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Hardest Sermons You'll Ever Have to Preach: Help from Trusted Preachers for Tragic Times

Hardest Sermons You'll Ever Have to Preach: Help from Trusted Preachers for Tragic Times

by Bryan Chapell (Editor)

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Cancer. Suicide. The death of a child. As much as we wish we could avoid tragedies like these, eventually they will strike your church community. When they do, pastors must be ready to offer help by communicating the life-changing message of the gospel in a way that offers hope, truth, and encouragement during these difficult circumstances. Those asked to preach in


Cancer. Suicide. The death of a child. As much as we wish we could avoid tragedies like these, eventually they will strike your church community. When they do, pastors must be ready to offer help by communicating the life-changing message of the gospel in a way that offers hope, truth, and encouragement during these difficult circumstances. Those asked to preach in the midst of tragedy know the anxiety of trying to say appropriate things from God’s Word that will comfort and strengthen God’s people when emotions and faith are stretched thin. This indispensable resource helps pastors prepare sermons in the face of tragedies by providing suggestions for how to approach different kinds of tragedy, as well as insight into how to handle the theological challenges of human suffering. Each topic provides a specific description of the context of the tragedy, the key concerns that need to be addressed in the message, and an outline of the approach taken in the sample sermon that follows. Topics addressed include: abortion; abuse; responding to national and community tragedies; the death of a child; death due to cancer and prolonged sickness; death due to drunk driving; drug abuse; and suicide. Bryan Chapell, author of Christ-Centered Preaching, has gathered together messages from some of today’s most trusted Christian leaders including: John Piper, Tim Keller, Michael Horton, Jack Collins, Dan Doriani, Jerram Barrs, Mike Khandjian, Robert Rayburn, Wilson Benton, Bob Flayhart, and George Robertson. Each chapter provides you with the resources you need to communicate the life-giving hope of the gospel in the midst of tragedy. In addition, the appendices provide further suggestions of biblical texts for addressing various subjects as well as guidance for conducting funerals.

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The Hardest Sermons You'll Ever Have to Preach

Help from Trusted Preachers for Tragic Times
By Bryan Chapell


Copyright © 2011 Bryan Chapell
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-310-33121-6

Chapter One



The following message was originally delivered to a coalition of religious, volunteer, and political organizations in a regional gathering on the thirty-fifth anniversary of the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that allowed abortion on demand in the united States.


My church is one of many evangelical bodies that have sought to inform its members and our community of the Bible's defense of the sanctity of human life at all its stages. The gathering for which this message was prepared included people of various religious backgrounds, political affiliations, and volunteer organizations who identified themselves with the pro-life movement. I wanted to say clearly what my biblical convictions were, but at the same time to differentiate those convictions from political agendas or secular priorities. For almost a generation the voice of the political right has often coalesced with evangelical priorities, making it difficult for many to separate religious conviction from political agendas—and difficult for some to stand for the sanctity of life without the sense of having to align with political entities. To encourage all to take a fresh stand for life on the basis of transcendent principles, I wanted to demonstrate that my convictions are biblical and more reflect obligations to God than to any political party or person.

Since the gathering included those who were very active in pro-life religious and political causes—persons weary from lack of success after more than three decades of endeavor—I felt the dual obligation of reinspiring them in the cause of defending the unborn and tempering the frustration that often led to demonizing opponents or others who are less zealous. In particular, I wanted to make sure that anti-abortion zeal did not obscure the grace of the gospel for those guilty of promoting or participating in abortion. This was not simply to honor the old maxim about hating a sin but loving the sinner, but also to maintain the credibility of the pro-life cause. When voices become so shrill in a righteous cause that they are indistinguishable from the sounds of hatred, then the righteousness advocated gets lost in the din of rhetoric. The gospel has the power to persuade when our message and manner proclaim its truth. My concerns were to make the Bible's objection to abortion clear and to make the gospel of Jesus Christ equally clear.


To emphasize that my intention was to be a representative of the gospel, I chose to base my words on a biblical text and to state that I was doing so because I was speaking primarily as a Christian and as a representative of the church. In this approach I was reflecting lessons learned by watching Billy Graham as he often addressed secular gatherings by introducing himself as a Christian who needed to speak to the Christians present while hoping that others would not mind listening in. By identifying both his position and his audience, Graham was able to speak with great freedom and without offense to very diverse audiences.

I chose to speak on a passage of Scripture that specifies the value of life in the womb. I sought to be honest about the frustrations and disagreements experienced by those in the pro-life movement and to use the authority of Scripture to say what the church must nonetheless teach about the value of all life. By underscoring the value of "all" life, I created a bridge to the responsibility that those in the pro-life movement have to value those who are guilty of abortion. Just as "not fully formed" life is valuable to God, so also are the hearts of those not fully righteous before him. My hope was to reinspire concern for the unborn with hearts that were committed to the full scope of gospel priorities.

