The Prayer of an Old Saint

In thee, O LORD, do I take refuge; let me never be put to shame! 2 In thy righteousness deliver me and rescue me; incline thy ear to me, and save me! 3 Be thou to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress, to save me, for thou art my rock and my fortress. 4 Rescue me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of the unjust and cruel man. 5 For thou, O Lord, art my hope, my trust, O LORD, from my youth. 6 Upon thee I have leaned from my birth; thou art he who took me from my mother's womb. My praise is continually of thee. 7 I have been as a portent to many; but thou art my strong refuge. 8 My mouth is filled with thy praise, and with thy glory all the day. 9 Do not cast me off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength is spent. 10 For my enemies speak concerning me, those who watch for my life consult together, 11 and say, "God has forsaken him; pursue and seize him, for there is none to deliver him." 12 O God, be not far from me; O my God, make haste to help me! 13 May my accusers be put to shame and consumed; with scorn and disgrace may they be covered who seek my hurt. 14 But I will hope continually, and will praise thee yet more and more. 15 My mouth will tell of thy righteous acts, of thy deeds of salvation all the day, for their number is past my knowledge. 16 With the mighty deeds of the Lord GOD I will come, I will praise thy righteousness, thine alone. 17 O God, from my youth thou hast taught me, and I still proclaim thy wondrous deeds. 18 So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, till I proclaim thy might to all the generations to come. Thy power 19 and thy righteousness, O God, reach the high heavens. Thou who hast done great things, O God, who is like thee? 20 Thou who hast made me see many sore troubles wilt revive me again; from the depths of the earth thou wilt bring me up again. 21 Thou wilt increase my honor, and comfort me again. 22 I will also praise thee with the harp for thy faithfulness, O my God; I will sing praises to thee with the lyre, O Holy One of Israel. 23 My lips will shout for joy, when I sing praises to thee; my soul also, which thou hast rescued. 24 And my tongue will talk of thy righteous help all the day long, for they have been put to shame and disgraced who sought to do me hurt.

The Bible's Teaching on the "Generation Gap"

The generation gap is not all bad. Some gaps are good things. Like in spark plugs—the gap has to be just right to make the spark that drives the piston that runs the engine. In fact the Bible does not try to obliterate the generation gap; instead, it teaches us how to understand the gap and how to cross it with special kinds of respect.

Old Saints, Young Saints, and Those in Between

At Bethlehem there are older saints and younger saints and some of us in our forties and fifties who have a foot on both boats. What I believe the Lord wants me to do in the next three weeks is apply the Word of God to these groups and seek the wisdom and power of God's Spirit to pull us together for the great work we have to do as the people of God in this city and around the world.

Today the message is called, "The Prayer of an Old Saint." Next week it will be called, "Do Not Say, 'I am only a Youth,'" from Jeremiah 1. And in two weeks, as we enter the fall schedule of three services and the new SPAN II design for ministry, the title will be, "Old and Young Shall Dream Together," from the text in Acts 2: "Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy; your young men will see visions and your old men will dream dreams." And in each of the evening services we will continue what we began in the morning with further exposition and stories and practical applications. Then on September 10 in the evening we will meet outside in our new sanctuary and dream together of what God aims to do through us as we build together.

Exploding Stereotypes

The more I have thought about this the more I am persuaded that Christ is calling us to explode some stereotypes about the generations. What is God's calling for an older saint? Is it the same call that insurance companies and pension plans and retirement communities offer? Is God's message and their message the same? And how early in life does God look for visionary and responsible ministry from our youth? Is it God's idea that we have come to regard as normal and inevitable the excessive style-consciousness, the disrespect, the self-centeredness, the indifference that so often goes with adolescence? Have we just gradually over the years in the American church conformed to the lowest common denominator of what is possible for the old, and what is expected from the young? Have we searched the Scriptures to learn what God's will for older people is? Have we searched the Scriptures to learn what God aims to make of a teenager or a baby-boomer? Or do we just absorb the media models?

Perhaps we can make some good progress together in the next several weeks searching the Scriptures. I think you will find exciting and encouraging what God can do and wants to do with old and young in this congregation.

