Today would have been my Gran’s 92nd birthday. Today was my Gran’s first truly “happy birthday.”
“[God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
My Gran, Lilian Ernestine Collins, born 2 October 1921, died on 19 June 2013 after several months of illness — and she is now more alive than ever. Below is the sermon i was privileged to preach at her memorial service. My Dad posted this previously on his blog. My Gran specifically wanted Psalm 24 to be the text for her memorial service.
The Battle Won: Standing by grace in the holy place
Reading from: Psalm 24
1 The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein,
2 for he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers.
3 Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?
4 He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.
5 He will receive blessing from the LORD and righteousness from the God of his salvation.
6 Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob. Selah
7 Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.
8 Who is this King of glory? The LORD, strong and mighty, the LORD, mighty in battle!
9 Lift up your heads, O gates! And lift them up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.
10 Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory! Selah
New Testament reading: Hebrews 12:18-29
18 For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest 19 and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. 20 For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” 21 Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” 22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
25 See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. 26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” 27 This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken-that is, things that have been made-in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire.
Father of mercies and God of all comfort, help us today to comprehend that we have a strong and certain hope in the midst of grief. Lord, you have the words of eternal life; where else shall we go? We ask that your Holy Spirit who inspired these words of Scripture would give us understanding, that according to your great mercy we might know the living hope kept in heaven: imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. In the name of Jesus, who is the Resurrection and the Life, Amen.
Dear friends and family, thank you for this opportunity to remember my grandmother with you and to take encouragement with you in a few precious truths from the Scriptures. It is the paradox of a Christian’s death that ours is a joyful grief; for, as the Apostle Paul says, though we do grieve, we do not grieve as those who have no hope.
The passage we read from the letter to the Hebrews speaks vividly of our great hope and comfort: Lilian Collins, my Gran, has come to Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, the assembly of all who are enrolled in heaven. Her name, together with the names of all who trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, has been written there for all eternity. She stands now, together with a great cloud of witnesses, in the very presence of the Father, God Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth and judge of all; and her standing place there has been secured by the blood of the victorious Lord Jesus Christ, who endured the scorn of the cross to redeem all who would trust wholly in him, to the praise of his glorious grace. That is why I have titled this message “The battle won: Standing by grace in the holy place.” Yes, friends, the battle has been won, and she stands by grace in the holy place.
My Gran desired that Psalm 24 be the text for her memorial, and I invite you to turn there with me, while keeping in mind this magnificent picture in Hebrews 12 of true worship of the true and living God. Psalm 24 asks us two very direct questions. This morning we will consider primarily the first question, which is at the heart of this psalm: “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? Who shall stand in his holy place?” I pray that we will receive further hope, comfort, and encouragement from the Lord as we understand the basis for our confidence that, more alive now than ever before, my Gran now experiences unending and unhindered joy in the very presence of God. As the English minister and poet John Donne said, “No man ever saw God and lived. And yet, I shall not live till I see God; and when I have seen him, I shall never die.”
Now, to give you just a little background, Psalm 24 is a song composed by King David, who was king of Israel around 3000 years ago. It is a triumphant song which David wrote to commemorate the arrival of the Ark of the Covenant at Mount Zion in Jerusalem. This Ark of the Covenant (or promise) was a gold-plated wooden box, a little over a metre long, containing the Ten Commandments and other reminders of God’s just and providential care and guidance of his people, the Israelites. Most importantly, it symbolised God himself dwelling among his people, his glory resting with them – even as in the Exodus God had rescued his people from Egypt and his presence and protection were symbolised by the pillar of cloud and of fire. And when Israel went into battle, the Ark went before them, a picture that God himself was leading them and winning the victory for them. So the arrival of the Ark at Mount Zion in Jerusalem was a momentous occasion – one of the highlights of the Old Testament – for it symbolised the very presence of God with his people, and his faithfulness to the promises he had made to them.
Psalm 24 begins by recognising God as the sovereign creator, ruler, and sustainer of all the universe, and especially of us, the people dwelling therein, whom he has created as distinct from the rest of creation to be in special relationship with him. Therefore he alone is worthy of worship, worthy of praise and glory and honour. It is the question of how we ought to worship God, of how we may enjoy his presence, which concerns us in this Psalm; and answering that question will give us confidence in our comfort today.
David asks, “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? Who shall stand in his holy place?” To ascend and stand before the Lord is to be in his holy, pure, perfect presence, to enjoy the fellowship with God for which we were created – that fellowship which Adam and Eve enjoyed in the Garden of Eden before they rebelled against God’s good and just rule and sought to usurp his perfect moral authority; that fellowship which was broken because of their rebellion. To be in God’s holy presence, worshipping him, is the highest privilege and the deepest joy of all, and the fulfilment of our most ardent longings. As David exclaimed in another Psalm, “In your presence is fullness of joy.” And we learn elsewhere that it was on this occasion commemorated in Psalm 24 that David danced before the Lord with all his might, so great was his rejoicing at the prospect of being in the presence of the Lord. That is the same joy we see in the celebration of Hebrews 12. And that, dear friends, is the fullness of joy which my Gran now experiences, and this gives us comfort in the midst of our grief.
But the question, “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? Who shall stand in his holy place?” is no matter of mere formality. This is not a simple question of etiquette, about how to approach a state president or the Queen, of what to wear, what to say, when to bow or curtsey. This is far more weighty, as the passage in Hebrews reminds us: “Our God is a consuming fire.” And we will find unshakeable confidence for our comfort as we answer the question, “Who shall stand in his holy place?”
