Sunday school for kids isn’t just about nice, easy-to-tell stories. The lessons those kids need most may be the ones about hard things—like death.
I nearly did the kids in my Sunday school class a disservice last week, but I was stopped by a teacher wiser than myself.
I was out of town. I’m teaching through the book of Genesis, and had a fill-in teacher while I was gone. The lesson I normally would have taught (from chapter 23, which is where we are in Genesis) was the death and burial of Abraham’s wife, Sarah. That’s not a lesson found often in children’s curricula, probably because it has a weak plot. It’s mostly about Abraham’s negotiation with the Hittites, who owned the land where he was living, to buy a piece of land for a burial ground.
The published lessons I’m using skipped over that story. This usually doesn’t stop me. I just make my own lesson from scratch. But it didn’t seem right to ask the fill-in teacher to do that, so I told her to skip ahead and teach the next pre-made lesson. I decided the kids didn’t need to study Sarah’s burial.
Good thing for those kids, that fill-in teacher told me I was wrong.
What she realized, and what I should have known because I’ve taught that story before, is that the Bible has good reasons for spending a whole chapter of Genesis on the talky procurement of a burial site. She understood, too, that how God’s people deal with death is a critical lesson for kids to learn—not one to skip.
Abraham’s negotiation for the land actually has elements of tension when the story is told well. At first, it looks like Abraham won’t be able to buy any land at all, just gain the right to use someone else’s land. Then when he sees an opening for an outright purchase, he quickly jumps at the first price he hears, almost certainly overpaying for the property. Why does he do this?
I think it’s because Abraham knows where his hope lies. That’s so important when death comes! Abraham and Sarah lived as foreigners in the land, but God had promised one day to give that land to their family. It was God’s blessing to them and, through them, to the whole world. They lived for that blessing and for the eternal home it represented. This was their great hope. And Sarah died without seeing it realized.
But death is not the end of hope for God’s people. This is why when Sarah dies Abraham is so determined to gain clear title to a piece of the Promised Land. It represents the hope Sarah lived for and the promise she believed as she died. Remarkably, Abraham’s purchase means that God’s great promise starts to come true in death.
Christian burials today operate on the same principle. We don’t bury bodies to get rid of them. We plant bodies in the hope of resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:42–44). We know that the end of our lives here, no matter how sad those ends may be, are not the end of God’s promises nor of hope. Jesus was buried too, but he rose from the grave and gives us an eternal home with him. The best is yet to come for those who die in Christ.
Most of the kids we teach have experience with death, and the rest of them will, soon enough. They need to know that even in such times Jesus wins. When faced with death, they need to act out of faith in him—like Abraham did. They need to see death and burial, and see that hope endures.
The teacher who filled in for me reminded me that kids need to learn about death, and told me she wanted to teach about Sarah. Of course, I agreed. She’s an excellent teacher. I had little doubt it would be a good lesson and was the right decision.
As it turns out, I’ve come home to learn that the Sunday school lesson never happened due to other reasons, so next Sunday I’ll be the one to teach about Sarah’s burial after all. Maybe that’s for the best. The lesson comes at a reflective time for me. My own mother died a month ago. Like Sarah, she was a believer in the One through whom all God’s promises come true, and we buried her with great hope in the resurrection. Between that and my conversation with the fill-in teacher, I find myself extra eager to teach about Sarah and her hope.
Thoughts? Please share or comment below. I love feedback and discussion—it’s how we learn from each other! (Pick any name you like, and no one but me will see your email address—and I won’t use it, I promise)