The prophet Isaiah tells us that the Suffering Servant was a person “of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” Jesus himself lived out this way of life of the Messiah. He is the Chief Shepherd. You and I as preaching pastors are the under-shepherds of the flock of God. Therefore, a spiritual preparation for preaching to the grief-stricken is to identify, examine and face up to our own griefs.
An example of this is the way the Apostle Paul expresses his “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” in his heart over his separation from his “kinsmen by race,” i.e., his fellow Israelites. He longed in perpetual sorrow, wishing that they would join him in his faith in Christ. For him there was no turning back to join them. Yet he was willing, he said, to be “cut off from Christ for the sake of his brethren.”
Notice this sorrow of his. He is not talking about losing someone by death. Rather, he is grieved because they are separated from him by reason of his commitment to Christ. This remarkable confession of Paul opens up a broader and deeper understanding of grief for mine and your preaching ministry to the grief-stricken. Let me suggest several dimensions of this understanding.
Varieties of Sources of Grief
Grief is a continuing process of spiritual, emotional, physical, and interpersonal reactions to separation and loss. Such separation and loss does not occur just in cases of the loss of someone by death. A wide variety of other sources of separation and loss serve to “acquaint” a person with sorrow. Reflecting your and my awareness of the different tributaries of grief enlarges the number of people in the audience who pay close attention to what we are saying. It deepens both your and their ability to understand themselves and each other in times of sorrow.
Some examples clarify what I have just said. Little infants mourn when they are separated from those who parent them. Adults can, if we pay close attention to infants, appreciate their tears. We, too, when bereaved, are, as Tennyson says, like “infants in the night with no language but a cry.” Juveniles in the first grade suffer grief when they start to school. Sometimes they are overwhelmed with separation anxiety.
Homesickness is a form of grief. First year college students, late adolescents in the military, and persons who love their home and yet must travel distances away from home suffer a garden variety of grief often called homesickness. The Israelites were homesick in Babylon and wondered how they could “sing the song of the Lord in a strange land.”
Immigrants, international students, Americans abroad in mission stations, the Peace Corps, and the military know homesickness as painful grief.
Another source of grief is interpersonal conflict. You may have heard persons say to you that a church leadership squabble hurt and grieved them more than when they lost a relative by death. Family conflict over an inheritance, places of power in a family business, over never having been “blessed” by parents are wounds of grief either difficult or impossible to heal. Family conflicts that issue in divorce often cause angry marital partners to “wish” each other dead, or some other fantasized form of annihilation. You have probably had people in such sorrow to say that “it would have been easier if he or she had died.”
Different Kinds of Grief
Whatever its source may be, grief also comes in different forms or patterns which need to be taken into account in a sermon. When you and I make these distinctions, our people begin to grasp the meaning of some of their strange feelings and better to appreciate other people whom they are seeking to understand and comfort.
These different kinds of grief can each be the topic of a separate sermon in a series on “Becoming Acquainted with Sorrow.” I have dealt in detail with these in my book written to lay persons entitled Your Particular Grief. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981). In brief, these kinds of grief and an appropriate title and text for each of them are as follows:
1. Anticipatory Grief. This is expected grief. The increasingly loud threats of divorce, the anxious phases of losing one’s job, and the delaying actions of the battle against terminal diseases are examples of anticipatory grief. Persons in such situations live with the consciousness that such losses are not a matter of whether but when the event will happen. Preparation rituals characterize this kind of grief.
A sermon entitled “Getting Ready for the Unthinkable” would emphasize this. Jesus himself spoke of this in his anticipation of his death. Take as a text Luke 13:31-35, Jesus’ own anticipation of his death. Enrich it with references in the Fourth Gospel to his “hour”: John 2:4, 7:30, 8:20, 12:27, 13:1, 16:32, 17:1. His institution of the Lord’s Supper was a ritual or time of preparation of himself and of his disciples.
2. Sudden or Traumatic Grief. This is unexpected grief. A spouse has led a double life with another partner or, after harboring resentments for years, suddenly gets “fed up.” In the course of as little as twenty-four hours he or she simply announces that he or she is “leaving,” and moves out never to return. Or a pair of young parents have finally begun to prosper enough that they can enjoy a few of the good things of life, then one or the other of them drops dead with a heart attack, is killed in an auto or plane accident in a split second of time.
