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Using Illustrations In Funeral Sermons

Tailor Made DriverI don't know how it is with other pastors, but one of the most difficult things I have to do when I preach is to find stories, events, or quotations to illustrate the points I'm trying to make in my sermons. Jesus used illustrations when he preached and taught, and as many preachers today have discovered, people pay more attention when a sermon is illustrated than they do when the preacher is simply giving a list of principles or doctrines.

Funeral sermons offer a slightly different challenge. On the one hand, the deceased is an illustration in and of herself/himself. I usually ask family members how they knew their loved one and what they would like me to share with the congregation. On the other hand, when I preach the meditation or homily, I like to illustrate it with items that will catch the interest of the listeners. Here are a few illustrations that I have used over the years.

Muhammed Ali's Sad Realization. Many of us remember the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games held in Atlanta, Georgia, during the summer of 1996. As the torch was being brought to the point where it would be used to light the Olympic flame for the games, viewers wondered who would be the person to actually do the lighting. At the dramatic moment, former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammed Ali stepped forward, took the torch, and completed the lighting. It was obvious that he had deteriorated physically since his boxing days.

More significant, however, was his realization of what he had or had not gained from his career. In 1988, Sports Illustrated Magazine (See the reference below) sent writer Gary Smith to track down the former champ to see what was happening in Ali's life. Ali took Smith to Ali's farm. Inside the barn, leaning against the walls, were large photos and paintings of Ali in his prime. A closer look revealed bird dung across the champ's face in all the pictures, dung from the pigeons that lived in the rafters.

Without a word, Ali turned all the pictures toward the walls. Then he mumbled something that Smith asked him to repeat. "I had the world, and it wasn't nothin'. Look now..." (Page 49)

A good Bible verse to accompany that illustration would be Matthew 16:26, "What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?"

Not the Way It's Supposed to Be. Anyone who takes the Bible seriously, especially God's comments on creation in Genesis 1 ("Good" and "Very good"), knows that the world today is not what God intended it to be. The sickness, the evil, the corruption, the death that we see all around us is not the "good" or "very good" that God had in mind when creation was complete.

As I face a congregation mourning the loss of a loved one-especially if the deceased was young or suffered some terrible illness, etc.-I like to use something I found in Cornelius Plantinga Jr.'s book, Not the Way It's Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (See the reference below). In the book he refers to a move, Grand Canyon. In one scene, a lawyer tries to avoid heavy traffic and ends up in a dangerous neighborhood. His car breaks down and he manages to call a tow truck. Before the truck arrives, five young men show up and threaten the lawyer. Just in time, the truck arrives and the driver starts to hook up to the car. The young men protest. The driver takes the leader aside and, as Plantinga writes, "attempts a five-minute introduction to metaphysics." "Man, " he says, "the world ain't supposed to work like this. Maybe you don't know that, but this ain't the way it's supposed to be. I'm supposed to be able to do my job without askin' you if I can. And that dude is supposed to be able to wait with his car without you rippin' him off. Everything's supposed to be different than what it is here." (Page 7)

If you take out some of the references to the particular situation in the movie, the application to a funeral and death is obvious.

Max Lucado and What to Talk about at a Funeral. One of my favorite Christian authors is Max Lucado, a preacher in San Antonio, Texas. He has the gift of being able to tie together everyday events with passages of Scripture. I have learned a lot from him and have used him a lot in my own preaching.

In his book, A Gentle Thunder (See reference below), he gives a beautiful transition to John 14:1-4. [I have discovered, by the way, that many people, if asked what passage they would like to have read at their funeral, will request John 14. ] Lucado tells how he is often asked to conduct funeral services. He says he no longer asks the family what they want him to talk about; he knows: they want to hear what God says about death.

"They want to hear how God would answer their questions about the life hereafter. They don't want my opinion; nor do they want the thoughts of a philosopher or the research of a scientist. They want to know what God says. If Jesus were here, at the head of this casket, in the middle of this cemetery, what would he say?" (Pages 61 and 62)

According to Lucado, what Jesus would say would begin with the words of John 14:1-4. Those are the words of comfort people need at a time of deep loss. Jesus' disciples needed to hear them; Jesus' followers today need to hear them as well.

Max Lucado and What Heaven Is like. The illustration from A Gentle Thunder continues with Lucado's words about heaven. His main point is that Jesus has gone to prepare a "tailor-made" place for us. Lucado writes about having had two shirts made for him by a tailor and how well they fit compared with shirts made for the average guy. Heaven is like a tailor-made shirt. "This world wears like a borrowed shirt. Heaven, however, will fit like one tailor-made." (Pages 62 and 63)

I like to add the comment, "Think of the TV show, "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." Our home in heaven is one that is prepared with us in mind: our interests, our desires, and our hopes.

The only problem with good illustrations is that you can't keep using them over and over again with the same congregation. That problem may be a reason to change churches often!


Gary Smith, "Ali and His Entourage, " Sports Illustrated, 16 April 1988, 48-49.

Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Not the Way It's Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdsman, 1995), 7.

Max Lucado, A Gentle Thunder (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1995), 61-62)

Ibid, 62-63.

By Bible Doc - I am a (mostly) retired minister. I spent a few years teaching Bible courses in a Christian school. One of my goals is to write. I see Associated Content as a step toward fulfilling that goal.

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