New Year’s Eve – 2014 LSB #733
Text – Psalm 90:11-12
Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you? So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.
The Numbering of Our Days
“Teach us all to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom & finally be saved.” That’s a traditional prayer for the bereaved. As the year ends, it’s typical to think of those who have left us behind, during the past twelve months, as they departed this life.
On April 15, 1912, E. J. Smith, the captain of a large passenger liner, led the passengers of his ship in a Sunday morning devotion. The worship service included the singing of the familiar hymn, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” which includes the words:
“Time, like an ever-rolling stream, soon bears us all away; we fly forgotten as a dream dies at the opening day.” (LSB 733 v. 5) About 16 hours after that devotional service, 1502 people, among the passengers & crew of that ship, learned first-hand the meaning of those words as the Titanic slipped beneath the waves of the North Atlantic.
That hymn, along with Psalm 90, upon which the hymn is based, bear vivid witness to the swift passage of time & the shortness of human life, facts which are already on our minds as the year 2014 quickly fades into 2015.
How short life is! In times of trouble & hardship the days can seem to stretch on forever & ever, but when we look back upon the days gone by, we must still exclaim, “How short life is!” Despite all our avoidance strategies, we are always confronted by the stark reality of this truth: “we fly away” (v. 10), & quickly we are forgotten as a dream.
Many of us cannot recite the full names of our own grandparents, the very people who meant so much to our parents, who in turn mean so much to us. Unless the end of the world comes 1st, even the cemetery memorial stones, which supposedly mark our whereabouts forever, will soon weather away & be erased. In the psalm before us, Moses, who has seen a whole generation of his Israelite brothers & sisters die during a 40-year span in the wilderness, faces the prospect of his own death.
He speaks of human life as something quickly washed away by a torrential rain, as a sleep which is over even before we become aware of the passage of time, & as grass which is mowed down the same day it first sprang up. All people return to the dust from whence they came.
In the psalm Moses used the word we to emphasize that not even the people of God are exempted from the swift race toward death. As the passage of life is swift, so also death is inevitable, no matter what people do to try to masquerade its inevitability.
Some of us will try to hide from death through sheer busy-ness. We figure that as long as we’re occupied with a multitude of duties & hobbies, we’ll stay young & not have time to think about death. Others of us will stock up on many of the world’s supplies that we can thereby pretend we are never going to leave this world behind.
Still others will think that we can push back the inevitable indefinitely through organic food or through fitness programs. Some try to insulate themselves from death by institutionalizing it, tucking it away behind the solid brick walls of hospitals & funeral homes.
There’ll always be those who try to “immortalize” themselves, those who by sheer effort & achievement attempt to leave in this world a permanent mark which no one could possibly erase or forget. Last, there’ll be those who try to philosophize death away by adopting an “eat, drink & be merry” outlook. Much of this evening’s festivities around the world are patterned on that approach. Then, there are people who refuse to confront death’s reality by viewing it through a pair of rose-colored glasses as simply a return to Mother Nature. But through Moses, the “man of God,” the Lord Almighty exposes the whole masquerade. Go ahead! Shout & laugh & cry, sweat & squirm & rationalize as you will, the brick wall is standing there. It stops everyone cold in their tracks.
The sand in the hourglass will not slow down for anyone – threescore & ten, perhaps 80 years, but not much more than that. Even after a whole life of scurrying about, your long list of accomplishments, the things that cause you to burst with pride, will amount to nothingness or, at most, the sweat that accumulated on your brow.
As generation follows upon generation, what is it that makes the human condition so helpless & hopeless? Here Moses remains relentless in his honest appraisal of life in this world. The entire problem from beginning to end, the problem which always was & now is, belongs not with God, but with us.
The problem always has been our guilt – sin which is nothing less than the cause of humanity’s mortality. Even our secret sins are laid totally bare in God’s sight. We have built up the brick wall of death with our own hands, yet they’re entirely powerless to tear down that wall.
If we could double our anticipated lifespan, we’d probably be driven mad by living so long in a world as sinful as ours. So it is that Moses simply will not tolerate any false optimism about human life. So-called positive attitudes about life & pondering the possibilities of life are exposed for what they are.
