Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | October 26, 2014

2014.10.26 “Psalm 90 – A Psalm for the Seasons of Life” – Deuteronomy 34: 1 – 12 / Psalm 90

Central United Methodist Church
Psalm 90 – A Psalm for the Seasons of Life
Pastor David L. Haley
Deuteronomy 34: 1 – 12/Psalm 90
October 26th, 2014

Rohlfs - Moses Seeing the Promised Land

Rohlfs – Moses Seeing the Promised Land

We have come to that time of year when even the busiest, most tunnel-visioned among us has surely had an “aha” moment at the sight of a tree showing off its brilliant fall colors. Just the other day one caught my attention that could have been a Maple but looked more like a Monet.

The concept of Impressionism is appropriate, because autumn with its falling leaves affects each of us differently. Children see falling leaves as something to jump in, others see them as a nuisance to get off their lawn as quickly as possible, and some of us even see life lessons in the falling leaves, knowing that one day we will be like them.

For this reason, apart from its attention-getting beauty, many of us find fall a little melancholy.  Because, maybe more than any other season, fall reminds us of the changing seasons of life, and makes us think about what season we find ourselves in: spring, summer, fall, or winter.

I don’t quote poetry often, but this time of year I always think of Sonnet 73 by William Shakespeare, surely one of the most beautiful pieces of poetry in the English language:

                 That time of year thou mayst in me behold
                 When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
                 Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
                 Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

– William Shakespeare, Sonnet 73

It is this same melancholy tone that sounds in Shakespeare, that also sounds in two of today’s Scriptures, Deuteronomy 34 and Psalm 90. But if it is melancholy, it is because in this melancholia there are lessons to be learned, not only about our mortality, but as an antidote to our mortality, finding refuge in our Immortal, Eternal God.

We heard first Deuteronomy 34, a description of the last scene in the story of Moses, the great leader of the Jewish people.

According to the Biblical story, Moses was 80 years old when he led his people out of Egypt; that’s remarkable in that at age 80 some of us can hardly get out of bed in the morning. If Moses’ first career was as a pampered prince in pharaoh’s court, and his second as nomadic herdsman; it was his third career that kept him busy: chatting with God, working miracles, leading an unruly band of people through the wilderness for 40 years, and conveying the laws of the Torah that stand to this day.  Not bad work if you can get it.

But now, in chapter 34, according to the text, at the age of 120, Moses starts to slow down. His final act is to hike up Mount Nebo, in order to overlook the Promised Land, a land he knows he’ll never enter. After all he’s accomplished, he has come thus far, but no further.  He can see it in the distance, but he’ll never get there.

Frankly, a lot of life is like that. As the circumstances of our lives change, we sometimes have to give up life-long dreams. We might want to go to Harvard or attend medical school, but it’s not in the cards for our family or our finances.  We leave a life in one place or one country, to begin a different life in another place or country. Because we do, our lives will be completely different.

Last Wednesday I took my daughter down to the University of Chicago, for an interview. Her interview was in the building next door to the Divinity School, where I spent several years of my life, getting a second Master’s degree, about 30 years ago. Initially, I had intended to teach, and was on course to do that, but decided not to pursue it. While I waited for her, sitting there on the Quadrangle, I couldn’t help but reflect how different my life might have been if I had continued; I almost certainly wouldn’t be standing here right now, wouldn’t have the family and friends I have. I could see that alternate world from a distance, but it was not to be, and I would never set foot in it.

As we grow older we have children and grandchildren, but the limitation of our mortality means we don’t get to see how their lives turn out, which I find to be one of the most disturbing and difficult aspects of our mortality. Sometimes it fills me with deep concern as I look at the world we’re leaving our children and grandchildren, what with threats like climate change, racism, social inequality and war, and epidemics outbreaks like Ebola.  But they will have to handle it on their own, hopefully with the lessons we have taught them. All of us have similar situations in our lives.  We can see it in the distance, but it is not to be.  Thus far and no further.  As mortal creatures, where then is our hope?

Our hope is expressed in the Psalm that follows, Psalm 90, which we know best through the words of Isaac Watt’s classic hymn, one of the greatest hits of 1719, “O God Our Help in Ages Past.”  Psalm 90 is one of our favorite Psalms, because it is such an eloquent meditation on God, humanity, and the transcient nature of life.

In our readings, it was chosen to follow this last chapter of Moses for two reasons: because, of all 150 Psalms, it is the only Palm associated with Moses (though likely not written by him).  And secondly, because of the wise theme of the Psalm continues to plumb the depths of the questions raised by the last scene in the life of Moses. Psalm 90 continues to plumb the depths of our humanity, and what it means to be mortal, but then, for its answer, points us back to the Immortal, Eternal God.

