August 2016 – Blessed are those whose strength is in You

Dear Friends,

It seemed to make sense to publish the sermon from Marlene’s funeral in this slot rather than detracting from its message with another one:

That we are here today is not a surprise to any of us. That doesn’t mean that it is easy to be here, or that our hearts are not heavy. But we have known for a few months that Marlene would soon leave us. Amidst our sadness, if only we knew it, and if only we were looking, we have had the opportunity to see a follower of Jesus die well. What do I mean? I mean that Marlene did not fear death. I mean that she was full of joy and peace which has no rational explanation, and I mean that she wasted no opportunity to tell those who came in to nurse her or to visit her, that she had this joy and peace because of Jesus Christ, her Saviour.

As we have watched, waited, and prayed these last few months, the Lord laid a particular verse from the Bible on my heart. It is found in Psalm 84. This is a Psalm, a song, about longing to be in God’s presence. In the Old Testament, it referred to visiting that literal place, the Tabernacle, later the Temple, where God chose to show His presence among men. Many of the Jews would make a pilgrimage to visit what we would call ‘God’s House’. That place where God and Man came close together. The Psalm begins with these words:

How lovely is Your tabernacle, O Lord of hosts!

My soul longs, yes, even faints for the courts of the Lord;

My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.

But the days of the Tabernacle and the Temple are past. There is no need for sacrifices any more. Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, came from eternity and entered time, was born of the virgin Mary, and lived a perfect life here on earth. He offered that life up, and died on Calvary’s Cross willingly, that, as He said Himself “whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life”. Then He rose from the dead the third day, defeating death. All of a sudden, the temple was no longer needed. There was no longer a need for sacrifice, because Jesus shed His own blood. There was no longer a need for a ‘Holy Place’ where man could not go, because now, just as we sing at Christmas: “Peace on earth, and mercy mild: God and Sinners Reconciled” Now the way to God is open through Jesus Christ, and now He dwells eternally in the hearts of all His people.

What was the verse that God laid on my heart? It is found in the middle of the Psalm, verse 5: Blessed are those whose strength is in You, Whose heart is set on pilgrimage.

How do we account for Marlene’s strength in these last days? I understand that she was always a strong person. Philip testifies to how fiercely loyal and faithful she was when he worked very long hours. A good many years into their marriage, Philip became a Christian. Marlene didn’t know what was going on. Sometimes she went to church with him and came away shaking her head saying ‘I can’t understand what they are on about’. Until one day, when she went into the chapel at Westerleigh, heard once again of the love of Jesus, and came out a different person. She turned away from her sin and trusted in what Jesus had done on the cross, that He would take the punishment due to her for her sin, that he would stand in her place, that He would make her right with God. God had met with her, and opened her eyes and ears to understand the gospel.

Human strength will only take you so far. But Marlene came to take on a new strength. What does our text say? Blessed are those whose strength is IN YOU. Her strength was in God, it came from God. God chose her, God called her, God saved her, God kept her, and late on Saturday 18th June, He welcomed her home to eternal glory.

But it wasn’t the language about strength that really caught hold of me. It was what the Psalm says about the heart of someone who follows God: ‘Whose heart is set on pilgrimage’. When Marlene became a Christian, she had a change of heart. A complete change. Her heart used to be set on the things of this world. Having a family, a good home, being a wife, and mother. Those are not at all bad things of course, but they are not the most important things. When she became a Christian, her heart became set on the journey of life, a journey with only one destination for her. From the day she trusted Jesus until the day she finally saw Him, her heart was set on that very thing — to be with Him. She didn’t want to leave Philip behind. She didn’t want to leave any of us behind, but she knew that to be with Jesus was ‘far better’. We thank God for giving her what felt like ‘extra time’ here, time to be with the family. But when her strength failed, I believe that she stopped walking the pilgrim way, and began to run home. Humanly speaking, she became so weak she could do nothing for herself, but we know that spiritually she was a strong as a lion.

One of her very last times here at Morton, she heard her first Pastor, Dr John Hall, preaching on Jesus’ words in John 14:

“Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. 2 In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.”

Jesus prepared a place for Marlene, and she is now safely in it. She was blessed because she trusted God, and drew her lasting strength from Him, and because she trusted God, her heart was set on pilgrimage, on the journey of life, and while we mourn today, our loss is Heaven’s gain. We have no reason to weep for her. No joy can match hers. No wealth can equal her treasure in heaven. No strength can approach hers now!

