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August 14th, 2011

Whatever God is, he is without limits.

Psalm 90

August 14, 2011

Infinite Acronyms

If you’re like me and rather proud of the fact that as a baby boomer you’ve become at least functionally technologically literate, you probably know a few of the acronyms that have become shortcuts in the age of the 140-character messaging.

I know, for example, that LOL means “Laughing Out Loud.”  I know that a “BFF” is a “Best Friend Forever.”  IDK: I Don’t Know.  TTYL: Talk To You Later.

But there is an infinite number of acronyms, as I found out on vacation when I picked up the “Texting Dictionary.”  Would you know what it meant if your text message said, AYV?  (Are You Vertical?)  Or DILLIGAD?  (Do I Look Like I Give A Darn?)  Or LMHO? (Laughing My Head Off) Or those designed to insult, like DWS?  (Driving While Stupid)  Or IIIO?  (Intel Inside, Idiot Outside)

My texting dictionary also has a senior addendum.  BFF: Best Friend Fell.  TTYL: Talk To You Louder. BYOT: Bring Your Own Teeth.  DWI: Driving While Incontinent.  GGLKI: Gotta Go, Laxative Kicking In.  LMDO: Laughing My Dentures Out.

Other than the fact that I was sort of looking for somewhere in a sermon I could insert that “texting dictionary,” did you notice the word “infinite”?  When I said there is an infinite number of acronyms, I didn’t really mean “infinite.”  My texting dictionary lists a thousand acronyms.  That’s a lot; it’s not infinite.

“Infinite” is like “unique.”  We most commonly use words like that in less than their absolute sense.  I found a web site for “infinite body piercing.”  I know there are a lot of ways to pierce a body, most of which I don’t care to see or know about.  But I don’t know that infinite is a good word.  There is also an infinite number of stars, or is there?  As many as there are, the number is finite.

Absolute infinity is beyond human comprehension.  Physicists say that it’s impossible for any body to have infinite mass or energy.  In mathematics an infinitesimal is simply a number greater than any real number.  In 1655, a mathematician named John Wallis introduced the symbol (∞) for infinity.  Nobody’s exactly sure why this was the symbol he chose.  He might have been adapting the ancient ouroboros symbol, a snake twisted into a figure eight while eating its own tail.  Or he may have adapted the Estrucan numeral for 1000 (CIƆ) or the last letter of the Greek alphabet, ω.  My favorite is that the easiest symbol to invent was the number 8 turned sideways so they didn’t have to create a new character plate in the print shop.

There is an infinite number of possibilities for where this symbol came from.  No, there isn’t.  That’s the point.  We use the word in an infinite number of deficient ways.  No, we don’t.  Just a lot of ways.  Nothing is absolutely infinite…except God.

Infinite in power

Psalm 90 is a meditation on God’s infinity. The title says, “A Prayer of Moses the man of God.”  That doesn’t necessarily mean it was written by Moses; it could be a prayer having to do with Moses.  Either way, Moses’ life is a fitting backdrop.

Moses was a man of power.  The stories recorded of him display greater miraculous power than any other biblical figure, Jesus included (except for the resurrection).  Compare Jesus’ feeding of the 5000, for example, to hundreds of thousands of people fed miraculously six days a week for forty years in the wilderness.  Or Jesus calming the sea to Moses parting the sea.

I don’t in any sense mean to belittle Jesus or his miracles.  The Bible doesn’t engage in miracle comparison, nor are miracles by themselves proof of greatness or identity.  I only mean to say that Moses was a man of associated with power.

But Moses himself, when referring to God’s power, points not to the Ten Plagues or the Ten Commandments.  He ponders the power display of creation itself.  He uses the normal word to describe the birth of a child in verse 2 to describe how God brought into being the most visibly immense, complex, and durable piece of his creation on the earth:  “You birthed the mountains.” 

Mountains are complex ecosystems that cover 24% of the world’s land and provide water to half its population.  The Oxford English Dictionary says that a mountain is defined by its elevation in contrast to surrounding land – the elevation must be “impressive or notable.”  That’s why Baker’s Mountain can be described with the same noun as Olympus Mons on Mars, the highest known mountain in the solar system at 69,459 feet.  (I don’t know who measured it.)  Whatever mountain is your favorite – from Grandfather Mountain to Mount Everest, God birthed it.

