I used to like to work on our cars as much as possible on my own. There’s something good about working with my hands. And mechanical problems are problems that have solutions, unlike many of the problems I encounter day to day in this job.
So one day, I went to change the oil in Dana’s old minivan. I could not, for the life of me, get the housing off to replace the oil filter. I tugged and tugged, I used everything I knew. After two hours, three broken tools, one of which was metal and literally split in half, I gave up.
It was hard to confess, but I did, that the work of my hands would not, in this case, prosper. I had to get someone else to do it. So I put oil back in the car and resolved to drive in the morning to get it fixed.
Well, turns out I had loosened the housing just enough to have it leak. When I turned on the car the next morning, it sounded like the car had major digestive issues. Quickly, a puddle of deep brown liquid about a yard across and two feet deep formed in our carport. I carefully and very slowly drove the van to walmart, with lights and sirens blinking and sounding in the car as if it was about to explode! After walmart confessed they could not get the housing off, I had it towed to Pitts Toyota, where they changed the oil and replaced the housing broken by the previous oil change place.
It was a disaster of an oil change. And I couldn’t help but think of it when the psalmist pleads with God, at the end of our scripture this evening, “prosper the work of our hands!”
Let’s hear our scripture for this Ash Wednesday, Psalm 90.
Prosper the work of our hands. It reminds me of the Home Depot slogan: never stop doing. As well as their older slogan: you can do it, we can help.
Our hands find many things to do, some of which are frustrating, like disasters of an oil change; some of which are wonderful and meaningful, like when I break the bread and lift the cup during communion. And on this and every Ash Wednesday, when my hands put ashes on your forehead; that, too, is a work of my hands in which I find great meaning and purpose.
And every year, when I place ashes on the foreheads of my family, our mortality always hits home. It’s a different experience, more personal, to look at my sons and say “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It’s hard to consider the mortality of my children, especially because they are so much the work of my hands.
The Psalmist doesn’t just mean those things we can actually make with our hands when he pleads with God to prosper the work of his hands. The word in the Hebrew, translated here as prosper, means something more like “establish, make firm, make lasting,” the work of our hands.
The desire of the Psalmist is to have the work he does, and the work of the Israelites, be lasting work, work that matters, work that has meaning, work that will remain when they are gone from this life.
And what parent doesn’t want exactly that for their children? To have their work of parenting, the work of their hands, be prospered, be established, be made lasting and firm. That is, perhaps, the greatest desire in my life, for my work of parenting, for my work as a pastor, for my labors as a disciple of Christ called in service to the world. So I can hear myself resonating with the Psalmist: prosper, establish, make lasting, the work of my hands.
For we all want our work to matter. We want what we do to matter. We want meaning out of life. So does the Psalmist. And the Psalmist realizes that life is not forever. They, and we, have limited time to get things right, to move away from work that doesn’t matter or work that is against what God would have them do. To move into work that does matter, that God will prosper, that will be established like a firm foundation, lasting for generations. So the Psalmist prays to God, “teach us to number our days, that we may gain a wise heart.”
Mortality is setting in. The Psalmist knows that most around him don’t make it to their fiftieth birthday. Life expectancy in the ancient world at this time was in the 40s. Consider that for a second: imagine if you only lived to be 46. I would have seven years left. Our church would be absent many familiar faces. Life for them was much shorter than it is for us.
But even for those who live the longest in ancient Israel, to their seventieth or eightieth birthday, the Psalmist says that even those only know toil and trouble. He sounds like Qoheleth, the author of Ecclesiastes, who says that life is havel, vapor, here for a second and gone, a wisp of wind.
Life is, we would say, precious, but not the Psalmist. Life is incredibly short, full of toil and turmoil, full of strife and division, full of hardship. God looks down on us, blinks his eye, and a thousand years worth of human history goes by.
That’s Qoheleth’s message in Ecclesiastes. That’s what the Psalm says. Doesn’t it seem foolish, then, to work so hard in this life? To labor so hard? Trying to prosper the work of our own hands? We will be forgotten, faster than we would like to admit. We might feel like big stuff now, but all too quickly people will move on with their lives and we will be forgotten.
And yet, we do try to prosper the work of our hands. We labor and labor over our work. We are consumed with being busy, with being hurried, with things to do, schedules to keep, obligations to fulfill.
And we don’t stop to consider whether or not it’s all worth it. We check email frequently, seeing if we’re needed, trying to keep up with the demands of work. When we have a free minute, we feel the compulsion to fill it with something: more work, writing reports, calling people, or maybe household chores of dishes, laundry, yard work, or some repair around the house.
We never stop. We’re trying to prosper the work of our hands. Or maybe we’re just trying to keep up with the work our hands have found to do.
Tonight, we stop, briefly, from our work, for this service, to consider the bigger things of life.
Or maybe you haven’t stopped yet. Maybe you’ve checked your email during the service or during the sermon. Maybe your mind has wandered off to some stressor, something that needs doing, thinking about work or obligations or priorities in your life.
Stopping is hard, but that’s what Ash Wednesday asks us to do: stop. Consider your mortality. We will all die. We are only human. Our lives are here but for a moment, like the grass of the field that fades and withers in the evening. We are dust, blown about by the wind. That’s what the ashes remind us of today. We came from dust and to dust we shall return. The ashes are a sign of our lives: here today, gone tomorrow, all by the grace of God.
