Saturday, December 31, 2011

Life's Little Day

Life's Little Day

(Yes, this is a sermon from 2008,preached for the saints of Covenant Presbyterian Church of Louisville, MS, where I was both the first and the last pastor.  I post it now, not in the expectation that it will be read by many, but because it seems appropriate on this the last day of the year when thoughts often turn to life's frailty and brevity. It seems, if anything, only more appropriate, in light of the experiences of both those dear people and my own family. Moreover, I think it demonstrates that those of us who are both old school and old side, or as D. G. Hart would put it "old life" preach "experimental" sermons - of a sort - too. The sermon enters into the experience of God's people and seeks to give them comfort without feeling the necessity of questioning if they are God's people. )

Before Reading: We have found that the author of Psalm 102 faces two troubling things in his life. He is experiencing personal affliction. He is about to give out and give up, so he opens up his heart and cries out to God. On the other hand, God's people are in a weak condition. He is probably living among the exiles who had been carried off into captivity when the Babylonians overran Judah. The capital city, Jerusalem, and its temple are now rubble. He opens prays with intensity about this, too. And he finds hope for both himself  and  God's people in knowing the God is eternal, sovereign, merciful, that he has made and will keep promises, and in knowing the God will be worshiped for all time and that the  nations will join Israel in true worship.

In the last of the Psalm he returns to the two subjects with which he opened the Psalm – that  he is frail and mortal while God is eternal and unchangeable. Verses 23-28 are something of a recapitulation of verses 1-12.

Psalter Reading: Psalm 102
Sermon Text: Psalm 102: 23-28


Nobody  wants life to end, but when you have reached your threescore and ten, or fourscore, or even fourscore and ten, at least  you to know that you have been allowed to live out what the Bible “normal lifespan. But you don't have this consolation when you face death in what we call “the prime of life.” When you are in your in mid-life, maybe just beginning to hit your stride, to attain success, to begin to enjoy the fruits of your labor, it seeks like the timing is all wrong. “How could this be happening? I am at the top of my game. I have so much I want to do and could do. How could it be all be over for me now?” 

When death comes in midlife, it can mean that parents see their children buried. And, it is painful to them. It just doesn't seem right to outlive one of your children, especially not when you have had your full measure of years, and most of your accomplishments are behind you, while you son or daughter has much to live for and leaves behind a job, a house, a spouse, and children. 

The Psalmist is a man who feels his strength is declining and fears his life is about to end prematurely.

I. The Impermanence of Man 

This stanza begins with a poignant statement of man's impermanence – man is frail, constantly subject to change, and mortal - 

He has broken my strength in midcourse;
he has shortened my days. 

His strength is waning while he ought still to be strong and vigorous, and it seems he his not going to live out a normal lifespan – he thinks he will die prematurely 

Lou Gehrig – started playing first base of the Yankees in 1923 and played the position for 13 years – he was called the Iron Man because he started 2130 consecutive games, a record that stood until when Cal Ripken broke it –  he began having problems during the 1938 season and his batting average fell below 300 for the first time since 1925 – he was having problems both at bat and in the field – he wasn't struggling as all  players occasionally do, nor as a player a little past his prime can be expected to do – he got through the 1938 season and  tried to play the 1939 season – he played 8 games, but he was losing his strength and dexterity and had to take himself out of the lineup – he went to the Mayo Clinic where we was diagnosed with the the degenerative disease we now call “Lou Gehrig's disease” -– his strength was shortened at midcourse – and his days were shortened – two years after he left baseball Lou Gehrig died, a few weeks short of his 38th  birthday

This is the way the Psalmist felt about his life - but this is something experienced not only by those who find their strength declining prematurely, whether by accident or disease – all of us tend to feel that we lose our strength all too soon – we wonder, “What happened to my youth and energy?” - we don't see anything graceful about the way we are aging - this past week I did a good bit of yard work – some of it was pretty strenuous, digging stuff up, moving dirt, etc. I did not experience any ominous symptoms, and I expected that my muscles would be registering their complaints, but what bothered me most was that I was, as we sometimes say, “just give out” - it wasn't a matter of sitting down a few minutes, drinking some water, cooling off and then bouncing back a little while afterwards – no, it was ongoing fatigue – not one of us enjoys the decline of strength

This is true also of death, even when it comes late  - I have long thought that, regardless of our age, when death comes and taps  us on the shoulder and says it's time to go, we respond with, “So soon?” We are   like children at a birthday party or adults enjoying a wonderful vacation. We can't believe that life has passed by so fast and that it's time to go already.