Further in verse 2, Moses uses a synonym for labor pain to describe both the physical earth and the inhabited part of it:  “You travailed for our planet and the world.”

In Moses’ limited grasp of cosmology he is giving God’s power the greatest compliment he can imagine.  Only infinite power could have brought creation into being.  Had he known what we know now about the physical universe, he would have been that much more amazed.  God is infinite in power.

Infinite in eternity

But I skipped ahead to verse 2.  This psalm is really more about God and time than it is about God and power.  God is infinite in eternity.

Moses lived long enough (120 years) to appreciate more than most of us the passing of generations.  But as he grew older, he realized the point was not the generations but the God who stood outside them.

“Lord, you have been our dwelling place,” he begins in verse 1.  Some ancient manuscripts say “refuge” instead of “dwelling place.”  When Isaac Watts turned Psalm 90 into a hymn (his finest, according to our E&R Hymnal commentary), he used both words: “Our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.”

More than anything else, this Psalm is about time.  Notice how many “time” words there are in the Psalm –

·       “a thousand years are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night” (4)

·       (Men) “ are like the new grass of the morning…by evening it is dry and withered” (5,6)  Commenting on this passage, Charles Spurgeon says grass is sown, grown, blown, mown, and gone.

·       “All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan” (9)

·       “The length of our days is seventy years – or eighty, if we have the strength” (10)

·       “Teach us to number our days aright” (12)

·       How long will it be?” (13)

·       “Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love” (14)

·       “Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen trouble” (15)

In contrast to our time-trapped human existence, Moses declares in verse 2, “From everlasting to everlasting you are God.”  Or, as A. W. Tozer says, “from the vanishing point to the vanishing point.”  I like Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, “From ‘once upon a time’ to ‘kingdom come’ – you are God.” 

The opposite of time is not timelessness, as if God exists in some kind of time warp.  Emil Brunner says eternity is “the sovereignty of God over the Time which He has created” (The Christian Doctrine of God, 271). 

Because God created time, every time marker exists within his being, but has no effect on him.  “Before Abraham was, I am,” Jesus said in John 8:58.  Technically speaking, God has no past and not future.  He lives in the eternal present.

Think about what this means.  God is never surprised.  God never looks back to the good old days nor does he look forward to what is yet to be.  He is already there.  He has no succession of time.  If you think of a circle as representing time, God is everywhere on that circle at all times.  God is infinite in eternity.

Infinite in complexity

I love reading this Psalm to those at the end of life, and their families.  I read it last week to Elinor Boswell.  But I have to admit, I usually skip around the Psalm.  It seems a little inappropriate to read to a dying woman, “We are consumed by your anger and terrified by your indignation” (7), “All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan” (9), or “Who knows the power of your anger?  For your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you” (11).

Whether I should be skipping around the text at the bedside of someone on the verge of passing on is a subject for another day.  Moses is unafraid to express God’s wrath, for understandable reasons.  Place yourself out in the desert for 365 days a year for 40 years.  If the census numbers in the Bible are meant to be taken literally, two million or more people were in the desert, and the Bible says all that generation died before they reached the Promised Land.  That would mean an average of 135 deaths per day.

Maybe my numbers aren’t accurate, but they’re not the point.  Moses spent all day long every day around death, death as a result of disobedience and unbelief.  I think it’s a bad year if we have ten members of the congregation die between January and December.

Moses himself far outlived the normal 70 or 80 years, but we are nowhere told his knees and teeth and back had divine intervention.  Talk about BYOT and TTYL.  No wonder he’s always pictured with a big cane.  I think he did finish his years with a moan.

It wasn’t just that Moses was having a long life.  He saw the evidence of God’s punishment, his justice.  Charles Spurgeon said God’s wrath in the Bible is never a hyperbole; exaggeration is impossible.  As Paul Cummings commented to me the other day, everything about God is infinite.  That includes his wrath.  I’m quite sure that God’s infinite wrath is directed at the systems of this world that keep millions of people in Somalia starving while so many of us enjoy our luxuries and worry about our 401ks.

