What Matters Most (Galatians 6:11-18)

Every Tuesday night I teach a class. Last Tuesday was the first class of the term. I began to emphasize how important the subject of my class is, and why it’s really important. One of the students raised his hand and very tactfully reminded me that every teacher says that their subject is the most important. How, he asked, is he supposed to reconcile all the claims about what matters most?

By my calculations, I’ve preached five or six hundred sermons here, and now this is my last. I’m sure that over the years I’ve said that this is most important or that is most important. But by God’s grace my last sermon as your pastor actually does end on what is most important. I’m not just saying that as pastors do. Pastors lie all the time when they say, “This is the most important point.” They don’t mean to, but they’re lying. That’s not what I’m doing today. This actually is the most important thing. It is the thing that is most important for me to leave behind as I conclude my ministry here.

Notice how important it is. We’ve been studying the book of Galatians together since September. Up until now, Paul has dictated the letter through a scribe. But now look at what he says: “See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand” (Galatians 6:11). Paul now takes the pen in his own hand and pens the conclusion to this letter.

Now let’s pause here. Paul often concludes his letter by signing his own name. It’s like a signature. That way the recipients know that the letter really is from him. But this time Paul doesn’t just sign his name. He writes a conclusion and summary of the entire book. Notice that he does so in large letters. Why the large letters? Some people guess that it’s because of Paul’s bad eyesight. That’s possible. But it’s also possible that Paul is taking the pen in hand at the end of this letter and underlining and highlighting his central message. It’s the only time in any of his letters that he provides a concluding summary of his book in this way.

Let me tell you why this is important. One reason is that Paul thinks it’s important, and that’s a pretty good reason. But let me tell you also that it’s important because what he is going to say will make or break this church. What he says in this conclusion will make or break your life, actually. This is vitally important. There is really nothing that is more important than this.

So without further introduction, let’s get to what he says. What he says is this: What’s most important is that you avoid false gospels, and instead boast in the cross. What is most important for you individually, and you as a church, is two things: that you avoid the false gospel of self-salvation, and that you instead boast only and exclusively in the cross.

First: Avoid the false gospel of self-salvation.

The first thing that Paul says as he picks up his pen is that he warns us. He warns us against a tendency that we all have. He warns us of a danger that can and will seep into our churches. The danger is this: that we will want to contribute something to our salvation. The danger is that we will try to add to the gospel, and by doing so will actually subtract from the gospel and end up destroying our souls. It’s not that we try to blatantly replace the gospel. We simply add to it. And adding to it destroys it.

A.W. Pink once said, “The greatest mistake made by people is hoping to discover in themselves that which is to be found in Christ alone.” Or as Tullian Tchividjian says, "The most dangerous thing that can happen to you is that you become proud of your obedience." Think about that. Our greatest danger, our greatest mistake, is that we look to ourselves and our obedience rather than to Jesus Christ.

How does Paul say this? Look at verses 12-14:

It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh.

Paul says that there is a counterfeit gospel that will seep into our lives and into our churches. It is one of the greatest dangers we face. The counterfeit gospel is that we think we have to contribute to our own salvation, to our own acceptance with God, through our own efforts. All through Galatians, Paul has been warning against this danger. It’s a clear and present danger, and one that seems to be built right into our hearts.

Have you ever driven a car that’s out of alignment? The whole time you’re driving, the car wants to veer over here. You spend all of your time trying to keep the car on the road. The danger that Paul is talking about is the same. Our hearts are out of alignment and continually want to veer off toward self-salvation. It takes a lot of focus to resist this drift and to keep our eyes on the road.

The danger is that we will try to “make a good showing in the flesh,” Paul says. The danger is doing something external that contributes to our salvation. It’s doing something that, we think, adds to what Jesus has done in order to earn acceptance with God. In Galatians it’s circumcision and keeping the Old Testament law, but we have our own versions as well. John Ortberg writes:

The church I grew up in had its boundary markers. A prideful or resentful pastor could have kept his job, but if ever the pastor was caught smoking a cigarette, he would've been fired. Not because anyone in the church actually thought smoking a worse sin than pride or resentment, but because smoking defined who was in our subculture and who wasn't was a boundary marker.

