Last fall, I had just about sewed up a victory in my fantasy football league.
Less than a minute remained in the last game of the week, and I was comfortably ahead. I wasn’t even nervous when Denver kicked a field goal with time running out, sending the game into overtime and giving my opponent a chance to score more points.
But then the bottom dropped out.
Brett Favre launched an 80-yard touchdown pass to an obscure receiver who, for reasons that passeth all understanding, was in my opponent’s lineup.
Incredibly, defeat had been snatched from the jaws of victory.
I immediately fired off a long and blistering diatribe to my sons (via e-mail) over my ill fortune. Every sentence of that screed ended in three exclamation points. One of the boys e-mailed back, not so much to sympathize as to compliment me on a “truly excellent rant.”
I thought of that exchange as I was reading through some of the fiery writing of the prophets. They occasionally came suspiciously close to what we today would categorize as a rant. Start calling the local ladies “cows of Bashan,” and you’re in the vicinity of a rant.
The question that intrigued me was this: Is a rant ever appropriate from the pulpit? I admit that I have heard them on rare occasions, and they have always made me uncomfortable.
But that was probably the point. Amos was trying to make people uncomfortable. Jesus was not concerned with his listeners’ comfort zones when he unloaded on the money-changers in the Temple.
So, are these examples for the preacher to follow? Is the rant one of the tools in the preacher’s arsenal to bring the word of the Lord to the people? Didn’t Martin Luther say the job of the preacher was to “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable?” Isn’t a thundering, fire-and-brimstone rant all about afflicting the comfortable? Maybe so.
Who among us hasn’t needed a swift kick in the patoot sometime during his or her life? What congregation couldn’t use a wake-up call when lulled to sleep by the sirens of complacency?
In today’s world, the person called to congregational ministry is asked to be a complex mixture of proclaimer, pastor, prophet, and priest. Prophets never had to worry too much about pastoral care. The duties of a proclaimer and a priest do not necessarily overlap. Nowadays, we have to take these multiple roles into account. Can I be a pastor to the hurting person who I have just driven from the sanctuary with whips and cords?
When navigating the perilous waters of the prophetic rant, the best thing I can do is remember sound advice from parenting classes. Punishments or consequences, if deemed necessary, should never be administered because the parent is fed up and needs to lash out at somebody.
As I remember my “excellent rant” after that football game, the only thing it accomplished was to make me feel better. Wow, did it feel good to vent! I suspect this is the case with much pulpit ranting. My experience with beginning preachers is they have a natural tendency to scold and tell listeners what they should do, instead of preaching the Gospel and telling the congregation what God has done for them. I sense that, on some level, scolding feels good — especially when one is frustrated by the prevalence of sin in the world.
The purpose of a sermon, however, is not to make the preacher feel good. It is to report to the congregation what the life-giving Word of God has to say to them this week, in this time, and in this place.
It may be that the message on a given week should afflict the comfortable. But it must be done in such a way that those listening hear what they need to hear, rather than the preacher saying what he or she needs to say.