But Moses also knows another of God’s infinities – his “compassion” (13), and his “unfailing love” (14).  It’s just that at the moment of his writing, he sees more evidence of infinite wrath than infinite compassion.

The two are not in conflict.  Whatever God is, he is without limits.  He doesn’t get ticked off a little here and there, and love only when he’s in a good mood.  God’s infinity means he is consistently God. 

God’s wrath and his compassion meet on the cross of Christ, where we see his judgment poured out on sin so that we might live forever by his grace.

Don’t let God’s wrath and compassion throw you off.  That very characteristic is what we want to focus on this month.  God is infinite in complexity, in paradox, in tension.  He is Three, he is One.  He is transcendent, he is immanent.  He is distant, he is close.  He is mystery; he is simplicity.  He is Wholly Other; he creates us in his image.

This sermon series on the knowledge of God is not designed so that at the end of it we will all say, “Oh, now I understand why God does what God does.”  Knowing God doesn’t mean figuring him out. 

One of my favorite quotes about God is one I rediscovered in N. T. Wright’s book, Simply Christian, while preparing last week’s sermon.  Wright does a marvelous job explaining why we believe in God, a discipline often called apologetics.  But he does so with a very disarming and fresh approach.

Having described what he calls the “echoes of a voice” that give evidence for God, Wright says, “A great many arguments about God – God’s existence, God’s nature, God’s actions in the world – run the risk of being like pointing a flashlight toward the sky see if the sun is shining” (56).

This whole sermon series makes me feel like I’m “pointing a flashlight toward the sky.”  The closer you get to the sun the more absurd the flashlight.  The more you attempt to explain God the more futile the attempt feels.

We live in a world that wants to believe only what we can see, touch, and explain.  How can God be both a God of abiding wrath and a God of unfailing love?  The infinite complexity of God is why I cannot answer that question.  And is that infinite complexity that makes him God.

Prayer of Response

In your bulletin each week, you read following the sermon, “Prayer of Response.”  What prayer of response shall we make to Moses’ meditation on God’s infinity?  Thinking Moses’ thoughts after him, I feel small, insignificant, transient, even a little down.  If I could paraphrase Moses’ song it would go something like this: life is short, life is hard, then you die.  It’s like Somalia, only a just a fraction longer.

Linda and I saw an amazing film in the theater Thursday night.  It’s called “The Help,” and you need to see it, especially as a white southerner, if you haven’t seen it yet.  I can’t help but think that one of those Mississippi maids could have written Psalm 90:10, “The length of our days is seventy years – or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.”

But Psalm 90 isn’t about them, and it isn’t about me, and it isn’t about you.  It’s about God – infinite in power, infinite in eternity, infinite in complexity.  Who God is puts into perspective this life of ours, and teaches us how to pray when its brevity and trouble overwhelm us.  We wonder if anything we ever did will outlive us or make an enduring difference.

What “prayer of response” shall we pray?  I almost stopped today’s reading at verse 12, but we kept reading because verses 12-17 record Moses’ “prayer of response.”  What the psalms do is put into words that point where our dot touches God’s circle of infinity.  The psalms teach us how to pray when we’re sad or glad or bad or mad.  And nobody puts the psalms into everyday “American” better than Eugene Peterson, in his Message paraphrase.  This is his rendition of Psalm 90:12-17.  Let us pray.

Oh! Teach us to live well!
      Teach us to live wisely and well!
   Come back, God—how long do we have to wait?—
      and treat your servants with kindness for a change.
   Surprise us with love at daybreak;
      then we’ll skip and dance all the day long.
   Make up for the bad times with some good times;
      we’ve seen enough evil to last a lifetime.
   Let your servants see what you’re best at—
      the ways you rule and bless your children.
   And let the loveliness of our Lord, our God, rest on us,
      confirming the work that we do.
      Oh, yes. Affirm the work that we do!

 

            Amen.

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