The Hardest Sermon You Will Ever Preach

That’s a pretty bold title for a guy who’s only preached full-time for three years. But as I have reflected over the challenging sermons in those three years, no difficult text or exegetical conundrum has ever been as difficult as preaching a memorial service for a close family member. Put any family member in that slot, mother, father, brother, sister, wife, child.

In October of 2006 I got the call that my closest (in age) brother was admitted to the hospital with a brain tumor. After a successful surgery to remove it, we were sucker punched again to find out that this was simply a deposit of a much larger cancer that was in his liver, pancreas and bones. The diagnosis was, “Stage-4, terminal.”

At that moment our family was thrown onto the stage of suffering. To be sure, his immediate family has known exceedingly more pain than any of us have, but as a family, we’ve known joy and grief in ways that are honestly inexpressible. On one hand you are able to rejoice that your brother, who loves the Lord, is going home. It presses you to live and affirm your alien residency. At the same time, like Jesus with Lazarus, you are gripped with the overwhelming grief that sin permeates this world and its effects are real and relentless.

As the weeks unfolded after Tim’s diagnosis I had many excellent talks with my brother. We talked practically about God’s sovereignty in ways I never have before. Honestly friends, “Trust God” can ring hollow in the ears of a person whose entire life has just ground to a halt. All their dreams and aspirations for life with their family have just been cut tragically short. I did a lot of listening, weeping and mourning with him.

One night as I was driving home from his house (about 90 miles away) my wife asked me the question I hoped no one would ask, “Do you think they will ask you to do the funeral?” You see, I’ve done three funerals. Honestly, they are very difficult for me. I am VERY emotional and I’ve struggled to get through the service when it’s been a close friend. How could I possibly do my brother’s funeral? Our answer was a steadfast, “No!”

But in time, God worked in my heart to show me what I would be missing. Hundreds and hundreds of people would be there – my bother was a popular guy. Most of my extended family would be there. Many of his friends and business associates would be there, mourning the tragic events that shortened this father of four’s life to a mere 47 years. Questions would abound – Why him? Why so young? Maybe even, “Why would God allow this?”

After preaching through John I came to realize that God often uses the stage of suffering to make himself known to the unbelieving world. Jesus said it would happen and even prayed that God would do that in chapters 16 and 17. So as I prayerfully considered my significant failings at emotional services, I realized that this was too great an opportunity to pass up.

Who cares if I blubber my way through parts of it? Who cares if it’s the worst delivery I’ve ever given? What mattered most is that many in this crowd were hopelessly lost in their sin. I had the only answer to cure their hopelessness and I had a captive audience, gripped by the nearness of eternity. I had the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ. How could I not tell them the good news? So, by God’s good grace, I took up the mantle and prepared my sermon for my brother’s memorial service.

What makes it the hardest sermon you’ll ever preach is the emotional tug of war that will go on within you. On one hand you’ll know that your brother is in glory, no pain, no cancer, no tears and sleepless nights of agony. You’ll smile and shout, “Hallelujah!” Yet on the other hand you’ll look at the faces of his wife and kids, your mom and dad, your brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews and know that no Thanksgiving will ever be the same, no Christmas will ever be the same. There will always be one empty chair and you’ll miss his renditions of the favorite family stories. You’ll miss his laugh and smile so much. You know you’ll see him again soon, but for the moment, the vapor that is this life will seem like an eternity. In the midst of all of that, you’ll have to preach words of hope and comfort to lost and dying souls.

Next week I hope to share with you the process and product of God’s work in the service.

6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Chris Pixley on July 20, 2007 at 9:07 pm

    Thanks, Rich…gripping. You’ve described so vividly the reality of post-seminary ministry in a real and hurting world. In doing so, you’ve reminded us as preachers that the hurt often finds its way to our front door in all its bone-jarring intensity. And the world around us is always watching to see how we’ll respond. Thanks for letting us see the glory of Christ shine through your very personal ordeal. I’m praying for you and your family in these days.

