December 6, 2015 - Luke 3.1-6

“The Introduction”

Luke 3.1-6

December 6, 2015


In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene,2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.5Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

Most of you, judging from what I can see of you from here, are old enough to remember the Johnny Carson Show. The show opened with an invariable ritual. "Welcome to the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson," then a listing of tonight's special guests and then, "Heeere's Johnny," all intoned by the avuncular Ed McMahon. All the late night show hosts now have some sort of sidekick that introduces them.  David Letterman had Alan Kalter, Stephen Colbert now has John Batiste, Conan has Andy Richter, and Jimmy Fallon has that guy with glasses.  A good introduction seems to matter.

When Johnny Carson retired, someone asked him about the secret of his success in show business, and Johnny said something like, "I was lucky enough to get introduced by the great Ed McMahon."  Johnny was serious. A good introduction is everything. In my college public speaking class I learned the "most difficult of all speeches is the speech of introduction." "It's easier to make a 30-minute speech than to make a two-minute introduction to present the 30-minute speech."

Wow. Good introductions have the difficult task of getting an audience excited about the speaker who is to come, to warm them up, to get them to trust the speaker, and to do it all 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: get the audience excited about the forthcoming speech and sit down, quickly."

The worst introductions are those that take too much time. "Our speaker tonight was born in Des Moines, that is, a city in Iowa. He went to 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 first high school prom.

The meanest introduction in modern times was given back in 2007 by the President of Columbia University who used his introduction of the President of Iran to say what he wished he had the courage to say when he had been pressured to invite the President of Iran to speak in the first place: "Now, here on our stage is an ignorant, holocaust-denying, ridiculous-appearing liar.”

A good introduction to a speech is a speech that doesn't appear to be a speech, a speech in which the person making the introduction must be transparent to the speaker, must point to the speaker without becoming the speaker.

Now I've got all this on my mind because this Biblical text we are looking at is John the Baptist the preacher introducing the preacher Jesus. The Christian year always begins with John who gets us ready to meet Jesus. You can't get to Christmas, can't get to Jesus, without first hearing John the Baptist's introduction.

We didn't come here today to hear John the Baptist. We certainly didn’t come here to hear me.  We came to hear Jesus. John says upfront that he is not the main event. He is the "forerunner." He is the Ed McMahon teaser for Carson, "Here's Johnny." All four Gospels begin the story of Jesus with the story of John. You can't get to Jesus until you first hear John.

One thought crosses my mind whenever I read the stuff John preached.  HOW was John the Baptist a popular preacher?  It pains me to say it but John the Baptist breaks most of the rules for introductions that were given in the public speaking book that I read in college. John's introduction of Jesus is delivered in a histrionic scream: "You bunch of snakes! Who told you to try to escape from hell fire? His ax is in his hand; he will cut you down to the root! He's going to separate the good seed from the trash and then cast the trash into the fire! I'm not worthy to tie his shoelaces, he's so great. You'd better get washed up and ready. Strip off those fine clothes and come down here in this muddy water and get baptized. You've been warned!"

During John's introduction, you could see respectable people quietly moving toward the exits. As they moved, John screamed, "I'm talking about you! Don't say to yourselves 'we've got Abraham as our Daddy,' 'my family founded this church,' 'I tithe!' I tell you, you better turn around, get washed, get right, repent. God can raise up a family out of the stones in this river, if God wants."

"People don't come to church to be judged, to be criticized, and made to feel uncomfortable." That's what a preacher said to a group of us preachers at a sermon workshop once. (There was widespread agreement from the gathered clergy.) "People come to church to be stroked, to be patted on the head and told that they are doing fine just as they are." Thus the message of a lot of  sermons is, "God loves you just the way you are; promise you'll never change a thing." Truthfully, it’s tempting to preach that.  Speaking as a preacher, it’s easy to want to make you feel good about yourself, because then you will like me and then we all can make the church huge because everybody is prosperous and etc. etc. etc.

I saw a preacher on TV who on Sunday preaches to more folk than I preach to in five years. I'm not going to mention his name, but he's in Houston. His sermon began with, "You are good! You mean well. You want to have a happy life, but these negative naysayers keep dragging you down." He then advised us to get up each morning, look in the mirror, and say, "I will have a good day! I do believe in me!" Though he didn't mention "God" in his sermon (what on earth could God do for a congregation that's capable of doing all that?), 16,000 people listened to his speech gladly.