As I was growing up, having a "quiet time" became a boundary marker, a measure of spiritual growth. If someone had asked me about my spiritual life, I would immediately think, Have I been having regular and lengthy quiet time? My initial thought was not, Am I growing more loving toward God and toward people?

Boundary markers change from culture to culture, but the dynamic remains the same. If people do not experience authentic transformation, then their faith will deteriorate into a search for the boundary markers that masquerade as evidence of a changed life.

This is the danger: that we will pick some external behavior as our contribution to our salvation. And slowly, without even realizing it, we begin to trust in our own righteousness rather than in the finished work of Christ at the cross.

What’s the problem with this? There are two problems. First, Paul says that the motivation is all wrong. The other day, Charlene and I were dividing duties. One of us had to drive one of our kids somewhere and one of us had to help the other one with homework. I didn’t really want to go for a drive, but when the options were laid out that clearly — drive or homework — I started looking for my keys. Paul sees the options here as gospel on one hand — trusting Jesus Christ alone for salvation — or some external self-salvation project, and he instantly recognizes that many of us will do anything we can to avoid trusting in Jesus Christ alone. With the Galatians, there was pressure to get Gentiles to measure up to the Jewish law to please Jewish Christians who wouldn’t understand. But there is something within all of us that balks at trusting in Jesus Christ alone. Our motivation is wrong. Our motivation is to avoid the harsh truth that there is nothing we can contribute in order to be accepted by God.

There’s a second problem. Paul says that those who are pushing for works-righteousness can’t themselves keep the standard they’re arguing for. “For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law…” We hear about this over and over again. A politician who battles corruption passes new laws, and within a few years is convicted of the very laws that he enacted. A pastor rails against a certain sin, and it eventually comes out that he’s secretly been practicing that sin for years. The irony is that the very people who argue for self-salvation are the very same people who don’t measure up to their own standards, because none of us do. The churches that have the strictest standards that you need to follow in order to measure up are also the churches that are filled with the biggest hypocrites, because none of us can keep the standards that we set in order to save ourselves.

Please hear me. The greatest danger this church faces is that it will veer off, without knowing it, to a false gospel. Will Willimon said, “Unable to preach Christ and him crucified, we preach humanity and it improved.” We’re always tempted to substitute a message of self-improvement and self-salvation for the gospel. But this is a false gospel. As Tullian Tchividjian puts it, the only thing that you contribute to your salvation is the sin that made it necessary. That’s it. We have nothing but need.

At the end of his letter, Paul picks up his pen to emphasize the importance of avoiding the false gospel of self-salvation. Avoid trying to earn God’s approval through your own righteousness.

What does Paul say we should do instead?

Boast exclusively in the cross.

Not only should we avoid the false gospel of self-salvation, but we should also boast exclusively in the cross. This is what's most important. Paul writes:

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. (Galatians 6:14-15)

Last Sunday I woke up with an incredible sense of urgency. I began thinking of all the sermons I’ve preached here. I can relate to what a preacher said in the novel Gilead:

I think every day about going through those old sermons of mine to see if there are one or two I might want you to read sometime, but there are so many, and I'm afraid, first of all, that most of them might seem foolish or dull to me.

There is not a word in any of those sermons I didn't mean when I wrote it. If I had the time, I could read my way through fifty years of my innermost life. What a terrible thought.

I had a dream once that I was preaching to Jesus Himself, saying any foolish thing I could think of, and He was sitting there in His white, white robe looking patient and sad and amazed. That's what it felt like.

Well, perhaps I can get a box of them down here somehow and do a little sorting. It would put my mind at ease to feel I was leaving a better impression. So often I have known, right here in the pulpit, even as I read these words, how far they fell short of any hopes I had for them. And they were the major work of my life, from a certain point of view. I have to wonder how I have lived with that.

At the end of more than thirteen years, I think back over all the things I’ve said to you, and all the things that I wish I had said. I wish I could go back and make one thing clear so that it is the great theme of my preaching from beginning to end: that our only confidence, our only boast, our only hope is the saving work of Jesus Christ at the cross. Spurgeon said, “The best sermon is that which is fullest of Christ.” He said, “Preach Christ, always and everywhere. He is the whole gospel. His person, offices, and work must be our one great, all-comprehending theme.”

To understand this passage, we need to understand three things.

