Preaching to a Funeral Audience, part 1

The ostensible goal was to gather a million believers on the National Mall in Washington D.C. The effort surely fell short, but there was at least a decent crowd. So the claim goes, it turned out to be “the largest Christian event in the history of the United States.” And the gospel presentations therein fell rather flat. Together 2016 even went so far as to proclaim full brotherhood between Catholics, Evangelicals, and Pentecostals.

Based on the recent publicity coming out of the same ministry, now promoting Together 2018, that stance hasn’t changed. The 2018 edition is scheduled to occur at Texas Motor Speedway, a 1.5-mile oval race facility with “135,000 permanent reserved seats.”. Speaking as a motorsports guy, TMS might not have been the best choice if “looking full of people” is among the publicity goals, but I digress.

In fact, I’ve caught myself digressing, if I may put it that way. I caught an error of thinking in my mind, one in which I failed to make a critical connection. Together 2016 was just one gathering, one day, thankfully cut short by a small pandemic of heat-related illnesses. Ask some random people on the street — or even in your local church — what Together 2016 was, and they probably won’t know. They won’t know about 2018, either.

But there is a place that most people have been to — Catholics, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, agnostics, atheists, Wiccans, Mennonites, and so many other sorts — all gathered in the same room, all already perhaps thinking about God, theology, the afterlife, and a dead person. And they’ve all gathered and have implicitly consented to hear someone preach. I’m talking about funerals.

Perhaps weddings might count to an extent, but unbelieving wedding attendees generally aren’t thinking about God, theology, and the afterlife. We all know the stereotype of bachelors and bachelorettes letting loose their sin natures before reluctantly restraining them for a couple hours in a church facility.

With so many different belief systems represented in the room, many which even proclaim a belief in Jesus, it’s critical that we are specific when preaching to a funeral. Below is a modified version of a funeral sermon I preached for a class. The patient I had in mind has now passed into glory. For classroom purposes, it was only fifteen minutes and didn’t reveal any personal details about the person I had in mind so as not to violate hospice patient privacy, but I believe it hits the points that need to be expressed in an ecumenical audience.

Good afternoon. We are, of course, gathered today to remember the life of our friend. I had the opportunity to be her friend as a volunteer for the hospice over the past seven months, and one thing I’ve quickly realized in the course of my time with the hospice is that although the hospice seeks volunteers because of the need for patients to have friendship, companionship, prayer and counsel, etc., the reality is that we volunteers and counselors need them just as much if not more than they need us. And so as we say our goodbyes, we do so with recognition of a big hole in our hearts, though mine certainly cannot compare to how it must be for family and long-term friends gathered here today. So I offer you my deepest condolences, and I pray that this message might be at least a small help.

The grieving process can be very different for every individual. Pretty much all of us have probably dealt with some level of numbness or shock. We try to switch our emotions off so that we’re able to function the next few hours or days as we deal with this news and perhaps try not to worry too much about how the future may be without our friend. That may turn into emptiness. Emptiness turns into anxiety, guilt, or shame. We will ask questions like, “Why our friend here, and why not me?” Perhaps “Why this particular time?” Some of these emotions can be healthy or unhealthy.

So of course we’re looking for many answers today, and I’m sure I’m not going to provide them all to you today, nor are we all ready to process through all of those answers anyhow. But we perhaps can be given this today. First, we certainly want some short-term alleviation of the pain we’re all experiencing right now. And secondly, we’re looking for some long-term assurance. We want to know that in the next few weeks, in the next six months, in the next year, that we’re going to be okay. Moreover, we want to be assured of the soul of our friend. I won’t leave you hanging for this; our friend is in heaven, but that’s not by default, as there are specific reasons why I know that. We’ve all come here with many questions, but I want to answer a specific one today, and that is what is God doing about death?

I’m going take you to a few texts in the Bible today that I’ve selected to give us this assurance. One is in the opening chapters of Genesis where we’re going to take a look at why all this suffering exists. Secondly, we’ll take a look at the letter to the Romans where God explains to us what he has done for us about this problem. And finally, we’re going to look at the first letter to the Thessalonians, where God’s promises for the future are explained. So to make that shorter, what happened, what did God do about it, and what does He do now and in the future for us?

And so let’s turn our Bibles to Genesis 2. Genesis 2, verses 15 to 17, and we’ll learn here that sin is the reason why death currently reigns.

Why is Our Friend Dead?

Sin is the reason why death currently reigns. Sin is why our friend is dead.

This world is filled with coping mechanisms that unfortunately don’t have anything behind them. Apple founder Steve Jobs was long embroiled in a battle with cancer. He was cured once of pancreatic cancer before it came back and he died. Between his two battles, he spoke at Stanford University’s graduation ceremony in 2005, and here’s what he said about death: “Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away.”

This kind of quote may offer some temporary degree of comfort, but the Bible teaches that death is not good. In the opening chapters of Genesis, God has just created the heavens and earth. Life is alive and growing, and there’s no death. God makes Adam alive, and here’s what He says.

The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden,but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

(Genesis 2:15–17 ESV)

“Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. 

He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.”

(Genesis 3:1–7 ESV)

Most of us know the story that occurs after this. God creates woman, the serpent deceives the woman into eating the fruit. The woman offers the fruit to the man, who directly received the command from God not to eat it, and he eats. Eve is deceived. Adam is not deceived. Adam’s in full-blast rebellion. And on that day, sin and death entered the world.

There are a few timeless messages from this text, but the one for us today simply speaks to why we’re sitting here today. Sin and death entered the world on that day, and it’s been this way ever since. We’ve come up with all kinds of excuses to try to make it feel okay. We try to find some redeeming purpose in death, but in the end, we must recognize that death is a consequence of evil, a consequence of humankind’s rebellion against the God who made us. And lest we simply blame Adam and Eve from a long distance, the fact is that you and I would have done the same thing. Here’s another way to put it: when one football player commits an offside, the whole team gets penalized. But…but…God doesn’t just leave us in this state of inevitable death. Rather, he’s given us enormous hope. Turn with me to Romans chapter 5. Romans chapter 5, verses 6 through 9, where we learn that Christ died for sinners.

To be continued.

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