Monday, January 08, 2018

Sermon: Psalm 90 Gaining a heart of wisdom

So how has the first week of 2018 been for you? Have you got used to writing January 2018 yet? When I was preparing the service sheet for tonight I had to make doubly sure that I got the right year! We’ve already made it through one week of the new year - and in another 51 of those, it’ll be 2019 before we know it.

Time seems to be flying. It seems to pass so quickly. And, as I’ve been told, the older you are, the quicker it seems to go. We might think that time is passing so quickly because of all the technological advances of the last century. Is the quick passing of time because we’re in the modern (or post-modern) era?

Our Bible reading tonight, Psalm 90, shows us that it has always been the same. The superscription, the little title before the first verse, tells us that this is a Prayer of Moses, who lived about 1500 years BC. This Psalm is over 3500 years old, and yet in verse 10, speaking of a lifetime of seventy or eighty years, ‘for they quickly pass, as we fly away.’ (10).

So this is a human experience, not just a modern experience. Moses says that time flies. So how do we respond to that fact? Some might go the ‘let’s eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die appraoch.’ (Maybe we need to change that in the new year to let’s eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we diet...) Or perhaps you’ve heard someone say, I’m here for a good time, not a long time... As time passes, as our life whizzes by, as we begin this new year not knowing what will come of it, how should we respond?

Moses, the man of God, wants us to get things in proper perspective. He wants us to see things the way God sees them. Because the meaning and purpose of life is vastly different depending on our perspective. And that’s brought out by a series of contrasts throughout the Psalm.

In the opening six verses, we see the contrast between God’s eternity, and our mortality; God’s power, and our frailty.

In our almost ten years of married life, we’re now into our third home. Hopefully we won’t need any more removers for a very long time. My family moved into the house I grew up in about a week after I was born, so it had been the only home I had known, but it was just built, so it was all new for my mum and dad. But sometimes, you hear of families that have lived in the same house not just for one person’s whole life, but for generation after generation. In Fermanagh they talked about the homeplace, the family homestead for many generations.

Or to think of it another way, last September we celebrated 180 years of St Matthew’s. Just think of the generations who have worshipped here. The generations have come and gone, but St Matthew’s remains.

Well that’s getting on to the idea of verses 1-2. ‘Lord, you have been our dwelling-place’ for how long? ‘throughout all generations.’ God has always been around. God is the eternal one, the one all generations have been able to dwell with. Moses expands that thought in verse 2: ‘Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.’

Before the world existed. God was. God is eternal, from everlasting. And that is beyond our thinking. Beyond our comprehension. And to this everlasting God, time is nothing. If we think time is flying, to God, who is outside of time, well, ‘a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch of the night.’ Have you ever had one of those nights where you sit and think - where did that day go? It went by in a blink. That’s what it’s like with God - a thousand years just like a day, as Peter says in our second reading.

It reminds me of the old story. Someone read this verse once and so they say to God, God, is it right that a thousand of our years are just like a second to you; and a million pounds would be to you like just a penny? And God says, yes. So the person says, God, would you give me a penny? And God says, yes, just a second...

It’s just a joke, but it helps us to try to get our heads around God’s eternity, his power. And we need all the help we can get, because, as Moses also says in these verses, we aren’t around for ever, like God. It’s God who returns us to dust - recalling the words of Genesis, and the words of our funeral service - dust to dust...

Compared to God, we’re so finite, so weak. ‘You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning - though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered.’ Here today, gone tomorrow.

Now, you might be thinking to yourself, well isn’t this a cheerful message to start the new year with? And it might seem as if it’s going to get worse before it gets better. But remember we’re seeing things from God’s perspective.

If the first section shows us God’s eternity and power, compared to our mortality and weakness, the second section (7-12) shows us God’s holiness contrasted with our sinfulness. And the aspect of God’s holiness in view is his wrath, his anger.

‘We are consumed by your anger and terrified by your indignation.’ And why is God angry? ‘You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence.’

Those secret sins that no one else knows about - God knows, God sees, God shines his light on them. God knows all about all our sins, even if no one else does. A preacher once said that if you knew my heart (and all that it desires), then you wouldn’t want to listen to me... but if I knew your heart, then I wouldn’t want to talk to you either.

God is angry at our sin. And whether we make it to the three score and ten, or even four score, 70 or 80, ‘yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.’

This isn’t the quickly kindled anger that you sometimes find in people - you might know the sort of person, you’ll never know how you’ll find them; you’re afraid of saying anything in case they erupt; it depends on what side of the bed they got out of... But God’s anger is not unpredictable like that. God’s anger and wrath is a settled, continuous opposition to anything that mars or spoils his creation; a slow burning consistent anger.

The question is asked in verse 11: ‘Who knows the power of your anger? For your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.’ The answer to God’s anger is to fear him, to take refuge in him, to properly respect him. To see things from God’s perspective.

And that’s where verse 12 comes in. ‘Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.’ It’s when we realise that some day will be our last; that we can’t go on forever; that we won’t know when our end will come - then we have a heart of wisdom, we live rightly in the world, numbering our days, as God sees them.

As we live in the light of eternity, as we realise that we are frail, and mortal, and sinful - then we are moved to flee to God; to take refuge in him. That’s what’s happening in the final section of the Psalm - recognising that the eternal, powerful, holy, wrathful God is also the God who hears and answers prayer.

In these final verses, we see a series of prayers, one per verse, as Moses cries out to the God who will hear and answer.

V13: ‘Relent, O Lord! How long will it be? Have compassion on your servants!’ Relent means to stop the pursuit, to ease off, to provide relief. The prayer is asking for compassion, for God to suffer alongside, to have mercy.

V14: ‘Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.’ To have ended at verse 10 or 11 would have been really bleak. Yeah, life’s hard, God’s wrathful, end of story. But here, the prayer asks God to satisfy us with his love - so that we know joy and gladness, even in the midst of the difficulties. It’s only the knowledge of God’s unfailing love can give us this joy. (Notice, it’s not happiness - which depends on happenings. It’s joy, which flourishes whatever is happening.)

That thought of gladness continues into v15. Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us... Do you see what he’s asking. If I’ve been afflicted for ten years, then let me be glad for ten years. He’s asking God to restore us, and bless us, for at least as long as we’ve suffered. It’s what Paul says in 2 Cor 4:17, only even more abundantly: ‘For our light and momentary afflictions are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.’ It’s not that God will bless us in heaven for the same length of time as we suffered. No, his everlasting glory continues forever!

V16: ‘May your deeds be shown to your servants, your splendour to their children.’ Here Moses is asking that the next generations will see God’s works and his glory - as God worked in the exodus to rescue his people...

V17: ‘May the favour of the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands for us - yes, establish the work of our hands.’ The Psalm ends with a prayer for grace - God’s favour, God’s grace. The grace that will establish the work of our hands - so that whatever we do in this life, it will be worthwhile, established, that it will echo into eternity.

This morning we thought about growing in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and people. I hadn’t planned it this way, but God has been at work to tie these two messages together at the start of the new year. Here’s how we gain a heart of wisdom - seeing ourselves in the light of God. We might be mortal, frail, sinful, while God is eternal, powerful, and holy (and wrathful). Yet he is also the God who hears our prayer, who acts on our behalf, who answers his prayers according to his grace. This is the way of wisdom, to recognise God as God, to bow before him.

So let’s be wise in this new year, whatever it might hold. Let’s look to God, our dwelling-place, our refuge, our rescuer.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 7th January 2018.

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