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Is death a subject appropriate for the pulpit? Should a sermon about death be preached when no one is dead, at Sunday worship? Conversations and sermons on important and critical subjects make us nervous. We need to address pain, suffering and loss in the light of the Gospel. How?

Assume familiarity with Death. Everyone has some acquaintance with death.

Assume Listeners Want to Hear about Death from the Church.

Think Through your own Theology of Death and Dying. Cf. Luke 20:27-40; 1 Thess.4:13-18; Luke 13:1-5; Heb.11:32-38. Sermons on these texts lay the groundwork for more substantive conversation when death enters the church. You do not have to argue theology at the time of death or bereavement.

Steep Your Words in Scripture. The Bible is the church’s book, and it is the preacher’s task to give the church its Bible as helpful as possible. Let each passage say what it wants to say. Hebrews 5:7,8; Philippians 2:17,18; Romans 16:10,11; 2 Cor. 4:16; John 11:21; 5:24; Luke 7:18-35; Acts 20:17-38. We are not called to explain what our forebears proclaimed but to proclaim what they proclaimed.

Enlist the Congregation. The minister does not work alone; the congregation rejoices with those who rejoice and weeps with those who weep. Death and dying are social events, and isolation from the caring community of faith means isolation from one of the primary sources of healing, of comfort, and of dying well. Preventing such isolation requires initiative and sustained attention by the church; otherwise, the habit of the culture to hide away the ill and dying will take over. We are members of one another. The healthy condition for each person is to be a member of a community.

Lead in Lament. The congregation needs to lament. Revelation 18 is a lament. The psalmist led Israel in laments. The prophets gave voice to the people’s lamentation. Worship needs to provide an occasion for expressing anger toward God, questioning God’s goodness or power to help, expressing sorrow and regret, confessing sin and weakness, and renewing vows of love and commitment. Laments would be appropriate as such times as the congregation feels keenly disruptive, intrusive, and almost unbearable loss: q.v. THE SLAUGHTER OF THE INNOCENTS, September 16, 2001.


Ted Schroder, September 16, 2001

When seeking for guidance and comfort in the aftermath of the terrorists’ attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon I turned to the story of the Slaughter of the Innocents in Matthew 2:16-18.

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

     “A voice is heard in Ramah,

     weeping and great mourning.

    Rachel weeping for her children

     And refusing to be comforted,

     Because they are no more.”

Evil is, by nature, destructive rather than creative. Herod represents terrorism. He slaughtered, not only innocent babies, but 300 court officials, his wife Mariamne, and her mother Alexandra, his eldest son Antipater, and two other sons, Alexander and Aristobulus. His slaughter of innocent life is a terrible illustration of what people will do to get rid of Jesus Christ. If a man, or his movement, is set on his own way at all costs, if he sees in the Christian way of life, with its inherent freedom, democracy and respect for life, as an obstacle to his perverted goals, then his one desire is to eliminate that way of life. He is driven to do the most terrible things to wreak destruction, and to break hearts.

     Matthew tells us that the slaughter of the innocents, was a fulfillment of the prophecy of Jeremiah, which describes the flower of the population of Jerusalem, as they were being deported by the Babylonians. It must have seemed as if God had deserted his people. Jeremiah pictured Rachel, the wife of Jacob, bewailing the fate of these exiles, as they tramped past her tomb in Ramah, on their way to a strange land. The lamentation and mourning of Rachel has been the experience of all of us these past days, and especially those who have lost loved ones: children, parents, brothers and sisters, and friends. The mourning of the mothers of Bethlehem is the cry of the human heart in such a time of tragedy and loss. No one could watch the horror of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, without being struck to the depths of our soul with sorrow.

“A voice is heard in America,

weeping and great mourning,

America weeping for her children

and refusing to be comforted,

because they are no more.”

Just as there is a gaping hole in the skyline of New York City, and in the Pentagon, there is a gaping hole in our hearts which will never be filled in our lifetime. We need to take time to absorb the shock and to grieve for our losses before we can move on. Quick reassurances and pious phrases will be superficial and premature. We must mourn, for we have experienced a great loss of precious lives.

     The use of prophecy in the New Testament was meant to point us to the whole context in which they were used. Jeremiah, after this word from the Lord gave another word:

“Restrain your voice from weeping,

And your eyes from tears,

For your work will be rewarded,” declares the Lord.

“They will return from the land of the enemy.

So there is hope for your future,” declares the Lord.

“Your children will return to their own land.” (Jeremiah 31:16,17)

Rachel, who has been called the mother of sorrows of the Old Testament, had died in giving birth to Benjamin but she had not suffered in vain, for the sufferings of her exiled descendants would not prove to be without purpose. In the sorrow of the Babylonian Exile a new life became possible for a disciplined and revivified Israel. Similarly, the sorrow of the bereaved mothers of the infants murdered by Herod was destined to result in great reward. Their children were the first casualties in the warfare that had to be waged between the powers of darkness and the powers of the light of the world.

This war has been waged since the beginning of time in the Garden in Eden, since the murder of Abel by Cain. Our present crisis is the legacy of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the subsequent Balkan rivalries that set off World War I, the rise of the totalitarian ideologies of communism and fascism, and the Holocaust of World War II, which led to the creation of the state of Israel. The Middle East is a cauldron of unrest, which threatens to explode at any time.

Jesus warns us that, “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.” (Matthew 24:6,7) Paul writes about “the lawless one”, or as some translate it, “the man of sin” or “the Anarchist” (2 Thessalonians 2), who is at work in the world. John writes about the “dragon” and the “beast” (Revelation 12,13). In every generation there is a manifestation of evil: a Hitler, a Stalin, a Herod. God has given us the responsibility to resist such people and to bring them to justice (Romans 13:4).

The historic Church saw the babies of Bethlehem as the first martyrs in the Christian era. December 28 is designated the Feast of the Holy Innocents. The prayer of the Book of Common Prayer that is used at services on that day sums up its significance:

We remember today, O God, the slaughter of the holy innocents of Bethlehem by King Herod. Receive, we pray, into the arms of your mercy all innocent victims; and by your great might frustrate the designs of evil tyrants and establish your rule of justice, love and peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

As followers of Jesus Christ we seek to do God’s will in caring for the victims, their families and friends. Each day at the Chapel I have been lighting a candle and praying for the bereaved and injured. The Board has sent $5,000 to assist the Red Cross in their work in New York.

God of all comfort, who heals the broken in heart and binds up their wounds: Mercifully look upon those who are at this time bereaved. Be near them in their sorrow, and let their sorrow draw them nearer to you. Let your strength sustain their weakness; your grace free their sorrow from bitterness; and your peace fill their minds with perfect trust in you; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen

We also need to pray for and support the President, members of his Cabinet, and the Congress, as they bring those responsible to justice.

Sovereign Lord, whose glory is in all the world: We commend this nation to your merciful care, that, being guided by your Providence, we may dwell secure in your peace. Grant to the President, members of the Cabinet, and Congress, with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wisdom and strength to know and to do your will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in your fear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

Finally, Jesus calls us to pray for our enemies.

O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.    

Discussion Questions.

  1. Could funeral sermons be sufficient for preaching to address issues of dying? What are the pros and cons?
  2. Why do people prefer to call funerals Celebrations of Life and want eulogies that relate humorous stories about trivialities?
  3. What are the reasons why pastors do not preach on texts that portray dying, on the topic or theme of dying, or on subjects that relate to dying?
  4. What sermons would you like to hear on end-of-life issues? How would Jesus Christ be presented? What cultural conventions would be engaged or avoided?
  5. What sermon have you heard that helped you to deal with end-of-life issues?