There’s been a lot of talk about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon at today’s funeral for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Some people have expressed hope that he’ll really hit home with the Gospel. Others have expressed the same but with a strong conviction he will fail and almost a desire to see that happen.
Well, as I’m writing, I’ve not yet seen the funeral itself and so don’t know what the Archbishop will say. However, in my experience, despite people often expressing a desire that the Gospel will be preached, it is rarely the words of a sermon that have remembered. That can be both a positive and negative. You see, what I’ve found is that if you are laying to rest the mortal remains of an older person who has lived a long life, trusted Jesus and shown faithfulness to him and they have had some influence on the choice of hymns, prayers and readings then much of the heavy lifting has already been done. The pastor is then able to very gently bring things together in their talk.
We have been given the order of service for this morning and I believe it does just that. The Queen was intimately involved in the detail of her funeral and so I think one of the last services she has done for us is to teach us how to prepare for our funerals.
The service begins with “The sentences” these will be sung by the choir and are a given. I would normally read some of these as “words of comfort.” These are selected verses from Scripture used to speak comfort with their emphasis on God’s comfort and the hope of resurrection.
The first hymn is “The Day thou gavest Lord is ended” perhaps that strikes us odd at the start of a service in the morning. I presume that here the words speak of the ending of the Queen’s “day” here. Notice though these words:
We thank thee that thy Church unsleeping,
while earth rolls onward into light,
through all the world her watch is keeping,
and rests not now by day or night.
The Queen, as someone who professed faith in Christ was a member of his church. People often looked to her as a symbol of permanence and continuity. Yet, her sense of continuity and permanence was focused elsewhere. The church of course is not itself that permanent hope but points us towards it. The hymn concludes with
So be it, Lord; thy throne shall never, like earth’s proud empires, pass away; thy kingdom stands, and grows for ever, till all thy creatures own thy sway
We are reminded that there is a higher throne, that of King Jesus. Just 10 days ago, Boris Johnson stepped down as Prime Minister with the bitter ironic comment that he’d just discovered he was in a relay race. I don’t know how he’d missed it. The Queen hadn’t, she always knew that the baton would pass. However, Jesus is the eternal king. He never passes on the baton.
The first reading is from 1 Corinthians 15:20-26 and then 53ff. It begins with:
“Now is Christ risen from the dead and the first fruits of them that slept.”
The reading points us to the hope of resurrection because Jesus has risen. Easter morning will break in on the funeral. Again, this is a reminder that there is a higher, greater, truer king. The reading, though is also a pointer to the Gospel
“For as in Adam, all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive”
Psalm 42 talks about the hart or deer that pants with thirst for water, refreshment is found in God alone. The second reading is the well known funeral reading from John 14, a promise of hope and home. Christ’s death and resurrection makes it possible for us to be with him forever. If the Queen lived in palaces here, there is a greater mansion of palaces to come. Then Psalm 23 is the next hymn, we trust the Lord who is our shepherd to take us through “the valley of the shadow of death.”
There is then an anthem. I’ll let the words speak for themselves:
MY soul, there is a country Far beyond the stars,
Where stands a wingèd sentry
All skilful in the wars:
There above noise, and danger, Sweet Peace sits crowned with smiles,
And One born in a manger Commands the beauteous files.
He is thy gracious friend,
And (O my soul, awake!)
Did in pure love descend,
To die here for thy sake.
If thou canst get but thither,
There grows the flower of Peace,
The Rose that cannot wither,
Thy fortress, and thy ease.
Leave then thy foolish ranges, For none can thee secure,
But One who never changes,
Thy God, thy Life, thy Cure.Henry Vaughan (1621–95) Hubert Parry (1848–1918)
After the prayers, there is the glorious hymn, “Love divine, all love’s excelling.” It talks of God’s great love -but notice also of his joy that has come to earth in the person of Jesus. “Jesus, thou art all compassion, pure unbounded, love thou art.” The prayer is that God will bring salvation to “troubled heart(s).” The hymn talks about Christ coming as rescuer and saviour but it finishes with a prayer that he will “finish then your new creation.” The hymn shows us that the purpose of the Gospel is a new and spotless creation free from sin, fear and death.
Notice then, a last anthem with the words taken directly from the end of Romans 8.
WHO shall separate us from the love of Christ? Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Alleluia! Amen.
What the funeral service does, in effect through the readings and hymns is reflect the circumstances and character of the deceased whilst persistently pointing us to their saviour. That’s what a good funeral should do.
If you are a believer in Jesus, take note! Your service won’t be exactly the same but we can learn well from the Queen’s example about how to prepare for our death and committal. Make your plans.
If you are not yet a believer in him, then hear in the hymns, prayers and readers a pointer to the one that you need to put your trust in.