Psalm 90


I’m going to preach on the fourth reading today, and I appreciate the fact that some of you here might not even realise that we have a fourth reading because we rarely read it.

The fourth reading is the Psalm, and there’s actually one scheduled for each week, along with the Old Testament reading, the Epistle reading and the Gospel.

If you look at the rubrics in the Anglican Prayer-book though (the ‘rubrics’ being the instructions that are written in red in the margins) you’ll see that you’re allowed to substitute a song for the Psalm, which is what we (and countless other churches) do.

Instead of saying the Psalm together, we sing a song together – a song which is sometimes based on a Psalm of course.  Even so, today I thought that today we would return to the traditional practice of the church and include a spoken Psalm once again.

And I accept that some of you will think this a little odd, especially given the Psalm I’ve chosen. I mean … let’s do a Psalm by all means, but why this Psalm, which has to be one of the most sober, if not downright morose, of all the Psalms?

3          Thou turnest man to destruction;

and sayest, Return, ye children of men.

5          Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep:

in the morning they are like grass which groweth up.

6          In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up;

in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.

10         The days of our years are threescore years and ten;

and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years,

yet is their strength labor and sorrow;

for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

It’s not exactly a celebration of life, is it?

Life is short and brutal according to the Psalmist, and the best of things that we experience in this life do not last for more than a moment before they are gone forever.

And some of those experiences we wish we could just hang on to for a little bit longer, but we can’t hold on to anything. The beautiful, golden moments that we experience are like droplets of water running through our hands. We just can’t hold on to them.

I remember some years ago now Ange somehow got us a free ticket to see the musical ‘Showboat’ at the casino in town. You can probably imagine the degree of enthusiasm I carried with me in anticipation of that show – a musical by the name of ‘Showboat’!

But I loved it!  And it really got me thinking and reminiscing, as the musical revolved around exactly this point – that you can’t hold on to life at any point.

And I remember vividly a huge black man with a deep, deep voice, who appeared regularly at the side of the stage and sang a refrain that was picked up repeatedly during the show: “Old man river, that old man river … he just keeps rolling along”

And life continues relentlessly as the river rolls on and nobody can stop the flow and nobody can turn back the hands of time. It just keeps rolling along!

Of course we have our own very similar song that we sing here in church regularly – particularly at funerals:

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” is the hymn. Isaac Watts (1674-1748) was the author, and of course his hymn is based on today’s psalm – Psalm 90.

We sing it mainly at funerals of course, and perhaps some feel that these sentiments really only need to be indulged in at funerals, and yet it’s reaching that time of year!

I received a Christmas promotion in the mail this week, which was very depressing, as it’s a reminder that the end of the year is fast approaching, and I had been feeling that the year had only just begun!

Yes, we will soon be at the end of another year, which means the end of another school term, and hence the end of the exam period, and young people will be finishing school and getting their certificates, and others will be passing their degrees and reaping their credentials and preparing to move onwards and upwards into bigger and better things, while the rest of us here, like Old Man River, just keep rolling along.

It seems like yesterday that I was celebrating my 20th year here, and in another month two it will be 21!  And every year I celebrate an anniversary here I look out and see less people here than were here when I started.  And this year the last of the old girls who were part of the community here when I started, and who mothered me here for so many years – the last of those old girls (my dear friend Joyce) left us.

Thou carriest them away as with a flood; they are as a sleep:

in the morning they are like grass which groweth up.

In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up;

in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.

It seems like only yesterday that Richard Smith and I used to gather up those girls each Friday morning in our cars and bring them over to Trinitys for our dynamic mornings of knitting and gentle gossip. We’d have 20+ old girls there some Fridays. All gone now!

Those were the days when they used to say to me, “people think you’re too young to be our minister but we love you!”  Nobody says that to me anymore (certainly not the part about being young).

You see, maybe my attraction to Psalm 90 is less a time of year thing for me, and more a time of life issue!  Here I am hurtling down the path towards the big ‘5’, ‘0’ in a few months’ time, and maybe it’s just me having trouble facing the reality of my own diminishing years – a reality I am having increasing trouble ignoring.

Most of you will remember that I had the privilege of competing in the ‘Masters Games’ a couple of weeks ago in Adelaide.  And being part of that event was a wonderful yet bizarre experience.