Now do not get me wrong, there was nothing particularly evil about what he said.  What he said wasn’t quite heresy.  He didn’t say enough for it to be heretical.  If the sermon is spiritual food, then this was cotton candy.  Junk food.  It was a yummy, crummy sermon.  Of course we like it.  It’s a Twinkie.  And it’s terrible for us.

Why would anybody have listened to John the Baptist? And why do all the Gospels demand that we not hear Jesus until we first hear John?

One of my favorite theologians, Karl Barth, said that John the Baptist is the model for all preaching the one who points to Jesus, the one who says "he becomes greater, as I become smaller." But why? John's vitriolic introduction is enough to kill the Jesus revolution before it begins.

A recent book on preaching advises us preachers that if we want you to listen to Jesus we need to tell you that Jesus can be useful. Need peace in your life? Jesus can deliver. Need a reason to get out of bed in the morning? Here's how Jesus can help.

But John? "You better get your dirty little self drowned, cleaned, washed or you will burn in hell as the trash you are. You snakes! Messiah's comin'!"  Why would anybody sit for that?

I think I know. There's something about us that knows this is a message we need to hear. In our better moments, we know we're not right, our world is out of kilter. Only a preacher like John tells the truth.

John the Baptist intruded, stood up, and told the contented, self-satisfied religious folk that they, especially they, needed to change, that their religious pedigree was no guarantee to escape the judging gaze of God. More than that, he told them they could change. I guess that’s the thing.  When someone like John the Baptist cares enough to tell you the truth (that Jesus is THE ONE) and we need to shape up, then we can trust that the hope that message brings is also the truth.  With hard truth comes real hope.

After the first half of a very tough football game the coach came in and fumed, cursed, and raged, singling out a number of players for particular scorn. One high school junior, sat there in fear and trembling. He had never seen our coach so angry.
     On the way out of the locker room, a fellow football player said to him, “Coach only yells at us because he loves us. All he wants is for us to be the best that we can be.”
     That’s what John the Baptist was doing out in the desert.  “Messiah is coming, and is he ever angry!” And all he wants is for us to be the best we can be.[1]

So what am I supposed to do as your preacher?  Should I do what the popular rich preachers do and talk to you like you’re a bunch of puppies?  Give you cheap grace and warm fuzzies? Will that make me popular and rich, too?  Or should I follow the example of John the Baptist and bring you the hard truth and put it right in your face and tell you that “all of us deserve hell.  Get cleaned up because Jesus is coming.”  You might not like me so much if I do that.  What tactic should I use?

I bet there's someone here today under the shelter of this church who's almost dying to hear John preach, somebody wise enough to know that you need to change, somebody faithful enough to believe you can change, somebody willing to have your impurities burned away in some redeeming fire, somebody courageous enough to want a separation of the good wheat from the trash, somebody open to the axe being laid to the tree so that some new, life-giving branch may spring forth.

I don’t know about me.  I'm so content with present arrangements. Most preachers know how to work the system, to stabilize the status quo to our advantage.  I can probably do that if I want.  Should I tell you the truth or rub your belly?

You see the thing is that John calls us to repent, though.  That means to change direction – to go a different way.  In order to get ready for Jesus, we have to get pointed in the right direction and be ready.  It’s kind of hard to do that if your preacher isn’t willing to tell you that you might be headed toward a cliff, or about to irreparably mess up your life.  I bet there's someone here willing to tolerate a preacher who calls things by their true names and tells the truth no matter what other people might think, somebody who knows that more moderate, middle-of-the-road religion wouldn't be strong enough to do us any good.

It seems that the real heart and soul of my job as a preacher is just to introduce Jesus to you.  Perhaps it’s not my job to make you like him or his teachings or even believe him.  My job is just to put you in front of him.  So I think I’m going to go with that. 

You're about to have your world rocked, tables overturned, demons put to rout, and the dead raised. Ladies and gentlemen, you're about to hear one of the most offensive preachers that has ever mounted a pulpit, so offensive that the government tortured him to death in an attempt to shut him up. He's your salvation.

Here's Jesus! [2]


[1] Will WIllimon, Pulpit Resource, December 9, 2012.

[2] Quoted copiously and freely from Will Willimon’s Pulpit Resource, December 6, 2009.

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