First, we all boast in something. We all boast in something: in some accomplishment, some characteristic, some relationship. We all boast in something. We’ve all been reading about Kim Jong-il recently. Jong-il, North Korea's "Dear Leader," was presented as larger than life by the media of the Stalinist state.

Reportedly, Kim took daily intensive memory training that involved memorizing huge amounts of information. Kim was quoted as saying, "I remember all computer codes and telephones that workers are using now."

At a meeting in 2002, North Korean officials said they were impressed when Kim recalled all of their phone numbers with "lightning speed."

Kim's memory was not the only amazing attribute he claimed. He wrote operas, piloted jet fighters, and produced movies. While those skills are believable, North Korean propaganda stretched credulity when it stated Kim's golfing prowess. The story goes that the first time he ever played a round of golf, North Korea's leader shot 11 holes-in-one.

We laugh at all of that. We shouldn’t. Kim Jong-il’s boasts are an extreme version of what we all do. We look to some accomplishment, some talent, to validate our importance, to say that we measure up. The boasts are ridiculous, but we all do it.

Boasting is more than bragging. It is, according to John Stott, “to boast in, glory in, trust in, rejoice in, revel in, love for” something. “The object of our boast or ‘glory’ fills our horizons, engrosses our attention, and absorbs our time and energy. In a word, our ‘glory’ is our obsession.”

Everybody boasts in something. It could be your popularity, intellect, appearance, influence, income, or job performance. It could be your religious accomplishments. We all boast in something. We all boast in something.

But we also need to understand something else. Our boasting, our obsession, our identity, should ultimately come from one place only: the cross of Jesus Christ. Paul says, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is strange. Today we think of the cross as something noble and beautiful. In Paul’s day, it was the ugliest thing possible. You couldn’t mention the cross in polite society. The Romans considered the cross to be “degrading, disgusting, despicable, detestable, and disgraceful” (Phil Ryken).

But Paul says that this is his boast. Paul looked at the cross and saw that God loved us enough to send his Son to die for us. He looked to the cross and saw his salvation. Christ has paid the full price for our salvation. We’ve been forgiven and justified. God’s wrath has been turned away, and we now stand innocent before God.

Don’t boast in anything else. Boast only in the cross. But there’s a problem. You can’t boast in the cross and yourself at the same time. If you glory in the cross, you have to stop trusting in your own merits and trust in Christ alone. "Only if we have humbled ourselves as hell-deserving sinners shall we give up boasting of ourselves, fly to the cross for salvation and spend the rest of our days glorying in the cross.” (John Stott)

So understand that we all boast. Then understand that it only makes sense to boast in one thing: the cross. And then understand what it does to us. When we boast in the cross, it changes everything. Paul says that the world has been crucified to him. The cross completely changes what we value and care about. Tim Keller puts it this way:

The gospel changes what I fundamentally boast in – it changes the whole basis for my identity. Therefore, nothing in the whole world has any power over me – I am free at last to enjoy the world, for I do not need the world. I feel neither inferior to anyone nor superior to anyone, and I am being made all over into someone and something entirely new.

The gospel completely changes what we boast in. It completely changes our identity and values. When the cross grips us, we begin to see it as the only thing that truly matters.

Friends, Paul wants us to get this. At the end of his letter he takes a pen in his hand. He wants us to get what matters most. And this is what he says: don’t you ever think it’s up to you to measure up. Put all of your confidence, all of your boasting, in what Jesus has done for you. If you’re going to brag about anything, brag about Jesus and his saving work.

So that’s it. Paul concludes his book with a few simple words:

For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.

From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen. (Galatians 6:15-18)

Here’s what he’s saying. This is all that matters. From now on, he says, let’s not have any more confusion about the gospel. Let nobody bother me with false versions of the gospel, he says. But he’s glad to be part of the people of God who get the gospel, and he prays that the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ would be with the Galatians as they avoid false gospels and boast in the cross.

I imagine Paul looking at the scroll. Having pointed to Jesus, his job is done. He puts the pen down and gives the nod to his scribe for the letter to be delivered.

Having brought your attention to our great Savior, I can say that I’ve done what I’ve been commissioned to do. My only desire is that you would see Jesus. My only desire is that you would glory in the cross; that Christ would be your greatest joy and your deepest glory. And, having done this, my job is done. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen.