On the one hand, there is God, who is:

– Our dwelling place in all generations

– The Creator since “before mountains were brought forth”

– The one who is God “from everlasting to everlasting”

– The one to whom a thousand years are but like yesterday, like a watch in the night.”

We humans, on the other hand:

– Turn back to dust on a single word from God

– Are like a dream in the night

– Grow up like grass fed by morning dew, which withers and fades by evening.

– Have a life span that is “seventy – or perhaps eighty – years, if we are strong.” Or, as the old King James Version put it, “Threescore years and ten, and if by reason of strength they be fourscore.”  Which was, by the way, an elegance Abraham Lincoln drew upon for his Gettysburg address.

Thanks to the advances in health through modern medicine, most of us – unless we die prematurely – have a good chance of reaching and surpassing our seventies and eighties, perhaps even reaching one hundred (isn’t that right, Leone?)

Which is not to say that our lives will always be easy, nor without deficits, which some of us know too well.  Joseph Campbell, the scholar of mythology, said our bodies get to be like an old car losing a bumper, or having a few instruments that don’t work anymore, picking up a little rust here and there. I recall that conversation among three residents in a nursing home.  Said one, “I sure do miss my sight.” Said another, “What?” “Sight, you said?”  “I can still see,” she said, “but I should wish I could hear.”  “Well,” added the third, “I can see and hear alright, but I sure do miss my mind.”

Of course, if we are fortunate, and God opens our eyes to see, for our losses in old age, there are compensations.  Robert Rains, who wrote some of the best books ever on creative aging, says in his book A Time to Live:

“At 65, I can’t play handball as I did when I was 25 or 45, but I know a lot more about life now than I did then. Which is more important? At 65, I’m not as capable at throwing a football or a baseball as I was 40 or 50 years ago, but I’m a lot better at loving than I was then. Which is more important?  At 65, I’m not as strong        physically as I once was — after all, some of the macho muscle has turned to mucho mush — but I’m psychologically stronger in a lot of other ways. Which is more important? At 65, my eyesight is weaker than it used to be, but my insight is stronger.  Which is more important?” (Robert Rains, A Time to Live, 1998.)

There’s no getting around it; life is sometimes hard; unbearably hard; undoubtedly easier for us than it has been for most of the human race.  And Psalm 90 reflects this:

“All our days pass away in your anger.
Our years are consumed like a sigh.
Seventy years is the span of our days,
or eighty if we are strong.
 And most of these are toil and pain.
They pass swiftly and we are gone.”

“Life is difficult,” wrote M. Scott Peck in one of the most famous first sentences ever, in his 1978 book, The Road Less Traveled. “This is a great truth,” said Peck, “one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it.”

Psalm 90 helps us transcend it by returning to the theme of time and pleading with God, if not to wind back the hands of time (which most of us attempt in every way we can), then at least to reverse some of the more deflating and discouraging effects of our mortality: the burdensome sense that life is without purpose; the debilitating sense that because death comes for all, nothing we do matters; the fear that finally there is nothing that can satisfy us or give joy. In response, Psalm 90 speaks:

 “Teach us, O God, to number our days,
that we may gain wisdom of heart.
At dawn, fill us with your merciful love;
we shall exult and rejoice all our days.
Give us joy for the days of our affliction,
 for the years when we looked upon evil.”

Finally, even the psalm’s doubly repeated prayer, is not so much a prayer as a promise: The promise that work done here on earth by mortal hands – as Jesus described it, love of God and love of neighbor – can make a lasting difference, when blessed by the Eternal One in heaven:

“Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
Give success to the work of our hands,
Give success to the work of our hands.”

I can’t help but wonder if this final prayer of Psalm 90, wasn’t prayed by a 1st century Jewish rabbi whose life and ministry came to nothing. Three years of ministry out of his 30 years of life, just a handful of followers, common folk like fishermen and women and tax-collectors, who even then, denied him in the end.  Whose rough-hewn carpenter’s hands were – in the end – nailed to a cross.  I wonder, might he have prayed Psalm 90’s prayer?

It’s not a bad prayer, with which to begin any day, especially these beautiful fall days, as the air begins to chill and the leaves flutter to the ground before us.

Please pray with me:

“Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
Give success to the work of our hands,
Give success to the work of our hands.”  Amen.

*     *     *     *     *    *     *

I want to acknowledge my gratitude in this sermon to Rolf Jacobsen’s helpful commentary on Psalm 90 at Working Preacher, October 11, 2009.


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