One of the hardest weekends of my life in ministry came when I was called upon to preach the funeral of a baby on a Saturday morning, marry a couple on Saturday afternoon, and then dedicate a baby on Sunday morning. All of the families were close friends and members of the same church where I was pastor.
That was a particularly hard funeral sermon to develop and deliver but they are all challenging. It is a difficult thing to do. People’s hearts are broken. Many of the people present are not believers. A lot of those who are followers of Jesus are from other churches and traditions.
I’ve preached a lot of funerals. Along the way I’ve learned some lessons from others and I’ve learned some lessons the hard way. Whether you are a pastor or a family friend called upon to deliver the sermon at a funeral, here are a few principles that can help you make the most of the opportunity to preach at such a monumental time in the lives of the family and friends gathered at a funeral.
Here are five filters to pass your funeral sermon through before preaching it:
1. Is this about the deceased?
This is important. If you get this wrong that’s what people will remember. Interview the family to find our important details of the person’s personal, professional, and spiritual life. Did they have a favorite hymn? Use it at the funeral. Did they have a favorite place? Mention it. It’s even better if you can carefully craft it in as a part of a sermon illustration.
Use the high points of the person’s life story as a means of instruction to those present. There is no greater way to honor a deceased dedicated teacher than to teach the people present to celebrate her life. There is no better way to honor a kind mechanic than to remind people to maintain friendships in their lives.
2. Is this about the risen?
A funeral is essentially an opportunity to celebrate the person who died. It’s the preacher’s job to take it a step further and make it about the person who rose from the dead. This is a delicate task but don’t shy away from it out of fear of offending unbelievers present. Mortality has just slapped them in the face as they’ve watched beloved Aunt Susie die. Make it about Jesus.
In Luke thirteen the people asked Jesus about the people who had died when a tower fell in a construction accident. Jesus used it as an opportunity to call them to repentance. He didn’t waste their awareness of mortality. When people stand in the presence of mortality it’s the preacher’s job to point them toward eternity. Do it lovingly and gently but do it.
3. Is this comforting?
Preach the Gospel like a man in love with the mourners. The Gospel is always hard but it is never harsh. When people are mourning the Gospel must be given like a loving salve not an angry salvo. It is far better to bombard mourning people with hope for forgiveness than to barrage them with their sin.
4. Is this challenging?
Now, don’t let the above filter keep you from making the sermon challenging. Funeral sermons must remember their audience. That’s what filter #3 is about. It has been well said that the preacher’s job is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. This is one of those times where the chief task must be to comfort the afflicted. However, that’s doesn’t mean we waste the opportunity to challenge unbelievers into a saving relationship with Christ.
“In her final days, Aunt Susie took great comfort in knowing where she was headed. Today, do you know in whose hands your life is held? Is Aunt Susie’s hope your hope?” Shine a light on the stair case which leads to Christ. Don’t drag them up the stairs screaming and kicking. Point the way. Open the door.
5. Is this biblical?
This is the final filter. After you’ve prepared your sermon ask yourself this one question: is this faithful to scriptural ideas and biblical truth? We can celebrate the deceased, mention Jesus name, comfort and challenge people, but if the ideas of the sermon aren’t congruent with the ideas of the Bible it will have no power to change lives. You might make a few friends with your poetry but you’ll have wasted the opportunity to be a part of lasting life change if the Bible was not directly reflected in the things spoken at a funeral.
Funeral sermons should celebrate the dead and point people to the risen. They are difficult assignments but there is perhaps no other time when people are as aware of their own mortality and potentially awake to Jesus and eternity.