For the atmosphere of Adelaide at that time was very reminiscent for me of what Sydney was like during the 2000 Olympics.  There were athletes everywhere in tracksuits, along with countless marshals and other volunteers, staffing stalls, getting us organised, selling merchandise, and doing all the things one normally associates with a major social event of that magnitude.

And yet there was one very obvious feature that distinguished these games from the Olympics – just about everybody had white hair, and along with the discussions you’d have with fellow participants about sporting activities there would be constant discussion about problems with your back, etc.

It’s the same nowadays when I go to get-togethers with my ecclesiastical peers.  It seems like only yesterday that we were all young, fresh graduates, waiting to be unleashed into the world in mission.  Nowadays we seem to spend less time talking theology than we do urology!

The days of our years are threescore years and ten;

and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years,

yet is their strength labour and sorrow;

for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

It’s a rather bleak picture that the Psalmist paints.

Life is short and brutal.  That is less true for us here, of course, than it is for Indigenous Australian or for residents of Gaza or Somalia at the moment, but it is true nonetheless.

Life is short, and those we love the most are so quickly taken from us, just as one day soon we will be wrenched from those we most love.

And there is nothing we can do to stop this.  We can try to fool others about our age by applying all those products that are advertised on late-night TV, such that groups of women sit around and say to each other, “Oh my God, I can’t believe you’re really 60!”, but there is little fooling the grim reaper, and whether you last three score years and ten or four score or even a little bit longer, the basic pattern is the same:

In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up;

in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.

And perhaps that all seems very depressing, but the interesting thing is that the Psalmist doesn’t see this as a basis for depression at all but as the beginning of wisdom

So teach us to number our days,

that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.

For it appears that when the Psalmist reflects on the fragile and transitory nature of life, this doesn’t lead him to despair, but to instead recognise how precious life is, and to appreciate the importance of making the most of every moment!

It is the finite nature of life that makes it valuable!  Apparently the Buddha used to advise having a little bird on your shoulder that would periodically whisper in your ear, “Is this the day? Is this the last day of your days?”  Likewise the Psalmist recognises that appreciation of the finite nature of life leads to wisdom.

Wisdom – it used to be the goal of a good education, but nowadays a good education is one that is directed solely at getting you a well-paid job!

Wisdom is something different. It’s the ability to stand back and assess your life and ask yourself whether you really need a regular job or whether you need to be focusing on something more creative!

Wisdom is recognising that time is short, and hence that we need to do our best to make the most of it, and find out what it is that we are supposed to be doing and get on with it!

And yet wisdom also regularly stops and takes stock, appreciates silence, appreciates a sunrise. Wisdom takes time, steps back, prays, and grasps some times in a moment of worship a truth that defines a life, and recognises an insight in an ancient psalm that changes life forever!

I think that the ongoing popularity of Vampire movies in our culture at the moment is very instructive as to where our community is at the moment. Buffy and Angel are still doing re-runs, yet they’ve been joined by hordes more nosferatu, all of whom share two things in common:

  1. They are all young and beautiful
  2. None of them ever die

And this says a lot about the wisdom of our culture, I think – a culture that hides death inside tightly-sealed coffins that are kept in morgues and funeral parlours – always a safe distance from the land of the living.

We live in a death-denying culture, where youth is worshipped and where we happily trade everything we have in order to get face-lifts, nose-jobs, trims and tucks and a whole variety of costly surgical procedures in order to maintain the appearance of youth, even if none of these can actually change the reality.

This though is the wisdom of our age – that it is possible to be young and beautiful forever and ever– but the wisdom of the Psalmist takes us in an entirely different direction.  We are the grass, he reminds us, that flourishes in the morning but which fades and withers by evening.  Our days pass ‘like a sigh’.

So make the most of the time you’ve got. Take time to appreciate what is going on around you. Take time to absorb something of the love of the worshipping community here this morning. Recognise your limits, and love someone now as the opportunity might not be there tomorrow.

Life may be short but it can be beautiful, and perhaps it’s all the more beautiful because of its brevity. So seize the day, delight in all the good gifts that God has given you, and let that wisdom lead you finally to prayer:

17        And let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us.

First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, October 2nd, 2011. To hear the audio version of this sermon click here.

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.


About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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