This is a sermon from 2009. Much too long for a blog post. But then again, I was helped again by it, so I will share it.
God’s Word on the Tasks of Living: Getting Older 2/22/09
When I first proposed this study series that we’ve now reached the end of, with the theme of “God’s Word on the Tasks of Living,” and I told you we’d consider such things as marrying and parenting and working and managing wealth, and then I tacked on the end there, “growing old” – did you wonder what it was doing there?
I mean, is growing old a task of living – or is it instead an obstacle to those tasks?
Consider, after all, that all those other things we’ve talked about are essentially productive: growing up; making a home; raising up the next generation; having a life’s work; building wealth.
Is growing old really in that category?
Some would argue that it is precisely because getting old is essentially the opposite of being productive that growing old in our culture is fundamentally disrespected.
In America, we value beauty and vigor – the physical attributes of youth. We value innovation, entrepreneurialism and flexibility – the mental attributes of youth. We value cutting edge science and technology – the province, it seems, of youth. All of those things have to do with reproducing and building and competing.
As we get older, the changes that happen to us become handicaps in just those areas – reproduction; building; competing.
Generations ago it used to be said that children should be seen and not heard; these days, it’s old people who we get the feeling should not be seen or heard. Culturally, we disrespect age: it seems to be ok to make fun of old people in commercials or TV shows. Our culture seems to prefer that the active older folks live together (and away from everybody else), and once older people become inactive they drop from our culture’s awareness — out of sight and out of mind. Old folks, like children in ages gone by, are supposed to know their place.
This is not funny. The pressure on us to be young forever makes the rigors of growing older even harder – there don’t seem to be any compensation for the losses we feel in our body and strength. Where once upon a time it was said that old folks were valued for their wisdom and experience, now as we age we sense not just our bodies but our value diminishing.
Baby boomers seem particularly to have been caught off guard by this – after all, popular culture as long as we’ve been alive has been about us. We didn’t trust folks over 30, and now that we’re well past that, we cheerily claim that 50 is the new 30! But we’re not getting away with it – folks in their 20s are now starting to blame everything that’s wrong with our society on old folks – you know, Baby Boomers! And our protests that we aren’t old, that we can’t be old because we’re never going to get old, fall on ears which are not listening to us.
And so it’s with dismay we Boomers see ourselves becoming older people. It isn’t just the physical changes and losses we fear – it’s the very disrespect we know is coming our way, and we know it, because we’ve participated in it.
So we shouldn’t be surprised by people like the famous actress I heard about a couple of weeks ago. She’s in her 60s but goes through an extensive daily regimen of hormones and supplements to keep herself looking – ahem – 50. By extensive I mean that she uses three different hormone creams placed on various parts of her body, and takes 60 supplement pills every day. She claims to have beat menopause this way. She admits she’s a little over the top but says she does it because she wants to live to 110.
Perhaps she does. But it seemed more to me, reading her story, that what she really wants is not to look a day over 45. Ever. No matter how old she gets, she never wants to look old or be called old or be written off as old.
That’s what’s going on in the world we live in, and it’s like the weather: everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it.
But when we come here on Sunday morning, it is my job to proclaim to you the truth of the real world – the kingdom of God. Here is where we get our heads set back on straight, to see things the way God sees them, after the world has done its darnedest all week to mess us up. So what does the word of God have to say about getting older?
Whenever someone’s great age is mentioned in the Bible, it means something. That’s because, during most of Bible times, reaching old age was rare! I read that in the days of the New Testament, the average female who survived to the age of 10 could expect to live to the ripe old age of 34. Compare that with our times in the United States: in 1999, a 10 year old girl could expect to live past 80.
In the Bible, someone who had lived to have grey hair and wrinkles had survived many things that had killed off their peers, and was considered to have the mark of God’s favor on them.
So consider this: from the Bible’s perspective, anyone can be young – it takes the hand of God to help you get to be old!
