This coming Sunday is Remembrance Sunday.
For readers not in the United Kingdom: World War I hostilities ended on 11th November 1918. Many communities had lost a large proportion of their young men, so war memorials were erected in each community with the names of those who died in the war. On 11th November 1919, they were remembered. Ever since then, on 11th November, or on the Sunday closest, two minutes silence is observed at 11am, the day the guns fell silent. This is often accompanied by sombre and dignified laying of wreaths and procession in uniform. Frequently, this is all tied in with the Sunday morning service in the local parish church.
The Remembrance Sunday service differs from one church to another, but I suspect ours is not atypical. We have all the village uniformed organisations present, in uniform (Scouts, Cubs, Beavers, Guides, Brownies and Rainbows - along with Senior Scouts, Adventure Scouts and the Trefoil Guild). The younger members of these groups will not be in church for the sermon - we run a mini one-hour holiday club style Sunday School for them. Each group will process in their "colours" (their section's flag) at the start of the service, and collect it again during the last hymn.
Members of the local branch of the Royal British Legion will be there, some in former military uniforms, all wearing any medals they collected during their own service in the armed forces.
After the service in church, we form up in our car park for a parade. We have obtained a road closure order from the local authority, and process (in formation and in silence) to the village war memorial. There various words are said, such as the Kohima Epitaph, and words from Laurence Binyon's poem "for the fallen":
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
We then read the names of those from our village who fell in the two great wars, before a bugler plays The Last Post, which we follow with two minutes silence. This ends with the bulger playing The Reveille. Wreaths are then laid at the memorial by representatives of the various armed forces, the uniformed organisations, the parish council, and sometimes individuals. Small wooden crosses are then place in the turf in front of the memorial, one for each of the names we read out, with their name written on the cross. After a couple of prayers, we then process back to the church for coffee.
It's as much a civic occasion as it is a church service.
This means that, once again, I find myself planning the sermon for Remembrance Sunday. Here is what I try to do.
It's Still a Sermon
Much of the task is the same as that of any other sermon.
I still start my preparation with the text of Scripture on which I am preaching. I need to take the usual care to understand what it is saying, how it says it, and what it is wanting to do in the lives of those who hear. I personally find it a helpful discipline to distil this down to two simple sentences, as short as possible, so that I'm crystal clear what the Bible passage is saying and doing. This then needs to be what the sermon says and aims to do.
The sermon still needs to have a beginning (an introduction), a middle and an ending (a conclusion). In the middle, headings probably help (depending on the structure of the sermon and the type of text) to give hearers some kind of handle on the shape and structure of the sermon. Illustrations are needed that shed genuine light on what is being said, and to help the message to sink in deeper than just the surface of our lives. Care needs to be given to apply the sermon to the different kinds of people who will hear it.
It's still a sermon.
However there are a few specific things I always bear in mind.
My sermons are of varying lengths - from 3 minutes up to 45. It all depends on the kind of service and what is appropriate. However, if I'm preaching an expository sermon on a Sunday morning, I'm usually around about 20-22 minutes.
On Remembrance Day, here, 10 minutes needs to be the absolute upper limit. Partly, there are many people in church who are not used to listening to someone speak for even as long as that. The bigger issue is that the whole service must run to time. We need to be at the war memorial, having read the pieces that come before the two minutes' silence, in time for The Last Post to finish at exactly 11am.
There are some occasions when taking time to say more improves a sermon. It's not usually that sermons need to cover more ground, but that they can cover their ground better if you have time to say things in a way that brings them to life and presses them home. But there are other occasions when less is more, and Remembrance Day is one of them. Say what needs saying, but be succinct.
The other things I'm about to say imply that Remembrance Day preaching is, in some ways, harder than on a regular Sunday. Which means the pressure to be brief is harder than it sounds.
Remember: It's still a sermon. We're still wanting everyone present to hear what God is saying through the Bible reading being preached.
Many of those who come do not come to church at any other time of year. Others will come only then and at Christmas.
Every sermon should contain the gospel in some form or another. Every sermon should have something to say to those who are not yet Christians, and (a part of) what it says to them should be good news. We have the most wonderful news to share. This is especially so at any event when we know that a large proportion of those present will not be practising Christians.
I'm not saying it needs to be crassly evangelistic. That probably doesn't need saying, but just in case anybody misunderstands what I'm saying …: A sermon is a sharp, precision tool, not a bludgeon. I wouldn't deliver the same address on Remembrance Sunday that I would give, say, at a mission event run by a university Christian Union. I'm not saying that the sermon needs to end with a prayer for those who wish to commit their lives to Christ (although I'm not now saying that it necessarily shouldn't end that way). Be sensitive. Be appropriate. But don't, on account of those things, fail to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Let me take a step back, for a moment, to talk about talks at all-age services.
These need what a friend of mine calls a "gimmick". There needs to be something visual, auditory, active, participatory or some combination of the above. There needs to be something that will draw children in to taking part in some way, so that the words that are said are complemented by something more tangible. You can start with a gimmick and build a talk around it; you can start with a talk and add a gimmick to colour it.
What is important is that it is all organic: The message of the talk still needs to be the message of the Bible passage, and the gimmick needs to help drive that message home and not distract from it. There are two equal and opposite errors here. One is to have a gimmick that runs away with itself, that is tremendous fun, but it loses all connection with what is being said, and in fact displaces and then drowns the message. The other is to be so determined that this won't happen that the gimmick is eclipsed, and the message is not heard because it is not appropriate for the occasion and does not engage the hearers.