With Psalm 90, Moses would have us look at human life with such complete honesty that we despair of it entirely. As we stare death in the face, & all the problems that lead up to it, we can do no more than fall flat on our face. Yet, Moses wants us to fall flat on our face in the right direction – in worship of God. He does not leave us comfortless. Already in the first verse of the psalm he shows us the direction in which he wants us to fall: “Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations.” (v. 1) What is the answer, the solution, to the human dilemma? In the spirit of the psalmist, we confess:
“O Lord, the answer to our poverty is not wealth. The answer to our sicknesses is not health. The answer to our sadness is not happiness. The answer to everything that life & death can throw at us is You, & You alone.”
As expected, never in this psalm does Moses blame God for the problems we’ve brought upon ourselves. But there is something incredibly enlightening about this psalm. Moses does not base his evaluation of human life on either a false optimism or on cynical pessimism.
Whether he was feeling good or bad, he simply draws a comparison, a contrast, between us transitory humans & our eternal Lord. In other words, what we happen to think or feel is not what counts. The only thing that matters is what God thinks & feels & does for us. That is the message of the Gospel. It is the glory of Christ Jesus.
With this in mind, Moses speaks for all of us when he prays, “Relent! O Lord . . . Have compassion on your servants.” (v. 13) It is that compassion, that mercy which makes all the difference in the world. Like the mountains He created, His steadfast love was there for us long before we were born, & it will be there for us when we die.
His mercy has been shown & given to us in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus came into this world knowing what He would find. He experienced the full range of life’s problems (though without sin). In Gethsemane, He stared death in the face, & alone on Calvary He slammed into the brick wall of death & shattered it.
By His death Jesus has destroyed death, & opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers. The prayer of Moses, “Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love” (v. 14), was answered on Easter morning when Jesus arose on the other side of the wall as our conquering Lamb. Our own grandchildren may forget our names. The stones which mark our resting places may be obliterated or removed. But when we are baptized into the death of our Lord Jesus, we are also baptized into His resurrection.
By His grace, we count for something. We are not forgotten. Our Savior remembers our baptismal name. Our life with Christ is described so beautifully by Moses: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (v. 12)
There are three ways in which we count our days as children of God. First, we count our days to be reminded of our human frailty. The days, months & years which fly by continually remind us of our sinful condition, & that God, & only God, can remove our despair over it.
Second, we count our days by a brand-new unit of measurement: we count them not by days, months & years, but by the grace of God. Each day we behold with wonder the mercies of our Lord, which are new every morning.
Gone are the frantic efforts toward self-preservation. Gone are our blind efforts to masquerade the stark fact of our own mortality. Gone are the attempts to put our name on the map to be remembered. It is what Yahweh has done that counts, & in His salvation He gives us His perfect peace, so that we can say:
“Let the days & years roll by! My days will be as limitless as His mercy. My name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. The answers to all my woes are the one answer, the Lord Jesus Christ. My desire is to be with Christ, for that is far better. Come quickly, Lord Jesus!”
Third, we count each day because each day is precious in the eyes of God. Each moment is a valuable opportunity to serve our Redeemer, to do the works He has prepared in advance that we should walk in them. Moses says it rightly: even now God establishes the works of our hands. We will be remembered for the works God performs through us. These works, the apostle John tells us, will follow us into eternal life. And St. Paul had a great way of putting together all these different ways of numbering our days. He said to the church in Corinth:
“We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.” (2 Corinthians 1:8–9)
The very same apostle said to the church at Philippi, “If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me.” (Philippians 1:22) As a child of God, Paul valued life in this world so much that he could not decide whether he wanted to remain on earth to labor for Christ or be with Christ in glory.
As children of God we can number our days in a similar fashion. We can get up in the morning, observe the continuous ticking of our alarm clock, flip over another page on our calendar, & thank God that we are very much remembered by Him, since we have been baptized in His triune name.
As people who have been baptized into both the death & the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we can say a two-fold prayer: “Lord, please take me out of this sinful, dead-end place called the world. But until you do, Lord, I thank you for each joyous day under your mercy. Help me to relish every moment of life here that You give me.” Amen.
O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast, & our eternal home. Under the shadow of Thy throne Thy saints have dwelt secure; sufficient is Thine arm alone, & our defense is sure. O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, be Thou are guard while troubles last & our eternal home. Amen.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet