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The Time Factor in Repentance 忏悔的时间观念

Sermon passage: (Psalm 102:1-28) Spoken on: March 22, 2015
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee
For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Psalms

Tags: Penitential

Listen to sermon recording with the play button or download with the download link. 您可点播或下载讲道录音。
About Rev. Wong Siow Hwee: Rev. Wong is the moderator of Jubilee Church, serving there since 2002. 王晓晖牧师是禧年堂的主理牧师。自2002年,在那牧会将近20年。
Bible passage (ESV) of the sermon can be found at the bottom of the page.

Speaker: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee
Date: 22nd Mar 2015
Title: The Time Factor in Repentance忏悔的时间观念

After a while, you might slowly come to realize that different pastors each have their favorite topics. One of my favorite topics is time.[1] I have a sermon related to the topic of time about once every year. I’m often fascinated by how different concepts of time influence how we humans perceive reality. Time by itself as a measurement tool is constant and continuous. Tick, tick, tick. You cannot ask for more, it won’t give you any less. But when time is experienced by a human, whether too much or too little, fast or slow moving, it can make us disheartened and lost, or conversely it could also make us encouraged and brave. One of my favorite Bible verses is Ecclesiastes 3: 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. The tricky part about this verse is that the word “’Eternity’ can be misleading, if a reader thinks of immortality or the spiritual contemplation of divine timelessness rather than history in its most inclusive sense”.[2] What has God put into our heart? It is an idea of how the world unfolds along with time. It changes, yet it repeats, and it goes on and on. Hence this particular word is also translated as ‘a sense of past and future’ (NRSV), or even the reality of ‘the world’. Because of our human limitations, because of how eternity can be so overwhelming and leave us feeling utterly helpless, the word is also interpreted as ‘ignorance’ (NET) as well. This is why time is so fascinating to me. Today, I want to talk about ‘The Time Factor in Repentance’. Let’s read the first stanza, and see what the psalmist has to say about his life. Take note of the highlighted words, which are all related to time. (Reading Psalm 102:1-11)

Psalm 102: Hear my prayer, Lord; let my cry for help come to you.
2 Do not hide your face from me when I am in distress.
Turn your ear to me; when I call, answer me quickly.
3 For my days vanish like smoke; my bones burn like glowing embers.
4 My heart is blighted and withered like grass; I forget to eat my food.
5 In my distress I groan aloud and am reduced to skin and bones.
6 I am like a desert owl, like an owl among the ruins.
7 I lie awake; I have become like a bird alone on a roof.
8 All day long my enemies taunt me; those who rail against me use my name as a curse.
9 For I eat ashes as my food and mingle my drink with tears
10 because of your great wrath, for you have taken me up and thrown me aside.
11 My days are like the evening shadow; I wither away like grass.

I wish to highlight 3 key points in this first stanza. First, it speaks about the transience of life. This is expressed in 3 metaphors. One, it is like smoke. It is to express how life is so unsubstantial, it seems to be but a puff of vapor, which has nothing in it, and is soon dissipated. The Chinese has an idiom 过眼云烟. Two, it is like the evening shadow. In the days before electrical lights, an evening shadow is a shadow which is passing away soon as the sun eventually sets. A shadow is unsubstantial enough, how feeble a thing must an evening shadow be? The third metaphor is grass as described in verse 4 and repeated in verse 11. Spurgeon says, “No expression could more forcibly set forth his extreme feebleness. He was like grass, blasted by a parching wind, or cut down with a scythe, and then left to be dried up by the burning heat of the sun. There are times when through depression of spirit a man feels as if all life were gone from him, and existence had become merely a breathing death. Our flesh at its best is but as grass, and when it is wounded with sharp sorrows, its beauty fades, and it becomes a shriveled, dried, uncomely thing.”[3] This is the cold hard truth all we humans have to face, like smoke, an evening shadow, and like grass, life ends just as easily and sometimes just as quickly.

Yet despite this, life feels intense as we live it when we are in pain. For something so unsubstantial and feeble as life, the pain from suffering and torture can be so substantial and real. This may be because no matter how short our life is, we are always fully aware that we exist in this very moment of our life. And at any moment, we are at the center of that moment. When we look back, it has turned into short memories. When we look ahead, it is so distant we cannot see it. But at this moment, it is everything we feel and palpably experience. In suffering, the psalmist feels so alone. To express this, he used the analogy of birds. “I am like a pelican of the wilderness, a mournful and even hideous object, the very image of desolation. I am like an owl of the desert; loving solitude, moping among ruins, hooting discordantly. The Psalmist likened himself to two birds that were commonly used as emblems of gloom and wretchedness; to be as lonely as the poor bird, which looks from the ridge of the roof, and meets with no friendly greeting from any of its kind. I watch, and am like a sparrow alone upon the house top: The Psalmist compared himself to a bird, —a bird when it has lost its mate or its young, or is for some other reason made to mope alone in a solitary place. The sparrow is happy in company, and if it were alone, the sole one of its species in the neighborhood, there can be little doubt that it would become very miserable, and sit and pine away.”[4]

