If you are a preacher of the Word, you will one day have to preach a funeral. And that one day might be Tuesday. Even if you’ve heard a lecture in class on how to prepare for a funeral, it’s almost impossible for that lecture to cover all the bases: every death is different, because every human is a special creation of God.
Though every funeral sermon should also be, therefore, unique and different, the central task is still the same as that of any sermon: to faithfully herald what God has said in Scripture. You will have to face this question:
How can I write a faithful, concise, powerful, comforting sermon for this particular funeral service?
God has a great deal to say to the bereaved, and these principles will help you share his message at a funeral.
1. Work on your theology of suffering.
As Bryan Chapell says in the excellent introduction to The Hardest Sermons You’ll Ever Have to Preach: Help from Trusted Preachers for Tragic Times:
In order for the human heart to maintain love for a sovereign God, faith must affirm what it cannot prove: “In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). We must believe that God has a good purpose for the awful things that occur to us. Just as a straight line can be drawn with a crooked stick, biblical faith requires the confidence that wicked and tragic circumstances can be turned to loving purposes by God for his people. Such conclusions are drawn in the earliest pages of Scripture. Joseph says to his brothers about their sale of him into slavery (when they could not know that his presence in Egypt would ultimately result in their family’s rescue from famine), “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20; see 45:5, 8). (13)
These are the kinds of thoughts you can’t be scrambling to formulate after a leader in your congregation is suddenly taken from you. And they’re the kinds of truths that are best preached by someone who not only believes them but has experienced them in times of personal tragedy. They ought to be well cemented in the heart of the preacher.
2. Find a passage of Scripture and explain it.
There are many passages in Scripture that mention death—and several key passages that point to Christian hope after death.
I’ll never forget preaching (not at a funeral) to a group of unchurched people that included an eleven-year-old boy whose face told me he wasn’t buying the Christian life-after-death stuff. Then I read some words from Jesus about the topic:
I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even if he dies. And those who live and believe in me will never die. (John 11:25–26 NIrV)
The boy burst out in the middle of the service—half in derision and half in curiosity: “No freakin’ way! That’s so stupid! What in the world does that mean?”
I just laughed; it was actually refreshing for me to hear someone take Jesus’ words seriously rather than nodding sagely but interpreting them as meaningless religious mumbo jumbo. The Christian hope really is crazy—if you evaluate it according to all human experience. Life after death?
So, preacher, dig into a passage like this one. Explain it. Make it clear that Jesus was deadly serious. You’ll likely have non-Christians in attendance who aren’t familiar with the genre of the expository sermon, so don’t bounce around to cross references. Just take some straightforward words from the New Testament and explain and apply them.
If you’re looking for passages and fresh, funeral-specific angles on them, try the lightly developed outlines in 52 Funeral Sermons by Barry Davis. One passage that Davis and I have both used is 1 Thessalonians 4:13:
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. (ESV)
This passage allowed me to focus on what Christians have—hope—while touching lightly but definitely on the fact that there are (unspecified) “others” who lack hope. I always feel safest when explaining the Bible. And you can’t beat Paul here for deftness.
3. Don’t say or imply anything that isn’t true.
Don’t speak or even imply an untruth. This seems so obvious, and when I was in pastoral training I didn’t know why one of my mentors kept repeating it. But now that I’ve stood in front of people who needed to hear difficult truths, I understand. It’s so tempting to flinch, to fudge, to forget the little detail that may offend.
For example, how do you preach the funeral of someone who had little or no Christian testimony—or one unknown to you? I did this once. A friend of mine worked at a funeral home, and at the last minute they needed a preacher for the funeral of a woman who died with few relatives or friends. I nearly said no; I felt the temptation to flinch would be too great.
Then I decided that these people needed—and I could deliver—Christian truth in a gentle yet clear way. As it turns out, I didn’t get to say much, and that bothered me. I read Scripture passages, including the Lord’s Prayer, and nothing I said was untrue. But I felt the pressure of the occasion—the grieving boyfriend whom I did not know, the undertakers who clearly wanted us to get on with things. . . . And I wonder if I ended up making it too easy for everyone to leave without having to consider any uncomfortable truths from Scripture about repentance and faith. I don’t know; if there’s a next time, I will prepare carefully to avoid any flinching. I’ll pick a passage and briefly explain it.
4. Look for wisdom in hard cases.
Every death is a hard case. Every death feels wrong—death is an intruder in God’s good creation, one let in by Adam’s sin (Rom 5). But people, Christian or not, generally accept the death of elderly people in a way they don’t accept the deaths of others. In fact, “elderly” may be defined as, “Old enough that people won’t think it strange when death comes.”
But there are deaths that bring together multiple layers of theological and personal difficulty. Bryan Chapell’s The Hardest Sermons You’ll Ever Preach gives 25 real-life examples: suicide (including that of a pastor caught in immorality), the unexplained death of a celebrity, national tragedy, stillbirth, crib death, drunk-driving death, murder, accidental death—the list is depressing. And yet there are deft, faithful, biblical ways preachers can bring Christ’s comfort to grieving people in all of them.
I was struck in particular by the brevity of these sermons, by their personal warmth, and by their method of directly bringing up whatever made the given hard case hard. Chapell, for example, preached a funeral once for a female student who was mysteriously murdered on the campus of the Christian college where he taught (the mystery remains unsolved). He didn’t resort to platitudes to avoid the sad and disturbing reason for the funeral. He instead used the beauty of biblical metaphor—Christ as morning star (Rev 22:16)—to remind his hearers of the eternal truths that ought to shape their grief and turn it toward joy. He was also admirably brief. He made his points with straightforward eloquence, then stepped aside.
The deceased in the first funeral I ever preached was the crustiest old drunk you ever met. Was. In the final years of his long life, as best our church outreach ministries could tell, the Lord genuinely changed him.
All the same, I was nervous as I prepared his funeral sermon. What if this man hadn’t really changed but only put on a good show for us churchy people as his means of getting in good with God? Christ can forgive the crustiest of sinners, but in the Gospels hypocrisy is something he always sniffs out. The people in the audience all knew the man better than I could have—I hadn’t been his pastor very long. This was something of a hard case for a newbie.
As I waited to pull out my Bible and preach Christ to the people assembled, the man’s son, well into middle age himself, stood up to eulogize his father. At least I hoped it would be a eulogy (eu- = good, –logy = speaking). But he started by saying, “My father was never present in my childhood. I had nothing to do with him for many years.” Uh-oh, I was thinking, change the sermon, quick. This was becoming an even harder case.
And then he said this: “But I believe in Jesus Christ. And in these last few years, my father came to believe in him as well. Our relationship was healed.”
I preached my brief sermon. I relied on a biblical theology of suffering; I explained a relevant Scripture passage; I said what was true by calling everyone to faith and repentance. And I didn’t have to face a truly hard case my first go-’round, because I could give evidence of repentance from the life of this former drunk, appealing directly to the testimony of his Christian son. There are sorrows in every funeral, but that day I experienced real joy.
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a writer for Faithlife. His most recent book is Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible.
If you’ve been asked to preach a funeral sermon (or you want to be prepared for when you are asked), check out Bryan Chapell’s The Hardest Sermons You’ll Ever Preach and Barry Davis’ 52 Funeral Sermons. When you get these books in Logos, you’ll enjoy the enhanced features and functionality of fully digital resources with an interconnected library, not to mention the flexibility of taking your study with you wherever you go.
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