There is Hope: Preaching at Funerals is my latest book, due to be published by IVP on 16 December. Normally priced at £14.99 (hard copy) or £11.99 (e-copy), IVP is currently offering a 20% pre-publication discount.
As I have written in the preface:
The book reflects my experience of taking hundreds of funerals: for although I have been involved in theological education – for two years in an African university and for six years as principal of Spurgeon’s College, for almost thirty-five years I was a pastor.
Each section is in two parts: first, I have expounded the passage in question and in so doing have drawn upon the insights of others; then I have reproduced a sermon which I preached on the passage. As readers will notice, I have also ensured that the sermons reflect a wide variety of pastoral situations ranging from a baby who died in the womb to a 21 year old student who took his own life; from an 18 year old who died from a genetic disorder to a 98 year-old who longed to see her Saviour; from a woman cut down in her prime by cancer to a dementia sufferer who had become a shadow of his former self. The 20 sermons reflect not only a wide variety of Scripture passages, but also a wide variety of settings.
Sadly in the face of death hope is in short supply. In a 2008 poll of over one thousand adults in the UK, twenty percent admitted to fearing both the way they will die and death itself; significantly the highest proportion of people fearing both the way they will die and death itself were aged eighteen to twenty-four; thirty percent said that they fear the way they will die, but not death itself; a further twenty-five percent couldn’t or wouldn’t answer questions about death because they found the subject too emotive and too personal. Death makes most people feel uncomfortable.
Surprisingly hope is also in short supply in the church. Many are no longer sure about what they believe about life after death. A survey in the mid-1990s conducted by Durham professor Douglas Davies showed that up to a third of Anglicans and a similar number of Methodists said they believed personal life simply came to an end at death, and only a third professed specific belief in a definite spiritual survival. Only 4% believed in a resurrection of the whole person. A 2017 survey of 2,010 British adults commissioned by the BBC revealed that 25% of those who described themselves as Christians did not believe in the resurrection of Jesus, and that 31% did not believe in life after death.
According to a 2018 survey of attitudes to death in the UK, some 34% of Christians felt unable even to talk about death with their family or with friends. It seems that that some church people, even though they know that ‘the sting’ of death can be removed through faith in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus (1 Cor 15.56-57), have yet to learn to truly put their trust in Jesus. For them death is still ‘the king of terrors’ (Job 18.14). They have yet to discover that Jesus, by destroying the one who has the power of death ‘has freed those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death’ (Heb 2.15).
These are remarkable statistics bearing in mind that Christianity is a religion of hope. As has often been said, the church is ‘the community of the resurrection’, and yet many are uncertain about the difference the resurrection of Jesus makes to those who put their trust in him. All the more reason for preachers to help Christians and non-Christians alike to overcome their fear of death.
“Blessed are those who mourn”, said Jesus, “for they will be comforted” (Matt 5. 4). Clearly the blessing of which Jesus spoke is not in the mourning, but in the comfort that is received! However, there will be little comfort if at funerals preachers do not speak of the hope that God offers us in Jesus. For more than fifty years I have been a Christian minister. In that time I have taken literally hundreds of funerals – and at every one of those funerals I have sought to point to the difference that Jesus makes to living and to dying. Through the writing of There is Hope I want to encourage other preachers to do the same. For sensitively handled, funerals provide a wonderful opportunity to share the good news of Jesus.
I would like to believe that my approach to funerals is shared by ministers in general. However, I fear that the emphasis in many funeral services is on the eulogy rather than the sermon – and if there is a sermon, then the sermon is to a large extent an opportunity for a further eulogy. Of course, there is a place for tributes, but as I make clear in There is Hope the task of the preacher is above all to speak of the hope that is ours in Jesus.
If the book sells well, IVP are likely to publish two further books. They already have my MS There is Love: Preaching at Weddings – and IVP has suggested a book on preaching at baptisms, which I have provisionally entitled Here is Water (I believe I can rise to the challenge of satisfying both paedobaptists as also those of us who are baptistic in their theology!). So I trust that you and many others will buy a copy of There is Hope: Preaching at Funerals – if not for yourselves, then as a Christmas gift for your minister!