Perhaps because life feels so transient and yet suffering so intense, this brings me to my third point: we want our answers to our suffering fast. This psalm is a penitential psalm, but it is also a petition. Here is where I explain the context of the psalmist, to know his side of the story. “This plaintive poem was (probably) written by some pious exile towards the expiration of the seventy years in captivity during which the people of Israel were detained in Babylon. The author of the psalm had most probably been carried away captive in early youth. He had survived nearly to the end of the term, and now, worn with cares and anxieties, he was earnest with God that deliverance might speedily arrive, lest he should sink to the grave.”[5] This is a unique penitential psalm because the sin is not a personal one, but the sin of the people of God. We don’t expect God to act instantaneously, but because of our finite lifespan, this urgency is a matter of necessity. “Turn your ear to me; when I call, answer me quickly.” That may sound rude, until you realize, that the next line says “For my days vanish like smoke.” That’s the human perspective: We have no real substantial time, not even to wait. What about God’s perspective? Let’s read the second stanza, verse 12-22, again taking note of the phrases related to time.

12 But you, Lord, sit enthroned forever; your renown endures through all generations.
13 You will arise and have compassion on Zion, for it is time to show favor to her; the appointed time has come.
14 For her stones are dear to your servants; her very dust moves them to pity.
15 The nations will fear the name of the Lord, all the kings of the earth will revere your glory.
16 For the Lord will rebuild Zion and appear in his glory.
17 He will respond to the prayer of the destitute; he will not despise their plea.
18 Let this be written for a future generation, that a people not yet created may praise the Lord:
19 “The Lord looked down from his sanctuary on high, from heaven he viewed the earth,
20 to hear the groans of the prisoners and release those condemned to death.”
21 So the name of the Lord will be declared in Zion and his praise in Jerusalem
22 when the peoples and the kingdoms assemble to worship the Lord.

Spurgeon summarizes, “What God is now he always will be, that which our forefathers told us of the Lord we find to be true at this present time, and what our experience enables us to record will be confirmed by our children and their children's children. All things else are vanishing like smoke, and withering like grass, but over all the one eternal, immutable light shines on, and will shine on when all these shadows have declined into nothingness.”

In contrast to the transience of human life, God’s reign is forever. When we seek deliverance during our repentance, this theological understanding is crucial. It is human to be anxious and impatient during our sufferings. We have little time to wait and little tolerance to bear. Any judgment lasting more than 70 years would likely outlive most of us. But that’s just merely looking at it from our perspective of time. Thankfully, the psalmist had gone beyond his myopic view of history to reflect on God’s perspective. That’s where we don’t just speak of my days, my life and my current sufferings. We speak of generations, of the past and even of the future. We adopt a worldview and speak of peoples and kingdoms, or nations and kings, and of heaven and earth. We have to acknowledge that God is still in control. He has his own timing to act. Our prayers are based on hopes and dreams because we do not control time, and everything is so temporal, but God’s acts are based on his will and power and in his appointed time, it will be done. In eternity, it becomes a matter of certainty. And so Zion will be restored. God’s people will be delivered. And God’s glory will be revealed. The psalmist may not live to see the day. But he acknowledged that it shall certainly be confirmed by the future generations.

When we talk about the restoration of Zion in this psalm, it is natural to reflect upon the restoration of the Church. Here, I’m not speaking of the local church, but the universal church on earth. The Church has her moments of ups and downs, pains and struggles, and certainly not without her sins and folly. And very often, those with compassion for the miserable state of God’s people would go to God in repentance. If you do not pray for the Church, then perhaps you do not see her clearly enough. Do not be misled by her grandeur or resources or membership sizes, or even her political power. What really counts is the relationship between God and his people. When we are all fully reconciled to God, that’s when it is truly glorious. This is why the Cross is our glory. Where there is true worship and true submission to God’s will, that’s where the Church is alive and living according to her calling. And so we need to pray, to pray in repentance.

But the way the Church will be transformed will be God’s timing. That’s the point I’m trying to convey. I say this to all the well-meaning Christians out there with fervor but yet sorrow in their hearts for the Church, whether Jubilee Church or the universal Church. Your prayers are needed. But your perspective must also be holistic. God reigns and his honor never fades. The tricky part is to see that despite all of the flaws of God’s people. And in his timing, he will restore. This is also a certainty, but perhaps only to be witnessed by the generations to come. This perspective is important not only as a form of comfort and assurance, but also to build patience and hope to all our current endeavors.

So we have a Thesis: Man has no time. And an Antithesis: God has his time. What is our Synthesis? Maybe the answer lies in the third stanza, verses 23-28. Let’s take a look, again paying special attention to phrases related to time.

