Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
December 8, 2019
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
My daughter Maren and her husband Max used to work with the youth at a church in New Albany, Indiana, right across the Ohio River from Louisville. Maren told me that in the worship service every single Sunday, right before the sermon, the liturgist would offer the Scripture lesson to the congregation. We do the same thing. There is nothing unusual about that. But following the reading, the liturgist would then move into a formal introduction. It went something like this, “And now for this morning’s sermon entitled, ‘Introducing Jesus,’ I would like to present the Rev. Arthur P. Ritter.” Maren wanted to know why we didn’t do something like that at Meadowbrook and I told her that I thought that it perhaps was a bit too formal and that I probably wasn’t worthy of such a formal introduction. After an introduction like that, all of you would not know whether to applaud or boo.
William Willimon tells a story about the late Tonight Show host Johnny Carson. If you are old enough to remember, you will recall that every night, the show opened the same way. There was an announcement, “It’s the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson.” Then there was a listing of the show’s special guests and the mention of Doc Severinsen and the band. Finally there was the memorable trademark line, “Heeere’s Johnny!” All of this was done by Johnny’s faithful sidekick, Ed McMahon. Perhaps it was something that all of us who watched the show just simply took for granted. But years after his retirement from the show, Johnny was asked the secret to his success. He replied to the question quickly, saying, “I was lucky enough to be introduced every night by Ed McMahon.”
I was speaking to someone last week about Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. I recall with great pride that sometime in the mid-90’s I was chair of the West Bloomfield Clergy Association. Part of that responsibility was that I got to introduce the main speaker at the Jewish Community Center’s annual book fair. I was fortunate enough to be the chair when Rabbi Kushner was asked to be the main speaker. Imagine me, getting the opportunity to meet and talk with and finally introduce such a wonderful man and influential author. I was nervous beyond belief. I don’t recall what I said that day but I do remember thinking that I just needed to offer a quick introduction and get off the stage as fast as I could! With the possible exception of Laura, there was no one there who was there to hear me!
There is a certain discipline and skill that applies to introductions. When you are introducing someone you must understand that the audience is there to listen to them and not you. You prepare with a few facts or items of information. You spend enough time making certain your facts are correct. You don’t talk long. William Willimon writes of a speaker, who after a terribly long introduction began his speech by saying, “Forgive me for interrupting your introduction of my speech with my speech.” You don’t make the introduction about yourself. You don’t try to impress the crowd with your own credentials or personal relationship with the speaker. Again, Willimon says that 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. As a preacher and religious commentator, Willimon concludes his lesson on introductions by saying that the best one he ever received was, “And now I present to you the man who has ruined many of my Sunday lunches with what he said in his sermon.”
The Second Sunday of Advent always features the central character of Advent, John the Baptist. As Advent prepares us for the Christmas that is to come, John the Baptist prepares us by introducing the main speaker that is Jesus. We are here to get ready to celebrate Christmas and to honor Jesus’ birth. But we won’t get there until we hear the words of John the Baptist that point to the honored guest. While the birth narrative of Jesus was recorded in only two of the gospels, this introduction to Jesus by John the Baptist was important enough to be told by all four gospel writers.
Perhaps John didn’t get the opportunity to read the rules of introduction. He was at best, a little rough around the edges. He dressed in camel’s hair clothing. He had a diet of honey and locusts. He seemed to be willing to say whatever it took to get his point across. He held nothing back. He told them how it was. “You bunch of snakes. Who told you that you could escape the fires of hell? His ax is in his hand. He will cut you at your roots. He will separate the good stuff from the trash and throw you into the fire! I am not worthy to tie his shoelaces. But you better get cleaned up. Strip off those fine clothes and get into the muddy river and get baptized. You have been properly warned!” I always recall that Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote that John the Baptist was “the Doberman pinscher of the Gospel.” She said that because his words sink their teeth into us, shakes our souls around, and will not let us go. Another commentator says that it is interesting to note that John the Baptist is not part of our nativity scenes or seldom a part of our Sunday School Christmas programs. Scott Hoezee writes that nobody wants John the Baptist at their holiday party. He is one messy and rude guest. “You can’t even get through the first verse of ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ before he is telling you to confess your sins for the umpteenth time.” Hoezee adds that John would scare that poor little drummer kid silly, which may be just as well as that is surely one song that would make John gag!” Despite this belligerent attitude, all of the gospels introduce the story of Jesus with the story of John. He is the guide to what is to come. You can’t hear Jesus until John is first done talking.
John the Baptist spoke a hard truth. While we usually come to worship to get some peace in the midst of our lives and find out how important we are in God’s eyes, John had a different purpose. His point was that there is something not so right about each and every one of us. Our world is out of sync. Our priorities reflect our own interests rather that the good of our brothers and sisters. There are places where we separate ourselves from God’s intention. There are ways in which we set ourselves up as a little higher than God. We are often more content and self-satisfied that we should be.
Jesus is coming to point us to a new way. He is coming to offer the good news of God’s love. He is coming to preach a message of peace and forgiveness, mercy and grace. But John says we won’t be able to see Jesus or hear Jesus until we get ourselves washed and cleaned in the river. John introduces Jesus by saying, “Repent and change because something big is coming after my little talk and you are not going to understand it until you are truly ready to listen.”
Karl Barth, the famous 20th century theologian, said that John the Baptist is the model for all preaching. John points to Jesus saying, “Jesus become greater, as I become smaller.” Barth said that the most difficult task for preachers is to not get in the way of Jesus. Perhaps that is the Advent lesson of this introduction of Jesus. Figure out what things in your life are getting in the way of the presence of God that is to come. You can change. You can return from your place of exile from God. You can reconnect with the One who made you and loves us beyond understanding. The Kingdom of God is near.
We must hear and heed the words of John the Baptist before we can celebrate the birth of the Christ Child. We are the people who have become so cold in our faith that we don’t allow Christ to make a difference in our lives. We are the ones who pay so much attention to our decorating and our shopping and our baking that we neglect the true nurture of our spirits. We are folks who are so caught up in shiny idols and worldly tinsel that we have eclipsed the wonder of angels around us calling us to repentance. Or perhaps we are those who have been made so tired by the divisive issues of our time or left so frightened by prospects of our dark world that we can see no hope.
Yet our hope is that we still have room for John in our Advent preparation. His is a voice that calls out- a voice that we need to hear. We must listen to the proper introduction concerning the presence of God before we can understand the meaning of the baby born in the manger. We need to repent, to change, to live in a different direction before we can welcome and embrace the meaning of Christ’s coming into our world.