We know that Marlene’s only concern was leaving her friends and family behind. First, because she loved you, but second, because she knew that many of you here have not turned from your sin, or trusted in Jesus. Her deepest desire was that you too might know what she knew, and what she now knows perfectly: forgiveness of your sin, peace with God, and eternal life. Friends, life is a journey, and we are all on one of two paths. When you trust Jesus, you are changing direction.

IMG_1440There is a broad, easy way in life, that Jesus says leads to destruction. We read that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. If you don’t repent of your sin and trust in Christ alone, then you are the one who will be punished for your sin. God is Holy, and Just. He must do what is right. But as it says right behind me, ‘God is love’. How do we know this? Because Jesus stands ready, able, and willing to save whoever believes on Him. Even John Newton, the wicked slave trader. Even the Apostle Paul, who was guilty of murder. Even the dying thief on the cross who had no chance to do anything godly or good, but simply trusted in Christ.

Marlene chose the readings today. She didn’t know that I would be saying something about Psalm 84. I know she wanted me to say something about part of Ephesians 2, which we read earlier. Here it is again, here is the proof that it is true – God IS love : For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.

What is it all about, this Christianity? What is the message of the Bible? It is that God saves sinners. It is that man cannot save himself. Marlene is in Heaven not because of anything she did but because of what Jesus Christ did perfectly on her behalf. He lived that perfect life we cannot live, and died that saving death we cannot die.

Christians are not ‘goody two shoes’ who earn their way into God’s favour by trying to live right, fasting, charity, or lighting candles, reciting prayers or even confessing to a priest. Real Christians are ordinary flawed people who have grasped this one simple fact – that salvation, and eternal life, are God’s gift to all who trust Him. They cannot be bought, they cannot be earned, they cannot be deserved. But Jesus paid the price –

Jesus paid it all.
All to Him I owe.
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.

Marlene’s journey is over, and all is well. She is more alive than any of us. In front of us is a container, a coffin. Inside it is another container, a body. But Marlene is not here. Her soul is with the Lord, until the last day when He will make all things new and reunite body and soul. This is a broken world – Adam sinned and God’s perfect creation was ruined. Death separates body and soul. Tell me, while you are here, body and soul, which path are you on? Tell me, what is your heart set on? This world is passing away fast. Our lives will soon be done. The letter of James calls them a ‘vapour’. Each one us has a never-dying soul. Where will you spend eternity? Where is your hope?

What will be the source of your strength when life’s trials come, or when the end approaches? Don’t despair, but trust Christ. What He has done for Marlene, He can, and will, do for all who believe on Him.

I close with a few passages from God’s Word which speak to us about the glorious future of all who trust in Him:

Eye has not seen, nor ear heard,
Nor have entered into the heart of man

The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.

1 Corinthians 2:9

He will swallow up death forever,

And the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces;

The rebuke of His people

He will take away from all the earth;

For the Lord has spoken.

And it will be said in that day:
“Behold, this is our God;

We have waited for Him, and He will save us.

This is the Lord; We have waited for Him;

We will be glad and rejoice in His salvation.”
Isaiah 25:8-9

They shall neither hunger any more nor thirst any more; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat; for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Revelation 7:16-17

Blessed are those whose strength is in You,

Whose heart is set on pilgrimage.

Psalm 84:5


Pastoral Letter June & July 2016

Dear Friends,

“… in everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you”

We all know that we have plenty to be thankful for. From the very basic things, like food, and clothing, through bigger things like family and friends, even up to the privilege of living in a nation with good roads, free education and health services, and so forth. We should be thankful to the Lord for all this.

But of course, there is much more to be thankful for when we think spiritually. As the hymn writer John Kent wrote:

On such love, my soul, still ponder —
Love so great, so rich and free;

Say, while lost in holy wonder, —
‘Why, O Lord, such love to me?’

The love of Jesus Christ to His people is just extraordinary. We can never be thankful enough that the King of Kings should come from eternal glory into this world of sin and shame to save us from our rebellion against Him, even though by nature we were His enemies. Then we think that not only has He come, but that He has come for us. It is mind–blowing. We ask ‘Why Lord – Why such love to someone like me?’ and we are filled again with thankfulness.