The Gospel and Relationships (Galatians 5:26-6:10)

One of the most influential people in church history is someone you probably don’t know. His name as Simeon the Stylite. He was the first of the Desert Fathers. Around 423 A.D. he constructed a short pillar on the edge of the desert. He climbed on top of that pillar and lived on it for the next six years. He had many visitors come and visit him. Probably some of them came because they thought that he was out of his mind living on top of a pillar like that. The hermit explained that he was simply a Christian who wanted to commune with God in solitude, free from worldly distractions. Living on top of the pillar was his way of trying to do this.

We’re coming to the end of Galatians, and one of the issues we have to deal with is what it looks like to be transformed by the gospel. The reason I bring up Simeon is because we need a picture of what it looks like to be transformed by the gospel. No disrespect to Simeon, but I think Paul offers us a better picture.

Paul has been making hammering us with the gospel. Let me give you his message so far in two nutshells:

First, Jesus plus nothing equals acceptance with God. That’s it. Never add anything to Jesus, because you can’t add to Jesus without subtracting from him. Jesus plus nothing equals acceptance with God. That is the gospel.

Second, when you get the gospel, you’ll be free. But freedom isn’t living however you would like. Freedom is living in the power of the Holy Spirit to love and serve God and others.

That’s everything that he’s covered up to this point. But we still need to figure out what it looks like. What does it look like when you really get that it’s Jesus plus nothing, and when we use our freedom to love and serve others? That’s what Paul is going to show us today.

Let me give you one sentence that captures what Paul is going to tell us: The gospel frees us to love others. Did you get that? We need a picture of someone who has been transformed by the gospel and who understands the message of Galatians. Paul gives us one, and it’s not somebody living on top of a pillar for six years. It’s not a lot of things. It’s this: it’s a picture of being freed by the gospel to love others. Specifically, Paul gives us two broad categories of what this looks like. First, he says, the gospel frees us to love others spiritually. Second, he says, the gospel frees us to love others financially.

First, the gospel frees us to love others spiritually.

Read Galatians 5:29-6:5 with me:

Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load.

Notice what Paul assumes here.

First, he assumes the Christian life is going to be lived in relationship with others. I love some church services. I love feeling like I’ve entered heaven’s throne room and communed with God. And then some Sundays I get out into the foyer, and within minutes of having been in the heights of communion with God, I’m dealign with someone who cuts me off in the lineup for coffee. Paul is saying that the Christian life isn’t about living alone on the top of a pillar on the edge of the desert with just God and me. The Christian life is lived in community.

Second, he assumes that this is going to be challenging. Notice what he says: don’t be conceited. Don’t provoke. Don’t envy. Why does he say these things? Because those are the things we’re all tempted to do when we’re relationship with others. If the Christian life is going to be lived in relationship, these are the issues we’re going to face. We’re going to be tempted to think we’re better than others. We’re going to be tempted to set them off. We’re going to be tempted to envy what they have. These are the dangers we face in relationships.

Third, the people we’re in relationship with are going to have problems. And when they do, we can’t say, “Their problems aren’t my problems.” That’s why Paul says, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Galatians 6:1). Here’s what Paul is saying: my sin is not just my business. Your sin is not just your business. Instead of being arrogant or irritating or envious of others, we are to look out for each other. And when we become aware of someone else’s sin, we should speak privately and gently to them in order to restore their fellowship with Christ.

Fourth, do so from a position of humility. Paul stresses here the importance of keeping your own affairs in order before God, watching the condition of your own soul. Why? You are not in isolation. You are not better than anyone else. You too may fall, and when you do you will drag others with you. Paul says, “For each one will have to bear his own load.” There’s a paradox here. Paul says that when it comes to others, their problems are your problems and you should offer help. But when it comes to yourself, you must take responsibility for your own actions.

What does the gospel look like when it’s fleshed out? It looks like this: loving others spiritually, making their problems our problems, all the while keeping watch over our own lives so that we don’t negatively influence others.

