A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, April 27, 2014
Text: 1 Peter 1:3-9
When I was a teenager, maybe 15 or 16, Boise, Idaho, got an exciting new radio station, one that featured what were billed as “light classics.” For a young musical snob this was a very significant and exciting addition to the local scene. It seems to me the beginning of this radio station coincided with the advent of the transistor radio, which allowed you to carry your music with you everywhere.
One of my favorite singers, whom I first encountered by way of this radio station, was the wonderful American baritone, Earl Wrightson. He must have been a favorite of the station’s program manager because his deep, rich voice was heard often on the station. Among the Wrightson interpretations that flowed forth from my tiny radio was the late 1920s Vincent Youmans tune, “Without a Song.” It was written originally for a Broadway show as a kind of stylized work song, like “Old Man River.” The original lyrics referred to “darkies” though that term was expunged from later renditions. Anyway, the song made a big impression on me – for the beauty of the Youmans tune, for the strength of Wrightson’s interpretation and for the powerful sentiment of the lyrics –
Without a song the day would never end
Without a song the road would never bend
When things go wrong a man ain’t got a friend
Without a song
That field of corn would never see a plow
That field of corn would be deserted now
A man is born but he’s no good no how
Without a song
I got my trouble and woe but, sure as I know, the Jordan will roll
And I’ll get along as long as a song, strong in my soul
I’ll never know what makes the rain to fall
I’ll never know what makes that grass so tall
I only know there ain’t no love at all
Without a song
No friends, no good, no love, none at all, not without a song! In some sense I believe this is true. I hope I’ve learned to be less snobbish about music. There is such an amazing variety of musical tradition and style to inspire us and shape us, to move us and shake us. Over and over again the song carries us along, gives voice to what we could never say without the music, lifts us up and gives us wings to soar above the exigencies of daily life – the good, the bad and the indifferent. We know that spirituals helped get bound folk through the evils of American slavery and freedom songs carried South Africans through the bitter oppression of apartheid. We have marched into battle on the strength of patriotic songs and fallen on our knees to sing our prayers for peace. Many a lovers’ pact has been sealed with a song and, of course, what would worship be without music. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul encourages his readers to “be filled with the Spirit,as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:18-20).
A woman ain’t got a friend, a man is no good, I only know there ain’t no love at all without a song. Oh yes, “I got my trouble and woe but, sure as I know, the Jordan will roll and I’ll get along as long as a song, strong in my soul.” The writer of First Peter understands this. Addressing a group of young churches spread throughout Asia Minor, he is committed to bringing them a word of hope that will sustain them through challenging times, including threats of persecution for their faith. Here the song is hope and it is one of rejoicing. “In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.”
This writer must have been a student of appreciative inquiry. There is beautiful, affirming imagery in this blessing that opens the letter. The genuineness of one’s faith is more precious than gold, gold which by the way is typically refined by fire. In the darkness of the night, in the face of adversity, under the burden of oppression, when pain seems unbearable that song of faith will carry us through and bring us to joy.
As an Easter people we are blessed by God who “has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” A new birth into a living hope! What is the song of hope that we receive as a result of the resurrection? It is surely hope for a better day to come but it is also a hope that lives with us and shapes our lives in the here and now. Robert Hamerton-Kelly writes of this passage “…ordinary hope for this world must always be modest and pragmatic, the arena of neither pessimism nor optimism but of sober perseverance.” But, “…what is ‘living hope?’” He says “It is simply the living Jesus present to us after his resurrection and available to our faith, to which he gives the grace of a supernaturally based hope. This supernatural grace of living hope anchors our lives in heaven and thus enables us to persevere and from time to time even to triumph amidst all the failures of ordinary hope and all the fragments of broken dreams. We endure as those who see the living Christ and know that he rose from the dead, and for that reason no longer fear death. Without the fear of death we feel as if we had been born again into a new world of living hope” (Robert Hamerton-Kelly, “A Living Hope” quoted in Paul Neuchterlein, Second Sunday of Easter, Year A, girardianlectionary.net).
Perhaps it is challenging, as well as liberating, to claim for yourself this song of living hope, but isn’t that where our faith leads us, to a place where resurrection reality becomes operational in our own lives? There is always more to which we can look forward, always more possible – more good, more friends, more light, more love, more life, yes, even life that carries us beyond death.
But not without a song will we make this journey. I have always loved Robert Lowry’s song, “My Life Flows On,” that sings the story this way:
My life flows on in endless song;
Above earth’s lamentation
I hear the sweet though far off hymn
That hails a new creation:
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul—
How can I keep from singing?
What though my joys and comforts die?
The Lord my Savior liveth;
What though the darkness gather round!
Songs in the night He giveth:
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that Rock I’m clinging;
Since love is Lord of Heav’n and earth,
How can I keep from singing?
“I only know there ain’t no love at all without a song.” Not without a song will we be able to make this journey through life. Not without a song will we know living hope. Not without a song will we sustain our faith, returning to God in the fullness of time. Not without a song will we make any difference in this world, because our song is death denied and love made real. And this is our song, that love is Lord of Heav’n and earth. How can we keep from singing?