The Rev. Dr. William H. Willimon
Most of you, from what I can see of you from here, are old enough to remember Johnny Carson. The show opened with an invariable liturgy. “Welcome to the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson,” then a listing of tonight’s special guests and then, “Heeere’s Johnny,” always intoned by the avuncular Ed McMahon. Upon retirement Johnny was asked the secret of his success. Johnny replied, “I was lucky enough to be introduced by Ed McMahon.”
Johnny was serious. A good introduction is everything. As a student politician, I read a public speaking book. The “most difficult speech is the speech of introduction. A thirty minute speech is easier than a two-minute introduction before the thirty minute speech.”
Wow. Good introductions have the difficult task of getting an audience excited about the forthcoming speaker, warm them up, build expectation for the speaker, do it in just a few minutes—and in a way that does not call attention to the maker of the introduction. “As the introduction to the speech,” advised the book, “you have one task: quickly excite the audience about the impending speech and sit down.”
The worst introductions are too long. “Our speaker tonight was born in DesMoines…Iowa that is. He matriculated at Ms. Smith’s kindergarten, spent his first two years of formal schooling at…” A groan emerges from an already bored-to-death audience. Ten minutes into the introduction, we haven’t even made it to the speaker’s High School prom.
I remember the speaker whose first words, after an interminable introduction were, “Forgive me for interrupting your introduction of my speech with my speech…”
The meanest introduction in modern times was given this fall by the President of Columbia University who introduced the President of Iran by saying what he wished he had the guts to say when he invited the President of Iran to speak. “Welcome to Columbia—you ignorant little holocaust denying, liar you.”
A bad introduction tells the audience what the introducer would have said if the program committee had been smart enough to have invited the introducer to be the main speaker.
I’ve been the victim of a few bad introductions myself. Not here, but elsewhere. “Now, even though we won’t all agree with Dr. Willimon, and even though I disagree with him on many issues myself, I’m sure he will at least make us think, for what that’s worth.”
The best introduction I ever got was, “And now I present to you the man who has ruined many of my Sunday lunches with what he said in his sermon.”
I’ve got all this on my mind because this Sunday’s gospel, as always on the Second Sunday of Advent, is John the Baptist—the preacher who introduces the preacher Jesus. John prepares us to meet Jesus. You can’t get to Christmas, can’t get to Jesus, without first hearing John’s introduction. We didn’t come here today to hear John the Baptist. We came to hear Jesus. John says upfront that he is not the main event. He is only the “forerunner.” He is the unknown band that opens for the Stones. He is the Ed McMahon teaser for Carson—“Heeere’s Johnny.” All gospels begin the story of Jesus with the story of John. You can’t hear Jesus until you first hear John.
It pains me to say it but John the Baptist breaks the rules for introductions that were given in the public speaking book that I read in college. John’s histrionic introduction of Jesus:
You bunch of snakes! Who told you to try to escape from hell fire? His ax is in his hand; he will cut you to the root! He’s going to separate the good seed from the trash and the trash, he’ll cast into the fire! I’m not worthy to tie his shoelaces. You better get washed up. Strip off those fine clothes and come down here in this muddy water and get baptized. You been warned!
During John’s introduction, respectable people made for the exits. “I’m talking about you!” John screamed. “Don’t say ‘we’ve got Abraham as our Daddy…my family founded this church…I tithe!’ You better turn around, get washed, get right, repent. God can raise up a family out of the stones in this river, if you don’t do right.”
Why would anybody stay for Jesus’ speech after John’s introduction? After John’s hellfire introduction, when Jesus speaks, Jesus sounded so gracious and accepting that people said, “Jesus sounds like an Episcopalian; John like a Baptist!” Which is how John got his last name.
At a sermon workshop a sarcastic homilitician said to a group of us preachers, “People don’t come to church to be judged, criticized and made uncomfortable.” Widespread agreement from gathered clergy. “Laity come to church to be stroked, patted on the head and told that they are doing fine just as they are.”
Thus the message of most of my sermons: “God loves you as you are, promise me you’ll never change a thing.” That’s how I got voted one of the Twelve Most Effective Preachers in the English Speaking World!
