I’ve been thinking about good old Johnny Carson this week. His show always opened the same way: Ed McMahon would say, “Welcome to the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson,” then list all of the special guests, and then he’d offer his trademark “Heeere’s Johnny!” When Johnny 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.”
He was serious. A good introduction is everything. “Good introductions have the difficult task of getting an audience excited about the speaker who is to come, warming them up, getting them to trust the speaker, and doing it all in just a few minutes, and in a way that does not call attention to the maker of the introduction.”
Bad introductions take too much time and take the focus off the main speaker. One speaker, after an introduction that felt like it was never-ending, said, “Forgive me for interrupting your overly gracious introduction of my speech with my speech…”
I’ve got all this on my mind because today’s Gospel reading is about John the Baptist – the one who prepares the way for Jesus. John introduces his listeners to Jesus and gets us ready to meet him. Advent generally doesn’t allow us to get to Christmas without first hearing John the Baptist’s introduction.
And let’s face it, John the Baptist is not your normal guy introducing the main speaker. He doesn’t make the audience comfortable; he yells at them and calls them a bunch of snakes! Makes you wonder why anyone stuck around for the main act.
But here’s the thing. The message John preaches may not be easy news, but it is good news. He’s saying we’re sinful people who need help. That we can’t save ourselves. And if we’re honest, we know he’s right. We know our world is really messed up, and that we don’t have our own acts together either. John helps us confront the truth – that change is desperately needed. The good news is that, with God’s help, we can change.
That searching, that longing for change, is part of what Advent is all about. “Advent is a season of yearning. In Advent, the hymns we sing are somewhat restrained. They speak of desire, of waiting, of expectation. [After all,] The Advent prophets [were originally speaking] to a people in exile, a people” in the wilderness, longing for home. (Willimon, 43)
We may never have experienced exile, exactly, but we know longing. In a world at war, the longing for peace. In a nation divided by tremendous racial tension and economic inequality, the longing for justice and understanding and compassion. Or even in our own individual lives: those in chaos longing for calm; those facing illness or injury longing for healing; those in grief longing for comfort.
John the Baptist’s voice is the one “crying out in the wilderness.” In order really to hear John’s cry, we may need, in a sense, to notice the ways in which we are in a wilderness place. For as William Willimon says, “In order to see the fragile light of Christmas, one has first got to become accustomed to the dark.”
It’s not easy waiting around in the dark. In fact, it’s sometimes quite scary. There’s a story of a family who had just endured a devastating hurricane. For three days, their power had been out. It was hot, humid, and miserable during the day. But it was really frightening at night. There’d been a lot of looting in the area. Robberies had taken place because there was no electricity, no way to call the police, no streetlights.
So, when, in all that darkness, there was a pounding at the front door one night, it’s no wonder this family was filled with fear. Was this a robber? Was it a looter trying to find out if the house was empty? There was no way to call anyone for help.
The knocking continued. They finally peered out the window and tried to make out the figures on the front porch. “Hey,” a voice called out. “We’ve got a big bag of ice for you, some fresh water, too!”
It turned out it was their next door neighbors, their friends who had come to bring them some wonderful gifts…
As we peer out into darkness, it makes all the difference in the world whose face we see. Friend or foe?
The promise of Advent is that no matter how deep the darkness, no matter how challenging the wait, when we look over the storm-filled horizon, it is the face of Jesus, our greatest friend, that awaits us. And that makes all the difference. (Pulpit Resource, Dec. 2003, 40)
For the light of Christ shines in the darkness. Keep looking, keep longing, and you will see the face of Jesus. Amen.