Psalm 90 "Throughout All Generations"
As I have shared with you before, few scientific facts amaze me more than what Albert Einstein discovered about time. Tonight is one of those focused moments when we ponder time in ways we do not do ordinarily. The watch on my wrist, the clock on my living room bookcase, the digital clock inside my computer tick away constantly and steadily every day. But we seldom stare at clocks while they tick. But later tonight we will all stare at the clock, even counting down one final sixty-second interval. And when the hands of the clock go straight-up on midnight, we will endow that particular tick of time with much more meaning than any other we've experienced in the past twelve months.
In any event, whether or not we pay particular attention to time, we assume it is constant. One minute is the same here in this room as in a room way over in Australia. Sixty seconds is the same for us now as it was in Jesus' day 2,000 years ago. But despite that constancy, we all know that our minds can play tricks on us where time's passage is concerned. That's why we lament the way time "drags by" in the surgical waiting room at Butterworth even as we say an entire day just "flew by" when we were having a grand time with the kids at an amusement park. Even Einstein once humorously defined his theory of relativity this way: he said, "An hour sitting on the sofa with your girlfriend seems like just a minute whereas a minute sitting on a hot stove seems like an hour!"
But Einstein's great innovation did not involve that kind of psychological trick. After all, when you are sitting in the surgical waiting room, just look around you. Some people are highly anxious and clearly uptight. For these hapless folks, the minutes seem to be crawling by at a snail's pace. Yet not four feet away in that same waiting room, you may observe someone who is clearly not worried as she chats away amiably with some friends and sipping her Starbucks coffee. So in the very same room you can see two people, each of whom is experiencing time differently. But the clock on the waiting room wall is going no slower and no faster for either of them. Both the person for whom time is dragging and the one for whom it is passing quickly are still aging at the exact same rate.
But Einstein discovered that time is the fourth dimension, as real as the spatial dimensions of up and down, forward and backward. But time is not constant. Time can be affected by movement. The faster someone travels, the slower time passes. So if someone were to take a roundtrip journey in a spaceship that could travel exceedingly fast, upon returning to earth that traveler might discover that whereas she had aged only a year, her friends back on earth would be twenty years older. Believe it or not, this has been proven even on earth. If you take two very sensitive nuclear clocks that can record even the smallest decay of an atom and place one clock at the top of the Sears Tower in Chicago and another in the basement of the Sears Tower, the clock up top will run more slowly. As the earth turns, objects that are higher travel faster than those nearer the core of the earth and this movement affects the actual passage of time.
Psalm 90 is all about time. You could almost say this ancient psalm is about the relativity of time. Because the psalmist was quite obviously struggling to make some sense out of the temporal side to human existence. The one undeniable fact that each person must face is not just the reality of death but how fleetingly swift life seems as we hurtle toward that final conclusion. In one sense verses 5-6 are an example of hyperbole, of exaggeration as the psalmist compares life to the swift 24-hour cycle of certain kinds of grass. Yet I've spoken to enough elderly people to know that even those who look back on eighty or ninety years of life say that all things considered, that grassy image in verses 5-6 is pretty much how life feels in retrospect. "Why, it seems like just yesterday I was eighteen years old. It was all ahead of me then, let me tell you. But now I just don't know where the time went!"
This all-too-swift passing of the years is something almost all of us know about. Some of you have even told me it gets worse as you get older. Time goes faster precisely in that season of life when you are slowing down! So we can identify with that part of Psalm 90. But this psalmist is not merely observing that this is so. He is trying to nestle that experience into the wider context of God's eternity. From generation to generation God is the same, we are told in the opening verse. God existed before anything else did. Furthermore, it's not merely generation to generation as we mark such things on a family tree, it's also "from everlasting to everlasting." God's longevity, if you want to put it that way, makes time a fleeting phenomenon for him, too, but in a different way. "A thousand years in your sight are like a day gone by." They now say that the universe may be as old as 15 billion years. But compared to eternity, even that huge span of time isn't much.