David answers this question, “He who has clean hands and a pure heart.” But think for a moment of the implications of this. The great King David himself committed adultery with Bathsheba, tried to cover up the resulting pregnancy, and finally had Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, murdered. He is hardly the kind of person of whom we might say, “He had clean hands.” But to take it further, the Lord Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew taught that adultery and murder were not simply matters committed by the hand. Jesus said, if you’ll pardon the paraphrase, that adultery was not jumping into bed with the wrong woman: that was the result of adultery, which we have already committed in our hearts in every lustful glance. Likewise, murder was not taking a stick and bashing someone over the head: that was the result of murder, which we have already committed in our hearts in every malicious thought. Jesus’ teaching revealed that we are all at heart adulterers and murderers. Not one of us has a pure heart, even if we might claim to have clean hands. Who, then, shall ascend the hill of the Lord? Who shall stand in his holy place? Psalm 24 anticipates the answer that not one of us can qualify by virtue of our own righteousness, yet it holds out hope to all who acknowledge they have dirty hands and defiled hearts.
You have heard how my Gran did not want a eulogy at her memorial. She did not presume to come to the table of our merciful Lord – nor, finally, to his throne in glory – trusting in her own righteousness, but in his manifold and great mercies. Righteousness – that is, the ability to stand in the presence of the holy, holy, holy God without fear of judgement and condemnation – this righteousness is not earned, but rather received. There are no good deeds we could ever do to merit the favour of God and so restore fellowship with him, because at the end of the day all our attempts at self-righteousness are like filthy rags before the holiness, the moral perfection, of God. No, friends, the righteousness that saves is, as verse 5 says, “righteousness from the God of [our] salvation.” It is righteousness not of our own doing, but of God’s gracious giving.
This is why we can be confident in this great comfort, friends, which we can have today that my Gran is in the joyous presence of the Lord. We must not ask, “Was she enough of a saint to enter heaven and stand before God, the holy God of all the world?” – for she appears before the throne of God not clothed in her own good works, but in the righteousness that God has given to all who put their trust wholly in what Christ Jesus has done.
In the New Testament letter of James, which was one of my Gran’s favourites, James writes that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” The proud are those who trust in their own resources for their salvation (their good works, rituals, a legacy, etc.), rather than trusting in God; they will be opposed and condemned by God as rebels against his just and perfect rule. But the humble are those who realise that the project of self-salvation is futile. They acknowledge that they are indeed rebels against God and deserve his judgement, and they humbly cast themselves on his mercy, trusting wholly in what Christ has done. God gives grace to the humble.
Think again of that Ark of the Covenant, whose arrival at Mount Zion in Jerusalem marked the occasion for this Psalm. On top of the Ark was fashioned what was called the “mercy seat” or “atonement cover”, and it was there that God had said he would meet with Moses, Aaron, and the high priests. They could come into the presence of God only if he were merciful to them, and only if their sins were atoned for, that is, paid for; otherwise, their own sinfulness would render them liable to his just judgement. They could not approach trusting in their own righteousness, but only trusting in his faithfulness and mercy. They did have to come in perfect righteousness – but that righteousness was not of themselves. Instead, it was a righteousness given to them by God, by virtue of their trust in his promises, rather than their merits, and on the basis of the blood of a sacrifice sprinkled on the mercy seat to signify that another had died in their place, to atone for their sin.
Friends, in the letter to the Hebrews, from which we read earlier, we are also told that the Ark of the Covenant, all the temple furnishings, its sacrificial system, and its high priests, were a picture pointing prophetically forward to the coming Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. He indeed manifested the presence of God, as the Gospel of John tells us: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” He alone came with clean hands and a pure heart, not only to Mount Zion, but also to the Mount of Golgotha, to Calvary, to the cross. There he was crucified as a perfect sacrifice in the place of all those who would trust in him. By his death he paid the penalty for their sins, and by his resurrection he secured their eternal life with him in glory.
The letter to the Hebrews tells us again, “Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf…. He has appeared once for all … to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” Because Christ stood in the place of judgement on our behalf, all who trust in him receive the righteousness of the God of their salvation, and may stand in the holy place, in the presence of God. As the Apostle Paul puts it, “For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Those who trust in him are forgiven their sins, clothed in the righteousness of God, and reconciled to God, and will experience the fullness of joy in the presence of God for all eternity. This is the basis of our confidence for our great comfort and joy today: not that my Gran was a good person, but that she trusted in the only good Saviour.
We have not asked the second question Psalm 24 poses, though we’ve already seen the answer to it: “Who is this King of glory?” Just as the Ark of the Covenant went before the nation of Israel to show that it was God himself who was mighty in battle on their behalf to conquer their enemies, so it is Christ Jesus who has fought on our behalf to conquer the great enemy, sin, and has risen victorious from the grave to show that death, too, is ultimately conquered.
The King of Glory is, indeed, none other than the risen and ascended Christ, the Lord, strong and mighty, mighty in battle over sin and death, who has ascended and entered into heaven itself – the only One with clean hands and a pure heart qualified to do so. For him the gates of the heavenly Jerusalem are flung wide open to admit their King. But this King of Glory, strong and mighty, will also carry all who trust in him, rather than in their own efforts, up the hill of the Lord, to stand in the holy place. Our confidence, our comfort, our joy and encouragement rest in Christ alone, the King of Glory. The battle is won, friends: stand (with my Gran) by grace in the holy place.