The Lord’s Day Evening
December 31, 2006
Watch Night Service
“Teach Us to Number Our Days”
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Now, Watch Night Services...we’re cheating just a little bit, because Watch Night Services usually take place beginning around eleven o’clock at night and ending at midnight at the New Year; and for the 17-18 years or so I was in Belfast, that was our practice, to begin at eleven. We would be listening out for the guns that would shoot, that would explode on the ships in the dark, that would signal to us that it was actually midnight, and then we would sing Till We Meet Again or something like that, and then go home. But this evening (knowing how much you love your beds here in Mississippi) we decided maybe some year we’ll do that eleven o’clock thing, but tonight we’re beginning at the usual time.
You need to have the bulletin open before you this evening. It’s an unusual order of service. There are going to be three folk who are going to come and give a very personal word of testimony along very directed lines of thought: one, thanksgiving; one reflecting on providence; and one calling us to consecration—and they will be Don Breazeale and Paul Stephenson and Ligon, in that order.
It’s an important time for us in the sense that we
will never again be in 2006; and in a few hours it will be 2007, and that in
itself reminds us of the passing of time and the need to redeem the time, and to
remind ourselves of where it is we’re actually going in union with Jesus Christ.
Now let’s prepare our hearts for worship.
O Lord our God, we come into Your presence. We dare not come apart from the finished work of Your dear Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ. We come by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, united to Him by faith, regenerated by the Holy Spirit, adopted into the household and family of God, heirs of Yours and joint heirs with Jesus Christ. We come to praise You. We come to worship You on this the last service of this year. We come to pour out our hearts in Your presence.
Come, Holy Spirit, and fill us anew and draw us to the Savior, and give us an overflowing love for You and for one another. And grant, O Lord, as we reflect on all that has gone by and all that in Your grace lies before us...Help us as we confess our sins, as we make solemn covenant and promise in Your presence; help us, O Lord, to be wholly sincere and to be enabled to say this evening that “for me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Come, O Lord our God, and fill this place with Your presence and blessing, and hear us for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Please be seated.
Turn with me in your Bibles to the ninetieth Psalm. We find it on pages 718-719 in your pew Bibles. I’m just going to refer to a few verses in the Psalm. Let’s read the Psalm together.
“A Prayer of Moses the man of God.
“Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were born,
Or You gave birth to the earth and the world,
Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.
“You turn man back into dust,
And say, ‘Return, O children of men.’
For a thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it passes by,
Or as a watch in the night.
You have swept them away like a flood, they fall asleep;
In the morning they are like grass which sprouts anew.
In the morning it flourishes, and sprouts anew;
Toward evening it fades and withers away.
“For we have been consumed by Your anger,
And by Your wrath we have been dismayed.
You have placed our iniquities before You,
Our secret sins in the light of Your presence.
For all our days have declined in Your fury;
We have finished our years like a sigh.
As for the days of our life, they contain seventy years,
Or if due to strength, eighty years,
Yet their pride is but labor and sorrow;
For soon it is gone and we fly away.
Who understands the power of Your anger,
And Your fury, according to the fear that is due You?
So teach us to number our days,
That we may present to You a heart of wisdom.
“Do return, O Lord; how long will it be?
And be sorry for Your servants.
O satisfy us in the morning with Your lovingkindness,
That we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.
Make us glad according to the days You have afflicted us,
And the years we have seen evil.
Let Your work appear to Your servants,
And Your majesty to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us;
And confirm for us the work of our hands;
Yes, confirm the work of our hands.”
Amen. May God add His blessing to the reading of His holy and inerrant word.
Now, this is one of the oldest portions of the Bible. It is written by Moses. No one wrote before Moses. We’re not sure at what stage in Moses’ life this Psalm was written – probably during the wilderness wandering era at some point...years of great darkness, years when he sensed the alienation of God, years when he asked the “why?” questions.
