The Sermon I Didn't Want to Preach
They shouldn’t have to make caskets that small. That was my first thought as I walked up to the spot where my stillborn nephew would be buried.
Everything about the situation felt wrong. Everyone was dressed up, but we were worn down on the inside. It was a hot, July day outside, but the world felt cold in that moment. Friends and family gathered graveside under a tent, but no one spoke. What do you say in a moment like that? “I’m sorry for your loss” just felt incredibly cheap. No one could possibly be that sorry.
Most of the funerals I’ve been to attempt to spin the person’s death in a positive way. We don’t mourn anymore. We have “celebrations of life”. For Christians, we emphasize that it’s a homecoming. For others, we talk about the impact they had on their family and friends. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. As Paul said, for a Christian to die is “gain”. But no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves otherwise, there is something in us deep down that says, “This isn’t the way it should be.” That feeling has never been more evident to me than it was standing in that graveyard that day.
When my sister-in-law asked me to preach the funeral a few days prior, I spent some time thinking about what to say. I had never preached a funeral before, much less spoken into a tragic, unexpected situation like this. I asked myself this question, “What hope is there for such a hopeless situation like this?” My mind immediately knew the answer.
There were no human words that could mend brokenness like this. There was no amount of wisdom or inspirational quotes I could share. No clichés, no feel-good pick-me-ups, no song lyrics. I knew there was only one thing worth sharing, only one source of hope for a day like that. That hope is found only in Jesus Christ.
As I walked to the head of the casket, I pulled out a sheet of notebook paper where I had jotted down three ideas. Here’s what I said:
1. God knows our pain.
I wanted people to understand that day that what we were doing in that graveyard was not a part of God’s original design for the world. When God created the world, he called it “good”, and there was no pain, sadness, or death. Adam and Eve were going to live forever with infinite joy, populating the earth and spreading God’s glory throughout the world.
But we all know things didn’t stay that way. Adam and Eve chose to disobey God’s good design, they sinned in rebellion, and as a result, sin and death entered the world. It wasn’t long before they experienced the consequences of their choice firsthand. The first parents to ever lose a child were the very first parents. One of Adam and Eve’s own sons, Cain, murdered their other son, Abel.
Although I do believe we should celebrate when a believer goes home to Jesus for eternity, I think we need to stop trying to normalize death. Yes, everyone dies. But death showed up as a part of the curse, not as a gift. Death is an earned payment of our sin (Romans 6:23). Death is not good, and we all feel that when we lose someone we love. The pain of death reminds us of our brokenness and our fallen world. It causes us to look upward, ask important questions, and long for something more.
God feels the pain of death too. He actually cried over death. John 11:35 simply says, “Jesus wept.” Jesus, God in human flesh, wasn’t crying because his friend Lazarus died. Surely he knew he was about to see him again when he raised him from the dead. I believe he cried because Lazarus had to experience death. I believe he cried because he saw firsthand how badly death affects people, and he of all people knew this wasn’t the way God designed it.
Psalm 34:18 says this, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” When we hurt, God is close. He is there, and he understands our pain. After all, he gave up his own Son to the worst death.
2. Death does not have the last word.
Death is an inevitable part of our lives. We regularly attend funerals every year. We hear daily on the news about someone notable passing on. We are even reminded of our own imminent death as we feel the aches and pains of our body’s decay.
But death is not the way God intended for things to end for us. God does not want his people to suffer from sin and death. Like I said, death was not a part of God’s original design, so he had a plan to bring good from the evil of death. That plan was made possible by the sending of his Son.
God sent Jesus to the earth to experience pain, sadness, and ultimately, death personally. But the crazy part was this: he, of all people, didn’t deserve it. Jesus should have been the one and only person to never cry, get a headache, or lay in his own casket. So what happened?
God had a mind-blowing plan. “Instead of my people having to suffer and deal with evil and death forever, I’ll let my Son suffer it instead.” So that’s what happened. Jesus’ entire life was one of suffering. It culminated on the cross, where the payment for every single person’s sin was put on Jesus. He took all of God’s wrath for all of sin for all of the world on himself. Then he died.
Even though Jesus was the only person that didn’t deserve death, he was also the only person who could defeat death. That’s why he died. He took on all that pain knowing he would come out the other side victorious. And he did. He rose from the dead three days later. As Paul says in 1 Cor. 15:54, quoting Isaiah 25:8, “Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
Death is dead. It’s no longer the end. But now death is the beginning of a new life, a better life.
3. Anyone who trusts in Jesus will have eternal life.
One of the most important things I shared that day was that my nephew was in heaven with Jesus forever. He went straight from the womb of his loving mother into the arms of his loving Father. The life he is now experiencing is way better than any life he could have had on earth.
I believe, for several reasons, that babies, children too young to understand the gospel, and others who are unable to mentally trust in Christ will be saved by our gracious God. In the Bible, there are a few places that seem to indicate this is true. After David lost a baby, he said this in 2 Samuel 12:23, “I will go to him, but he will not return to me.” David believed he would see his child again in heaven one day. There are other passages, but I’m not going to take the time to unpack them here since most people agree with this.
But let’s not forget, the only reason we have hope in anyone, infant or adult, spending an eternity in a perfect place is because of Jesus. Jesus said this about those who trust in him in John 10:28, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.” Eternal means eternal. Never means never. And no one means no one.
For those who turn from their sin and trust in Jesus, they will not receive the punishment they deserve, but they will be saved and given a new life in Christ. This is the only message worth sharing, and it’s the only message I will ever preach at a funeral. Those three points have now gotten me through a few other tough funeral services. And I’m sure I will share them at many more, including some of my own family members.
Here’s the bottom line: the only hope we have is in Jesus. And this is the hope we must cling to every single day, especially on the hard ones. Even in the most horrific tragedies, we have this hope. Even when we have no idea what to say, we have this hope. Even when we lose a child, we have this hope. Because at the end of the day, one thing is true:
Romans 8:38-39, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”