Rev. Rolf Preus| December 31, 2003 and January 1, 2004| Psalm 90
LORD, You have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever You had formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God. You turn man to destruction, and say, “Return, O children of men.” For a thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it is past, and like a watch in the night. You carry them away like a flood; they are like a sleep. In the morning they are like grass which grows up: in the morning it flourishes and grows up; in the evening it is cut down and withers. For we have been consumed by Your anger, and by Your wrath we are terrified. You have set our iniquities before You, our secret sins in the light of Your countenance. For all our days have passed away in Your wrath; we finish our years like a sigh. The days of our lives are seventy years; and if by reason of strength they are eighty years, yet their boast is only labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away. Who knows the power of Your anger? For as the fear of You, so is Your wrath. So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. Return, O LORD! How long? And have compassion on Your servants. Oh, satisfy us early with Your mercy, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days! Make us glad according to the days in which You have afflicted us, the years in which we have seen evil. Let Your work appear to Your servants, and Your glory to their children. And let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands for us; yes, establish the work of our hands.
And when eight days were completed for the circumcision of the Child, His name was called JESUS, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.
Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible known as the Pentateuch or the Torah. He was the most important prophet of the Old Testament. What is not commonly known is that he also wrote the psalm we just heard. It is the oldest Psalm in the Psalter. David, the author of most of the psalms, lived four hundred years after Moses.
I doubt that this psalm is your favorite. In fact, it is rather depressing. Its emphasis is on our mortality. All of us will die. The psalm doesn’t portray death as a friend or as a peaceful release from this world’s troubles. Instead, death is the exclamation point emphasizing God’s fierce anger against sinners. Of course, this is what we would expect from Moses. He knew God’s law.
The man presided over thousands and thousands of funerals. Almost all of those that delivered out of Egyptian slavery died in the Sinai desert. Moses recorded man’s fall into sin and God’s very sincere threat that death would surely follow sin. He recounted the generations of Adam in Genesis 5, and after each name concluded with the words, “and he died.” Moses understood human mortality. He was no Greek philosopher, Buddhist monk or New Age enthusiast, imagining that death is sweet release from bondage to this material world. He understood death. How well do we understand death?
If we are to understand death we must first understand life, and for that, we need to look at God himself. This Psalm shows us God’s eternity. “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, you are God.” God is uncreated; the only one who is uncreated. He had no beginning and He has no end. He has always been who and what He is now and He will always remain what He has always been. He is the living God. From God’s nature we learn that true life is eternal. True life does not end. We don’t learn this from nature because nature itself is under the curse of sin, which is death. We learn this only from God. When God breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life he became a living soul, not a dying one.
God made us: body and soul. God made us to live forever in both body and soul. He did not create us to die. It was not His intention for those made in the image of the immortal God to become mortal. Death was not God’s original design; it came into this world through sin. It is easy enough for people to become philosophical about disease, death and decay. Most folks think this is the way things were meant to be. When they see physical death, they assume that this is simply God’s way of bringing us into the spiritual realm where all people will enjoy a release from physical life. They don’t understand death at all. It is God’s curse! It is God’s wrath! It is God’s judgment! It is being consumed by God’s anger! Every single death of every single man, woman or child is another hammer blow from God’s law which indicts, tries and convicts the whole world and leaves us helpless before its verdict. Death is not a warm fuzzy friend to be embraced. He is the enemy. The poet, Dillon Thomas, showed an understanding of the nature of death when he wrote, “Do not go gentle into that good night, rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
But all our efforts against it are futile. Time catches up with us. Time marches on, and life with it. Time, which to us leaves generations dead and forgotten, is to the eternal God, like yesterday, like a watch in the night.
Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day. (ELH 160 stanza 6)
We remember the lives of our loved ones, we pass on memories of them, and we try to keep those memories alive in the hearts of our children and grandchildren. But it is all to no avail. Most of us won’t even be an obscure footnote in any written history, and even if we were, what difference would it make? Time marches on, and we die. “Vanity of vanities, everything is vanity.” This is the teaching of the Preacher, the author of Ecclesiastes. Or as the hymnist puts it, “What at last does this world leave us, but a hand full of sand or some loss to grieve us?”
Thank God that Moses does not end this psalm until the law has given way to the gospel. Moses, like every faithful prophet and preacher, preached God’s law for the sake of God’s gospel. “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” The biblical use of the word wisdom is very important. A heart of wisdom is not simply a matter of maturing in our understanding as we grow older. And Moses is not talking about the collective wisdom of the great thinkers, philosophers, and wise men of this world. The heart of wisdom of which Moses speaks is the heart that embraces Christ.
Christ is our wisdom. Christ is God’s compassion on us. He is God’s mercy. He is God’s glory and beauty. And He has joined us. He became a baby in the Virgin’s womb. God is our Brother. As we sang last Sunday:
What harm can sin and death then do?
The true God now abides with you.
Let hell and Satan rage and chafe,
Christ is your Brother – ye are safe. (ELH 154 stanza 4)
When God becomes a man He becomes an immortal man because God is immortal. But this immortal God become man did not come only to live among us. He came to die for us. When the immortal God dies for mortal man, mortal man gains immortality. At the age of eight days He first shed His blood for us. He was the holy God become flesh and for His own sake He had no need to submit Himself to any law. His very nature is to do in purity and perfection what His law demanded of us. But he was not incarnate for His own sake. He became a man for us. When He submitted Himself to circumcision He signified thereby that He would obey the whole law and thereby to fulfill it with finality so that that law could no longer condemn us to death. But more than that, by shedding His blood as an infant and redeeming all infants from sin and sanctifying Holy Baptism for their regeneration, He thereby promised to shed His blood as a man for all men, women, and children ever to be born into this world. The circumcision of Jesus was a public event. It proclaimed then and there and to us today that the God-man would take away the curse of the law against us both by His obedience to it and by His suffering the judgment of it.
This Jesus who joined us has remained with us. He was there when we were baptized. He was there when we were instructed in the holy Christian faith. He was there when we communed at God’s altar. He was also there when the cancer struck, when the child was killed, and when the mother died. He was there when every tragedy occurred and every loss was sustained. He was there, and He never left us. As we clung in vain hope to what was passing away, to what was dying and decaying, Christ, the living Christ was there, gently turning our eyes away from death to the life he came to bring. “Look,” He told us, “Look to the manger and see that it is I, come to join you in your weakness. See that I shed my blood for you as an infant and know that I have come to fulfill the law for you. Look to my obedience and see your righteousness. Look to my cross, and see that I am dying your death, I am bearing in both body and soul the source of all your misery, for I have chosen to be numbered with sinners in order to remove their sin and swallow up their death. Look at the empty tomb, My resurrection, and know beyond any doubt that it is the guarantee of your resurrection to eternal life on the last day.
He came from eternity and broke into our time. He descended into our death to destroy it. He came with life to give and he has given it to us. So we defy death as we watch time fly away and the hour of our death approaching. We see those whom we love leave us behind, and we continue to rejoice in life. In Jesus’ name we will live and do our work. In Jesus’ name we will face death without fear. Jesus faced the death we could not face and defeated the enemy who held us under his bondage. He joined us in our sin and removed it by his precious blood. He gives us new beginnings, not just each new year, but every day as he keeps us by the power of his name in the saving faith. So we can say with confidence in the words of Kingo’s Gradual:
In Jesus’ name we live and we will die;
If then we live, His love we will proclaim;
If we die, we gain thereby.
In Jesus’ name, Who from heaven to us came,
We shall again arise to meet Him in the skies,
When at last, saved by His grace, we shall see Him face to face,
Live with Him in Paradise. Amen (ELH 4 stanza 3)