December 8, 2014 / Praxis
Karen Swallow Prior meditates on the slow marriage of North and South.
December 7, 2011
If you are old enough to remember Johnny Carson, you’ll remember that the late-night host’s show opened with an invariable liturgy: it always began with the announcement, “Welcome to the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson,” followed by a listing of the night’s special guests and then an enthusiastic “Heeere’s Johnny,” always intoned by the avuncular Ed McMahon. After his retirement Carson was asked the secret of his success, a question to which he promptly replied, “I was lucky enough to be introduced by Ed McMahon.”
Carson was serious. A good introduction is everything. Back when I was a student politician, I read a public speaking book that suggested that the most difficult speech is the speech of introduction. A thirty-minute speech, it said, is easier than a two-minute introduction before the thirty-minute speech. Good introductions have the difficult task of getting an audience excited about the forthcoming speaker. They’re supposed to warm them up, to build expectation for the speaker, and to do it in just a few minutes, all 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. You know: “Our speaker tonight was born in Des Moines—Des Moines, 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 a 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 several years ago 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 first invited the president to speak, something like this: “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. They typically go something like this: “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 introductions on my mind because this Sunday’s gospel, as always on the second Sunday of Advent, is on 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. But we don’t show up for Advent to hear John the Baptist. We show up to hear Jesus. John says upfront that he is not the main event. He is only the “forerunner” (Luke 1:17). 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 introduction rules that were given in the public speaking book that I read in college. After all, here’s 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’s speech after an introduction like that? After John’s hellfire introduction, Jesus’s words seemed 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.” And his comment met widespread agreement from the gathered clergy. “Laity come to church to be stroked, patted on the head, and told that they are doing fine just as they are,” we agreed. Thus, the message of most of my sermons is something like this: “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” and watch the congregation check out for the rest of the speech.
I 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 his congregation and those of us watching on television to arise each morning by saying 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, and washed, or you will burn in hell as the trash that you are. Messiah’s comin’!”
Why would anybody sit for that? I think I know. There’s something in us that wants to hear John’s introduction. In our better moments, we each know within ourselves that we are not right. Our world is out of kilter.
Only a preacher like John tells the truth.
* * *
One way to make life easy as a preacher is to focus upon all those sinners who didn’t get out of bed this morning. You don’t 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 for the judgment of God. More than that, he told them that they could change.
As for me personally? Well, I’m quite happy with my life. I’m not taking much responsibility for the fate of the world just now; I’m not troubling myself over Bush’s and Obama’s wars or Gore’s global warming. And I’m certainly not ready to admit any complicity. I’m here at church to keep things as they are. So John the Baptist’s rhetoric of repentance is not my idea of a good speech.
But there’s someone reading this 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 ax to be laid to the tree so that some new life-giving branch may sprout forth.
Not me, because 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 publish in places like this.
But I bet there’s someone out there who is discontent 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?
* * *
It’s Advent, and you’re about to hear the most difficult, demanding bad news that ever was called good. You’re about to have your foundations shaken, tables overturned, 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!
 See R. C. Borden, Public Speaking—As Listeners Like It! (New York, NY: Harper and Brothers, 1935).
 Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quoted in this sermon is a paraphrase from Matthew 3.
Will Willimon is Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church and former Dean of the Chapel, Duke University. He will soon be returning to the faculty of Duke Divinity School.