"To number our Days"

January 2,  2000 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon  Psalm 90

"Teach us to number our days that we may gain a wise heart." (Ps. 90:12)

The number has changed, folks. All four digits in this year of our Lord are different now. Now, I know that, officially speaking, we are still in the twentieth century. That’s according to no less a source than the United States Naval Observatory. The next millennium does not really begin until a year from now. That means, you know, that we have a whole ‘nother year of millennial hype ahead of us. As Charlie Brown will now no longer say, except in re-runs: "Good Grief!"

Time is passing. Isn’t that really the biggest thing we can say of this changeover from 1999 to 2000? It’s been interesting hearing what folks expected 100 years ago of the twentieth century. There was a great deal of optimism then. One of the magazines to which I subscribe started publication around that time, and they gave themselves a title that fit their expectations: the "Christian Century." Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out to be an era of triumphant Christianity. If anything, in these 100 years we discovered anew the darker side of life, as two World Wars nearly split apart the planet. Between an arms race not nearly as over as most people think, ethnic and religious conflict on the rise, and potential ecological disasters looming on the horizon, this has not turned out to be a "Christian Century," has it?

My purpose, though, is not to depress us with a state of affairs that is not nearly as doom and gloom as some would make it out to be. Actually, such a time of change as now offers us a chance to turn a page, to begin another chapter, to try a fresh start - even if we can’t wipe the slate clean. It is a bright day. But it is a time for the numbering of days, as the Psalmist put it. By that, I don’t mean getting the digits straight. That Y2K thing was about digits, which either changed over in the right way yesterday on the world’s computers, or didn’t. No, this numbering of days is for us gathered here more of a J2K thing. That is, Jesus in the year 2000 (J2K) helps us put our days into perspective.

"Teach us to number our days that we may gain a wise heart." What does that mean? Well, it doesn’t mean to literally count them all, though if we were to go by the biblical "threescore years and ten, ... (or) fourscore" (Ps. 90:10), we might be numbering anywhere from 25,567 to 29,220 days. Now, that sounds like a long time when you put it that way, doesn’t it? And it is, really. Of course, then we start thinking about those who never make it that far, whose lives are, as we say, "cut short." Suddenly, the days don’t seem all that many. Life begins to seem terribly brief.

That’s really what the Psalmist was saying. In the grand scope of things, in the bigger picture of eternity, the days of our lives which we number are but few in comparison. I recall a sign painted on a barn I passed all the time when we lived in northern Indiana 20 years ago, a sign which was still there when I drove past again last summer. "Life is short, death is sure. Sin is the cause, Christ is the cure." Back then I considered it as too simplistic a theology. Twenty years later, the wisdom of it is growing on me.

Life is brief. But realizing this fact alone is not what "numbering our days" is all about. It’s what we do with this thought that matters. It’s sort of like the doctrine of the second coming, and being aware of the signs of the times. J. Dwight Pentecost, a Biblical scholar who dwells a lot with end-times prophecies, once accepted an invitation to speak at a rather small church on that very topic. In the middle of his series, he intentionally stuck in a message which he entitled "The Loveliness of Christ," talking about what led up to Jesus’ death, not at all on prophecy. The five nights he spoke on the main topic, the place was packed to overflowing. When he preached on "The Loveliness of Christ," however, the room wasn’t even half full.

Now, those of you who know me are aware that I’m not big on end-time prophecy. I don’t discount it, but the bigger question, I believe, is "how shall we then live?" Leading up to this changeover of years, we’ve been hearing a great deal of "prophecy" from every shade of the religious and secular spectrum. For me, however, while I don’t want to be overly optimistic or pessimistic about this coming century, I see the future - whatever it may bring, as in God’s hands. I am only here on this earth a short time, as it turns out. Even if I live to be 100, it would still be brief alongside the bigger picture.

That’s not a depressing thought, my friends. The truth is, we have all the time we need. I like the prayer of Michel Quoist, a French priest who died two years ago of cancer at the age of 76. His prayer, a devotional poem, begins by noting our frantic pace of life, how we fight time tooth and nail, never feeling like there is enough, bemoaning how brief it all is. The prayer finishes, however, with these words.

"You who are beyond time, Lord, you smile to see us fighting it,
And you know what you are doing.
You make no mistakes in your distribution of time.
You give each one time to do what you want him to do.
But we must not lose time,
waste time,
kill time,
For time is a gift that you give us,
But a perishable gift,
A gift that does not keep.

