Updated: Nov 15
a message by Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
Coral Isles Church, U.C.C.
October 29, 2023
1 Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. 2 Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. 3 You turn us back to dust, and say, “Turn back, you mortals.” 4 For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night. 5 You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; 6 in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers. 7 For we are consumed by your anger; by your wrath we are overwhelmed. 8 You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your countenance. 9 For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh. 10 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. 11 Who considers the power of your anger? Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you. 12 So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart. 13 Turn, O Lord! How long? Have compassion on your servants! 14 Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. 15 Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us, and as many years as we have seen evil. 16 Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. 17 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!
What are your promises worth? Have you ever been challenged that way? It is the question someone asks of someone who has broken trust with them. It is a hard, hurtful question. Some have asked it of God: what are Your promises worth? They have been hurt. Or their expectations haven’t been met. Or they have been promised wrongly by people claiming to speak for God!
What about the “promises” of God? Have you ever thought about those? There are dozens of websites that propose to catalog all the Biblical promises of God. As I have been talking about the four things I believe we all need in life, this morning I have come to the word, “promises.” But I have a slightly different take on those promises than some might. And let me confess this passage of Scripture doesn’t seem to offer a lot in the way of promises from God at first glance. Let me say a word about the first three things I have claimed we all need. Then I will dig into this Psalm to share what I believe it tells us about God’s promises.
So just a quick review. I suggested that we all need power in life. Many of us feel powerless about some things, and some of us may feel powerless about everything. I suggested that our power lies in God’s love. That love, which I claim Scripture teaches us is unconditional, is our real power. Then I looked at “purpose.” My point was that we all need a purpose in life. Perhaps it sounds odd, but I suggested our purpose in life is to accept God’s invitation to the party. To celebrate life and all that God gives and to worship and praise God for it. Last week I turned to our need for peace. I hoped to encourage you to find peace in God. I hoped to remind us all that peace begins with each of us, but we all can work for a wider peace in our world as well. So that brings me to today and the idea of the promises of God.
There are a lot of Scriptures that I could use to make promises to you about God. John tells us Jesus said, “I go to prepare a place for you, and if I go I shall surely return to take you with me.” Great promise. God says, “I will be your God and you will be my people…” and God promised to give the people a land flowing with milk and honey. Right now, its flowing with weapons and war and the suffering of innocent people, unfortunately, but that is not God’s fault. Promises, even those we attribute to God can be tricky. Too many coopt what we hear as God’s promises from what they are really about to a version of the American Dream of health, wealth, and happiness. But I’m not a televangelist and this church doesn’t have a jet for me to fly in. What I do is strive to tell the truth about God as I know it.
I’ve admitted that this Psalm does not sound like it is full of promises, does it? Scholars say it contains elements of lament, expressing sorrow for our human situation. Did you hear that as we were reading it? The writer sings about how our lives are only so long and we are gone like the grasses. It speaks of God’s wrath and anger. These parts for me are always part of a theology that I don’t subscribe to. They attribute all our suffering to God, when most of the time it is a result of our own ignorance or evil, or to the reality that nature is often fickle and frightening. Still the Psalm writer’s one clear consistent promise is God’s presence: God is our dwelling place for all generations! Good times or bad God is where we live and move and have our being.
We might say the writer asks for this promise:
Have compassion on your servants! 4 Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days….
16 Let your work be manifest to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
17 Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands
Today we observed “All Saints Day.” We remember those who have entered God’s presence fully. Hopefully, we can remember those people as someone who showed us the ways of life and faith worth following. And I suspect we can’t help but hope the promise of life everlasting, of resurrection, of heaven, are promises fulfilled for them. And of course, promises awaiting fulfillment for us. I so often insist that Jesus when was talking about the “kingdom” or “reign” of heaven he was talking about right here and now, you may think I don’t believe in heaven as a time of life after death at all. But I certainly hope the promises of a new life, of a place and time of perfection, and of being more fully aware of God’s presence and unconditional love. I do trust the promise of a time to come when this will be truly and fully realized when we lay these burdens down.
There are, truly, a lot of promises expressed on behalf of God or supposedly by God in Scripture. One can find a lot of inspiration and perhaps hope in them. Surely that is what a promise is – an inspiration and a hope for the future. A ring given at a request for her hand in marriage is a promise. So are the vows taken. A baptism of an infant or child is a promise that the parents will do their best to raise a child to choose faith for themselves at a future time. My mentor in the ministry used to say at every baptism that every baby is sign that God means for the world to go on – a kind of promise.
Ultimately, I think the key for me is the faith I have in this one promise: God has promised to be our God. This is the God who is my help and my hope. God has always been our help and our hope, and I pray that God’s help and hope continues to help us live our lives and do our work and live in faith. And I will keep praying this and believing this until that time I do discover personally, the truth about life in the resurrection.
For me the old Isaac Watts hymn captures both the spirit and meaning of this Psalm and the sense of promise that I believe it gives us. Do you remember the hymn, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past?” Among its lines is this: “Sufficient is your arm alone and our defense is sure,” and a short couple of verses later this hope: “Still be our God while troubles last and our eternal home.” I want to sing it together as we end this sermon as a way to point out what our promise in God really is:
O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come
Our shelter from the stormy blast, and our e-ternal home
Under the shadow of Your throne, Your saints have dwelt secure
Sufficient is Your arm a-lone, and our de-fense is sure.
Before the hills in order stood, or earth received its frame
From everlasting You are God to endless years the same
O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come
Still be our God while troubles last and our eternal home.