The Message

God's Knitting

An Address to the Missouri Pro-Life Community in Behalf of the Pregnancy Resource Center

Bryan Chapell

11 If I say, "Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,"

12 even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.

13 for you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb.

14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.

15 My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.

16 Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be. —Psalm 139:11-16

Preliminary Remarks

I want to thank our local Pregnancy resource Center for the opportunity to speak to you in behalf of the pro-life concerns that motivate so many of us to be here. When we unite around the cause of the unborn, we come from many different churches, organizations, and perspectives—and with varying contributions to make toward this vital cause. Tonight I want to come to you as what I am, a representative of the church, and to talk to you about the role of the church in this cause. In doing so, I do not want to minimize or diminish the importance of the roles that others have, but rather to acknowledge my inadequacy in telling you what should happen in your organizations or political structures or individual efforts to combat abortion. I am concerned to say what the church should say and do, because that is the arena in which I serve and for which I am responsible to determine if my actions are as diligent, responsible, and caring as my God requires. for those of you whose pro-life concerns even partially involve church ministry, and I would guess that is most of us, I would invite you to listen to see if what I believe God requires is being reflected in me, in your church, and in you.

In the church our pro-life concern must be based on a higher authority than personal preference or even principled concern for others. for this reason we look to Scripture such as Psalm 139:11-16, and ask God to give us understanding by praying together. Please pray with me now. [After a brief prayer, the message began as indicated below.]


"Knit one, purl two. Knit one, purl two ..." This is the traditional chant of expectant motherhood. In our culture it is yet a caricature that when a mother is preparing for a new baby, she takes up knitting. There is a picture in this psalm that is wonderfully related. for while the mother may be knitting for the child in the womb, the Bible says that God is actually knitting the child in the womb. The image of such tender—dare I say, maternal—care being expressed by God for the child in the womb says much about our understanding of the innate value and personhood of the unborn child. But as beautiful as this image is, the subject that I must address today remains difficult.

There are a number of reasons for the difficulty. first is the apparent complexity of the issue of abortion as it has been argued for the last several decades. I have been preaching for more than thirty years, and as I reviewed the right-to-life sermons I have preached over this period, I was astounded at the range of issues we have had to consider in the abortion wars of this nation. Battles have raged over such things as:

• what medicare will or will not provide; what the military will or will not provide; what foreign aid should or should not provide.

• what schools can or cannot say; what counseling clinics can or cannot say; what parents can or cannot know.

• at what term an abortion can be performed; what techniques can be used; what research can be allowed; what tissue can be used.

• what notification may be allowed; what information may be required; what delay may be required; what pictures can be shown.

• what degree of danger to a mother's health warrants abortion; what degree of damage to an infant's wholeness justifies abortion.

• what protest strategy to use; what picket distance to keep; what signs to hold; what language to use; what marches to join.

• whether to allow civil disobedience; whether to go to prison for our convictions; whether to kill others for our convictions.

• what legislation to support; what agencies to aid; what co-belligerents to join; what amendments to advocate; what candidates to elect; what commercials to air.

• which mothers to shelter; how, in an ethical way, to invite them to such shelter or to counsel.

• what infants to adopt; where to get them; how to "advertise" their availability.

• whether to lobby for what is winnable with a long-term plan for incremental progress; whether never to compromise and accept only a total ban on abortion.

• whether to secede from the political process or a particular party; how to vote or whether to revolt.

Some of these battles have been fought between Christians and the secular world; some have been fought between Christians and other Christians of varying perspectives. Yet, despite all the battles, abortion continues, and I fear our concern regarding it is flagging. I may be wrong, but my sense is that the pro-life forces in the church are nearly spent. Maybe you sense some of the reason for this exhaustion as you examine your own reaction to the list I just read. My guess is that while you were initially attentive, you eventually got bored with the list of all the issues—and it only took about two minutes to read, not thirty-five years to slog through.

Beyond the simple limit of our attention spans there is a certain lack of reward in being concerned about this issue. The lines of dispute are well entrenched. The society is deeply divided. The warriors of both sides are battle hardened. The average person is tired of it all, and there doesn't seem to be much probability of change on the horizon. To wade into the battle is only to open yourself up to pain. Pastors and other church leaders know that when it comes to addressing abortion, you will inevitably be attacked, either for saying too much or for not saying enough, for talking to certain people or not attending certain meetings deemed important for you. You will be called an "insensitive fascist" by pro-choice advocates in the church, who believe that any message against abortion shows insensitivity to women and disadvantaged children. At the same time, you will be labeled a "liberal coward" by right-to-life proponents in the church, who will say that your latest words and efforts were not strong enough, frequent enough, or public enough. The result is that pastors and sessions are simply tired of being pressured, yelled at, guilt-tripped, and outmaneuvered by parishioners with an abortion agenda, whatever it may be.