For fifteen months journalist Sebastian Junger followed a single platoon of U.S. soldiers stationed in a dangerous part of Afghanistan. Living and working in the midst of a war zone made Junger realize how much the soldiers had to rely on each other. What you do or don't do as a soldier affects everyone else in your platoon. Junger writes:

Margins were so small and errors potentially so catastrophic that every soldier had a kind of de facto authority to reprimand others—in some cases even officers. And because combat can hinge on [small] details, there was nothing in a soldier's daily routine that fell outside the group's purview. Whether you tied your shoes or cleaned your weapon or drank enough water or secured your night vision gear were all matters of public concern and so were open to public scrutiny.

Once I watched a private accost another private whose bootlaces were trailing on the ground. Not that he cared what it looked like, but if something happened out there—and out there, everything happened suddenly—the guy with the loose laces couldn't be counted on to keep his feet at a crucial moment. It was the other man's life he was risking, not just his own …. There was no such thing as personal safety out there; what happened to you happened to everyone.

Do you want to know what gospel-transformed living looks like? It looks like loving others spiritually.

Second, the gospel frees us love others financially.

Here’s where it gets even more convicting. Verses 6 to 10 say:

Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches. Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.

I told you that it gets even more convicting. The main idea of these verses is captured in verse 10: do good to all people, particularly to other believers. This sounds good until you realize that the good he’s talking about is to support others financially, caring for their practical needs in everyday life. Paul says in verse 6 that we’re to do this with our teachers, those who preach the gospel, so that they can be set free from having to raise money and instead can invest their time and energy in ministry. But he also applies this in general to others, especially believers in verse 10. We’re to do this as we’re able. God doesn’t expect more from us than what we have; but whatever we have, we are to use in service for others.

As one person puts it:

Christians, therefore, are particularly bound to do good to one another. Every poor and distressed man has a claim on me for pity, and, if I can afford it, for active exertion and pecuniary [financial] relief. But a poor Christian has a far stronger claim on my feelings, my labors, and my property. He is my brother, equally interested with myself in the blood and love of the Redeemer. I expect to spend an eternity with him in heaven. He is the representative of my unseen Savior, and He considers everything done to this poor afflicted brother as done to himself. For a Christian to be unkind to another Christian is not only wrong, it is monstrous. (John Brown)

I know what you’re thinking, because I’m thinking it too. How is this possible? This is so radical and demanding. How am I ever going to have enough for my own needs? My bank account is always going to be empty because I’m giving sacrificially to others? Paul says three things.

In verse 7 he says, in essence, this is where the rubber hits the road. God isn’t fooled by spiritual pretenses. This is really where the gospel has to free our hearts. God knows the motivations of our heart when it comes to money.

Second, he says that this is an issue of sowing and reaping. There are two ways of living. One is to sow to the flesh. This is about living in a way that’s selfish and stingy, and the result is that we reap corruption. The other way is to live according to the Spirit, freely loving and serving others, and if we do this we’ll reap generosity and spiritual life. Which do you want in your life? Whatever you sow, that’s what you’re also going to reap.

Third, he says that we will be rewarded. “In due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” One day we’ll receive God’s well-done for how we’ve used our resources to help others.

One man (Gerald May) wrote:

I sat briefly with an old dollar bill in my hand, feeling its softness, wondering where it had been. What other hands had grasped it or given it? What human toil had earned it, spent it, earned it again? What small human needs had it fulfilled in its time? Was it once stolen, lost, found? Had anyone ever noticed it?

For a moment, money seemed almost like breath, like the air that circulates among us all, continuously given and received, linking us in a deep, spiritual intimacy with God and one another. We are all familiar with how money can be an idol; how it so easily becomes a substitute for God, encouraging our attachment by promising security, happiness, and power. ... But could money really be an icon ... a vehicle for seeing and being seen by God?

The gospel, Paul says, frees us to help others financially.

You may have been wondering, as I was, where Paul was going with all of this talk about the gospel. What does it look like when the gospel gets hold of your heart and really changes you? What does it look like when you get the fact that Jesus plus nothing equals acceptance with God? What does it look like when you understand that freedom is not living however you’d like, but that it’s living in the power of the Spirit to serve and love? Paul tells us here. The gospel frees us to love others. It frees us to love others spiritually by restoring them. It frees us to love others financially by living generously.

You can’t fake this. The law is powerless to bring about what Paul is talking about here. Only the Spirit can take our hearts and change us from the inside out so that we’ll want to live this way. It’s only when we see the gospel and are joined with Christ that any of this is even possible.

