The Hardest Sermons You’ll Ever Have to Preach: Help from Trusted Preachers for Tragic TimesWritten by Bryan Chapell, ed Reviewed By Douglas Sean O’Donnell
This book claims in its subtitle to be Help from Trusted Preachers for Tragic Times. It is indeed that. The preachers listed above are certainly trusted: Tim Keller, John Piper, Michael Horton, Jerram Barrs, Dan Doriani, Robert Rayburn, Mike Khandjian, Wilson Benton, Bob Flayhart, Jack Collins, and George Robertson. We trust their leadership, wisdom, exegesis, theology, and proven perseverance. They have earned (by God’s grace alone!) such trust. And indeed the times we live in and the topics they tackle are “tragic.”
The book contains twenty-five sermons, broken down into five topics:
- Preaching in Response to Tragedy
- Preaching after the Loss of a Child
- Preaching Funerals with Especially Difficult Causes or Circumstances
- Preaching Funerals for Public Figures
- Preaching after Suicide
With each sermon, Chapell gives a short introduction that shares the needed situation, concerns, and approach. These introductions are tremendously valuable. They not only provide the needed context (i.e., the loss of a young child from a Christian home), but they make the sermon fresh, realistic, engaging. The reader is able to empathize. Many of these were deeply moving to me.
Let me begin by identifying a few deficiencies. First, there is a lack of biblical exegesis. On the one hand, these are sermons on specific tragic events (many of them funeral sermons), and as such they therefore lend themselves to being more topical than exegetical. Nevertheless, the best sermons—even for the hardest of times—should be thoroughly exegetical. I am not suggesting that such sermons give no time to revisiting the tragedy, eulogizing the loss or the lost one, and addressing the family. I am stating merely that I am surprised with how little Bible is expounded on the topic at hand. While the Bible is called in repeatedly, this is generally done simply to support theological points. There are occasional sections of exegesis (e.g., p. 114) and pervasively exegetical sermons (e.g., ch. 14), but less than one would hope for in a work like this.
A second weakness is that certain theological themes are neglected. This is surprising in light of the weighty topics and life tragedies addressed. For example, in Tim Keller’s thoughtful sermon on 9/11, I appreciate his lesson that Christians should respond as Jesus did to Lazarus’s death—with weeping. But why not also reflect on the justice of God, the awful catastrophe of human sin, and thus the need for immediate repentance—as in Jesus’s response to an ancient tower tragedy (Luke 13:4–5)? And why not allow both for weeping in grief for God’s comfort as well as wailing in fury for God’s vengeance—as in Jesus’s weeping over Jerusalem after his scathing denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt 23)? I concede that these sermons cover unique events and topics. But for some of them (notably the sermons on community/national tragedies and suicides) it would be appropriate to add warnings to unbelievers and believers alike about the sharp realities of death and judgment and thus the need to repent of sin and trust in Christ and his death as God’s judgment upon our sin.
With those two weaknesses stated, let me conclude with three words of commendation:
First, this book gets you to think. It faces you with the question “What would I say in that situation?” and gives substantial answers from caring and insightful pastors. It also challenges you theologically. The sermons covering five different suicides, in particular, raise important questions: Is suicide not the “unpardonable sin,” as all five preachers claim? Can and should I give an assurance of salvation for Christians who killed themselves, as all five sermons do, or should I speak more about the mystery of God’s judgment for a situation on which Scripture is ambiguous? Or should I instead preach the necessity of faithful perseverance to the end? These are just a few of the many questions these sermons made me contemplate.
Second, this book is much needed, filling a noticeable gap in contemporary homiletical literature. The appendices on “Texts for Tragedies” and “Helps for Conducting Funerals” are worth the price of the book, especially for young and/or inexperienced pastors.
Third, the book’s introduction and the twenty-five sermons are all God-glorifying. By that I mean that the centrality of the cross in the theology of suffering rightly saturates each page. This book will strengthen pastors and other Christians to grasp, as Paul did, that “the brand-marks of Jesus” (Gal 6:17 NASB) are for our good and God’s greater glory.
In sum, despite this review’s mild critiques, this book is truly a helpful tool for today’s preacher from some of today’s most trusted preachers.
Douglas Sean O’Donnell
Doug O’Donnell is Senior Pastor of New Covenant Church in Naperville, Illinois. He is the author of God’s Lyrics: Rediscovering Worship through Old Testament Songs (Presbyterian & Reformed, 2010), The Beginning and End of Wisdom: Preaching Christ from the First and Last Chapters of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job (Crossway, 2011), and a forthcoming commentary on the Song of Solomon (Preaching the Word; Crossway).