Psalm 90 and Luke 15:1-7
Lord, you have been our home in all generations.
Before there were mountains.
Before you created the earth and the world
From everlasting to everlasting, you are God. You are our home.
This is the beginning of Psalm Ninety, our Psalm of the Day. And you’ve got to admit, it’s a pretty compelling beginning. The ending is solid too: “Let your work be manifest to your servants [O God] and your glorious power to their children. Let the favor of our Lord God be upon us and prosper for us the work of our hands!”
As though we have a part in creation.
As though the same breath that summoned the mountains to rise is the breath that whispered you into being and welcomes you home.
The beginning of the song is exhilarating; the ending is blessed with tender hope. In the middle of the Psalm, there’s a crisis — a mid-Psalm crisis.
What happens is the singer bumps right into her own mortality. Now I know we all go through the world knowing that one day we will die. But here in the middle of the song; it’s like she crashes into this awareness: “Oh my God! We’re going to die!” Then at the same time, the singer considers the wrath of God. “Oh God, one day we will die. Oh God, you look at this world and you are enraged. We will die and you are angry.” All our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh.
Here’s the thing. I don’t believe the singer is wrong.
I do believe whoever is praying this prayer is standing in the wilderness.
In the Bible, the wilderness is a real place —it is the territory in between settled communities. We imagine it having features of the desert, harboring danger and holiness. The wilderness is also a spiritual condition, namely that of being woefully and exquisitely In Between. The wilderness is the middle of the middle. You can’t see how you got into it, and you definitely can’t see a way out. It threatens to go on forever.
The gift of the wilderness is it creates the room for turning. It’s not just heaven and earth slapped down next to each other, side by side. The wilderness is where earth turns into heaven, heaven turns into earth. Guilt and grief turn into each other, so you can’t tell which came first, then they both turn into healing.
In the wilderness, there is the mortality of humankind and the anger of God, and that’s true. But please don’t miss the turning. God’s deep anger comes from the same place as his compassion, so consider the wrath of God for a whole minute and you’ll see the color coming into the edges. What wrath turns into is mercy. What death turns into is life.
The devil gets defeated in the wilderness; the angels get wrestled with; the blessing gets pronounced. In the wilderness, the lost can be found, the sheep get led home. This is the middle of the middle, and here the Psalmist comes to the line that changes the whole song:
“Turn, O LORD. Have compassion upon us!” (Psalm 90:13).
Recently I read a book about one man’s experience in the wilderness. The book is called The Desert and the Sea by Michael Scott Moore. It’s the true story of nine hundred and seventy-seven days he spent held hostage after getting kidnapped by pirates off the coast of Somalia.
Something that impressed me was Moore’s strategic use of suspense. From the beginning of the book, we know he survives this ordeal. We know he is writing this after getting home safely, so even though there are many moments when he worries that he will be killed by the pirates, as the reader, we know there’s a happy ending. It’s like Psalm Ninety. The beginning is exhilarating; the ending is blessed with tender hope. But oh my goodness, there’s the middle.
In case you’re thinking this book might be a swashbuckling adventure on the high seas, let me tell you, it is not. Captivity carries a chilling boringness, like this is your life, and this could go on forever. You feel the dread of one day spilling into the next, spilling into the next, and what if this is where I die…
And if this is the rhythm in the background, in the foreground there are vivid moments of cruelty and torture. There are luminous moments of grace. One day a stray kitten wanders past the compound where they’re holding Moore, he gets to adopt the kitten as a pet.
Moore forges a lasting friendship. He learns new language. He gets malaria. He looks at the moon, and it occurs to him, that his mother might be looking at the same moon, so they’re still connected. And even though that same thing happens to Fievel the cartoon mouse in the movie, An American Tail, when Michael Scott Moore describes this, it isn’t hokey. It is the miracle of God.
