Many people expect a funeral sermon to be personal. They like it when the preacher can speak about the deceased as if they were well acquainted, even if they did not know each other at all.
I explained my approach to funeral sermons in this introduction to a sermon I gave at a funeral a few years ago:
Funeral sermons can be difficult for a preacher. Everyone one of you here today probably knew Emma better than I did, but I am the one who is now going to do all the talking. So what should I say?
A fellow pastor tells the story of how he was struggling with this problem as a young minister about to do his first funeral. He had just started in the church, and had not even met the man whose funeral he was about to do. So he asked a few of the men at the church if they could tell him about Ralph so he would have something to say in his sermon. One of the men responded right away, and said, “You know, pastor, we knew Ralph pretty well, so don’t feel like you have to tell us all about him. Why don’t you use the sermon to just preach God’s Word? That’s the purpose of a funeral sermon, anyway. Didn’t anyone ever tell you that at the seminary?”
Somebody did tell me that at the seminary, and I always thought that was good advice. If I do know the person, I might say some things about him or her, but only to illustrate, or lead into, what I want to proclaim that day from God’s Word. There are many opportunities for family and friends to share thoughts and memories of their departed loved one. The funeral sermon is the time to hear a Word from God about what just happened.
I Thessalonians 13-14…18 — Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him… Therefore encourage one another with these words.
John 14:1-6 — (Jesus said), “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
John 11:25 — (Jesus said), “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.”
Lord Jesus Christ, you have overcome death and brought life and immortality to light. Give us grace so to believe in you, the Resurrection and the life, that we may not fear death nor dread the grave. Help us joyfully to await the time when, by your almighty power, our frail bodies will be fashioned like your glorified body… With reverence and affection we remember before you, O everlasting God, all our departed friends and relatives. Keep us in union with them here through faith and love toward you, that hereafter we may enter into your presence and be numbered with those who serve you and look upon your face in glory everlasting, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
—Lutheran Book of Worship, Occasional Services, (#474 and #235), 1978, Augsburg Publishing House