But the Bible does admit that if we get to be old, there are losses we endure. At the end of Ecclesiastes, the Teacher (considered to be Solomon) gives a description of the diminishments of the body for one who reaches old age. It’s written quite poetically:
1 Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
“I find no pleasure in them”-
2 before the sun and the light
and the moon and the stars grow dark,
and the clouds return after the rain;
(that refers to the dimming of vision)
3 when the keepers of the house tremble, (your hands shake)
and the strong men stoop,
(the legs go)
when the grinders cease because they are few, (the teeth)
and those looking through the windows grow dim; (the eyes again)
4 when the doors to the street are closed (the lips)
and the sound of grinding fades; (the teeth)
when men rise up at the sound of birds, (can’t sleep)
but all their songs grow faint; (can’t hear)
5 when men are afraid of heights
and of dangers in the streets; (we become unsteady and afraid)
when the almond tree blossoms (the hair turns white)
and the grasshopper drags himself along (small things are too difficult)
and desire no longer is stirred. (you can figure that one out for yourself)
Then man goes to his eternal home
and mourners go about the streets.
6 Remember [your Creator] —before the silver cord is severed,
or the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
or the wheel broken at the well,
7 and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
The Bible doesn’t whitewash growing old.
In fact, the Bible calls the diminishment of age what it is – decay, the approach of death – and God’s word knows just what ails us most in the midst of it – it’s what the Bible calls “being enslaved by the fear of death.”
In all our culture’s disrespect of age and mockery of the old, that’s the thing that no one says – that what bothers younger people about old age isn’t really frumpy clothes or listening to stories about times long ago; what bothers us is that in our culture we’d like to pretend that death is optional, and obvious old age reminds us that it is not.
Years ago, I used to work with my mother, who wrote a syndicated newspaper column about food. Once a month it was my job to read through the abstracts of nutrition and other medical research for studies that might be interesting to highlight in the column.
Reading study after study used to strike me funny after awhile, because it starts to sound like all these researchers believe that if they were able to identify and eliminate every cause of death, we would just stop dying. In dry scientific lingo, it sounded like a report on the project of eliminating mortality.
At the time I was doing this reading, cancer death rates were rising, but this was actually a sign of success. Do you know why? Because fewer people were dying of heart disease! Medical and lifestyle changes were reducing the numbers of deaths due to heart disease – so those people who might have died of heart attacks lived longer until they what they died from, was cancer. It used to be that more people didn’t live long enough to get cancer.
I salute medical research and I appreciate my much longer probable lifespan, and I hope those researchers keep at it and eliminate many more diseases. But no matter how much research we do, we are not going to eliminate dying, and the death rate has remained the same: 100%.
Though we like to keep the evidence of this quiet, the truth is, we’re all going to die.
The Bible knows it, and isn’t afraid to talk about it, and in the scriptures we read what we’re afraid to say: the struggle we have with our bodies as we get older is the evidence of what Paul calls in Romans the whole creation’s bondage to decay. The grinders are falling out and the knees are going and the, um, almond blossoms would be turning white if I let them.
The Bible isn’t afraid to talk about it because the Bible is about the solution to it. The Bible says that Jesus came and took on our flesh and lived our life, and then he died our death – except he conquered death. When Jesus rose from the dead, he was the first one to do what all of us who belong to him are going to do – rise from the dead.
In fact, the Bible says that Jesus entered death in a way that, because of him, we never will – if we have put our faith in Christ, when this heart stops beating we will go to be in the presence of God, never experiencing what Jesus did: the complete separation from him, the entirety of death.
The Bible proclaims that when we come to believe that Jesus is the one sent from the Father and that he did indeed rise from the dead –when we put our faith in him and turn our lives over to him — the Holy Spirit of God comes to dwell within us and we are reborn into a life that we will never quit living. Though our bodies will die, yet will we live; and as those who live and believe in him, we will never die – and on the last day, even physically we will live again.
