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Fresh Funeral Sermons

An interview with author Scott Gibson

PreachingToday.com: Tell us a story of a memorable occasion related to a funeral sermon.

Scott Gibson: Perhaps the most challenging I've had of recent days was my own uncle's funeral. My uncle was not a Christian, and most of my family members are not Christians. For most pastors that's one of the most challenging sermons to deal with.

I decided I wanted to bring the hope of the gospel to my family but also to personalize it in a way that reflected who my uncle was as a person. So I looked at the passage in Matthew 10:29-31 where Jesus said:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

I wanted to communicate to them through my uncle's career as a hairstylist that God is also interested in hair, and he's interested in us to the extent that he knows the very hairs on our head. And if he knows the very hairs on our head, he cares for us even in times like these.

The challenge is to make something that is very standard — death — very personal, which it is, because each family grieves and is pained by it.

So I moved from that personal element of who my uncle was to the idea that God cares for us even in times like these. My family responded well to it, particularly because of the personal nature. Yet the hope that was given to them from the text and the sermon focused on the hope of the gospel.

In this example, you've shown us one of the things I found helpful in your book, which is how to make a funeral sermon personal.

So often preachers will preach the same funeral sermon every time they have a funeral. To me, if I may use the term, that's deadly, because most people in a congregation attend multiple funerals, and if they hear the same funeral sermon over and over again they'll quickly realize you don't spend much time preparing.

Each person who has died is an individual, very valuable in the sight of his or her family and community and church. So the challenge is to make something that is very standard — death — very personal, which it is, because each family grieves and is pained by it.

I ask myself, How can I help my congregation see that this person mattered to us and also mattered to God? I do this by looking at different aspects of a person's life; maybe it's their career, or their name has a certain element to it.

I had a man in my first church named Jim Procious, and I played on that sound — Procious/precious.Psalm 116:15 says, " Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. " I said, " Jim's life was precious to us and to God. "

It helps to draw together for your listeners that you're not simply doing the same old thing, but that this person matters to them, to God, and to you as a preacher.

You mentioned you try to link up with the person's career or their life vocation or their name. Are there a few other things you can link up with?

I think about favorite Scripture texts. Once I looked at the person's Bible and there were certain Scriptures he underscored or highlighted. Some people have a theme to their lives. They know they are a sinner saved by grace. So those Scriptures are important. They may even have a Scripture written in the front of their Bible.

You want to take notes when you're doing pastoral visitation. I always keep records of my visits, and I note the hobbies somebody was involved in. Whether it was stamp collecting or sports, that may be an angle you can take to help make the funeral sermon personal.

How are funerals changing, and how should the sermon change with them?

One of the things I've seen is a shift from a funeral service to a memorial service.

Another change is more congregational participation; more people are being invited during the course of the service to provide a eulogy.

Another is that there's a shift in our culture. We are a lot less " Christian " than we used to be, and people are tending to be less willing to think about death. This gives us even more opportunity to present the gospel, to personalize it, and to provide people a way to see how this love of God connects with the life they live. There's a desire for folks to hear a word of hope in a world that is not Christian and yet in many ways religious.

You've put your finger on probably the greatest change: the people there are less " Christian " culturally.

Some would say the funeral sermon should be strictly evangelistic, because if you have people who don't know the gospel, here's a way you can get to them. I don't deny, of course, that a funeral sermon can provide the gospel, but people also want to hear hope and comfort. There's a lot of need out there. I have a friend who says, " I don't 'do funerals'; I walk with people who grieve. " In a sense, if they know you're there, that you care for them and are able to show that in the way you speak to them and do the pre-funeral preparation, they're going to be more willing to hear the gospel, yes, at the funeral itself, but also in conversations with you afterwards.

What are the purposes of a funeral sermon?

I appreciate what Warren Wiersbe has said: " It's my conviction that the purpose of the funeral message is to exalt Jesus Christ as the adequate answer to every problem. " Our purpose is to confess Christ's resurrection, to give hope and comfort, to allow hearers to have some kind of emotional or spiritual release, to bring them into the presence of God, and to give them the hope of the gospel.

How is a funeral sermon an act of worship?

Any time we provide for our listeners the hope that's in Jesus Christ, their attention is directed to Jesus Christ, the one who is to be worshiped. Philippians says that at the end of all time every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Paul is talking about submission. In a sense submission takes place in the awe of a funeral service; people are at a different place than they perhaps ever have been. They're at a place where they're more willing to hear or more willing to see demonstrated who God is. If we can bring to them the comfort and hope of Christ, then we trust they will indeed worship.

This article is a transcript of the Preaching Today audio workshop #242. To order this Preaching Today audio tape or CD, e-mail your request to store@ChristianityToday.com.

Scott M. Gibson is the Professor of Preaching and holder of the David E. Garland Chair of Preaching at Baylor University/Truett Seminary in Waco, Texas. He also served as the Haddon W. Robinson Professor of Preaching and Ministry at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, where he was on faculty for twenty-seven years.

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