23 In the course of my life he broke my strength; he cut short my days.
24 So I said: “Do not take me away, my God, in the midst of my days; your years go on through all generations.
25 In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands.
26 They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment.
Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded.
27 But you remain the same, and your years will never end.
28 The children of your servants will live in your presence; their descendants will be established before you.”

What I really like about this psalm is its unique lyrical presentation. In the first stanza, the poetry is expressed with a lot of you and me. The penitential psalm begins as a personal confession to God. In the second stanza, the mood is turned into a statement of belief. God is expressed mostly in the 3rd person. But at the last stanza, in the synthesis of the thesis and antithesis, it is again about you and me. I like it because despite knowing all that you need to know, the history facts and theology truths, in the end it is still about the man praying before his Maker. The man who has no time before his God who has all the time. In the synthesis, some things are unchanged. His days are still short, God’s years never end. But in the process of prayer, something did change. The restlessness, the agony and the sense of solitude are gone. Instead, we sense acceptance. We lament our short days because of regrets. There are still things unfinished, works unfulfilled. But what really matters in the end? Is it not the will of God? Even the heavens and the earth will perish, worn out like a garment. What matters is that God remains. Whatever nationalistic dreams and hopes the psalmist has, they will also fade away in an ever-evolving world. What truly matters is the reconciled relationship between God and man. And because the psalmist knows he already has that. He said in the final verse: 28 The children of your servants will live in your presence; their descendants will be established before you. So there are no more regrets. He has found his acceptance within his own perspective of time. Whatever his heart truly yearns, he knows, time will tell.

Kindly allow me to share something deep in my heart. In my ministry, I’ve worked with many different co-workers of all ages. Many serve with a deep love for Jubilee Church and the community, deeply moved with gratitude, I cannot ask for more. However, church ministry is sometimes a little like nation building, the work never seems to end. The more you do can ironically mean more work to be done. Sometimes those with advancing years show great concern, perhaps praying fervently just like the psalmist. This prayer is very precious, because it is a prayer of love for God’s people. Be unceasing in praying. But on the other hand, don’t be troubled by the time you have. You can also think in God’s time. As we serve together, our faith in God should spur us on, so that whatever we do, we do with quiet confidence instead. May God continue to bless the church, and to God be the glory.

[1] Sermons listed here:
1. Where is the promise of his coming?;
2. Living on borrowed time;
3. If time is money;
4. Time honored truths;
5. A time for questions and a time for an answer; It’s Jesus’ time
[2] The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 5, p 306
[4] Ibid.
[5] Calvin Commentaries, v.6 p 96

Psalm 102 (Listen)

A Prayer of one afflicted, when he is faint and pours out his complaint before the LORD.

102:1   Hear my prayer, O LORD;
  let my cry come to you!
  Do not hide your face from me
    in the day of my distress!
  Incline your ear to me;
    answer me speedily in the day when I call!
  For my days pass away like smoke,
    and my bones burn like a furnace.
  My heart is struck down like grass and has withered;
    I forget to eat my bread.
  Because of my loud groaning
    my bones cling to my flesh.
  I am like a desert owl of the wilderness,
    like an owl of the waste places;
  I lie awake;
    I am like a lonely sparrow on the housetop.
  All the day my enemies taunt me;
    those who deride me use my name for a curse.
  For I eat ashes like bread
    and mingle tears with my drink,
10   because of your indignation and anger;
    for you have taken me up and thrown me down.
11   My days are like an evening shadow;
    I wither away like grass.
12   But you, O LORD, are enthroned forever;
    you are remembered throughout all generations.
13   You will arise and have pity on Zion;
    it is the time to favor her;
    the appointed time has come.
14   For your servants hold her stones dear
    and have pity on her dust.
15   Nations will fear the name of the LORD,
    and all the kings of the earth will fear your glory.
16   For the LORD builds up Zion;
    he appears in his glory;
17   he regards the prayer of the destitute
    and does not despise their prayer.
18   Let this be recorded for a generation to come,
    so that a people yet to be created may praise the LORD:
19   that he looked down from his holy height;
    from heaven the LORD looked at the earth,
20   to hear the groans of the prisoners,
    to set free those who were doomed to die,
21   that they may declare in Zion the name of the LORD,
    and in Jerusalem his praise,
22   when peoples gather together,
    and kingdoms, to worship the LORD.
23   He has broken my strength in midcourse;
    he has shortened my days.
24   “O my God,” I say, “take me not away
    in the midst of my days—
  you whose years endure
    throughout all generations!”
25   Of old you laid the foundation of the earth,
    and the heavens are the work of your hands.
26   They will perish, but you will remain;
    they will all wear out like a garment.
  You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away,
27     but you are the same, and your years have no end.
28   The children of your servants shall dwell secure;
    their offspring shall be established before you.