Buckingham Palace announced on Friday 9th April the death of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh.
What do preachers do when faced with an event of national importance? If preachers have prepared their sermons for Sunday, what do they do? (This of course is a dilemma made more complicated by those who have already recorded their sermons for Sunday).
There are three main options. Ignore it, incorporate it into the prepared sermon, or start all over again.
The ignore it option takes the line that “relevance” is overrated. Preaching should be shaped by a biblical agenda rather than be an echo of the age. This approach does have the virtue of remaining biblically focused but can drift into a case of tunnel-vision.
The incorporate it option is the choice that most preachers will make. Creatively adapting the prepared sermon to make a connection to an event that everyone is talking about. The danger of this approach is that the preacher makes an artificial or superficial reference to the event rather than something that naturally flows from Scripture.
The start all over again option is both the more practically demanding and potentially dangerous approach. Clearly this approach involves a lot of hard work shaping another sermon. The dangers are that the sermon simply repeats all the things that the news has been saying. The result is that the sermon becomes long on cultural analysis but short on biblical reflection.
Preachers, what did you do?
In August 1997 our family moved to Lancing, where I was starting as the pastor of Lancing Tabernacle. The first weekend coincided with the news that Diana, Princess of Wales had been involved in a fatal car crash in a Parisian tunnel. My induction service took place the same weekend as her funeral and burial.
A week later on my first Sunday preaching as the pastor, I set aside the evening service for a reflection on the national mood, at which I preached a sermon entitled The Death of a Princess. This was the best attended evening service, apart from carol services, in all my 22 years as pastor of Lancing Tab.
My reason for preaching on this public event was what the unprecedented display of public grief said about mood of our nation. We had not seen an outpouring of grief on this scale before or since in the United Kingdom. What became plain is that people’s grief over the loss of Diana was not only a lament for the wounding of the “Queen of Hearts” but a loss that exposed millions of broken hearts. The shattered dream of a fairy tale princess merged with millions of shattered dreams.
In my sermon I preached from Ecclesiastes 3 about how human longings remain unsatisfied outside of a relationship with the God who made us.
What would I say in a sermon marking the death of Prince Philip?
I have been struck by five things:
1. He was both an outsider and an insider. He was a foreigner who seemed to epitomise everything that is distinctive about Britain.
2. He had lost everything but had also achieved more than many.
3. He was part of the establishment but also a moderniser.
4. He was a man of action yet a man of immense intellectual curiosity and learning. This included a deep interest and reflection on religious topics.
5. He was a man’s man but gave his long life to serving the nation by supporting its most prominent woman.
It is not a million miles away from another complex outsider whose life was characterised by impeccable service, a service that involved him losing everything that we might be rescued.
“The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)
For 73 years Prince Philip has been the Queen’s “strength and stay.” There is great value in being there for another.
Supremely the cross of Jesus says: “I am here for you.”
Yes that will preach!