The New Testament persistently interprets life as being lived in the paradoxical expectancy of the unexpected. A sermon can be drawn from a text such as Luke 21:34-36. The context is the return of the Son of Man. The reference to “that day” is the day of the Lord. The theme is that of “The Disciplines of Readiness.” A title that reflects the fragility of human relationships and of the veil between life and death such as “Fragile: Handle with Care” could be used.
3. “No-End” Grief. The reverse of sudden death is the kind of grief that seemingly has no end. People will say to you concerning an unhappy marriage to a person addicted to gambling, drugs, alcohol, philandering, or a tyrannical religiosity: “There doesn’t seem to be any end to this.” Chronic pain patients with severe arthritis, migraine headaches, etc., will feel the same way. A sermon could be done on “Serenity in the Face of the Endless.” The New English Bible translation of Philippians 4:10-14 provides a rich discussion of the “blossoming of life” in the face of unalterable situations of life.
4. “Near-Miss” Grief. If you were riding in a car with four of your closest friends and all four of them were killed and you were unscathed, you would grieve for them. You would also have a survivor feeling of mixed gratitude and guilt, deliverance and being bound. For you it was a “near miss”. You were delivered. They died.
In a real fidelity to the New Testament, the new life in Christ is like this in that we have been crucified with Christ, nevertheless we live. Therefore a text from Romans 6:1-6 and/or Galatians 2:20 could be taken. You could give a sermon a title such as “Narrow Escapes and a New Path of Life.” (Note again the New English Bible translation of Romans 6:4.)
Such an approach, it seems to me, is a very concrete, practical interpretation of the ethical imperatives of the Resurrection of Jesus and our living the resurrected life here and now. The Resurrection is the center-piece of preaching on the subject of grief. However, I think the Resurrecton is not often enough related to the grimy situations of day-to-day coping with the need to die to an old life that has come to an end and new life that begins with hope in the Living Christ.
Grief, Anger, and the Character of God
One of the most common thoughts of the grief-stricken is: “Why did God let this happen?” This theme must be dealt with and can be dealt with from the pulpit. Much magical and superstitious thinking hovers in misty flats of a bereaved mind. Classroom “theodicies” justifying the ways of God and man fall on deaf ears in the newly bereaved. Holding God responsible, even for the death of a drunken person driving eighty-miles-an-hour who slammed into a concrete abutment, is a form of denial of the reality of death, an expression of displaced rage toward the deceased (or the divorcing partner) and a way of recovering from the shock.
One of the best ways of interpreting this is that it is a natural and understandable reaction that should be expressed openly and frankly to God in prayer. God is strong and can take criticism. Later in the process of grief the same feelings may take the form of self-blame. Even later, the person can be encouraged to ask: “What kind of God is God, anyhow?” “What kind of character does my God I have?”
Jesus in his earthly life said: “He that has seen me has seen the Father.” Would Jesus take a person’s life? Did Jesus yield to the temptation of expecting to be an exception to death? Am I angry because I did not have the power to control death?
A sermon could be developed on the basis of the temptations of Jesus in Luke 4 and Matthew 4. A title such as “Temptations in the Face of Grief” could be used. An outline could be: (1) The Temptation of Magical Thinking, (2) The Temptation of Demanding Total Control, (3) The Temptation of Demanding to Be an Exception. A more positive title would be “Your Grief and the Character of God.”
The Stewardship of Comfort
Through participating in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are enabled to transcend the power of grief to debilitate us. We plant our feet in a new life that does not exclude the reality of adversity and death. Yet this is far more than a psychological exercise for our personal mental health. That is a by-product and not the end intention of the Lord Jesus Christ. His intention is that we use the strength he has given us to be strengtheners of those who are in any manner of adversity. This is the thrust of Paul’s teaching in II Corinthians 1:3-7. Likewise, after his marvelous exposition of the nature of the resurrection, he says: “Therefore, … he steadfast, immovable, all ways abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain (I Corinthians 15:58).
This amounts to the stewardship of comfort. We are not finished preaching on grief until we motivate people to consider their own outreach from within the depths of their suffering to sustain a fellow struggler in his or her need. Jesus plainly told us that He could been seen in their wounds as well as felt in our prayers.

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