I’m so very grateful tonight for Don and Paul and Ligon, for their very personal and painful contributions, and yet reaffirming to us surely the gospel works; the gospel is meaningful. It’s not just some pie in the sky, not just a wishful thought, but in the hardest places of all, it works.
We all know this Psalm, of course, from Isaac Watts’ famous rendition:
“Our God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come;
Our shelter from the stormy blast, And our eternal home.”
And then towards the end,
“Time, like an ever-rolling stream
Bears all its sons away....”
And we know it probably to the great tune of St. Anne, written by that organist, William Croft, organist to the Chapel Royal in Westminster Chapel in London.
The Psalm is about the passing of time, the transitoriness of life in contrast to the God who is from everlasting to everlasting. It begins with that wonderful statement of who God is and what God is like and ends with a series of prayers – six of them – in quick succession. Like a good deal of Hebrew poetry, the climax is in the middle. It’s in the twelfth verse:
“Teach us to number our days, that we might apply our hearts...” [or, “that we might present to You a heart of wisdom.”]
I want us to think just for a few minutes. At the end of the sermon we’re going to repeat together in unison this covenant that’s written down for us. I’ll say something about that in a minute. But as a segue to that covenant that we’re going to repeat together, I want us to think along two lines of thought, drawing from this twelfth verse of the Ninetieth Psalm.
I. And the first, about the need to number our days...to number our days.
I don’t know...I’ve engaged in some mathematics over the weekend. In a former life, I was a mathematician...very much a former life now! I’ve been trying to work out (I even at one point thought of calling Ligon and asking him for the answer)...but, how many funerals took place during the wilderness period? We know from Exodus 12, and I think it’s Exodus 38 (and we’re about to embark on the Book of Numbers so we’re going to hear it all again).... We know that 600,000 men (that is adult males, I take it) left Egypt and began that journey, that wilderness wandering, together with women and children. Some estimate two-, some estimate three million people. We also know that an entire generation of adult males (at the very least) died. They didn’t make it through to the end. Now, we’re not sure at what point Psalm 90 was written, but there were a lot of funerals. Perhaps as many – and my math may be astray, but I calculated that it could even be as many as 70 funerals every day from two to three million people during a forty year period. That’s a lot of funerals. I’m not saying that Moses saw every one of them, but death was something that was before them in the wilderness period. Man’s life, Moses tells us, is like grass that grows up in the morning and it flourishes, and in the evening it’s cut down and it withers. ‘We last but a day,’ is the metaphor.
Or, the prophet Isaiah tells us in chapter 64, “We all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.” We fade like a leaf. Like those wizened, dry, crackly oak leaves that refuse to fall from the tree even though they’re dead. A mist, James says, that appears for a little time, and then as soon as the sun comes up it vanishes away. Life is short.
How long do you have? Well, you don’t know, of course, but according to this Psalm, seventy years; perhaps, if you’re strong, eighty years. Perhaps some of you will make it into your nineties. If all I have is seventy years, I’ve got sixteen years. That is short. That is a sobering thought, that all I have is sixteen years. Some of you have a lot less. Some of you are on borrowed time! We need to number our days, and the passing of one year to another is an ideal time to reflect on how short life is.
I haven’t accomplished a tenth of the things I said I would like to accomplish when I was 21. Some of them I will never accomplish now: they require energy that only a 21-year-old can give. Grasp those opportunities. Number the days; remember the time is short, and time to serve the Lord is running out. The sands of time are sinking. You know, it’s the egg timer. When Rosemary and I were students at the seminary back in 1976 when communications were not what they are now, Rosemary’s late mother would call us once a month on a Sunday afternoon for three minutes. And she’d have an egg timer! And she would turn that egg timer, and as soon as the sand had fallen through that glass, the conversation was ended! That was it for another month. [Oh, how times have changed!] The sands of time are sinking.
“Lord, teach us to number our days.” Are you wasting your days, my friend? Wasting it on the baubles and trinkets of this world, and not on things that last? Wasting it on things where moth and rust corrupts and thieves break through and steal? Are you seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness? “Lord, teach us to number our days.”
