Compassion for Dust:
A Sermon on Psalm 90
Psalm 90 is so well written and just dripping with emotion, it is a sermon in itself. The Psalm just strikes you with its honesty. The Christian tradition has always treasured the psalms because they are so expressive of our thoughts and feelings that we can read them as our own prayers. There is no holding back for this poem. Because of its focus on death and suffering, it is traditionally associated with funerals, somber occasions to remember God’s grace in the midst of our frailty. We are called to remember the eternal God while we face all the issues that come with being human.
Psalm 90 is attributed to Moses, and we should read it as though it is an expression of what Moses would have prayed to God in private. By the power of God, Moses led the Israelites from slavery into the desert. There they received the bounty of God raining from the heavens, but then were led astray and they wandered in the desert for 40 years. This is a prayer of a lost soul, a person who has seen great tragedy, and life seems as though it will never let up. Moses died before he was able to enter the promised Land, he died just outside of his goal. Think about that, living 40 years as leader of a lost people, searching for the land that has been promised to you by God, but you are not allowed to enter because as Deuteronomy tells us, God was angry with Moses. That paints a wonderful picture of the anger and pain we are dealing with.
“For we are consumed by your anger; by your wrath we are overwhelmed”
This is probably a little harsh to our ears, right? But it’s a brutally honest account of human life. If we are truly honest with ourselves, we all feel like this at some point. In our culture, its not “appropriate” to let others see our feelings, to fully see our entire selves. We tend to put up a wall of social politeness. When we say “Hi, how are you?” we expect the other person to say “Fine, how are you?” That is, we aren’t really asking someone how they are doing, but it’s a formal greeting. It would be strange for someone you barely know to cry out with anguish all the iniquities, pains and challenges in their life if we asked how’re you.
In this prayer to God, the psalmist is saying You know what? Its not “fine.” Its not “all good.” We are in pain. The days of our lives are only “toil and trouble.” We work and we wander and we struggle, but those good days that we are promised, whether it be retirement, peace, happiness, just seems to be beyond our reach. All the natural disasters over the past year, the wars our nation is in, the crisis in the Middle East, the mass trouble in Africa, the tragic deaths in our communities all point to a picture of life that is not “fine.” The events of the world, give us the sense that life that is “toil and trouble.” In the midst of tragedy a natural question to ask is why? What does this all mean? Where is God in this?
The psalm is not ashamed about where God is. God is angry. “Who considers the power of your anger? Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.” That is to say, Anyone who would wonder about the anger of God needs to only see the effects of God’s wrath. And honestly that’s what it feels like. We worship the God who created everything in the universe, who is supremely powerful. The suffering of humanity certainly seems like a product of God’s anger. Yet, when we talk about the anger and the wrath of God, we cannot confuse human anger with divine anger. Thinking about God in human terms is often destined for failure. Just as we shouldn’t think of God as a old man sitting in a golden throne with a long white beard, so we shouldn’t think of God as an angry spouse hellbent on revenge.
Humans “lose it” when we get angry. Something about becoming incredibly angry, makes our good sense and rational thought go right out the window. God’s anger is not irrational like ours. God is not an angry tyrant. Because through all of eternity, from everlasting to everlasting, we know that “God is love.” His anger must come from a place of pure love. In the birth of humanity, in the garden of Eden, the sins of Adam and Eve resulted in the punishment of humanity. God said “by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” You see, the brokenness of this world is tied up with the sinfulness of this world, with our turning away from God.
That’s why the psalmist says “You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your countenance.” Our shortcomings, our mistakes and our sins are known by God. Every person on the planet falls short, as there is no one without sin. We are weak, we are frail, and though we try, we often fall short of our intentions and our goals. We cant live the way we ought to. Our toil and trouble, the disasters and violence of this world, are all a product of the brokenness of the world. God is angry at our sinfulness, God hates that turn away, that we seek out things that are not God.
When we think of God’s anger, we have to think of it in the context of our own brokenness. God’s anger flows out of God’s deep love for us, it is entirely just, as God’s justice is perfect. Not the justice of earthly governments, not a petty revenge. God’s anger is like the mother who engages in “tough love.” When a mother “grounds” one of her children, it is not just because she is angry, it is because she loves her child and wants them to learn the way to be good. A mother that may be stern or forceful with her children, but will never abandon her children, and always loves them.
Because in God’s anger, the Lord did not abandon us. Actually, the complete opposite. He became our dwelling place. God says to us “Turn back you mortals.” God is eternal and everlasting. Before we existed, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit reigned as God Almighty. God turned dust into human flesh, breathing life into lifeless dirt. We sit here breathing because of God’s grace and creation. And as soon as his beloved creations turned away from God’s love, we hear “turn back you mortals.”
What greater sin can there be besides relying on ourselves, as we so often do? What would make God angrier? We often do not notice this. Our country, our society is built around self-reliance. We are the country where the American dream is to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, work hard, and make yourself a fortune. We don’t need others. Reliance on others is almost a sign of weakness. In fact, we often think that we have all the tools we need to be successful. That with hard work and determination, we can make ourselves whatever we want to be.
But the Bible tells us a different story. It tells of a God who created us and bestows his love to us, without which we would not even exist. It tells us of a savior, who had to come down to this world in order to redeem it, because we were all entrapped in sin. It tells us of a Holy Spirit that enables us with gifts and talents so that we are able to function, work and praise God. Most importantly, it tells us that we are ultimately in need of God.
