...At least that's the advice I'd give if one is going to preach like John the Baptist. We begin wedding services with the words, "Dearly beloved." John stands at the Jordan River and begins his sermon, "You nest of snakes!" I'm not sure Dale Carnegie would approve.
It certainly seems counter-intuitive to call people to repentance, to call them to the waters of baptism with insults. Sure, people are sinners; people aren't perfect. It's one thing to say that we all need to improve ourselves, but the serpent comparison seems a bit much.
And, yet, that is exactly what John the Baptist does. His honesty is brutal; his words focused like a laser beam. A new day of redemption is about to dawn, but with redemption comes judgment as well, and John wants the multitudes to be prepared. This is Old Testament prophetic preaching at its finest. John, the hinge between the old and the new, standing on the shoulders of Elijah preparing the way for the One who will fulfill, who will embody the prophetic office.
It may very well be that John offended people with his message. It may well be that there were those who turned away in disgust. Would we be surprised if that were true? But it is just as true that people came to the river to listen and to be baptized. The folks who came for John's baptism were not simply wanting to hear a word of comfort. They were not looking for shallow platitudes. They wanted the truth, and John proclaimed the truth in all of its seriousness. No wonder the people considered him to be a prophet.
Of course there are indeed times for words of comfort. Yes, there are moments when the edifying word is necessary. But John's moments on the stage of divine history called for the edgy word, for finger-pointing proclamation. The One who was about to usher in the beginning of history's climax was himself about to step on the divine stage. Ready... and action. There was no time left to waste. Advent involves waiting, but it is not of a casual kind. There is an urgency in the waiting, a time to get ready for the deliverance to come.
It can be difficult to know when to speak the difficult word. It can be difficult to speak the difficult word. In his book, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that it can be difficult to speak the truth to people we have come to love. Such a task is not easy, but at times it is necessary; and such words require prayer and much humility.
And when that happens, perhaps it is best to get the offering before the sermon.
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I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)