yet on any given day, we’re all given the same amount of time. And it’s by remembering just how finite it is that we are empowered to steward it well.
And yet, there’s another way in which acknowledging our mortality ought to make us wise, and that is, the reality of our death ought to get us wondering why we die in the first place. That is to say, death itself ought to have us asking why death is even something we experience. And the truth is, it’s in answering this question that we move closer to being rlghtly related to God himself.
In short, death exists because sin exists. Death existed because humanity rebelled against God. And the ripple effects of sin are far reaching – not only corrupting the relationship between us and God, and you and me, but also in bringing death and decay to our bodies and creation itself.
This is part of what the Psalmist is teasing out when he says,
7 For we are consumed by your anger; by your wrath we are overwhelmed. 8 You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your countenance.
Here the Psalmist is drawing a connection between death and sin itself. He even reflects back and paraphrases the curse that was given to Adam and Eve, when he says, ‘you turn us back to dust.’
You see knowing why we die, knowing why our days are numbered is part of the path to wisdom. Because it forces us to confront the reasons for our mortality, that is, sin, and not just sin in general, but our sin too. And death invites us, it nudges us to seek reconciliation with God himself by asking for his forgiveness and as the Psalm begins, seeking God as our dwelling place, our refuge.
As Paul cries out in Romans, ‘Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.’
You see remembering our death leads to wisdom, not only through reminding us just how short and precious our life is, but also through reminding us why we die in the first place.
Now, earlier I mentioned how remembering our death leads to joy, which is a pretty bold declaration I know. But notice how the Psalmist wraps up the Psalm, after acknowledging his own death and future mortality.
14 Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
It’s a pretty remarkable way to end the Psalm given how it began.
Pastor and author Matt McCullough says that these prayers within the Psalm go hand in hand - teach me how to live with the reality of my death so that I can live in the gladness of your love. The idea here being that God’s love for us becomes all the more real and powerful in light of our impending death, that God’s love for us in Jesus Christ shows that God himself experienced death so that death will not have the final word with us.
Finally, the Psalmist finishes by saying,
17 Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands— O prosper the work of our hands!
I love this ending. We might imagine a Psalm about death ending on a low note and with a thud. Some remark about how if death is near why is life worth living. But no, the Psalmist swings the other way with a word of hope and a plea for God’s blessing and favor.
And this is one of my favorite things about the Psalms. They neither wallow in despair nor walk away in denial. Rather they’re brutally honest yet point us to a greater hope and the keys to a meaningful and fruitful life.
That God, no matter how long you give us, 20, 40, 60, 80 years if we’re strong, 100 if we’re that fortunate, let your favor be upon us, take the work of our hands, our physical labor, our relationships, our possessions and multiply it, allow it to prosper, that you may be glorified in all things. You all, that a hopeful prayer and a life well lived.
Friends, these last couple months have been an all too clear reminder that we all will one day die. And though the world around us would prefer to push that truth aside, truth is, acknowledging our death is the path to wisdom, a life well lived, and most importantly, God himself.