But this isn’t bad news. This isn’t something to be depressed about.
No, it’s truth that should orient our lives.
Consider that what makes Christmas so special is that it only comes around once a year. If it was everyday, it would cease to be special. The same is true for Easter, what our hearts and souls yearn for and eagerly anticipate during the Lenten season. Our lives are like that. What makes our lives special is that they are limited in time. Finite. Mortal. If we lived forever, our lives would not be special. Indeed, what makes life worth living, what makes life special, is death.
And so we must, then, be careful with how we manage our time here on this planet. The Psalmist speaks a deep and profound truth when he says, “teach us to number our days that we may gain a wise heart.” Wisdom comes from recognizing that we have a very limited amount of time here. That’s the truth around which we should orient our lives; that’s the lesson in the ashes.
Much of the time, we spend our days striving to just keep up with demands on our lives. Tonight is a chance to ask ourselves a question. It’s a hard question. It requires courage to face it and answer it honestly. But it’s the question of wisdom and the gateway to living a life of wisdom. It’s how we live into the truth that should orient our lives; the truth of our mortality: do those demands, these obligations that drive our lives, really matter?
Many things in life are a wisp of wind, vapor, havel, here for a moment and then gone. Someone doesn’t like you? It’s a wisp of wind. Your boss is terrible? It’s just vapor. Your finances are a mess? It’s havel.
And then, when we do get focused on the things of life that matter, we so often find our work futile. We can’t make our children who we want them to be; they simply grow up in ways that are mysterious. We cannot make our lives have meaning through our own work; somehow, we impact people for good or ill. We cannot force others to regard us the way we want them to. They make up their own minds about us. We can’t make our family peaceful and loving. We have far less control than we think.
The hard truth of life is that we cannot, on our own, prosper the work of our hands. Any sense of control is an illusion. Working harder to try and make meaning out of this life is beyond us. The psalmist is right when he prays and asks God to prosper, establish, the work of his hands, to make meaning out of his work and to make it matter. Only God can do that.
Only God can do that; make meaning out of our lives. And yet, we play like little gods, believing that we can make a difference. It’s a seductive lie but it’s still a lie. A lie that entraps us in hurry and worry by saying if we’ll work harder, double down on our efforts, we’ll make a difference, we’ll make our lives matter, we’ll build an altar to ourselves that generations beyond us will remember. A lie that ensnares by telling us that we can create, when only God can make something out of nothing. We are the created, not the creator.
Most of us tonight are like me: we already drive ourselves hard enough. We already work hard enough. There’s freedom in knowing that it’s God, not us, that makes our lives matter, that creates meaning out of our work, that prospers the work of our hands.
Freedom in knowing that God will make us matter. Freedom from the serious, keep you up at night, worry and fear that comes when we’re not sure if we matter, if what we do matters, if we’re making a difference. Freedom that comes from no longer pushing ourselves into a life of hurry and worry, thinking that it will pay off in the end.
But how can we gain that freedom? It begins first, tonight, by confessing our mortality; by embracing the ashes. We have limited time on this earth. If we try to make meaning and prosper the work of our own hands, we are doomed to failure after living a life of toil and trouble. But if we will yield to God by confessing that we have limits, we cannot make our lives matter on our own, God will make meaning out of our lives and prosper, establish, the work of our hands, when we live the life God is calling us to live.
This requires not only confession but also ongoing practice. We must give up some time, regularly. We need a regular reminder that we cannot make our lives matter; only God can do that. We need a time set aside to ensure that we’re communing with God so that the things we choose to do are actually things that matter, are things that God would have us do. There’s no way to know the life God is calling us to live if we’re not spending regular time with God.
So, this Lent, give God that regular time. Perhaps you already do; add a little to it. Perhaps you do so irregularly. Make it a daily habit. Perhaps you have not spent regular time with God in a while. Now, today, tonight, is even a chance to begin afresh and anew. The common devotional for this Lenten season is a great place to begin. Read it daily, at the same time every day. Make it a habit.
Because we need to give God that time. It’s not practical, it will sound like the opposite of what we’re all trained to do, which is to fill every moment of every day. But we need to take time, daily, to be with God. Then we will know the life God is calling us to live. Then we will be mindful that only God can make our lives matter, can prosper the work of our hands. Because we have a short time on this earth and God has great plans for how we are to spend those few days we are mortal.
This is the lesson of the ashes: when we orient our lives around the truth of our mortality, we discover our priorities align, our work load becomes easier, because we focus on what really matters because we’re living the life God has called us to live.
So here’s the call on our lives this Lent: give up some time. That’s an incredibly difficult thing to do. Yes, it sounds impractical. It is actually impractical. But religion is usually impractical. At least, if we’re doing it right!
So give up time, daily, to commune with God. Use the Lenten devotional. Make it a daily, regular, routine, habit from now through April 17, Easter Sunday.
We all want the work of our hands to be prospered, to be meaningful, to matter. So stop. Embrace your mortality: we are dust and to dust we shall return. Choose daily time with God. Then, we will discover the wisdom of the prayer of Moses:
So teach us to count our days, that we may gain a wise heart.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.