It was my first week of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). In fact, it was the third day when I took my first turn “on call.” The pager on my belt buzzed three times that day, and three times I was called to beds where men I had never met were dying. Three times I was called to speak life in the face of death; three times to anoint a brow and commend a child of God to his maker; three times to entrust one to the God whose promises are true and trustworthy forever.
I’ve often said that this is the day I really knew I was called to ordained ministry, because if you cannot look at death and speak life, Christ’s eternal life, then nothing else you do will matter. And I learned rather quickly, that what and how we preach at funerals is to be the pattern for how we preach to this dying world every week. For since the world first heard the cry “He is Risen,” there has never been a Sunday where the proclamation of the Resurrection was not primary.
Jesus himself dropped a few hints along the way. To a widow of Nain whose son lay dead on a bier, He said, “Rise;” to an official named Jairus, whose young daughter had given up her last breath, He said, “Talitha, cumi;” and to two loving sisters whose brother was now more than three days gone, “Lazarus, come out.” His word speaks both to those who are called to rise and to those who could not see beyond their own grief and pain. And then, at His own death, He prays the nighttime prayer of every faithful Jew, and just as when He unrolled the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and proclaimed, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” (Luke 4:18) and the word was fulfilled in their hearing, so now from the cross He prays, trusting that His Father will care for Him eternally, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 24:46).
Generations of homilists and homiletic theoreticians have provided many thoughtful reflections on the purposes of preaching. Why do we preach? Over the years, preachers have been taught to persuade, convict, edify, convince, inform, comfort, condemn, convert, encourage, enlighten, prophesy, up-build, educate, reveal, and even entertain. The list goes on and on. Some of these instructions you may agree with, and others, you may not. But underlying all that we do and all that we say as preachers of God’s Holy Word, there is an even more fundamental task, for I believe that the primary purpose of preaching is to bring the dead to life: dead in their sin, dead in their trespasses, dead in their fear of their impending death, dead in the grave. The word of God in our mouths is as the water and word at the font: sacramental material, God present where He has promised to be.
Why do we preach? St. Paul is bold to remind us, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Rom 10:14). Why do you preach? For the God who speaks life into the universe has commanded you to do so, and in this command, He gives you the means to fulfill it. Why do you preach? Because God desires all people to live in His love. Why do you preach? To know the joy of obedience to His will. Why do you preach? Because it is a primary means by which God extends His heart to every generation.
In the words of Gustav Wingren, “Preaching is an act of God in the present, the link between Christ’s resurrection and the resurrection of all the dead in the future” (Wingren, The Living Word in Preaching and Mission of the Church, 123). Christ opens His arms on the cross, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32) and through your preaching, He is daily bringing his followers from death to life.