The public response to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales took many journalists by surprise. It took the British royal court by surprise. For an entire week, people all over the world, but particularly in England, poured out their grief over the death the one they called “the people’s princess.” One commentator observed that Princess Diana satisfied the longing that people have for recognition from some great figure whose very presence will lift them out of the meaninglessness of the drab existence of modern society.
I. An Aloof Monarchy
Princess Diana contrasted sharply with the aloofness of the monarchy. Queen Elizabeth certainly has a very public role filled with an endless circle of ceremonial occasions sprinkled with all of the pageantry and tradition which sets the British monarchy apart. Despite her continual presence in the public eye, however, Queen Elizabeth has a very private life.
No one really knows the Queen. They know about her, but no one really knows her. She always appears with dignity and a bearing that sets her apart from ordinary people. She speaks with formality, and anyone in her presence assumes the same tone of formality. In 1992 when the marriages of the Queen’s children fell apart and Windsor Castle caught on fire, my five year old daughter drew a picture of a castle to make her feel better. Several weeks later Rebecca received a letter from Buckingham Palace expressing the Queen’s appreciation and signed by a lady in waiting. The Queen expresses herself, but does so through intermediaries.
For most people in the world, God seems a far and distant figure. He lives far away and know one ever sees Him. No one can touch God. And when God speaks, it only comes to us through an intermediary.
The divine is so distant to the Hindu that a person must go through an endless stream of transformations through many lives before they can get close to God. For the Buddhist the divine seems so distant that God has completely disappeared and we are left alone to be lost in the great cosmic unconsciousness that does not know us or even itself. To the Muslim, God is the great king and lawgiver who remains aloof from the world and demands strict obedience to the law if one ever wishes to come into the presence of God.
When Princess Diana left the palace and wandered among the people, she struck a deep spiritual nerve among people who longed for this kind of royal visitation. In the song What If God was One of Us, Joan Osborne sings for a secular audience about the longing people have for God to come down to our level.
II. A Life of Sorrow
Princess Diana had a brief and sorrowful life. Her mother abandoned her when she was a child of five or six, and Diana grew up feeling unworthy to be loved, even by a mother. She had so much of what other people seek in life, but it did not make her happy. She had fame from the moment the press discovered she was seeing the Prince of Wales. Her wedding had more television viewers than any other TV event up to that time. But the fame did not make her happy.
She had such wealth that a garage sale to sell some old dresses brought several million dollars for charity. She wanted for nothing, but the wealth did not make her happy. She had such influence that she could go see anyone in the world that she wanted to visit, from the President of the United States to the Pope. All doors were open to her, but the influence did not make her happy. The one thing she wanted seemed just beyond her grasp. She wanted the love her mother had not given her. The tragedy of her life endeared her to millions, because in spite of her great wealth and beauty, people could identify with a princess who struggled with the same issues of life that they did.
People longed to be touched and Princess Diana left the palace, moved about the crowds and touched lives. In so doing, she began to discover love when she visited the sick, comforted the sorrowful, fed the hungry, and clothed the naked. She seemed to care. In looking for love, she seemed to illustrate that one only finds it in giving it away. While on the verge of discovering this deep spiritual truth, Princess Diana continued to live in a futile pursuit of romantic love as she jumped from one failed affair to another. Her life reflected the sadness of looking for love in all the wrong places. Her search demonstrates how our choices can actually stand in the way of what we most want to find.
When the Great King wanted to show His love and care for people, He also left the palace. Love is not merely something one talks about through go betweens. Love is something that must be demonstrated. God left the palace in the form of Jesus Christ who walked this earth and touched the lives of people. He not only left the palace, He discarded all the trappings of royalty as He totally identified with people. Unlike the Princess, he became a pauper like us. He walked a mile in our shoes and knows what it feels like to go through the sadness as well as the joy of life. The Bible describes it this way:
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8)
The Great King left the palace of heaven and touched the crowds, showing us the course of real love.
III. The Meaning of Death
Mother Teresa died the same week as Princess Diana. People paid attention to her death, but not in the same way. Somehow her death did not shock. Her death seemed to be the logical conclusion of a life given away to the poorest of the poor. The death of Princess Diana, however, had a particular tragedy because her life did not seem finished. She was young and beautiful, but she had not yet found happiness. She did not die for any cause. Her death did not accomplish anything. It was a tragic death in its unnecessary meaninglessness. Her car ran into a pillar while speeding furiously to escape some photographers.
The world showed respect and courtesy when Princess Diana died. The world loved her. Yet, the world had not always loved her. The world is a rather fickle bunch. The same world had also criticized her. The crowd is always a most unreliable lover.
When Jesus came, the crowd that loved to see Him perform a miracle also hated to hear Him point out their failings. The same crowd that could hail him as the Great King on one Friday could demand his execution the next Friday. Jesus died a tragic death at the hands of the ones he came to love. But He did not die a meaningless death. When God left the palace to love people, He literally loved us to death — His death.
Something deep in the human spirit calls out for the kind of visit God made when he entered this world in Bethlehem. Something deep within us longs to be picked out of the crowd the way Jesus touched people and changed their lives. Part of the mystique of Princess Diana lay in her ability to make people feel special by choosing to talk with them or be in their company, accepting them for what they are. God places episodes like the brief life of Princess Diana in the world as parables or stories that point us back to a deep truth and longing we have.
Jesus Christ came into the world not only to experience what it means to be human. He came into the world to pick us out of the gutter and to take us back with him to live in the palace. He came to touch us and make us somebody by accepting us the way we are. Like Prince Edward in Mark Twain’s classic The Prince and the Pauper, he came to trade places with us. He took our death to the cross and he gives His life to those who will embrace his love.
[This sermon was delivered in three different kinds of church settings within three weeks of the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. The settings included the First Baptist Church of Alamo, Tennessee in a rural county seat town made up largely of middle class community leaders; Northbrook Community Church, a seeker church made up primarily of Baby Busters; and Brooks Baptist Church, a small church on the fringe of a major metropolitan area made up primarily of blue collar workers.
While the sermon is a doctrinal sermon which explains some of the significance of the incarnation, it has an evangelistic purpose. The basic outline and sub-points were the same in each setting, though the style of delivery varied between the churches. In the seeker church, the worship leader used a secular song entitled “What if God was One of Us” to set up the message. At the end of the first point, he showed a video clip from the funeral of the Princess of Wales with Elton John singing “Good-bye England’s Rose.” Between the second and third points, a soloist sang the song “Welcome to Our World” by Chris Rice.]

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