Lord, I have time,
I have plenty of time,
All the time that you give me,
The years of my life,
The days of my years,
The hours of my days,
They are all mine.
Mine to fill, quietly, calmly,
But to fill completely, up to the brim,
To offer them to you, that of their insipid water

You may make a rich wine such as you made once in Cana of Galilee.

I am not asking you tonight, Lord, for time to do this and then that,
But your grace to do conscientiously, in the time that you give me, what you want me to do."
                                (from Prayers by Michel Quoist, Sheed and Ward, 1963)

That is what numbering our days is all about. Along the way, we become aware of lives that have touched our own, persons who have used the time God gave them in ways that have graced our own time. At this moment in time, on this second day of a new year, the first Sunday in the year 2000, I call us to place the stories of our lives in a larger context. The days of our lives have been changed by people we have never or even heard of, by events of which we are entirely unaware. This is a time to discover anew our fundamental indebtedness to others, known and unknown.

Now, we began our service remembering the life that has forever, fundamentally changed our own. Jesus did not live on this earth the Biblical threescore years and ten, let alone fourscore. His life was cut short in its prime. Five year old Tessa has been reminding me of this lately as we read our picture books about the baby Jesus. "You know," she says, "the story has a sad ending. They pinned him to the wall." She has been listening to her Sunday School teachers and parents, though we might quibble with some of the details. Of course, there is more to the story, as she is coming to know, as we all are growing to understand.

Jesus, born 2,000 years ago, give or take a few years, has transformed our lives. In Christ we are redeemed, forgiven, gathered up. In him we have an inheritance in God that we can barely fathom. In the fullness of time (short as the chronological years may have been), he died for us, to save us - something we will remember with some bread and juice in but a few minutes. When the time is ripe, in a day which our wisdom will not let us count, he will complete the story. More will change than just four digits when that time comes. But that is in God’s time.

In "numbering our days," and in so doing "gaining a heart of wisdom," we discover others whose lives have touched us. Not as Christ has, mind you. Still, our lives would be very different had it not been for these persons. One I have in mind was a monk who lived in Rome 1,500 years ago. His name was Dionysius Exiguus. The latter was his chosen surname, Dionysius "the Little." We are more apt to remember persons who have "the Great" placed next to their name than someone who thought of himself as "the Little." His contribution, though, was greater than many who thought highly of themselves. We think it was not his height that lead him to such a surname, but rather his relationship with Christ.

He was not a grand theologian of the church. He was a translator. He translated into Latin, then the living language of the people of Italy, what others had written about Jesus before him, persons known as the early church fathers. That was no minor accomplishment in an era before computers, typewriters, printing presses, or even "books" as we know them. However, that’s not his biggest contribution, the way in which his story still touches our own.

You see, once upon a time he was asked to devise a way to implement some of the decisions from the council of Nicea, like when are we supposed to celebrate Easter? His assignment was to prepare calculations of the date. At that time it was customary to count years since the reign of the emperor Diocletian. This monk who thought of himself as "The Little" did not want his table to perpetuate the memory of an infamous persecutor of the church. Instead, his calculations made the base line for the numbering of years to be the birth of Jesus, which became known as Anno Domini (A.D.), or "Year of our Lord."

Now, it must be noted that his was not an exact calculation, for we now believe that the first Christmas was about four years before the date he set. Still, it was a remarkable move that has had a profound effect upon the world, even upon us today. When all these people around the world yesterday celebrated the changeover of years, they had Dionysius "the Little" to thank. It’s kind of amazing when you think about how something and someone so "Little" could touch even our lives in so great a way.

How many others have touched our brief lives with their own. It makes you think about the effect of our own lives on others, as "little" time as we may have. And didn’t Jesus talk about "faith the size of a mustard seed," being able to move a "mountain," shoving aside the word "impossible"? (Mt. 17:20) Our lives may be brief but, in Christ, little becomes much... Next week, I will share the story of three modern day wise men who are having a great impact on their little corner of the world - an appropriate tale as we remember the coming of the Magi to the infant Jesus. I hope we’ll have some visitors of our own here from the Kanner House. Our lives and theirs have touched. Praise God!

"Teach us to number our days that we may gain a wise heart." (Ps. 90:12)

Yes, "Lord, I have time,
I have plenty of time,
All the time that you give me,
The years of my life,
The days of my years,
The hours of my days,
They are all mine.
Mine to fill, quietly, calmly,
But to fill completely, up to the brim,
To offer them to you, that of their insipid water

You may make a rich wine such as you made once in Cana of Galilee.

I am not asking you (today), Lord, for time to do this and then that,
But your grace to do conscientiously, in the time that you give me, what you want me to do."
                     Amen.

2000Peter L. Haynes

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