During these years as a kidnapped hostage, you can feel his guilt and his grief wrap around each other like they do in every wilderness. I detect an added element to his shame. Michael Scott Moore was not an elderly man who was hoodwinked because of his age. He was not a college student when this happened. Anyone could understand how an eighty-year-old gets kidnapped or how a twenty-year-old gets kidnapped.
This guy’s in his forties! He is solidly middle-age, and come on, he should have known better. What kind of middle-age professional needs the world’s superpowers to coordinate a massive rescue effort to save his sorry soul! But that’s what happened; he needs a ride home.
At Church of Peace we’re continuing the worship series on different stages of life. Today we have reached middle-age, a season of wilderness and crisis, and look I’m half-way through. Is this what I meant to do with my life?
Now I’m pretty sure, we encounter this question at every stage of our lives. But something that’s distinct about being a middle-age adult, is that here when we come upon this question, we feel the pressure to figure it out and get it right.
Middle-age is the stage of life that comes with heightened power, and with this power comes pressure. Middle-age adults have more authority than children, and teens, and young adults, and often older adults. When you’re middle-age, you’re the bona fide Adult In The Room. Middle-age adults are often the bosses at work. They’re the ones responsible for caring for children and grandchildren. They’re responsible for caring for their own aging parents.
Middle-age adults are the ones expected to be in charge. We’re supposed to know what we’re doing. So imagine how it feels to be a middle-age adult who gets displaced during the exile; what do you tell the kids? Imagine how it feels to be a middle-age adult who’s gone and got himself kidnapped by pirates. Imagine how it is to be the Adult In The Room then lose your temper, or lose your job, or lose your dad…
Guilt and grief turn into each other so you can’t tell which comes first, and turn, O LORD, have compassion. We just want to go home.
You know it might have happened like this. Those middle-age scribes and Pharisees were used to being in charge, along comes this young rabbi who has attracted this crowd of —tax collectors! And sinners! You know somebody has to put a stop to this. Now as the crowd gathers, the responsible adults begin conferring among themselves. And Jesus notices them.
He tells them a parable that is not meant for children. Instead, “All you temple executives and officers, imagine that you’re a shepherd.” Hold on, shepherds were thought of as hooligans —teenage troublemakers. Jesus tells these Jewish leaders to “Imagine you’re a shepherd.”
“When you have a hundred sheep and one goes missing, which one of you does not drop everything and go into the wilderness to find that sheep…”
What?! I’m gonna go with none of us! No responsible adult would leave ninety-nine sheep in danger to go after one.
But Jesus is still looking at us. And there was something about how he asked that. He didn’t say, “Which one of you would go look for the sheep?” He said, “Which one of you wouldn’t?” As though he thinks we would. As though he’s seeing something in us, we forgot we had.
Turn O LORD, have compassion upon us!
Look at the wrath of God for a whole minute; you’ll see what’s on the other side. It’s always been mercy.
Now there’s a middle-age Pharisee imagining himself going to find that lost sheep. He’s been to the wilderness before; he knows the way. Sure enough, he can hear it bleating in the rocks…
Something happened when Jesus looked at his crew of critics —he saw the mercy in them they forgot they had. Something happened when this responsible adult looks at the frightened sheep on the rocks. He hears himself say out loud, “Here. Let’s go home.” He realizes, he has been desperate to hear those words.
So I would like to issue a message from the church to all middle-age adults. The mercy of God looks like this: We can hear you. We have found you. You do not have to be in charge of the universe. You are more than the Adult In The Room. You are a child of God. You are allowed to need a ride home. If it takes a helicopter across the ocean, or a poem across the exile, or a shepherd making her way over the rocks, we are your church. We will help you come home.
When the shepherd came back carrying the sheep, the whole town threw a party. All the neighbors and the angels, all of earth and heaven rejoiced! What was lost has been found. We can still see our deep crisis become our Hallelujah! We can still come home. Then hear the LORD our God cry out in joy.