The Remarkable Facts of Aging

So let's think this morning about being at the upper end of the age spectrum. The world is getting old. We will hear next week some astonishing figures about the massive and exploding numbers of young people in the world. But today we focus on the remarkable facts of aging.

The more developed a country becomes, the longer its people live. The country with the lowest average male life expectancy today is Afghanistan at 37 years. The highest is Japan at 75 years. In Guinea it is 39 years; Ethiopia 40; Cameroon 49; India 56; Poland & China 67; U.S.A. 72.

In the U.S., 210 Americans reach the age of 100 each week. 56,000 people in the U.S. past the age of 65 get married every year; and 10,000 get divorced. The world's over-60 population is expected to almost triple in the next 40 years.

The Goodness of the Generation Gap

And the gap between the older and the younger is not all bad. The Bible does not try to obliterate the gap. For example, Paul wrote to the younger Timothy, "Do not rebuke an older man but exhort him as you would a father; treat younger men like brothers, older women like mothers, younger women like sisters, in all purity" (1 Timothy 5:1–2).

If Paul had wanted to obliterate the generation gap, he would have said to Timothy, "Don't make distinctions in the way you treat the old and the young. Treat them all the same." But that is not what he said. He said, Recognize the distinction between an old man and a young man; acknowledge the gap, and treat the old man one way—like a father—and the young man another way—like a brother.

If we were to do away with the generation gap, we would nullify some very important Scriptures. Some Scriptures can only be fulfilled by recognizing the generation gap and owning up to the fact that it is good.

Three Comments About Older People

I want to illustrate this with a text from Leviticus 19. But before I do, let me set up an outline for the rest of the message. I want to say three things about older people, and I choose words that rhyme in the hope that you may remember them and think on them and pray them into reality at Bethlehem.

  1. Older people are to be PRIZED.
  2. Older people are to be MOBILIZED.
  3. Older people are to be EVANGELIZED (which we won't get to until tonight).

1. Older People Are to Be PRIZED

Here is where I want to quote Leviticus 19, specifically, verse 32. "You shall rise up before the hoary head, and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the Lord."

There are tokens of respect and demonstrations of honor that belong to older people, simply because they are older. God has granted them to live long, and you shall fear your God by honoring the men and women who have born his image to old age.

Honoring Older People and Fearing God

This is why it is so important not to obliterate the generation gap. This text commands the younger ones among us not to stride presumptuously and carelessly into the presence of an older person as though we were crossing no gap—as though we and they were simply peers with no special respect and honor to be shown to them. "You shall rise up before the grey head; you shall show honor to the face of an old person."

How? Respectful postures. Respectful forms of address. Respectful deference in sitting and standing. Respectful clothing. These are not just arbitrary, old fashioned manners and customs. The text says, "Honor the face of an old man, and fear your God." Customs of respect and deference to older people are rooted in God and the fear of God. And the loss of these manners of respect from baby-boomers and teenagers is directly related to their small view of God and the contemporary foreignness of the idea of the fear of God. If God has become a buddy, you can hardly expect people to stand when an old man enters the room.

So we must learn to fear the Lord in humility and trust, and then to let that trust and humility and fear show itself in respect and honor for the people the Lord has made to bear his image a long time on the earth. This is what I mean when I say, Older people are to be PRIZED. Anything that signifies disregard, anything that signifies that loss of strength means loss of honor, is wrong.

A Test of Faith

The way we treat our elders is a test of faith. It has to do with reverence for God. Paul said this too in 1 Timothy 5:4, 8: "If a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn their religious duty to their own family and make some return to their parents; for this is acceptable in the sight of God . . . If any one does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever."

In other words, we will prize older people the way we should when we prize God the way we should. When you stand before an older person, the issue is: will God be revered in this moment by the way I treat this person? Now that has implications for the older person too. It means that he or she exists for God. And that leads us to the second point this morning.

2. Older People Are to Be MOBILIZED

Turn with me to Psalm 71. While you are turning, listen to these facts: At the turn of the century, the average man in America spent 3% of his lifetime in retirement; in this decade he is spending 20% of his lifetime in retirement. Almost 2/3 of all workers retire before 65. Over half the people over 85 report no physical disabilities.

