Teach Us to Number Our Days
A sermon based on Psalm 90
Sunday, November 4, 2012 – Last Judgment Sunday
Two things are certain in life: Death and taxes. No matter who wins the election, it may well be a question of how much in taxes, but you can be sure we'll still pay taxes either way. And no matter who wins the elections, you can be sure that people will still die. No matter what promises the candidates have made, they can't save us all from death.
As Moses climbed Mt. Nebo and saw the breathtaking view of the land of Canaan spread out below him, the land God promised to give his people, it must have been bitter-sweet. God kept his promise in bringing his people here to the Promised Land! But Moses wouldn't go in. He would die there on the other side of the river. God had promised that too as a result of Moses sin. Perhaps it was there at Mt. Neb, with his mind occupied by thoughts of his own death, that Moses prayed the prayer of Psalm 90 to God.
Surely it's the oldest of the 150 Psalms, the only one we know was written by Moses. And in it he reminds us all of that sobering truth that our time on this earth is pretty short. We live, we die, and then we go to meet our Maker. But he also gives us wonderful comfort by the awesome contrast that God is outside of this time, that God is eternal, and that God and his promises and his grace never change.
This morning, as we examine Psalm 90, we ask God to teach us to number our days aright, to remind us that we are but dust in his sight, but that he is eternal, and by his grace, now we are too. Psalm 90…
1 Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. 2 Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
3 You turn men back to dust, saying, "Return to dust, O sons of men." 4 For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. 5 You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning—6 though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered.
7 We are consumed by your anger and terrified by your indignation. 8 You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence. 9 All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan. 10 The length of our days is seventy years—or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.
11 Who knows the power of your anger? For your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you. 12 Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
13 Relent, O LORD! How long will it be? Have compassion on your servants. 14 Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days. 15 Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen trouble. 16 May your deeds be shown to your servants, your splendor to their children.
17 May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands for us—yes, establish the work of our hands.
I. We Are But Dust
In the prayer of the church after the sermon, the pastor said, "Lord, you know that we are but dust in your sight. But in your mercy hear our prayers." And suddenly from the back of the church, a not so quiet little voice said, "Mommy, what is butt dust?" Aaaand the prayer of the day was pretty much done. No one was really listening after that.
But the truth is we are but dust in God's sight. Moses admitted it when he said, "You turn men back to dust, saying, "Return to dust, O sons of men." In fact, the Hebrew literally says, "You turn men back to dust, saying, "Return… O sons of [Adam]."
As God was giving Adam the consequences of his rebellion he told him in Genesis 3:19: "By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return." And King Solomon said in Ecclesiastes 12:7, "…the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it."
Take out the water that comprises most of our physical makeup and what do you have left? Not much. We quickly rot and decay and turn back to the dust from which we are made. And let's face it. Life is short. "The length of our days is seventy years—or eighty, if we have the strength…" In fact, in 2010 they figured out that the average life expectancy of the average U.S. citizen is 78.2 years. Like a bird landing on your lawn, it's not likely to stay very long. It will soon fly away. And the older we get, the more we think about it. Someone once said that life is like a roll of toilet paper: the closer you get to the end, the faster it goes. Someone a little more poetic put it like this: "Time, like an ever-rolling stream, Soon bears us all away; We fly, forgotten, as a dream Dies at the op'ning day."
But why is life so short? What happens? Is death just a natural part of the circle of life? No! Life is cut short because, "[God] sweep[s] men away in the sleep of death…" Literally, God floods men away, like the Great Flood of Genesis 6, like Hurricane Sandy that's left over a hundred dead… so far. God mops the floor of the earth of its human filth. And what do you do with the mop water when you're done? You throw it away because it's worthless! Death happens every day. But ultimately come Judgment Day, God will scrub the earth of its evil once and for all.
But why does God end life on this earth? Why will he destroy this earth once and for all someday soon? Well, we die, not because of weakness or sickness or violence. Those may all be a secondary cause of death. But the primary cause is because of sin.
7 We are consumed by your anger and terrified by your indignation. 8 You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence. 9 All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan.
Or as God put it so succinctly through Paul in Romans 6:23, "the wages of sin is death…" Our secret sins are seen by God who knows our hearts and our minds. Our rebellion against a changeless God, as we change our hearts from serving him to serving ourselves so often, deserves death. Our poor priorities in chasing after things that won't outlast us, deserve death. Our focus on the things of this life at the expense of the things of the life to come, deserves death—and not just physical death, but hell. And the punishment totally fits the crime. "For [God's] wrath is as great as the fear that is due [him]." As the eternal Creator he is worthy of all honor and glory, the same honor and glory we often ascribe to ourselves.
That point must have been very real for Moses who watched an entire generation die off because of their sinful rebellion. That point must have been very real for Moses who was about to die himself without ever entering the Promised Land because of his own sin. And that point is very real for us who deserve to die without the Promised Land of heaven because of our sin. Because by nature we are under God's wrath and have every reason to be terrified by God's indignation, knowing we deserve to be consumed by his anger in hell. Someone once said that the real reason that religion is a taboo subject in the work place is because people know that hell is real. And they know that we all deserve to go there.