But believers experience something peculiar to themselves –for them more is a stake the failing of the body and death, whether prematurely or after a full measure of years – it has to do with the kingdom of God  

For the Psalmist it meant that if God answered his prayers for the restoration of of his people to their land, he might not be able to participate in their return and the rebuilding – his prayers would be answered, but he would not enjoy the results – at best, if he lived,  he might hear occasional reports of what others were experiencing – and if he died soon he would no even know the joy of hearing reports of the renewal of God's blessings and the restoration of the people to their land 

And, for those who are believers and love the church, there is added disappointment that we cannot serve the kingdom as well as we once could – we get tired sooner, we do not remember things as well as we used to, we are not as creative as we once were – we sense that people in their prime don't look at us as mature and wise but as dated and irrelevant –  many of God's people miss the time when they could do more for the Lord

Even if we can die like Abraham, old and full of years, we want to know, “Where did the time go? Just yesterday I was a boy (or girl), and now I am old. How did I get to this last period of life quickly?” The realization comes over us that we are, as my friend Emily Reeves says, “sitting pretty close to the front of the bus.” Soon the driver will announce that we  have arrived at the stop where we get off

Death affects believers in a way unbelievers are not affected – we have the comfort of knowing we will be with the Lord – but there may be things we still want to do for God or blessings on the church we want to see – Don Patterson was the pastor of my youth, with whom I enjoyed a close friendship in the last decade of his life – he lived more the threescore and ten years, but, when it became clear his life was coming to a close, his main regret was that he would not accomplish some of the things he still wanted to do – one thing he wanted to do was to raise a million dollars for the restoration of the church building that had been given to the Reformed congregation in Odessa, Ukraine – some of us hope that we may still have good years ahead when we can do things for God's church and kingdom that will be significant – and we hope that God will do greater things through our children than he has done in our time, and we would like to live to see it 

No wonder the Psalmist prays as he does:

Oh my God...take me not away in the midst of my days -
you whose years endure throughout all generations.

This is the natural and normal cry of every mortal heart – for 
 our days to be prolonged – to be spared to live yet a little longer
We cannot demand it, but we may pray, “O Lord, allow me to have the full measure of mortal life – the threescore and ten, even fourscore. And, if you please, add even to the fourscore as you have for some of your servants. Let me die feeling that I have had a full and useful life. Let me have the satisfied sense that I have known you well and served you faithfully in my generation. Let me live to see days of blessing for your church.”

God heard the prayer of King Hezekiah, who, when he was told he was going to die, asked God to spare him – the Lord responded, “I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold I will add fifteen years to your life. I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and will defend this city”

Hezekiah would live not only 15 more , but also would live to see the Lord do a great work for his people -we can ask the Lord to prolong our years and  let us see his blessings on the church in our lifetime - there are no guarantees, it is all in the hand of God who will do what is best, but we can ask

We may ask the Lord to grant us the blessing of Abraham who “died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people.” - like Simeon, who after he saw the Messiah said, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes  have seen you salvation”

Still, we know that this is the best we can hope for –  when all is said and done we are frail and mortal – we all must sing -

Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day, 
earth's joys grow dim, it glories pass away.
Change and decay in all around I see...  

It would be wrong if we did not remind ourselves that our Lord Jesus Christ knows all about change and decay. How long did he live as a mortal man? 33 years. We feel at 33 we have hardly begun to live, but he had lived all the life he would live in the space of time. His life was never easy. He experienced hardship and trouble all his days. And, in addition to all the usual hardships of life, he had to face the hostility and hatred of  his enemies who pursued him to death. And the death he died, was not a death in his bed, but a cursed, humiliating death on the cross. People watched and delighted in his agony and mocked him in his suffering. And, as he was dying he was abandoned by friends and forsaken by God. He suffered alone in the darkness of God's judgment, and he died without the support and comfort of any human being. 

We are not in this alone – Jesus has been through it all.

II. The Permanence of God

But Jesus found hope and he shows us that we can have the same hope he did. 

We need something substantial and permanent. That must be found outside ourselves, for all human life is by its present nature impermanent – we must look not only outside ourselves but outside the whole environment of creation - If you were in in the middle of the ocean and drowning, there not only would nothing in yourself you could do to save yourself, but nothing in your environment that could save you – there is nothing there to take hold of you to save you – we have to look outside ourselves and outside all creation to find a stable and lasting foundation -
the Psalmist found that in God, the Creator

Of old you laid the foundation of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away,
but you are the same, and your years have no end.