Notice where it all begins in verse 1. It’s a single word: brothers. I would do stuff for my brothers that I wouldn’t do for anyone else. Well, that’s what the gospel has made us: brothers and sisters. There’s a whole theology in this one word. Josh Moody writes:

We are united in our fallenness, covered with dots and marks, but also now united in our reception of grace. Until we realize just how bad, scarred, broken, and in need of restoration we all are, and just how much grace we have received…

The Christian community, rightly and truly understood and experienced, is an outpost of heaven on earth, where we are all brethren with a common Father, all restored by a common Savior, and all seeking to restore each other. May we be increasingly a part of, and foster, a grace-filled community.

A New Year’s Plan: Consider and Act (Psalm 90)

A man went in for his annual checkup and received a phone call from his physician a couple of days later. The doctor said, "I'm afraid I have some bad news for you." "What's the news?" the man asked. "Well, you have only 48 hours to live." "That is bad news!" said the shocked patient. "I'm afraid I have even worse news," the doctor continued. "What could be worse than what you've already told me?" the patient stammered. "I've been trying to call you since yesterday."

That’s not a message that any of us want to hear, especially at the start of a new year. The first day of a new year is a day of optimism. But we all do ourselves a service if we remember that our time here is limited. All of us have a limited number of New Year’s Days. They may seem endless, but they’re not. One of the wisest things we can do at the beginning of the year is to live in light of this perspective.

If you go on Google Earth, you can see a picture of the whole earth spinning in space, as if you were looking at earth from a spaceship. Then, slowly, it finds your location, and it feels like you’re flying through space towards where you are. First you see your country, then your province, then your city, and then your street. Sometimes when you move to a new location, it’s still stuck in your old one, so you can press a button at the bottom that says “Find Me.” It will send you back in the air, shift you to your new location, and then zoom back in so you can see where you are.

What I want to do is to press the “Find Me” button in our lives today. To do this we’re going to use Psalm 90. The first day of a new year is a perfect time to think about where we are right now, and to chart a course for moving forward.

Psalm 90 is going to ask us to consider two things, and then to take two actions. That’s it. So let’s get going.

First: Consider two things.

This psalm has 17 verses. 11 of the 17 are spent getting us to consider two realities. In order to take the action prescribed in verses 12 to 17, we need to take in the realities this psalm presents us in verses 1 to 11. Before we can navigate to where we want to go, we need to understand where we are right now.

Notice that this psalm was written by Moses. It was written in the wilderness during the 40 years that Israel was wandering in the dessert. Some two or three million people left Egypt; a whole generation of people had to die as they made that 40-year trek. There would have been constant funerals. As Spurgeon said, you could track the progress of the nation by the graves they left behind. In the middle of this, Moses reflects on two realities that were true then, and they’re just as true today. It’s ironic that to find our location today, we need to turn to something written thousands of years ago. But there’s no better place to turn.

Psalm 90 wants us to find our current location by understanding two things.

First: God is eternal. Verses 1 and 2 say:

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

Think about this. Moses zooms out to consider time. A couple of years ago, the Art Gallery had an exhibit on King Tut and Egypt. I remember walking through the exhibit, marveling at the age of what I was seeing. Some of the exhibits are over 4,000 years old. I couldn’t help but think about Moses as he grew up in Egypt.

We think Moses is old, but back then Moses zooms out and says helps us see time from another perspective. Before Egypt, before there were any mountains, before there was even an earth, God was God. God has no beginning. He was God before the mountains were brought forth. He is God from everlasting to everlasting, with no beginning and no end. God exists from eternity and to eternity.

Not only that, but enormous periods of time are insignificant to God. Read verse 4:

For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.

This is amazing. A thousand years ago, the Normans hadn’t invaded England. Vikings were establishing small settlements in North America. A Chinese artisan invented ceramic movable type printing. It was still the middle ages. It was a vastly different time from now. Moses reminds us that a thousand years ago to God is like yesterday to us. In light of God’s eternality, a thousand years is like a day to him.

Moses wants us to grasp the eternality of God. Consider this as we begin 2012. The past year has gone fast for a lot of us. Nobody here knows what the next year is going to bring. But God stands outside of time, and a thousand years is insignificant to him. For people living in tents in Moses’ day, or for people living in homes today, God can be our dwelling place in all generations, because God never changes.

