Did you know Christians didn’t always refer to themselves as “Christians”? Toward the end of the Book of Acts, the Apostle Paul tells us that in the earliest days of our history, we were called “The Way.” I like it. It’s dynamic. There’s movement there, built in, and maybe most interesting of all is how that name focuses on the journey we’re all on together. “The Way” is about today. Let tomorrow worry about itself. With two weeks to go until Election Day and the coronavirus pandemic still raging, maybe it’ll be good for us to focus less on what might be or what we hope will be and more on what is and what can be.
Holy God — our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer — guide us this morning by your Word and your Holy Spirit, so that in your light we might see light, and in your truth, we might find freedom, and in your will, we might truly discover peace through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
You turn us back to dust,
and say, “Turn back, you mortals.”
For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.
You sweep them away; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning;
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.
For we are consumed by your anger;
by your wrath we are overwhelmed.
You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your countenance.
For all our days pass away under your wrath;
our years come to an end like a sigh.
The days of our life are seventy years,
or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.
Who considers the power of your anger?
Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.
So teach us to count our days
that we may gain a wise heart.
Turn, O Lord! How long?
Have compassion on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us,
and as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be manifest to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands!
“O God, Our Help in Ages Past” — Isaac Watts (YouTube video for in-home worship: Click here for Video)
O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home!
Under the shadow of Thy throne
Thy saints have dwelt secure;
Sufficient is Thine arm alone,
And our defense is sure.
Before the hills in order stood,
Or earth received her frame,
From everlasting Thou art God,
To endless years the same.
A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.
Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.
O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guide while life shall last,
And our eternal home.
Did you listen to the words of that hymn? Go ahead. Check it out again. I’ll wait.
Stanzas one through four are par for the course when it comes to talking about an almighty, eternal God. “Under the shadow of Thy throne // Thy saints have dwelt secure // Sufficient is Thine arm alone // And our defense is sure.” Amen. Nobody could complain about that.
But then there’s stanza #5. “Time, like an ever-rolling stream // Bears all its sons away // They fly, forgotten, as a dream // Dies at the opening day.” Psalm 90, from which O God, Our Help in Ages Past is paraphrased, puts it like this: “You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers” (Ps 90:5-6). Or, again, this time even more starkly: “You turn us back to dust, and say, ‘Turn back, you mortals’” (Ps 90:3). Turn back, you mortals! Turn back into dust! You and I are like dreams, born on the wind, utterly forgotten.
Now, that can’t be comforting, can it? If I’m being brutally honest, I don’t want to be forgotten. Death scares me, not to mention nonexistence altogether, and yet here’s a famous hymn and a biblical psalm reminding us that, in the end, we really are nothing but dust — mere memories in the mind of God. What’s he going to do with us? Isaac Watts hopes for an “eternal home.” The psalmist? Just some good years at the end.
If you open up to Psalm 90 in your Bibles, you’ll probably note that it’s attributed to Moses, “the man of God.” Tradition has it that Moses sang this psalm up on Mount Sinai when he learned that the Israelites had descended into idolatry and constructed a golden calf. That would fit: “For we are consumed by your anger; by your wrath we are overwhelmed. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your countenance…Turn, O Lord! How long? Have compassion on your servants” (Ps 90:7-8, 13).
Even so, I wonder if Moses didn’t perform an encore up on top of Mount Nebo, right before Israel crossed the Jordan and finally entered the Promised Land. Consider how Deuteronomy 34:4 paints the scene: “The Lord said to [Moses], ‘This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob…I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.’ Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command.” Did you catch that? Moses never gets to enjoy the fruits of his labor, and no one can even remember where he was buried. It’s like he simply turned back into dust, a mere dream swept away with the morning.
Whenever I’ve read this psalm in the past, I’ve always thought of verse four — “For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past” — as a testament to God’s infinity. God is eternal! God is forever! The great immeasurability of God set him apart from us completely. But, I’m beginning to think that the wonder here isn’t God’s infinity but his presence — his full and intentional presence in each and every second of life. God lives, we might say, in the moment, and he wants us to live that way, too.
Maybe that’s what those earliest Christians were thinking when they called themselves “The Way.” The good news that Jesus preached to them wasn’t just some far off hope in a blessed future which we might — like Moses — only get to glimpse from a distance. It was instead a turning back to the present. It was a revelation that the beauty of eternal life begins today, not with the elimination of all struggle and pain but with the realization that God is fully and intentionally present with us right here and right now. If we need proof of that, it’s in the fact that we don’t randomly descend into dust. The God who created and redeemed us also sustains us. Psalm 90 is sure of that.
I once met a Christian friend on “The Way” who confessed that he would be content if life simply ended at death. He tried not to live life “to the fullest,” which is Hollywood’s way of saying “party hard,” but with love, humility, and authenticity. It gave him a deep, abiding joy. In the end, he said, he’d be happy if he died miles out in the wilderness, far away from civilization, where his body could decompose and his flesh return to the dirt. Knowing my friend, a death like that would mean dying as he had always sought to live — by loving and serving in every moment, by metaphorically (and literally) giving his life as fuel for God’s new creation.
Moses may not have entered the Promised Land. His last resting place may have been forgotten. But the life he gave on “The Way” was full of presence — love, mercy, compassion, and an enduring faith that God has us all in his hands, whatever may come. And that “Way” of living will always be remembered.
Holy God, give us today the grace and the strength to live and love fully in each moment of our lives. Help us not to worry about tomorrow but to exist with all our being today. We ask this in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who paved the Way and who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.