Forget the hormone creams and the 60 pills; Jesus has staved off death for me, permanently! The life I live in the Son of God is his life now, and though I will change my address from this life to eternity, the me that loves Jesus now is the me that will be present with him then. It is that life that I have already begun to live.
So how does it change my experience of aging if I am actively engaged in living a Christ-filled life now? Paul writes about it in Romans and we read it this morning: you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. If Christ is in you, though the body is dead, the Spirit is life. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also…so, don’t live according to the flesh, but live according to the Spirit. For you didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption – you are a child of God. When we cry, “Abba! (Daddy) Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.
Paul says, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed in us.” Look around at everything in the creation – “the creation,” he says “waits with eager longing” along with us, for rescue from decay. Paul imagines it this way: that we, along with the whole creation, are groaning in labor waiting for the birth of the new heavens and the new earth, where we’ll get our new bodies, too. Now we, and the whole creation, are subjected to decay and growing uselessness – but when Christ comes, all things will become new!
So the Bible’s take on it is that if we live long enough to experience the effects of dying on our bodies, it at least ought to be a reminder to us that we are going to escape the very worst parts of death, and that on the other side of physical death is what our faith looks to, a freedom from the slavery of decay and from our fear of death – a new life of no longer being stalked by death.
So can we really feel differently about the limitations of age and looming of death, just by believing that? Even in the face of a culture that absolutely believes otherwise?
The other thing the Bible has to say about age, has to do with wisdom. Wisdom is the province of the aged, and elders were to be respected and consulted for their wisdom.
Our culture respects knowledge and data and information – but wisdom is something else. Wisdom knows what to do with the data and the information; wisdom comes with experience.
And wisdom, the Bible tells us, comes from knowing the Lord. Richard Hays says that the old people we read about in the Bible, are “well practiced in watchfulness for God.” Think of Simeon and Anna, those elder prophets waiting and praying at the temple for God’s provision of Messiah, who were rewarded by God with a glimpse of the baby Jesus. Think of Zechariah and Elizabeth, faithful in temple service and in righteousness even though they were childless and so disappointed and disgraced by that – they are rewarded with the gift of being John the Baptist’s parents, and both of them prophesy about God and his character as part of that assignment. They knew how to wait on the Lord; they knew, from long practice of prayer and trust and knowing God’s word, what God is like. And they are held up for us as wise.
Contrast, however, the picture we get of Nicodemus the Pharisee leader in the gospel of John. Nicodemus is not a kid, but Jesus does not consider him wise even though he is learned. Nicodemus is curious enough to come to see Jesus, but he is so concerned about the fallout from that among the other Pharisees, that he comes by night so that he won’t be seen.
And when he does, Jesus answers the question he hasn’t even asked yet: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Nicodemus says, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Nicodemus is too old for Jesus’ confusing questions!
Jesus tells him again that it is being born by the Spirit, not by the flesh, that is important. When Nicodemus says, “how can these things be?”, Jesus answers him, “are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”
Their conversation goes on, but it is clear that Jesus thinks Nicodemus may have years but he does not yet have wisdom, because he does not have the wisdom of faith. Nicodemus may know the data of the scriptures, but he does not know the wisdom of the scriptures, because he doesn’t yet know the things of the Spirit.
From this, we receive instruction about the difference between getting older as a child of God, versus just getting older.
As followers of Jesus, who have His Spirit, we are supposed to be learning his ways. Through disciplines like prayer, Bible reading, giving, worshiping, even fasting, we become “well-practiced in watchfulness for God.” The longer we’re at it, the deeper in Christ we grow, and the wiser we become. So those among us with greater years have the potential to be those among us with greater experience in walking with Jesus, and greater wisdom. Wisdom does not come just from racking up birthdays, but wisdom will come from long practice of walking with the Spirit of God.
