As part of our sermon series on how different styles of music can help us explore different dimensions of our faith, we have seen how classical music can help us appreciate the beauty and majesty of God in a way that words alone often fall short.
We then looked at Jazz Music and how the improvisation of Jazz Music can lead us to explore the more creative side of our faith. Jazz music reminds us to not just accept the status quo but to always be thinking of news ways to share and live out the good news of Jesus Christ in our community and world.
Last Sunday, we explored country music and how this type of music has a way of reminding us that we are all sinners in need of God’s grace. Country music also has a very down to earth way of expressing our deepest feelings and emotions.
And today, we look at rock music, which according to a poll conducted by Pew Research in 2009, is the most listened to type of music.
My, how times have changed! Back in 1966, a similar poll was conducted which revealed that rock music was the least popular style of music among the age groups. Nearly half of the respondents said that they disliked rock music.
So what happened between 1966 and 2009? Woodstock! During a rainy weekend in August of 1969 in upstate New York, thirty-two different acts performed at an outdoor concert for over 400,000 people.
And like the other types of music we’re looking at during this sermon series, there are a number of different types of rock music. Rock & Roll originated as early as the 1940s and combined the blues with country music and gospel music. The popularity of rock began to take shape in the 1960s with the highlight being Woodstock in 1969.
The term, “rock and roll,” has its roots in the south as men worked on the railroads in the reconstruction of the south following the Civil War. These workers would swing hammer songs to keep the pace of their hammer swings. And at the end of each line in the song, the men would swing their hammers down to drill a hole into the rock.
The shakers were the men who held the steel spikes that the hammer men drilled and they would literally rock the spike back and forth to clear the rock, twisting the spike to improve the bite of the drill. Rock and roll!
Under rock music, we have all kinds of sub-categories like classic rock, hard rock, heavy metal, alternative rock, psychedelic rock, and grunge.
So finally we arrive at my favorite music style of music. I like rock music. For me, it’s rock, then classical, then jazz, and last but not least, country, although, thanks to last Sunday, I have gained a much deeper appreciation for country music.
As far as rock goes, I’m a huge U2 fan and have followed them back when I was in high school. If you know a little about U2, they are a secular band from Ireland known for their many references to the Christian faith. With song titles over the years like “Gloria,” “Rejoice,” “Psalm 40,” “Until the End of the World,” a song about Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus, and “Magnificent” a song based on the Magnificat from the Gospel of Luke, U2 has been able to reach both a religious as well as a non-religious fan base in expressing biblical themes throughout their music.
Early in their years as a rock group, the four members of the band were part of a Christian group called Shalom, and they had to decide as a group if they could reconcile their Christian faith with being a secular rock band. I think the reason why I like U2 so much is because they have shown that a secular band can communicate the gospel to a secular crowd to the point where people leave their concerts feeling like they have just been part of a two hour worship service with over 60,000 people.
U2’s lead singer, Bono, has taken the lead in using his rock star status to help raise awareness for people who have HIV/AIDS, particularly on the continent of Africa where medicine is so desperately needed. I’ve heard some Christian leaders refer to Bono as a prophet and in some ways rock stars offer a prophetic voice and rebuke of the status quo.
Bono, the prophet! In biblical times a prophet was a very strange person – someone who dined on locusts and wild honey, dressed in the skins of wild animals (if they dressed at all), and someone whose peculiar actions made people stand up and take notice as they communicated God’s messages to His people – people like John the Baptist.
And this brings me to the first of two ways that I believe rock music can help us be in concert with God and have a stronger faith.
And the first way is through rock music’s counter-cultural message. From its earliest days, rock music has always been known as a revolutionary style of music that isn’t afraid to critique the status-quo, especially when the status-quo overlooks the poor and the marginalized.
When John the Baptist preached his message for people to repent, turn their lives around, and bear fruit, he was trying to get across to them that God’s kingdom is a revolutionary movement in which we are called to be part of God’s inbreaking kingdom in the here and now.
A while back, I read the book, “Mainline or Methodist” by Scott Kisker, the E. Stanley Jones Professor of Evangelism at Wesley Theological Seminary. Many of you know that the United Methodist Church as a denomination in America is over 200 hundred years old.
When Methodism first came to America in the 1760s, it grew and grew because those early Methodists saw themselves as a counter cultural revolutionary movement with one important mission which was to, in their words, “spread scriptural holiness throughout the land.” In 1771, there were only 550 Methodists in America but by 1816, there were over 250,000 Methodists!
Methodism continued to grow and grow in the 1800s, but something began to change ever so gradually within the Methodist movement which has continued to hamper us ever since and into our present day. Methodism went from being a counter cultural and revolutionary movement for Jesus Christ and instead allowed itself to become part of the status quo of society.
In his book, Kisker believes that an important event in our nation’s history is symbolic of how our denomination has ever so gradually made the shift from being a revolutionary movement for Christ into a mainstream church that has lost much of its evangelical fervor that identified its earlier years of growth.
And that symbolic historic event was when a Methodist preacher conducted the funeral service for President Abraham Lincoln. Methodists who had been known in those early years of our nation’s history as a strange and peculiar people who were dedicated to living out their prophetic witness in offering God’s transformational love in the society around them, had all of the sudden become respectable, to the point of even having one of our own conduct Lincoln’s funeral.