Is John crazy? Begin a sermon with, “You aren’t right! God expects you to be transformed, born again, made over or there will be hell to pay”—watch the congregation check out of the rest of the speech.
Saw a preacher on TV who preaches to more folk on Sunday than I preach to in a year. (I will not mention his name, but he’s in Houston.) He was introduced by his wife who said, “This is one of the best men I have ever known. He loves every single one of you here today.” (All sixteen thousand?) His sermon began, “You are good! You deserve a happy life, but these old negative, naysayers keep dragging you down.” He then advised us to arise each morning, say to the mirror, “I will have a good day! I believe in me!”
He didn’t mention “God” in his sermon (what on earth could God do for a congregation capable of all that?) sixteen thousand heard him gladly.
Why would anybody listen to John the Baptist? And why do the gospels demand that we not hear Jesus until we first hear John?
My favorite theologian, Karl Barth, said John the Baptist is the model for all preaching—John transparently points to Jesus saying “Jesus becomes greater, as I become smaller.” The most difficult task for preachers, said Barth, is not to get in the way of Jesus.
A recent book on preaching advises preachers that if we want you to listen to Jesus we need to tell you that Jesus can be useful. Need peace in life? Jesus delivers. Need a reason to get out of bed in the morning? Jesus helps.
But John? “You better get your dirty little self drowned, cleaned, washed or you will burn in hell as the trash you are. Messiah’s comin’!”
Why would anybody sit for that?
I think I know. There’s something in you that wants to hear John’s introduction. In your better moments, you know: I’m not right. My world is out of kilter.
Only a preacher like John tells the truth.
One of the best introductions I’ve heard was years ago at the South Carolina Realtors’ Convention, when Dr. Norman Vincent Peale was introduced. If you’re ancient enough to know Carson, you remember Peale.
A real estate salesman introduced the proponent of the “Power of Positive Thinking” with, “This has been real estate’s worst year. I know you well enough to know that you’re trying to put a happy face on your pain. Your pasted on smile tonight doesn’t fool anybody. The man you’re about to hear has got your name. What he says is the best news you’ll hear in this year of bad news. I give you the man who will change your world, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale.”
Peale couldn’t fail after that introduction!
You would think that preachers would focus upon all those sinners who didn’t get out of bed this morning; not attack the gathered faithful. But John the Baptist? He told contented, self-satisfied religious folk that they, especially they, needed to change, that their religious pedigree was no escape the judging gaze of God. More than that, they could change.
Me? I’m happy with my life. I’m not taking much responsibility for the fate of the world just now, not too troubled over Bush’s war or Gore’s global warming. And certainly not ready to admit any complicity. I’m here at church to keep things as they are. So, John the Baptist’s repentance rhetoric is not my idea of a good speech.
But there’s someone here under the shelter of this great church who’s almost dying to hear John preach, somebody smart enough to know that you need to change, somebody willing to have your impurities burned away in some redeeming fire, somebody with guts enough to want purgation of the bad from the good, somebody eager for the axe to be laid to the tree so that some new life-giving branch may sprout forth.
Not me, ’cause I’m so damned content with present arrangements. I’ve learned how to work the system, how to stabilize the status quo to my advantage. That’s how I get invited to preach at places like this.
But I bet there’s someone—even here—malcontent with things as they are, somebody lost in the wilderness, some would-be rebel willing to listen to a preacher who calls things by their true names and tells the truth no matter what the congregation wants, somebody who knows that mere moderate, middle-of-the-road truth isn’t strong enough to do you any good. Anybody?
Now. It’s Advent. You’re about to hear the most difficult, demanding, bad news that ever was called good. You’re about to have your world rocked, tables overturned, foundations shaken, stuff set on fire, demons put to rout, and the dead raised.
I present to you, the most offensive speaker ever, so provocative that the government tortured him to death in a futile attempt to shut him up. But you can’t. He’s going to say things to you that will rock your world.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you your only hope, your salvation. Now, heeere’s Jesus!