But the Bible’s wisdom is this: whether we are old or young, the beginning of wisdom is reverence of the Lord, and the glorious thing about this “being born again” thing is that it is never too late to start! No matter who we are, we are called to turn our hearts toward God and turn away from sin. We are called to receive Jesus as Savior and Lord. We are invited into the community of believers, the outpost of the kingdom of God, the church. We are instructed to pay attention to the word of God and obey it, to join in worship and in service, in prayer and in giving, to walk with Jesus, alone and together. By these things, we are released from the slavery of our appetites and our sin natures and helped to pursue the things that are life; at the same time, our vision is lifted from the trivial things of this world to the eternal things of the next, so our perspective is changed.
Our knees will still hurt, but we are less likely to feel quite so sorry for ourselves when our minds are on what God’s mind is on. We still fear the act of dying, but in the fear there is mixed a real eagerness to know what it will really be like to be with the Jesus we have come to know so well in prayer and worship. And the jibes of those who dismiss us for being “old” still hurt our feelings, but they do pale in comparison to the prospect of actually being wise.
I’ve been reading a memoir called “Somewhere Towards the End” by Diana Athill, who is 91 years old – it is her memoir of aging. She also wrote a book about her 50-year-career as a book editor, but in this book she writes about the curiosity that she no longer can get interested in novels, although she used to enjoy them so much.
I wonder if that has something to do with something else I learned about recently. At the Midwinter Pastors’ Conference I went to a workshop on “Aging with Grace” and was reminded of Eric Ericson’s developmental stages. If you ever took psychology you probably read about him and his developmental theories – he came up with eight life stages; each of them has a particular task. Middle adulthood, he theorized, is concerned with what he called “generativity” – with production. But Late adulthood – he proposed 65 as the starting age – is interested in what he called “integrity” – here’s what he means. When we reach older adulthood and we realize that death is on the calendar for us, we begin to review our life to see if the whole of it was successful. This is pursued through telling our stories to ourselves and others, and integrating the events of our lives together to evaluate the whole. Another theorist, Robert Butler, says that we pursue this life review whether we want to or not, and if we won’t be conscious of it, we will do it through dreams.
So I wonder if Diana Athill isn’t satisfied with reading other people’s stories anymore, because whether she wants to or not, she is concerned with evaluating her own – maybe even enough to write a book about it.
The Bible has something to say about this, too. If we have been attending to the disciplines of worship and prayer, we have been invited into confession – the act of telling the truth to God and to ourselves about the ways in which we have fallen short, stepped over the line and missed the target. We do that because we want to be forgiven, and we are invited to: if we say we have no sin, the Bible says, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But, it says in the same place, if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness. So, if we have been doing what the Master told us to do, we have been doing mini-life-reviews all along…and thus when the time comes that we feel compelled to evaluate our life story, what we should see are the fingerprints of Jesus all over it, writing “forgiven” next to the sorry parts.
God’s perspective on your life story, and on mine, is that Jesus takes our stories and weaves them into his own. Paul says “…it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20) As we grow in Christ, what should be seen in our life is the unmistakable evidence that his story is now being lived out in me.
Perhaps that explains one other thing that we see in the Bible’s old folks. They were not exempt from having God doing an amazing new thing in or through them. Abraham and Sarah were in their nineties, and they gave birth to the child of promise. Hannah and Elizabeth were too old for such stuff, too, but that didn’t make it too hard for God.
New things are not off limits for old folks who belong to Jesus: Simeon and Anna weren’t too old to believe that God really was going to bring a Messiah, nor were they too set in their ways to accept that the Messiah God brought, was the infant of a nondescript poor couple who showed up in the Temple one day, instead of what they expected.
If we believe the Bible we have no reason to believe that we could ever be too old for God to give us an assignment, or even an entirely new calling. Remember what Peter quoted from the prophet Joel on Pentecost: “in the last days…God declares…I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams…and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
And that only makes sense when you think about it – to the world, to our knees and our arteries, we are aging and dying, but in Christ, we have only just begun.