This letter is written for release on the day when we come together as a church to celebrate Josh’s baptism. We are giving God thanks for His grace and mercy to Josh. Perhaps it is relatively easy to give thanks on a day like today. But the Apostle Paul gives us direction that we should give thanks ‘in everything’. Not just on the happy days, nor just in the good times, but every day, and in every situation. So, we should be giving thanks when we are sick, when we are poor, when we are are sorrowful, or when we are afraid. But how is this possible?

The answer lies in reversing the way we think about what we are thankful for. Instead of working up from the ‘smaller things’, start with the biggest things. Start with Christ’s love for you and His atoning death on your behalf. Think of the lifting of your burden of sin. Think of the securing of eternal life. Think of the indwelling and work of the Holy Spirit. Think of that true and inexplicable joy and peace which God alone can provide. Place the events of your earthly life in an eternal perspective. Sometimes it is very hard to give thanks, and all you want to do is moan. But persevere — thankfulness brings glory to God, and will lift your spirits and guard you against cynicism, coldness and jealousy of others.
As you seek to honour God in thankfulness, no matter how hard your situation, He will in turn bless you, and help you even in your thanksgiving. May God bless you all.

Pastoral Letter May 2016

Dear Friends,

Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life
– Romans 6:4

We are beginning to see more sun after what has been a long, wet, winter, and it feels almost as though spring has not really happened! More light and heat can bring joy to us, and positivity. This month we will record the 182nd anniversary of the chapel, and the 32nd anniversary of our church. We look forward to that. We look forward even more to a baptism at the end of the month, which is the first for very many years. We hope and pray that this will be a time that we can look back on in years to come as a marker of new life, and new hope, in our life and witness.


Even as we rejoice at these things, we are aware of many heavy burdens being borne in the fellowship, particularly as we have dearly beloved friends who are battling their way steadily, near to the end of their pilgrimage in this world. I felt that the well-known words of Romans 6 were particularly appropriate for us all. We feel torn in ourselves by thankfulness and rejoicing on the one hand, and a deep sadness on the other. Yet, this is the season that the Lord has ordained for our fellowship, that we might share together both joy, and sadness. We should not be ashamed, or embarrassed, of either emotion, or even a mixture of both at the same time!

The ordinance of believer’s baptism should be a great comfort to all of us at this time. It speaks so clearly to us of Christ’s burial and resurrection. It reminds us of the precious cleansing from sin which we receive upon our conversion. Most personally, it identifies each one of us with our Lord. We are buried ‘with Him’, and as He was raised, so we are raised to walk in ‘newness of life’. Of course there is even more, for we know:

This is a faithful saying: For if we died with Him, We shall also live with Him.
If we endure, We shall also reign with Him. — 2 Timothy 2:11-12

There are many other scriptures besides that link together Christ’s death and resurrection with our own experience. What a blessing it is to know the Lord Jesus as our Saviour. How precious it is to ‘hide ourselves’ in Him, to be able to look unto Him as the one who has gone before us, and has defeated death. As one modern hymn writer puts it so well ‘Death is dead, love has won, Christ has conquered’. For the Christian, death is only the doorway to eternal glory. So let us laugh together, and weep together, knowing this — that the life which Christ has won for us can never be taken away from us.

Pastoral Letter April 2016

Dear Friends,

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

And through the rivers, they shall not overflow you.

When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned,

Nor shall the flame scorch you. – Isaiah 43:2

As a struggling teenager, I would head out to school with a heavy heart. There are so many things to worry about at school, especially if you hate Maths, are not very good at P.E., and also fearful of being bullied! Occasionally, my Mum would call out brightly, as I went, ‘go out, and slay some dragons!’

I certainly didn’t feel much like the ‘Patron Saint’ of England when heading off through South London. In case you’re wondering, I thought that the month containing St George’s Day would be a good one to share the photo I took of the famous sculpture in Bethlehem! But I digress.

Life is hard, isn’t it? There seem to be ‘dragons’ everywhere for many of us. Great concerns about health, studies, family, friends, work, money, our society, our safety … the list goes on and on. We are find ourselves under varying levels of stress. Some of us cope relatively well, others of us struggle greatly and are prone to depression and anxiety. Some of us will also discover that whilst once we coped well with the demands of life, now perhaps the same things we formerly breezed through exhaust us, fill us with dread, or perhaps utterly defeat us.