Of course, you could take this part of Psalm 90 and make it into a piece of dismal news. After all, if a millennium is nothing to God, then how can those of us who do not typically manage to eke out even a century's worth of life possibly matter to him? If centuries and millennia of time are to God nothing but a passing blip, then how could you or I or any mere person matter? How could we be even noteworthy? Psalm 90 is a two-edged sword. The psalmist wants us to find comfort in looking to God, but if we are not careful, that same comparison could make us feel dreadfully puny and insignificant.
But, of course, Psalm 90 is not trying to do that. Like that other wonderful poem of Psalm 8, so also here the vastness of time and space is not highlighted to make us conclude we don't matter. Instead, seeing ourselves in such wide open spaces is designed to make us marvel anew over the fact that despite the spatial and temporal odds that are stacked against us, somehow we do matter to God!
They say that the Milky Way galaxy that we call home contains a billion stars, of which our sun is only one and not one of the more impressive stars at that. They now also think that in addition to this galaxy there may be another billion galaxies each of which may also contain a billion stars. The vastness of it all, and the 15 billion-year cosmic history that appears to have brought the universe this far, makes it exceptionally easy to conclude that despite all we humans have achieved and despite the nobility of our finest aspirations, we have no choice but to accept the humbling fact that we humans just don't matter. The vastness of the space-time continuum and the fleeting nature of our lives forces the conclusion that it's all vapor, dust, and cloud. We should live for the moment for that is all we will ever have anyway.
Take away my faith, take away my Bible, take away my God in Christ, and I don't know what would prevent me from embracing that view, too. But it is precisely because the Word of God does not ignore the fleetingness of life that I find hope. The fact is that we are not the center of the universe, we are not just obviously so singularly impressive a planet that no one could help but spy the Earth when scanning the depths of space. The Bible admits that. Yet the Bible also confesses that God has even so zeroed in on us. He has gone so far as to send his only Son to become one of us. And so when we pray to this God, when we place the times of our lives into his everlasting hands, we get God's attention and we receive his lovingkindness, his unfailing love, his chesed mentioned in verse 14. And when by faith we receive that, we find our lives, our times, and that annoying fleetingness of life placed into an everlasting context that somehow helps us to relax.
As it turns out, we don't have to pack in all the meaning we yearn for into the span of these seventy, maybe eighty, years. If there are things we've never done, emotions we've never experienced, a level of existence we always wanted to achieve but never had time for in this life, it's all right because death is not the end--not if the God who has been our dwelling place, our home, throughout all generations is our God indeed. "Teach us to number our days so that we may gain a heart of wisdom" the psalmist writes in verse 12. Just what "wisdom" do you suppose he had in mind there? The conventional wisdom that concludes we are no more than a cosmic hiccup? No. In this case wisdom means a prudent discerning that if we matter at all in the grander scheme of things, it is only because of God's grace and unfailing love, a grace that comes new every morning as our lives march onward.
The "generation to generation," "everlasting to everlasting" eternality of God could daunt us into despair. If we place our three- or four-score years on one side of the cosmic scale and God's everlasting nature on the other side, we would see so lopsided a sight as to make us either weep over the tragedy of our short lives or guffaw over the ridiculous absurdity of it all. But Psalm 90 doesn't want us to stack ourselves up against God. The image here is not a scale but rather a pair of hands. We place the times of our lives into the hands of God where we are preserved, kept, and endowed with a depth of meaning and a hope for our own eternal existence in God's kingdom that goes well beyond anything we would ever see just by looking around us in this life.
Time is relative, the good Dr. Einstein taught us. Motion affects it. Speed and the direction you are going make a difference. At our Lord's table this New Year's Eve, we experience this too. By taking the bread and the wine to ourselves, by faith we travel back in time at high speed to be with our Lord at Golgotha once more, dying with him. But by faith this table launches us forward, too, as we hurtle back again into the arms of our everlasting and loving God, who is our cosmic home throughout all generations.
But whether we hurtle backward or forward in time, it is always Godward that we go. And time gets affected by this motion, too. It is a holy theory of relativity as we realize that relative to God, the times of our lives end up mattering a great deal after all. If you have any doubt about that, please note in a moment that the hands into which you place the times of your lives are pierced hands. If that does not tell you how much your life matters, nothing will! Amen.