Do you like Christmas?

It’s a bit of a weird question to ask at this time of the year (though it’s almost been cold enough for Christmas): in fact, it’s a slightly weird question to ask anyone at any time of the year, unless his name is Ebenezer Scrooge.

A number of years ago, when I was working with Westlake Church in Switzerland, someone asked me. At Christmas time, too.

Of course I liked Christmas – and still do. In our church we made quite a big deal of it with candles and carols and special radio ads.

Yet this guy asked me if I liked Christmas.

Thing is that apparently the way I spoke in some of the Christmas services you wouldn’t have guessed it. I sounded kind of angry and annoyed. Not at Christmas, mind you, more at the people who were in the congregation.

Like a lot of churches we had people turning up at Christmas who didn’t tend to show up so much the rest of the year. It was great that they came, but somehow my desire to use the opportunity to challenge them about the lack of room for Jesus the rest of the year meant I was coming across a bit angry.

It can be a fine line for preachers. How do you preach to the spiritually careless, especially when you only get one shot at it every 52 weeks? Didn’t John the Baptist tell his brood of snakes they’d better produce fruit in keeping with repentance? It’s hardly being faithful to the gospel to do no more than leave people feeling good about themselves when they’ve basically shut out their Creator. Not that I think we should borrow John’s language, mind you!

The problem is that there is a kind of preaching that leaves people – even the faithful, as they listen week by week – with the impression that they are never good enough and can never do enough. I’m not talking about discouraging self-salvation at this point, it’s more about preachers who feel that their job description is all about challenge. No matter how committed the people are, they ought to do more. No matter how much spiritual progress they are making, they must not rest on their laurels. It’s preaching with a big stick. And it is potentially exhausting.

Why do we do it? Is it because we want to be faithful to God? Is it because of the doctrine of total depravity? Is it because we are fearful and strong words are the best way we know to keep people in line? Is it because we are preaching to ourselves and we are only too aware of our own shortcomings? It can be easier to scold someone else than change yourself!

I preached the other day about grace – or signs that we may not be living in its goodness as a day by day experience. It left people feeling ‘challenged’. I was conflicted about that; for it seems to me that there is something ironic in people going out from listening to a message about grace smarting from a challenge. What kind of grace would that be?

Preaching needs to comfort as well as confront. Too much of one without the other leaves it imbalanced. There is some truth in that old saying that the preacher’s task is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

That seasoned leader, Paul, wanted the Thessalonian church to ‘admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak [and] be patient with them all.’

If your preaching is all about admonishing, you need to add some encouragement.

There is a time to confront and there is a time to comfort. When grace exposes us, it is not to leave us exposed, but to lead us to a place of shelter and restoration.

Think about Jesus and Peter. Breakfast by the lake. The grace that restored Peter first asked Peter the searching question: ‘Do you love me?’

When grace-filled preaching confronts and challenges, it is ready to pour in the comfort of the good news of a Father’s love that comes to us through his Son.

If you’re always scolding, how will your people know that you love them?

Maybe that’s what was wrong with my Christmases.

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