We just get tired of it all. The seminary I serve may be a case in point. for while remarkable efforts have been made by our professors—who have written books and articles, led marches, joined pickets, helped write legal briefs, and even crossed historic faith tradition boundaries to join with faculty and students of sister institutions to mark the travesty of Roe v. Wade—my sense is that we do not speak or pray or think or labor about the issue as much as we once did. Too many years of trying can wear down the best intentions, especially at an institution that tries to reflect the character of Christ and senses that to speak consistently against abortion is to cause us to be identified with other voices with which we are uncomfortable—voices often shrill, hateful, and contemptuous, even of fellow believers.

It is just not very pleasant to speak about abortion. So why bother? The most compelling reason struck me vividly as I prepared a sermon to address another anniversary of Roe v. Wade. In reviewing many years' worth of my own sermons on the abortion topic, what caught my eye and again captured my heart was not the debatable issues but the growing numbers that I have used in those sermons over the years: 6 million, 8 million, 9 million, 16 million, 22 million, 27 million, 32 million, 35 million, 37 million and counting—the number of unborn children whose lives have been ended by abortion.

My fifteen-year-old son, when I told him that figure, simply said, "dad, that is fifteen cities the size of St. Louis!" Think of that as you look around you and as you drive home. The loss of life to abortion is the equivalent of everyone around you being exterminated, and fifteen times more. The magnitude of this tragedy, the immensity of this evil, the loss of 37 million children knit by God and shredded by men, demands that we speak, renew our zeal, refresh our compassion, and reignite our commitment to speak for "the least of these" that are so precious to God, regardless of the discomfort to us.

In the face of such great evil, we must continue to ask: What should the church say and do?

What Must the Church Say about Abortion? The Unborn Child Is a Work of God

The child in the womb is made by God. The psalmist says that God "knit me together in my mother's womb" (Psalm 139:13). But there is more going on in this process than the merely anonymous workings of chemical and mechanical forces.

The child in the womb is seen by God. The psalmist says, "my frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together ... Your eyes saw my unformed body" (Psalm 139:15-16). Neither the darkness of the womb nor its inaccessibility to human sight hides the child from God. God sees in the darkness (the darkness is as light to him, the psalmist says in verses 11-12), and he sees the child, whose mature body is yet unformed (verse 13).

As I prepared this message, I was on an airplane. The man next to me was playing peekaboo with a child in the seat ahead of him. When the child hid his face with his own hands, the man would pretend not to see, but when the child put his hands down, the man said, "I see you." This simple game has special significance for our subject, as we recognize that this Scripture tells us that God says of a child still hidden in the womb, "I see you." The phrase says something about God's awareness of and care for the "person" who is in the womb—and this is the point that the psalmist will now drive home.

The unborn child is known by God. The psalmist says that God does not merely see the child's forming body, but foresees his life: "all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be" (Psalm 139:16). The words deny the raw science that tells us that the forming child is simply "a conglomerate of protoplasm" or "the by-product of conception." God records the days of the child before one of them comes to be.

How many young mothers keep a book of the first year of life of their babies—books of hospital pictures, coming home pictures, birth weights, growth measurements, and locks of hair. Each entry is a statement of how precious that little person is to the mother. And God, with a degree of tenderness that is hard to take in, says, "Before you were born, I started keeping a book on you of all that I knew that you would be." What more powerful statement could there be of the personhood of the child in the womb than that God already counts him or her so precious as to put that child in his book.

The fact that God is not limited to our timing is a powerful argument for the personhood of the unborn. Human minds try to assess when life begins biologically, but the Bible tells us that God gives his children his care and purpose even before they are created. God says to Jeremiah, for example, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you" (Jeremiah 1:5). Paul reminds us that we were actually loved before the creation of the world (Ephesians 1:4).

The unborn child is a work of God—made by God, seen by God, known by God. But all of these aspects of the child's relationship to God signal more than the workmanship of the baby in the womb. They also signal that the unborn child is a wonder of God.


Excerpted from The Hardest Sermons You'll Ever Have to Preach by Bryan Chapell Copyright © 2011 by Bryan Chapell. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Bryan Chapell is the bestselling author of numerous books on Christian ministry and life. Christ-Centered Preaching and Christ-Centered Worship are standard seminary texts; Holiness by Grace, Each for the Other, and Praying Backwards have helped thousands find greater joy and fulfillment in the grace of Christ. Bryan has been a pastor and is President Emeritus at Covenant Seminary. He and his wife, Kathy, have four children.

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