The biblical implication from all this is not merely that there are more and more older people to be prized, but more and more to be mobilized.

Now this assumes two things. First, that there are mobilizers, equippers, leaders who expect older people to be actively serving Christ as long as they are alive, in whatever way their health will allow. And, second, it assumes that there are older people who expect to be actively serving Christ as long as they live, in whatever way their health will allow.

Pursuing Ministry for as Long as We Live

I want to encourage both of those assumptions. And I think the best way is to point your attention to verse 18 of Psalm 71. The old saint prays like this:

So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, till I proclaim thy might to all the generations to come.

My father turned 70 last January. Last Friday he was supposed to have his second hip surgery. I called Friday morning to check in on him. My stepmother answered and said he couldn't have the surgery because of a severely infected prostate. She said the hip and the infection are excruciatingly painful. I said, "Where is he?" She said, "O, he's downstairs recording gospel messages for radio in the Philippines. He says it hurts more to lie down and he may as well work." My father once told me a long time ago that he never intended to stop preaching, and that his prayer was to die in the pulpit.

I think that is the spirit of verse 18. Here is an old man with grey hair pleading with God to sustain him in old age so that he can press on with his ministry. That is what God wants at Bethlehem: Older people who say: "Well, if my society says that my profession is finished at age 65 but my God says that my ministry is finished when I die, then between 65 and 95 I am on-call full-time for God."

How Will You Finish the Verse?

Look at verse 18 again with me: "So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, till I . . . " Now right at this point I want you to fill in your ministry. Every Christian is given gifts and called to ministry (Ephesians 4:11; 1 Peter 4:10f.; 1 Corinthians 12:7), and there are no age limitations. Your ministry will change with the different chapters of your life. At the peak of his physical powers my father preached well over 200 times a year. Now the pain is too great to travel. So he tapes messages and writes Bible study lessons and communicates with young Christians all over the world from his study in Easley, South Carolina.

In Cameroon Noël and I met an American Wycliffe missionary named Olive Shell. She was a linguistic specialist and happened to be 76 years old. She had been there 7 years after serving in Peru for 35 years. She was leaving and her plan was to take a refresher course in Norman, Oklahoma, and then go on to a new assignment. They wanted to give her a plaque or something, but someone reminded them that she only travels with as much luggage as she can carry in two hands. So they decided not to weigh her down.

Not all older people are called to be missionaries or evangelists like Olive Shell and my father. But we are all called to minister, and the more time we have free, the more ministry we are called to do. So how will you finish the verse: "Even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, till . . . "?

  • Till every widow in the nursing home near my home has a prayer partner;
  • till at least one older person is involved in every Wednesday night kids choir and class and club;
  • till this old, dilapidated sanctuary building is painted and the windows are repaired so that we can grace the neighborhood again for the five or seven years that it will be standing;
  • till I have written every missionary that we support every month for five years;
  • till I see Immanuel Baptist Church on its feet and strong as a sister church to Bethlehem;
  • till there are strong Bible study groups at the Elliot Twin Towers and Bethlehem partners for every resident that wants one;
  • till abortion is stopped in our city;
  • till the new sanctuary is paid for and full of praise;
  • till there is a great awakening in the land and a great harvest of souls comes in to the glory of Christ.

If you are willing, God will show you how to finish the sentence in verse 18 in a way that fits your strength and your gifts.

I have so much more to say. So we will pick it up here tonight. There are more stories to tell, there is more to see in this psalm, and there is the tremendously important third point: Not only are older people to be prized and mobilized, "Older people are to be evangelized."

Two Closing Questions

In closing I urge you to search your heart with these two questions:

  1. Is there some older person I have not PRIZED the way I should? Have I risen up in respect before the grey head?
  2. Have I slipped into an unchristian way of thinking about my retirement, and neglected to dream God's dream for me these crucial years? What ministry, what service is God calling me to this fall?

O God, our help in ages past
Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guide while life shall last,
And our Eternal Home.