The creation that impresses us so much with its vastness, stability, and permanence is nothing next to the Source and Cause of all things that exist – including space and time. He is not a part of the creation it does not confine him. He is the eternal God who he is, was, and ever shall be. 

Robert Frost wrote a poem in which he says,

We may choose something like a star
to stay our minds on and be staid. 

But that doesn't work - the stars, however old they may be, and 
however long they may continue to burn, are in the process of burning themselves out and going cold - they may seem permanent in comparison with us, but they are going out of existence - what is true of the stars is true of the whole universe which is winding down and decaying - It is like clothing which begins to deteriorate as soon as you begin to wear it – my Dad could make clothes last as long as anybody – he could sew and I remember seeing him at the sewing machines sewing up holes in underwear, shirts and pants – I have seen him glue soles on shoes – but even his clothes eventually became cleaning cloths and eventually were discarded – the whole creation is like that

But God remains the same. He does not change. For us using our energy or strength uses them up but God's power is infinite. For us any enjoyment of happiness means we are closer to the moment it will end but God's happiness is perfect, and never diminishes. For us each year of our lives puts us a year closer to the end but God's life is eternal, without beginning or end.   

This is what gives the Psalmist hope for the future – the fact that God is eternal. If you look back to before creation, God is there; if you look forward as far as the mind can go, he is there. What he was, he is, and what he is he always will be. He never changes. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is utterly reliable. He is the solid foundation on which we can build our lives in the present and the rock on which we anchor our hope for the future.

Because he believes in an eternal, unchanging God the Psalmist lives with hope for his children, and their children, and all the generations yet to come. 

The children of your servants shall dwell secure;
their offspring shall be established before you.

The Psalmist's hopes were not disappointed. God kept his promises. He moved king Cyrus to change the policy of his predecessors. He issued an order that all Jews in his kingdom who wished to return to their land could return, and he made provision for them to begin rebuilding their homes and their temple. At the beginning of the exile it looked as though the kingdom of God was crushed forever. It had no future. Even later in the exile, when this Psalmist wrote, there was nothing except the promise of God to give any hope that God's people had a hope and a future. Nature had conquered the farmlands because there was no one to cultivate and maintain them. The capital city was in ruins. The temple was demolished. There was no king, no government, no kingdom. But the Psalmist was confident that since God was eternal and unchanging he would be there to see that all the promises were fulfilled. 

The Psalmist challenges us on two fronts. One is our hyper-individualism. We tend to think it's all about ourselves as individuals. But the Psalmist knows that God's kingdom is bigger than himself. The welfare of the kingdom of God is more important than what is going on in our individual lives, even than our troubles and sufferings. The Psalmist also challenges our obsession with the present. He looks to a future 
that he will not see. God will do things in the future that he will not live to see. Future generations will experience those promises, and in this he finds hope. The important thing is not that all that God has promised will happen in his lifetime, but that it will happen. 

All the Old Testament saints lived and died in hope -  hope for what God would do for his people in the future. They saw the future onlyas through a fog. But we now see what they lived and died hoping for – God's intervention to save his people from all sin and evil through his Son the Messiah. They put their faith in the promises of God – believing that there was a future for their children and for themselves. Somehow, though they died, they would experience the promises of God. In the light of Christ's coming, his work of redemption, and his resurrection we now know what God has done and will do.  He has redeemed us, and
he has redeemed even the creation. He has promised us a life beyond death, life with Christ sharing in the victory and glory of his resurrection.He has promised us life in a new heaven and earth where there will be only righteousness. 

There is no doubt about it – all of us are undergoing a process of
disintegration that will, if Christ does not come first, will result in our deaths. But the kingdom of God will go on for our children and all the generations to come. And someday the kingdom will finally come, and we will be there to know its joys. 

How do we know that the promises all will be fulfilled and that we will fully share in their fulfillment? It is because Jesus Christ, who became a man and shared in the frailty and mortality of our humanity, is also the eternal God. The writer of Hebrews picks up the words of verses 25-27 as spoken by God the Father to God the Son:

You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning;
and the heavens are the work of your hands;
they will perish, but you remain;
they will wear out like a garment,
like a robe you will roll them up,
like a garment they will be changed.
But you are the same,
and your years will  have no end. 
(Hebrews 1: 10-12)

The foundation of our hope is Jesus Christ - the same yesterday, today, and forever. 


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