A Life of Lament

Video of Vespers is here. The sermon begins around the 20:50 mark.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Aren’t there some interesting contradictions in how we view time? Before something happens, whether it’s days or months or years in the future, it seems like it is so far off. We wonder if we can wait. How long will it be? When will I finally get to do this or be that? When will this happen? It seems like the days pass so slowly while we’re waiting to be a teenager or get a driver’s license or graduate from high school or college, or get married, or have children, or get a good job, or retire, or vacation, or any number of other things. And then, all of a sudden, we’ve done some of it or all of it, and it seems like time went too quickly for us even to notice. Where did the time go? It seems like it was just yesterday.

Psalm 90, the only psalm attributed to Moses, focuses both on the length and the brevity of life, but not on both of them from the human perspective. From our perspective, 70 or 80 years seems like a long time before you’ve lived them, but before the eternity of God, more than ten times that amount is like a single day. A human life is a breath, a blade of grass. Compare our years with the God who is from everlasting to everlasting, from eternity of old to eternity yet to come, and we are nothing. We are irrelevant. We are as insignificant as a single grain of sand among not only the sand on the shore, but among all the grains at the bottom of every ocean. Maybe we could go further. You can probably separate out a single grain of sand. No, we’re more like dust that blows in the wind, a speck of which you can’t separate from all the rest of the dust-specks.

Here’s where Moses starts to sound like Solomon in Ecclesiastes: vanity, emptiness, worthlessness; all of it is empty. What, really, is the point of all this toil and trouble, difficulty and pain, struggle and labor, if life is nasty, brutish, and short? And more than that, it goes by under the wrath and fury of God? And that might be all we would or could say if we only knew of a God, an eternal God who made Adam from the dust of the earth and then returns all Adam’s descendants to that same dust and the same earth; a God who lines up all our sins in front of Him, gestures to them, and says, “What about all this?” I can’t see any escape from that God in this life, or in any life to come.

But though Moses can identify how we sometimes experience this life under the wrath of God toward the children of Adam over their sin, he puts the “how long” of his lament into the arms of that same God. This is the God, Moses reminds us, who has been our refuge. Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and you perish in the way, for His wrath is quickly kindled; blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him (Psalm 2:12). Moses brings all our days and all our years together—which are as nothing before the eternal God—and He puts them at the feet of God. This is not a God who is distant and absent; this is not a stone-faced God, either literally or figuratively. This is the God who created the earth. Moses describes that creation in terms both of a father begetting and of a mother bringing forth a child after a lot of labor and pain.

This God is tied, by His own choice, to this creation. And we certainly have deserved the wrath and fury of God. He made Adam and Eve and their children to rejoice in Him as His own creatures, fully human, fully satisfied in their Creator. But instead they sought refuge and satisfaction in their own desires and choices and words. “Though we deserve only punishment,” we pray. Moses cries out to that God as the God who is full of compassion and mercy. “Though we deserve only punishment, You receive us as Your children and provide for all our needs of body and soul.” He says, literally, “Rejoice us for the days you have afflicted us.” That is the nature of this world and this life. What would otherwise be a pitiful existence of labor and pain and struggle has—inexplicably, unexpectedly—a ring of light around the darkness; a growing flicker of light in the midst of the darkness.

We tend to think about life as if things should generally be good, and—since everyone’s thinking about green things and clovers today— we’re just unlucky if bad things happen to us. But what if it’s actually the other way around? What if we should actually have only evil and punishment? In that light, anything that happens to us that is not bad should be an everlasting surprise and source of thanksgiving? We are not lucky, but blessed. It is not by chance that good things happen, but by the grace of our God.

But it’s far better even than that, because into these years, these days, the Son of God Himself took on the flesh and blood of a single life’s short day. In the morning, He flourished in the strength of His youth, and in the darkened evening, He suffered and died under the full wrath and anger and fury of God—not after 70 or 80 years, but after just a few more than 30. And God satisfied Him in the morning of the third day with His steadfast, resurrection love. And Jesus might have prayed a verse from Psalm 17: “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; in my awaking, I shall be satisfied with Your likeness” (17:15). And so it will be for us, when we finally behold our God face to face, and see Him in His image according to the flesh.

Teach us thus to number our days, and to number them in righteousness: to consider God’s wrath and fury against sin, to consider Jesus taking our place under that wrath, to consider both the rejoicing and the afflicting, to be glad in the middle of days of affliction. I admit, that might be the thing I am worst at: I am happy when things are going well; when I am blessed in such little and temporary and simple ways, then I’m in a good mood. But when things go badly, when I see the affliction and the cross, then I’m in a bad mood. O God, rejoice me for as many days as You afflict me. Maybe also, afflict me for as many days as You rejoice me. So that I never do not take refuge in You, who are God forever. “Be to me a rock of refuge, to which I may continually come; you have given the command to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress” (Psalm 71:3).

Recall the works of God! He has delivered us by the work of crucifixion, the splendor of our Lord, who gives Himself freely, first to death in our place, and then to us in resurrection; let us see His mercy to us, and live to see His mercy to our children! Let the favor and delight of the Lord rest on us! And even—Moses says it, so I dare to ask it as well—to establish the works of our hands in these few days we have been given, as we do the works that God has given us to do.

“So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 6:17-20). In the middle of whatever affliction, we have a promise from a God who cannot lie, a promise that anchors us to Him, even if we are in the middle of the fiercest storm. To Him, in His Son, we have fled for refuge, and therefore we have the encouragement to hold fast to the hope that is before us: Jesus is the beginning of the new creation that will one day encompass us and swallow up all the affliction in eternal rejoicing. Return, O Yahweh! How long? On that eternal morning, satisfy us with the eternal life you are keeping for us in Christ, the Life, and we will rejoice and be glad all the days of eternity.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.

– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 3/17/21

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