Pastoral Letters, Sermons

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