  2. In the first year and a half of my ministery, I was involved in 9 funerals. I have not yet done the funeral of anyone with whom I was really close. Not to sound morbid, but funerals are the best evangelism opportunities that exist. I enjoy them in this sense: they allow me to get really close to the family. I have noticed that it is not excessively helpful to say, “They’re in a better place now.” It’s true, but not helpful for those are bereft. The most helpful thing they need to know is that they will see their loved one again if they trust in Christ for salvation. It is the physical presence of that person that is missed. All the more important to emphasize and re-emphasize the importance of Christ’s resurrection, and His glorious body, which is the first-fruits of the resurrection harvest. They will hug that person again. They will talk with him again. That person will have a very physical body again, though it will be glorious. It is absolutely vital to let people understand that the eternal existence of believers does ***not*** consist in a disembodied, ethereal existence up in the clouds, but rather in a glorified body like unto Christ’s glorious body. This provides real comfort.

  3. Posted by Mike Jarvis on July 20, 2007 at 10:42 pm

    Thank you, Rich. Your words could not have been more appropriate given recent events in my own life.

    Two weeks ago, we visited my dad in the hospital and we’re given news that he could drop dead at any moment. The difference being, not only is he not a believer but he has become a bitter and angry man in his old age. The prospect of doing his funeral has provoked many similar mixed emotions.

    I grieve your loss, but rejoice in the fact that God is sovereign, and His goodness and grace is sufficient for every need. Thank you for sharing this with us, and if I can encourage you, I think this would be a very appropriate post on the TMS Alumni blog, too.

    Blessings, Mike

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  5. Posted by David on July 23, 2007 at 8:35 pm


    I am sorry for your brother and family and the sorrow you are going through.

    It is interesting the juxaposition of grieving in pain mixed with the opportunity for others to hear the good news at a funeral. The older I get the more I see the possiblilities for life being “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”

    Your words reminded me of a sermon by John Piper given on the occasion of the 20th year of his pastorate. One of his points of thankfulness was:
    “I thank God for funerals. Or to put it more personally, I thank God for the ministry of the dying in my life. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints (Psalm 116:15). When I came to Bethlehem I had been to maybe three funerals in my life. In the first two and a half years here I preached at a funeral, on average, just about once every three weeks. I would rather preach at a funeral than at a wedding, not because I love death more than I love marriage, but because the gospel of Christ crucified and risen shines more brightly at a funeral. At a wedding there are so many earthly reasons to feel happy. At a funeral, if the gospel of Christ is not true – if the blood and righteousness of Christ are not sufficient to make us acceptable to God – then there are few reasons to be happy. The effect of death on my life in the ministry has been profound, and I thank God for it and for all those who in their dying taught me so much.”

    Blessings on you and your family,

  6. Wandering in here some years later, stumbling on to this blog post when running down a different topic altogether …

    The first family member funeral I ever did was also the most … what? challenging? It was the funeral for my third daughter, aged nine when she died from a brainstem tumor 16 months post-diagnosos. I was encouraged to preach the funeral homily by the example of a Christian brother I’d met on an internet mail-list for brain tumor patients and their care-givers. In his case, his daughter was approaching death in her late 20s, leaving four children behind her! In talking through the pros and cons of fathers preaching the funerals of their children (he, incidentally, was a professor of preaching at a Presbyterian seminary), we both decided it was worth doing.

    His daughter died a couple of months before mine, so he went first. He was hugely encouraged on the backside of that challenging sermon. I, of course, went next. I too was hugely encouraged when it was over. And, by this other father’s testimony, I was entirely calm when delivering the message. I don’t suppose I’ve ever had an audience’s attention as keenly as I had it that afternoon.

    Since that momentous time, I’ve also preached the funerals of my father-in-law, my mother, and finally my own father.

    Were they all that hard? Well, I probably gave more “care” to them than any other funerals I’ve ever preached (whether that’s laudable or deplorable is another discussion). So, these family funerals were — all tolled — more “work” than usual, I suppose.

    But, I’ll say this for sure — there’s nothing I know that will more potently impress the Christian hope on one’s mind than presiding at the funeral of a close family member. I am grateful to the Lord for the grace that flows from tha hope, and I rejoice in the testimony to that hope which I’ve been blessed to present to those who looked on.

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