God is described as existing before the mountains and the earth. God existed before the mountains were brought forth, before the world was formed. Mountains grow at mere millimeters a year, the earth is older than our brains can even process. In fact, we are told God is our God from “everlasting to everlasting.” God is the God who was, is and is to come.
When we look to God, the God of eternity, we see a picture of a perfect being. God is all-knowing, ever present, all powerful, perfectly just, loving, and merciful. When we think about God in all his infiniteness, we cannot help but see how limited we as humans are. We are like blades of grass that grow in the morning and wither in the evening compared to God. Here is where we can say that modern culture is simply confused. If we do not look to God as our Lord, it is near impossible to see humans as limited as merely temporary beings. Its easy to think “I could live forever” if we have no idea of how short a time we really live. Its easy to say “I can do all things” instead of “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
This is not a depressing truth. Of course any talk about death and sin does come across a bit gloomy, and the psalm does not shy away from this. Brutal honesty in this case is a hopeful one. When we acknowledge our own limits, our own sinfulness and shortcomings, we can honestly confess that we NEED God. Not just that we ought to worship God to gain whatever benefit you desire, eternal life, etc. But to feel an actual need for deliverance. The psalmist puts it like this: “Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” A heart of wisdom. Wisdom is the wisdom to know God in all God’s infinite power, a knowledge to be humble and wisdom to not claim the power and greatness that belongs to God alone.
Those who love God pray to God. Prayer is the ultimate form of accepting one’s need for God. We come to God, with praise and petitions. We seek deliverance from our troubles, guidance for our decisions, and strength for our lives. The Psalmist begs God: “Turn O Lord! How long? Have compassion on your servants!” Here the author makes the bold move to ask God to turn away from his anger. Earlier, the psalm talks about how God turned dust into humans, and now entreats us to turn back to God. Now, the psalmist entreats God to do what we are completely incapable of doing ourselves. We cannot turn away from our selfish desires. We cannot escape the imprisonment we find ourselves in. We can only entreat God to have mercy. To have mercy in a way we cannot even conceive of. This is a prayer of deliverance from the desert, from suffering, and from frustration. We ask God to have compassion for us, because without God we are nothing more than dust.
So, in contrast to our current situations, We ask God to shower us with grace and love. To make us have as many happy, joyous days as days we have suffered. The psalm continues “Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children.” We ask to see God’s presence among us, to make his work evident so that we can have hope for salvation, for freedom. This is a prayer for the “favor of God.” This is a strong witness to faith, hope and love because the psalm comes full circle. Without the ending, the psalm would be depressing. Without the examination of our finiteness, the psalm could be empty praise.
Ultimately, this prayer has been answered. We, the church, have been given the Lord Jesus Christ. HE is that work that has been made manifest to us. Through his life, death and resurrection, we have received grace and forgiveness. We are able to overcome sin and become righteousness through the Holy Spirit. This is a continuation of the story of God’s everlasting care for humanity. Just as God delivered the people of Israel after Moses died, so he did not abandon humanity, but brought salvation to all through the blood of our Lord. “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”
All we have in life, our salvation, our gifts, our talents comes from God, and it is nothing but the grace of God all the way down. That is why we cry together to “Prosper the work of our hands.” What we do with our hands, we dedicate to God, that he may increase the work for the glory of God. Because only through God are we able to work at all.
And this is what it means to call God our “dwelling place.” We all have a place we call home. Whether it be your parents house, your apartment, dorm room or your own families’ house, there is a place we all go where the smell is just right and we feel comfortable and are able to relax. Its often inexpressible, but in an unspoken way you know what I’m talking about. “Home is where the heart is” and as a certain farm girl from Kansas told me: “there’s no place like home.” When we call God our “dwelling place” we can think of it in these terms. When our hearts dwell in God, we are able to find peace and rest. Comfort, and salvation.
God becomes our dwelling place, when we respond to the love and grace that God gives to us and are able to turn back to God. Because through it all, through the toil and trouble, through God’s wrath, God stands with his arms open asking us to return home. In the face of our shortcomings, we can dwell in the everlasting God. On this earth, we are always in movement, from one place to another, always in transition. Earthly homes change. Though they may bring physical and spiritual comfort at times, homes can burn down. Some homes can be ruined by terrible experiences or that feeling can just fade over time. But God never changes. In the triune Lord, we can come to a rest, we can find steadfast joy in the morning and rejoice all of our days.
Dwelling in God means that we can know the holy presence is among us, here and now. We are here this morning to worship God, to hear the Word of God, and to properly respond to the gift of grace. Dwelling in God means remembering that God is perfect and infinite, and to know that we are in need of such a God. Not just to know that we are frail without him, but to appreciate our condition and know that God brings us up out of our brokenness and allows us to stand.
Our problems, our toils and our troubles will not necessarily magically disappear because we seek God’s solace. After all, Moses did die before his work was complete. The brokenness of the world will continue until Christ returns in the end of days, and all is resurrected and made anew. But what can change is our understanding of all things. God gives us strength to face the day, faith to believe and trust in him, and hope that all will be made right. Seeing our weakness, allows us to love ourselves properly as creatures of God. We can love others, not as means for our own prosperity, but as equal children of God. We can love God as our one and only Lord, as the magnificent Parent we know the Father to be.
WE can see God.
So through our deep felt assurance in God, our dwelling in the Lord, we can have faith that God will provide, that God will never turn away from us. We are his beloved creations, and he is always there asking us to turn back. We must look to his infinite greatness in order to see how much we need God, how much God has to offer. When we entrust all to him, we can begin to live rightly, and to see the power of God in all things. May we all trust, love and worship the God who is from everlasting to everlasting.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.