Second: Your life is short and difficult. Moses next invites us to consider our lives. In contrast to God, who is eternal, Moses says two things about our lives. First, he says that our lives are short. Verses 5 and 6 say:

You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning:
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.

A human life - even the longest of human lives - is insignificantly brief. It’s like a watch in the night, a flood, a dream, or some grass that sprouts in the morning and dies at night. When I lived in North Bay one summer, they had these things called shadflies that would come out. They were everywhere. You couldn’t drive your car without turning your windshield wipers on. But these shadflies live for only one day. In parts of the world, they’re called one-day flies. The psalmist says that this is a picture of our lives. Our lives are brief. God is eternal, but we’re only here for a fleeting moment, and then we’re gone.

Not only that, but Moses says that our lives are hard as well. Read verses 7 to 11. The point that Moses makes is that our lives are hard, and they’re hard for a reason. Why? Because of God’s anger. Remember why so many were dying in the wilderness. They had rebelled against God after the spies had returned from Canaan, saying that they could not enter. God said, “I, the LORD, have spoken, surely this I will do to all this evil congregation who are gathered together against Me. In this wilderness they shall be destroyed, and there they will die” (Numbers 14:35). They were living and dying in tents in the wilderness as the consequence of sin. We’re not living in tents and dying in the wilderness, but life is still unbearably hard. We are still dealing with the results of human sin, and the mess it has made in this world. We are still dealing with God’s righteous anger against human rebellion, high treason against his reign.

So consider this today. This goes against how most of us think most of the time, which is exactly why we need to hear it. Consider these two things, and you’ll be much better for it. Consider that God is eternal, and that your life is short and hard.

Secondly, take two actions.

Nobody really wants to be told that God is eternal and that your life is short and hard, unless it’s for a reason. And in Psalm 90 it is for a reason. This psalm is meant to get us to take action. Specifically, two actions.

First: Number your days. Verses 10-12 say:

The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.
Who considers the power of your anger,
and your wrath according to the fear of you?
So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.

Andy Stanley tells the story of a man who bought 1,300 marbles on his 50th birthday. He figured that, if he lives to be 75, he would have about a 1,300 Saturdays left. So every Saturday he goes and takes a marble out of that jar and throws it out. It’s a reminder to him that time is fleeting, and that he only has a short time left.

I don’t know what you need to do, but how will you remind yourself to number your limited days? To remember that your life is short? Steve Jobs once said:

Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.

Second: Seek God’s mercy. Read verses 13 to 17:

Return, O LORD! How long?
Have pity on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
and for as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be shown to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and establish the work of our hands upon us;
yes, establish the work of our hands!

In light of the brevity and difficulty of life, Moses asks for three things:

First, pray that God would relent in his anger. Look at verse 13. This is really a prayer for the gospel. This is a prayer that God’s anger would not be the final word, that God would not pay us as we deserve. It’s a prayer that God would show us grace. It’s a prayer that has been answered in Jesus Christ, who bore the punishment for our sins and has given us grace upon grace. If you haven’t put your trust in him and his gospel yet, then do so today. Thank God that he has already answered this prayer in Jesus Christ.

Second, pray that we would be satisfied by God. This is one of the best prayers you could ever pray. Our hearts were meant to find their ultimate delight in God. I love how John Piper puts it: God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Or, as C.S. Lewis put it, “God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing." You’ve just come through Christmas. Christmas has all this build-up. It promises that we will find happiness in gifts and family and food. And every year we’re a tiny bit disappointed as we come out of Christmas, because as good as these things are, they’re not enough to really satisfy us. So pray this year that you will find your heart’s deepest hungers met in God, because he is the only one who can truly satisfy.

Finally, pray that God’s favor would rest upon your life. Pray that God would show you his favor in the coming year. Ask for God’s blessing on your life, that God would establish the work of your hands. Without his help, you can do nothing.

There is no better way to begin 2012 than by considering two things: that God is eternal, and that our lives are short and hard. And then there’s no better way to respond than by numbering your days and praying for God’s mercy on your life. God’s eternal, and you’re not. So make the most of your limited time, and seek God’s mercy.