II. But how, exactly? And that’s my second line of thought: How do we number our days?
The Psalm gives us several answers. It mentions, for example, crying to God for compassion in verse 13. In verse 14, beginning each day in the morning reflecting on the unfailing love of God, the...what Miles Coverdale in his translation of the Bible called the lovingkindness of God, the covenant love of God. You know, if you reflect on that in the morning, the day will go so much better.
But two other thoughts from the Psalm that I want us to think about: How do we number our days? By using our time wisely...wisely.
You know in a lifetime, according to U.S. News & World Report, the average American will spend six months sitting at stoplights, especially the ones down by UMC; eight months opening junk mail; one year looking for misplaced objects; two years unsuccessfully returning phone calls; four years doing housework; five years waiting in line; six years eating. If you had a bank that credited your account each morning with $86,000 and that carried over no balance from day to day...you were allowed to do with that money whatever you wanted, but you couldn’t carry it over to the next day...whatever you hadn’t spent was lost, couldn’t be credited to any account... what would you do? Well, we are given 86,400 seconds every day, and whatever we don’t use for the Lord, whatever we don’t redeem, whatever we don’t buy up and use for the kingdom of God, we lose.
I was teaching a Sunday School class this morning – those of you who were in it will remember – we were talking about William Carey, father of modern missions. Toward the end of his life (a long and difficult life in India: he lost two wives, was now married to a third; had lost two of his children; two of his sons had become rebellious – only one of them we know of made a profession of faith; first wife suffered terribly from some kind of psychological issue), somebody said to him (and remember he’d been in India for almost twenty years before he saw a single convert)...and somebody said to him, “You’re just an old cobbler.” And of course he’d been an apprentice cobbler for many, many years as a young boy and even as a young adult. And he said, “No, I wasn’t even very good at that.” And he wasn’t. There was a time when the man who owned the store where he was an apprentice cobbler paid him twice as much not to come in and waste his leather! And you remember this was one of Carey’s well-known statements: he said, “No, I’m just a plodder. I know how to plod.” He knew how to keep going in the face of adversity, in the face of extraordinary difficulty, and that’s my second line of thought.
How do we redeem the time? How do we use the time wisely for God? By looking to God to replace sorrow with gladness.
Look at how he puts it in verse 15:
“Make us glad for as many days as You have afflicted us,
And for as many years as we have seen evil.”
It was Jesus’ promise, wasn’t it, that your sorrow will be turned into joy? In an extraordinary and very moving way tonight we’ve seen it in the lives of two of our elders. What brings joy? “Solid joys and lasting treasures, none but Zion’s children know,” John Newton said. What brings joy? It’s finding our complete satisfaction in God. But as William Guthrie once said, “More is not required and less does not satisfy.” ...To be wholly taken up with God, with the Lord.
“I’ve tried the broken cisterns, Lord,
But, ah, the waters failed.
Even as I stooped to drink, they fled
And mocked me as I wailed.
Now none but Christ can satisfy,
None other name for me.
There’s love and life and lasting joy,
Lord Jesus, Found in Thee.”
So teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom. That’s what I want, and that’s what you want: a heart that’s wise, that knows the Lord and knows how to serve Him best. And to aid us to do that tonight, we’re going to say together reflectively words of a covenant.
Now, the words of this covenant in its original setting was four or five times the length, and I’ve shortened it for our purposes this evening. But they are very solemn words. We’re going to repeat now in unison the words of this covenant, and afterwards we will remain silent and have a period of silent prayer. Let’s repeat this covenant together:
“I am no longer my own, but Yours. Let me be Your servant, under Your command. I will no longer be my own. I will give up myself to Your will in all things. Lord, make me what You will. I put myself fully into Your hands: put me to doing, put me to suffering, let me be employed for You, or laid aside for You; let me be full, let me be empty, let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and with a willing heart give it all to Your pleasure and disposal. And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, You are mine and I am Yours. So be it. And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.”
Now receive the Lord’s benediction.
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.