Here’s what I want to say to everyone: We have to fight life’s battles, we can’t opt out. But we have someone with us — and He IS a real dragon–slayer! He says to each one of us ‘I will be with you’. Isaiah’s imagery is apt. We feel like we’re drowning in deep water. We feel the heat of the fire and it seems certain that we are going to be burned! Left to ourselves, we would be drowned, burned, beaten, and ultimately, eternally lost. But we are not left to ourselves and we have a great and glorious Saviour, Jesus Christ. He is fully God and fully man. He once was fully dead. But we know that ‘He is risen’ and hence, fully alive. In Him is life, and He is life. He lives in and of Himself, and He lives in His people by the work of the Holy Spirit, and by the same blessed Dove His people live in Him. Brothers and sisters, He has not saved us in order to leave us ‘helpless until Heaven’. He says ‘I will be with you’, and He will be. Prove it.

Pastoral Letter March 2016

Jesus Christ … declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead   – Romans 1.3-4

Dear Friends,

Easter is very early this year, and before the month is out, it will have come and gone. Perhaps the Archbishop of Canterbury is on to something in his desire to get the date fixed every year! Of course, we celebrate Easter every Sunday — it is the Lord’s Day — but I feel that we should be thankful that there is yet, on our land, some awareness of the ‘Church Calendar’ and of Biblical events. So we seek to make the most of the opportunity, and to bring the events of those New Testament days into the hearts and minds of our family, friends and neighbours.

Do we realise quite how powerful the Resurrection is in terms of our witness? I trust we all grasp the centrality of the cross of Calvary, the substitutionary and atoning death of Christ in place of undeserving sinners, and I hope we could all explain the cross very simply if asked. But so often, folk don’t see the relevance of Jesus Christ, and His death, in the first place. There is no longer much of an awareness of sin, of personal wrongdoing, or of anything being owed, by us, to God.

At ‘The Garden Tomb’ in Jerusalem, the text above is displayed opposite the tomb. No absolute claim is made that this is the site of Calvary and the Tomb, but your guide will tell you ‘what DOES matter is that here, or very nearby, Jesus Christ really died and rose from the dead’. The Resurrection is the seal of God the Father upon the work and witness of His Son. When others question the Christian faith, you can leave them with one question, which they may answer at their leisure, but they must answer — Did Jesus rise from the dead, or not? If not, then we are wasting our time. But if so — then everything is different. To the honest enquirer, the evidence is overwhelming: Christ is Risen. He is declared to be the Son of God with power, through the work of the Holy Spirit, by the Resurrection. What is the point of all that I’m saying? It is this: We need to talk about Calvary, but we need to press, again and again, the reality of the Resurrection. It will build our faith, encourage us in every part of life, and be a mighty weapon as we seek to witness!

Pastoral Letter January/February 2016

Dear Friends,

Our New Year Text is the well-known conclusion to Psalm 19. It is an expression of heartfelt desire from King David, expressed so elegantly in our translation.

But do we share David’s desire? Indeed, do we ever consider what the Lord sees in our hearts or hears from our lips? There’s no doubt of course, that He is witness to every thought and word that we produce. This can be a terrifying thing. The Poet–King has just extolled the wonders of God’s law and His testimony, His commandments and His judgements, calling them ‘sweeter than honey’. Again, do we really believe that this is so, or are the character of God, and His Holy standards, matters of little consequence to us? Is it all just ‘water off a duck’s back’?

NY Text 2016

Perhaps, as we embark on another year, we need to humble ourselves. What do we hope to achieve this year? What might we hope to see? We will see nothing apart from God’s power to bring it to pass — and yet, it we’re honest, how little of God we have any patience or tolerance for! How easy it is to make anything our priority except spiritual things. How readily we will lay aside meeting with God’s people or studying His word, or even private prayer, when a distraction arises. I speak to myself as strongly as I speak to you all. Let’s examine ourselves, and ask, simply, do we truly worship, and desire to know, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? The great I AM? Do we even care if our words and thoughts please Him? Do we ever stop to think that He is our ‘strength’ and without Him we are utter weaklings? Do we pause to reflect that He is our ‘Redeemer’ and without Him we are eternally lost?

As the New Year is come, may we turn with renewed desire to our God in the person of Jesus Christ, and seek His face, with true appreciation and deeper love, longing to be ‘acceptable’ not because we have to be, but because we long to be.