Kisker argues that the label, “Mainline” is not a badge of honor for us Methodists because it conveys that we have bought into the status quo and that we have to a large degree acquiesced our role as a counter cultural force in offering scriptural holiness throughout the land. He says that the phrase, “mainline church” first appeared in 1972.
The phrase appeared in an article in which some young people said, “The mainline churches have sold out to the establishment.” Kisker says that the phrase also refers to the train line that runs through the city of Philadelphia which takes you through most of the elite suburbs where the establishments live.
He then offers a quote by Jim Logan who was his predecessor at Wesley Theological Seminary. Logan once told him, “Mainline denominations bless the values of the larger society, and see very little difference between cultivating good citizens and cultivating Christians.”
I remember reading that book and having a bad taste in my mouth. I didn’t like it that this author was picking on this denomination which I love so much, this denomination in which I was baptized, attended Sunday School, attended worship, received my ordination, and have served as a pastor. I remember complaining about this book to a friend of mine. And after I had gone on and on about why I didn’t like the book, I surprised myself when I said, “But, he’s right.”
There’s so much that I love about the United Methodist Church. I love our history. I love John Wesley, the founder of Methodism and his theology. I love that we have this beautiful stately church that is located in the center of a major university.
But notice that of all of the places that John the Baptist could have gone, to the respectable people in Jerusalem, to the religious leaders in the Temple, or to the people who were his friends and family, that’s not where he went. No, John the Baptist, being the rock star prophet that he was, went out to the wilderness, a very unconventional place. And it was there where he offered the radical and life-changing message for people to change their lives and to get ready for the coming savior of the world, Jesus Christ.
Friends, I believe this was the real location of the first Woodstock. Not in upstate New York, but in the wilderness of Judea. And it wasn’t Jimi Hendrix or Joan Baez or Creedence Clearwater Revival. It was John the Baptist taking center stage in the wilderness and performing a Jordan River revival!
The reason that John the Baptist was leading this revival was to prepare the people to move from their status quo religion and to be the radical people of transformation that God was calling them to be, that God had always called them to be.
Some say that John Wesley’s true conversion date wasn’t on May 24th, 1738 when he felt his heart strangely warmed during a prayer meeting in London. He’s true conversion came about a year later on April 2nd, 1739 when he stopped preaching in churches and began preaching in the open fields where the people were.
His friend George Whitfield had convinced Wesley to step out of his comfort zone and take the Methodist movement to the fields and the public square. This was when Methodism really took off in being the revolutionary and counter cultural Christ-centered movement that brought God’s transforming love to the people of 18th century England and later to the people here in America.
Wesley ended up preaching two times a day out in the fields and in the public square. His message was that God loved them and wanted to be in a relationship with them.
And those who responded to his message were invited to join one of the many Methodist small groups that Wesley had formed to help them grow in what it means to be a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ. And it would be through these Methodist groups, that those early Methodists were encouraged to go into their communities helping those in need, visiting the marginalized, and feeding the hungry.
The rock star prophets in the bible, including John the Baptist, remind us that our faith is a faith that is meant to be lived out in the streets of our community. Prophets are those who remind us that God cares about those who do not already know him and he especially cares for the poor and those who are in need. It’s from the prophets, that we find many of the 2,500 biblical verses referring to God’s compassion for the poor and of our responsibility to care for their needs.
To be in rhythm with God is to be the counter cultural voice that is willing to break from the status quo and our mainstream respectability in order to follow Jesus and go to where he wants to send us.
And then, just this final thought regarding how rock music can help us grow deeper in our faith. One of the reasons that people, especially young people connect with this type of music is because it gives them a way to express their feelings of anger and frustration.
Psychologists tell us that our feelings are important and that it’s healthy to be able to express our feelings and to not hold them in. Think of many of the Psalms in which the Psalmists express their deepest feelings to God.
Some of those feelings can make us feel uncomfortable. Like the Psalmist in Psalm 10 who prays for God to “Break the arm of the wicked and evildoers.” And Psalm 137 in which the Psalmist ends his Psalm by saying how happy his people will be when they take the little ones of Israel’s enemies and dash them against the rock. Yes, these verses can be found in our bibles.
One of the wonderful things about prayer is that it’s OK for us to let God know what we are thinking and feeling. Prayer can help us to release our frustrations and to not act upon them in inappropriate ways. And prayer reminds us that God is the true judge of the world and that one day, God will fill the world with justice and peace just as the waters cover the sea.
To be in concert with God is to be able to express our true feelings to God and to be reminded that God is in control. And it also means that we are to be the counter cultural voice in our world in which we reach out in risk taking mission to those who are in need.
And this brings us to the close of our Music and Faith sermon series. If you remember, this series began with how classical music helps us to express our worship and love of God in ways that words alone cannot fully convey. Jazz music is what opens us up to improvise those classical musical notes and be the creative people God has called us to be. Last Sunday, we focused on how country music reminds us that we are all sinners in need of God’s grace especially when we stray from God’s purposes and when we experience the ups and downs of daily living.
And then of course, today’s focus on rock music reminds us to not be satisfied with being the church of the status quo. We are called to be a revolutionary and counter cultural movement in how we live out our faith.
If we are to be in rhythm with God, our individual playlists need all four of these musical styles, classical, jazz, country, and rock & roll. Each one has a way of helping us to play the notes that will lead us in having a deeper faith, a faith that is in rhythm with God.
And so let me end our Music & Faith series, by saying, “Rock on, church! Rock on!”
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