But, that's only if we are left on our own or put our trust in our own strength. Then the span of our days "is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away." But in reality, we're not on our own. We don't trust in our own strength, but in our eternal God…
II. But God is Eternal
And God is the only one who is really trustworthy. After all, consider his track record. He hasn't changed his mind in many millennia, because he is timeless. God is eternal. Before the mountains were formed, before the earth was made, God was. We can grasp an eternal future without end, where everything is like the Energizer Bunny and keeps going and going and going, but we have a much harder time grasping eternal past—that God had no beginning. But he didn't. He's always been. And what's more, God hasn't just existed in endless time, but God is timeless, outside of time altogether. To him, "a thousand years in [his] sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night."
Or, as the poet put it, "Before the hills in order stood Or earth received its frame, From everlasting you are God, To endless years the same. A thousand ages in your sight Are like an evening gone, Short as the watch that ends the night Before the rising sun."
And what's more, God's eternity isn't just a philosophical truth, but has practical application for our daily lives. God's eternity isn't just the opposite of our morality, but is the answer to it! God's eternity, as it's applied to our heads, to our hearts, and to our hands, offers us great comfort.
First, let's apply it to our heads. "Teach us to number our days aright…" God's eternity does teach us to number our days aright. We see death all around us, filling the headlines each day. There are more than a hundred dead on the east coast due to Hurricane Sandy. And that's nothing compared to the 153,000 deaths that statisticians estimate happen every day around the globe. When will your time come? This week? Tomorrow? Tonight? We only have one life to live to live and that life is short. So let's use it wisely. Let's get our priorities straight and figure out what will matter 100 years from now and into eternity.
100 years from now you won't care what car you drove. You won't care how nice your home was. You won't care how much fun you had. You won't care who you spent your time with. The only thing that will matter is where you're spending your eternity. So, God urges us to apply that eternity to our hearts… "that we may gain a heart of wisdom."
If the only thing that really matters is where we spend eternity, then we ought to gain wisdom from God's Word. Literally God says in verse 3, "You turn men back to dust, saying, "Return… O sons of men." "To dust" isn't repeated in the Hebrew. God may be calling mankind to return in the sense of "Return to me! Repent! And the opportunity is limited because you won't live that long!"
So to gain a heart of wisdom, we begin by admitting our sins to God and crying out to him for help. We cry out to him just as Moses did, praying, "Relent, O LORD! … Have compassion on your servants. 14 Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days."
And again, literally the Hebrew doesn't say, "Relent, O LORD!" but, "Return, O LORD!" – likely as a pun to verse 3. Return to the LORD in repentance and he is sure to return to us with compassion and with unfailing love. And the Hebrew also uses a different name for God than it does in verse 1. In verse 1 Moses calls God "Adonai," or "My master." But in verse 13 he uses the title "Jehovah" or "Yahweh" that God always attached to his promise of grace.
And God does answer that cry for mercy and forgiveness every time! Without a doubt God does, "Satisfy us in the morning with [his] unfailing love…" He does, "Make us glad for as many days as [he has] afflicted us…" He does show his deeds to his servants. That our God is a timeless God, not bound by the ordinary rules of time, he sees Good Friday as if it were taking place right now… and all the time of every day. Because our God is a timeless God he sees Good Friday on Judgment Day too. And so God is not just our fortress, a cold stone palace where we're safe from the enemy, but it's also a home: "Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations." Or, to put it another way, O God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come, Still be our guard while troubles last And our eternal home!
And he accomplishes that in Christ. Jesus took the blame for all of our misplaced priorities, for our striving after earthly things that will not last, for every sin we've ever committed. He paid for all of our sin, and so, now we are eternal too.
We will not only survive Judgment Day, but we will thrive. We will leap like calves released from the stall for the first time, that bright sunny spring day! Because we will know the verdict passed down from the Judge: "Not Guilty! Christ has taken the blame. Christ has paid for your sin. Christ has given you credit for his perfect life. Christ has set you free! Welcome to heaven!" Apply this truth to your heart and believe it.
And then, having learned to number your days aright and gaining hearts of wisdom, apply the truth of our timeless God, not just to your head, and not just to your heart, but to your hands. Moses prayed, "Establish the work of our hands for us—yes, establish the work of our hands." In view of the eternity God gives us we put aside our pursuit of the meaningless—of pleasure, of financial security, of needing to be right, and we do meaningful work that will last. We first invest in our own eternity, growing in our faith that clings to God's promises by using the Word and the Sacrament as often as we can, ensuring that we're ready for Judgment Day. And we invest in the eternity of others, sharing the message of God's unfailing love with all who will hear it. And when Judgment Day comes, we and they will stand side by side in perfect peace.
And we get to work. We number our days rightly, and, seeing how limited our opportunity is, we eagerly share what our God has done for us with others. We give them the comfort of the Gospel that they too might be ready for Judgment Day.
How long will we have to keep at it? When will we see the Lord? Will he return this afternoon? Will he bring about Judgment Day this month? Or will that great day come many years from now? I don't know. But I do know that God tells us to take one day at a time. He doesn't say "Teach us to number our years aright," or "Teach us to number our months aright," but, "Teach us to number our days aright…" So we do take one day at a time, trusting in God to provide our daily bread, trusting in God to answer our daily prayer, showing our thanks to God by our daily service to him.
And when each day ends, we can all pray with confidence, "Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord, my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take." But we can also add to that familiar prayer, "And of I live for many days, I pray the Lord to guide my ways."
For even though we are but dust in God's sight on our own, through Christ and the promises of our eternal, changeless God, we too are eternal. We will live forever. We will live forever with him. We will live right now for him. And, "May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands for us—yes, establish the work of our hands." In Jesus' name, dear friends, amen.