Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 19, 2023
Psalm 90:1-8 (9-11), 12 Commentary
Psalm 90 is pegged in the superscription to be a psalm of Moses and though Moses’ having written this whole poem may be unlikely, there can be little doubt why this psalm has long been associated with Moses. Like Moses himself and the people he led for 40+ years, this psalm is a little bit all over the place.
It begins with a lyric sentiment about God being our true dwelling place. This could be paraphrased that God is our “home.” That’s pretty lyric as is the next line that God is from everlasting to everlasting. God is everlasting. Eternal. As a friend says, “God was before was was.” But this opening verse cannot quite prepare you for what follows. If we think based on verse 1 that this psalm is going to be like some lovely counted-cross-stitch wall hanging all filled with Precious Moments-esque warm sentiments about God being our true home, we are wrong!
Instead what comes next are bracing words about how fleeting human life is and how God sweeps us all away in death sooner or later (and overall it mostly feels like sooner rather than later). Major echoes of the Book of Ecclesiastes are present here on how transient and sometimes futile-feeling life can be.
But then in a set of verses the Lectionary seems to make optional we get even more bracing words on the judgments of God and how fierce is God’s wrath and anger over our iniquities. God places the list of our sins in front of us as much as to say, “What am I supposed to do with this, people?” And then the psalm tells us that if we are afraid of God’s anger, rightly so and while we’re at it, we probably are not actually afraid enough.
The Lectionary takes the parentheses away to let verse 12 into this lection. “Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” And then in the final verses that are left out altogether by the RCL there is a lament-like plea for God to relent, to back off already, to satisfy us some morning soon with good things and with God’s love. And then the psalm concludes with a request to establish the work of our hands.
Again, the psalm is all over the place. We have some highs, quite a few lows, some warm sentiments and some dark broodings over sin and wrath and the fleetingness of life just generally. All in all it really does look like a one-psalm pastiche to reflect all the years during which Moses led the people of Israel. Because for all those wilderness years, there was a sense in which God was the people’s one dwelling place. Even when they were technically people without a country—people without a home we could say—God’s presence stayed with them in the cloudy and fiery pillars and in his dwelling in the Tabernacle, seated on the throne of the Ark of the Covenant. God took care of his squirrelly people, giving them manna and quail and water in wilderness places where otherwise the sustenance of life is absent. The wilderness is a place of death. God preserved life there even so.
Ah but then there were all those times of high-handed rebellion on the part of Israel. They complained. They moaned. They engaged in activities that the law given to them at Sinai clearly prohibited as ill befitting a people who wanted to have a holy God dwell in their midst. And so God’s righteous anger had more than a few occasions to flash. Maybe it was a scourge of poisonous serpents. Maybe the earth opened up to swallow people alive. Whatever the case, the verses in Psalm 90 that go on a bit about being punished for iniquities have a well-documented history in the people of Israel.
Even so God stayed with them. God managed to forgive. God managed to keep Moses at his post even on those occasions when Moses as much as said to God, “Look, these are your people so do something with them because I quit!” Moses, too, was a little all over the place in the Pentateuch and at the end of the day, he lost his temper at a key moment and for some reason that is by no means clear to discern in Scripture, that was enough for God to say Moses would only get to lead the people to the brink of the Promised Land but he himself would be banished from entering it himself. Ouch. No wonder someone thought to associate the end of Psalm 90 with Moses and a plea for God, despite everything, to satisfy us in the morning with his love.
Beyond all the ways Psalm 90 is like a miniature history of Moses and Israel, we in the church today can surely see ourselves in this picture too. This shuttling back and forth between praise of God and acknowledgement of his being our eternal home and then laments and confessions of sin—all the while being acutely aware of how short human life is in the grand scheme of things—well, this is not unfamiliar to us, is it?
The church has been washed in the blood of the lamb Jesus Christ. We are now collectively and individually like walking Tabernacles in whom the very Holy Spirit of God dwells. We have been given so many divine gifts. We have been given above all the gift of grace. We know we are a forgiven people and we strive to make our lives thank offerings to God. We want to show God that we “get it,” that being saved by grace means living graciously as a result. Christ-likeness is our goal.
And yet . . . sometimes the church is an unholy mess. How much bad behavior haven’t some of us witnessed in the church in terms of responses to the COVID pandemic? How many congregations have been rent asunder by all that and the balkanized partisan political environment in which it all took place? How many faithful and loving pastors were sent packing? How many pastors who took it upon themselves to take a partisan stand also did severe damage to the sheep for whom they were supposed to be caring in tender love?
We serve a loving and gracious God whom the Son of God told us to address as “Our Father.” But that hardly means this God smiles on all that happens in Christ’s Church. We too might do well to fear God’s reactions in all this. Because like ancient Israel, so the New Israel that just is the Church can be a little all over the place too. Psalm 90 maps quite well onto our reality no less than it did to the history of Israel’s reality under Moses and beyond.
Preaching on Psalm 90 gives us a chance to acknowledge all that, repent of it, and throw ourselves back on the mercies of the God who is our dwelling place. We don’t deserve it but we, too, need to be satisfied in the morning by God’s unfailing love and grace and we too in the end need to ask God to establish the work of our hands, trembling and faulty though those hands too often are.
I come from a tradition in which people sometimes tried to outdo one another in consigning even the best of their works to the “filthy rags” pile of things that could never please a truly holy God no matter how hard we try. Let’s simply peg that as a bit of an extreme when it comes to regarding what Psalm 90 calls “the work of our hands.”
On the other hand (no pun intended) neither should we over-inflate how wonderful our works are. It is almost certainly true that even the best of what we manage to accomplish is often tinged with some pride and ego or came about out of a bag of mixed motives, some of which were holy and noble and some of which were . . . well, somewhere east of noble. But when we ask God to establish our work, we do so hoping God accepts it anyway. And we believe the Bible says he does. He is able to say “Well done, good and faithful servant!”
Maybe it’s like those school projects that preschoolers, Kindergarteners, and other young children make as gifts for their parents. I remember when was in Kindergarten or maybe first grade, we made gifts for our fathers. We were tasked with working with clay that could be fired in a kiln and then glazed. Many of us—yes, what I am about to say is true as this did once happen—made ash trays. My father smoked cigarettes so I knew he’d like another ash tray especially if made by his little boy. In truth, the ash tray I made was pathetic. It was not round, had uneven edges, was kind of an ugly shade of green. And my father loved it. He used it. Aside from retrospective guilt in my aiding and abetting a really bad habit (!), what I remember is that my gift, though the very imperfect work of my very imperfect little hands, was received by grace and in love.
Maybe our works are like that in the sight of God.
And while we’re at it, you can listen to the Billy Collins poem “The Lanyard” for the same idea.
Here is a link to the alternative Psalm this week: https://cepreaching.org/commentary/2017-11-13/psalm-123/
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