Johnny Carson said that a good introduction could make or break an act. In fact, Carson gave his partner Ed McMahon a lot of credit for helping him be such a huge success on the Tonight show. He said this in reference to McMahon’s cheerful and familiar introduction each night, always ending with an enthusiastic “Heeeere’s Johnny!”
Methodist pastor and bishop Will Willimon also knows something about introductions. As one of the most popular Christian speakers in the United States today, he has been introduced thousands of times. He tells of the frustrations of introductions going too long, being too silly, or being downright misleading. And, he adds, one of the biggest problems with introductions is that they praise the speaker too much, raising expectations so high, that people will surely be disappointed. Willimon said this became a real problem when, a few years ago, he was named one of the top twelve preachers in the English speaking world. Now everyone who introduces him wants to say that, and he can just see the people in the crowd sitting back, folding their arms, and saying to themselves, “We’ll see about that for ourselves; this guy better be good.” Actually, he says, it would probably also be true to say, “This man has over the years put thousands of people to sleep with his sermons and lectures.” Then, with lowered expectations, the crowd might have at least a chance at being pleasantly surprised.
Jesus also had someone introduce him– John the Baptist, who referred to himself as “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘prepare the way for the Lord.’” One of the ways John prepared the way for Jesus message of forgiveness was by telling people what big sinners they were, and why they needed someone to come and save them from their sins. This is a paraphrased summary of John’s message: “You bunch of snakes! Who told you to try and escape from hell-fire, and what makes you think you even have a chance? His ax is in His hand and the Lord is ready to cut you down at the roots. He is going to separate the good seed from the chaff, and then cast the chaff into the fire. You better right now get down into this river and get washed by baptism so that you have a chance at being ready. And yes, I mean you, child of Abraham, do-gooder, church-goer, or whatever you think you are. Don’t think that or your tithes or your fine clothes are going to save you. You better repent and get right with the Lord before it is too late. You’ve been warned!”
Not exactly Ed McMahon, is it? Who would want to stay for the sermon after an introduction like that? But large crowds did come out to hear John, and after the hell-fire and damnation they got from him, they were, no doubt pleasantly surprised by the kinder and gentler message of Jesus. Jesus himself could speak of God’s judgment in terms just as harsh as John. But the message of Jesus was more balanced and contained more of the grace of God. Jesus made people want to come to God out of love and not just out of fear. But the clear message of Jesus was that for those who did not receive him, the words of John still applied.
John the Baptist would never have made it on Sunday morning television. Most people today would not tune-in to such preaching as that. I never see Sunday morning religious programs, but I did recently read a summary of a sermon by one of the most popular of these TV preachers. It went something like this: “You are good! You mean well. You want to have a happy life, and you can do it; but only if you don’t allow all the negative nay-sayers to drag you down. Look in the mirror every morning and say to yourself, ‘I will have a good day. I believe in me.’” There was very little about God in the sermon. Why would God even be necessary if all you need is self-confidence and a positive attitude?
There is always a huge market for that kind of religion because it does contain a bit of truth. Self-confidence is helpful and it is good to have a positive outlook on life. But that kind of advice, though helpful on one level, can never speak to or satisfy our deepest needs. A positive attitude cannot change the fact that everything in life is not positive, and much of what will happen to you is just plain sad and there is nothing you can do about it. Believing in yourself will only get you so far, and it is not nearly as important as believing in God. Self-confidence can help you do many things, but it cannot raise itself from the dead.
John’s preaching knocks the ‘self’ out of the saddle. John had courage and self-confidence enough to take on King Herod himself, and he literally paid for it with his head. But John’s self-confidence came from a self-forgetfulness and was primarily a confidence in God. “I am not the one,” he said to the crowds ready to declare him the Messiah, “but there is one who is coming after me whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” Then, pointing to Jesus he said, “Behold, the Lamb of God; I must become smaller so that he can become greater.”
Even though John’s message was harsh, there is a part of you that knows that this is something you need to hear. In your better moments you know that you are not the person you should be and there is much that you cannot control or handle; and you do need to look to something greater than yourself, no matter how confident or strong you are, or how much you believe in yourself. John is there to point the way to Jesus. John is more than willing to crush your false hopes, but only so you can be made ready to receive the true hope that is found in Jesus. (continued…)
John the Baptist (Michael York) in the 1977 mini-series Jesus of Nazareth
Luke 3:7 — John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers!…”
Luke 3:16 — John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”
John 1:29 — The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God,who takes away the sin of the world!”
Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bid’st me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!
—Just As I Am (v. 1), Charlotte Elliot (1789-1871)