Now let's come back to Remembrance Day. In many ways, the same thing applies. The "gimmick" is not a hands-on, noisy activity, or a 12 foot high visual aid. The gimmick is a strong connection to the fact that this is a Remembrance Day service.
There are lots of big themes swirling around before the sermon even begins: peace, conflict, selfishness, empire, forgiveness, sacrifice, bravery, and so on. The sermon needs to tap into some of those kinds of themes. This has a bearing on the Bible passages you pick for a service like this, but actually any Bible passage connects to Remembrance Day. It's your job to make that link.
Bryan Chappell, in his book Christ-centred Preaching, says that one key to application in a sermon is to find what he calls the "fallen condition focus" of a Bible passage. We are all fallen, so God's grace is good news: Which exact bit of life in a fallen world is this passage speaking into? Remembrance Sunday gives us plenty of points of contact with our fallen condition: The sermon needs to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to bear on that.
So the same two dangers apply as to all-age talks. On the one hand, there's the danger that the gimmick acquires a life of its own. This happens when the preacher finds some Remembrance-related topic, or a powerfully moving story of bravery from a past war. Somehow, we never get back to the Bible passage, and instead of God's good news in Christ we just get the preacher's own views on the theme. This is always far less satisfying than what God has to say. The opposite danger is when the preacher has studied the text, but the sermon doesn't connect with the Remembrance theme or the unique service that has been unfolding. As a result, most people don't ever connect with the talk, and miss what is being said.
I'll repeat myself: Lots of those present will not be in church on other weeks.
That means that this sermon needs to stand on its own two feet. You cannot assume any knowledge of what was said the week before. Indeed, many may not know their Bibles well at all, so you cannot assume much about what is written in the rest of the Bible.
Clearly, you can't define all your terms, otherwise the sermon would be unbearably long and dull. Some assumptions have to be made. The important thing is to be clear with yourself what those are. Far fewer assumptions apply compared to a normal Sunday
I need to get back to my own preparation. This year, I'll be preaching on Daniel 6:25-28. I picked it because we've been preaching through Daniel this autumn. We've had a couple of Sundays on other things, but Daniel 6 was the chapter we did most recently, and we'll tackle Daniel 7 on 19th November. We'll keep going up to Christmas, with the more eschatological chapters falling during Advent. Daniel 6:25-28 also has plenty of Remembrance Day themes, such as the rise and fall of empires, of conflict between kingdoms, of deliverance from impossibly difficult situations. It will serve as a recap for our regulars, whilst being a great text in its own right for a one-off.
It's still a sermon. I need to work on the text. Darius proclaims two truths about God - he rules (and his kingdom lasts forever) and he delivers (for he delivered Daniel from the lions). That God saves is the climax of Daniel 6. That God rules is the climax of Daniel 1-6, where we've watched Nebuchadnezzar trample Jerusalem (and, he thinks, it's God), before he learnt the hard way that heaven rules. Daniel 2 says that empires will rise and fall, but God will establish a kingdom that lasts forever. Darius's proclamation is the most full-orbed one yet to end a chapter in Daniel, and is extraordinary on the lips of a pagan king. The chapter is designed to help God's people persevere when living in hard times, but also calls us to depend on God for our ultimate security and not on earthly rulers when they are sympathetic to our cause.
But preaching this on Remembrance Sunday will be a challenge. What I've just outlined shows that I've got my work cut out. Let me work my way backwards through what I've just said.
This needs to be a one-off sermon. Most hearers won't have heard the previous sermons in Daniel, so won't know who Nebuchadnezzar is, who Daniel is, where Babylon is, what the kingdom of Media is, who Darius is, and so on. Some won't even have met the generally well-known story of Daniel in the lions' den. I will need to decide how much of that background needs to be brought in, and carefully bring it in for myself, but there won't be time for all the background.
The sermon needs to be topical. There are strong Remembrance Sunday themes in there, but I need to decide which of those will come into play. More to the point, they need to be brought into play organically, so that the introduction of the sermon taps into those themes, and the rest of the sermon keeps them going and does not disconnect from the world we've been moving in.
The sermon needs to be evangelistic. The name "Jesus Christ" has meaning. "Jesus" means "God saves". When he was born, the angel told Joseph that he would save his people from their sins, so this is to be his name. "Christ" means "anointed one", which means he's the king foreshadowed by all the other kings of Israel. When he started his public ministry, he proclaimed that with his arrival the long-awaited kingdom of God had come. The rescuing and reigning God finds its climax in the person and ministry of Jesus, and especially in his death and resurrection. He calls us to repent, and to believe the good news.
The sermon needs to be short. How exactly am I supposed to achieve this in ten minutes or less?
Over to you
Let me hand over to you. I'm sure my readers have a lot of experience of Remembrance Sunday between them - either as preachers who have grappled with these issues, or as those who have listened to Remembrance sermons good and not so good. Please share your wisdom in the comments.
As for me: I'd better get back to Daniel 6, or it's not going to happen. I've got my work cut out.
If you want to know what I do with it (although just to warn you, it may well not be a model of what should be): We start at 9.50am this coming Sunday. Prompt.