May 14, 2023 ~ 6th Sunday of Easter ~ Festival of the Christian Home
Rev. Beckie Sweet
Some of us probably have stashed away in a box somewhere, some old 45 rpm records. If you have some from the 50’s and early 60’s (before my time!) you have have Elvis grinding out “You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog,” or Buddy Holly and the Crickets hiccupping “Peggy Sue;” Chuck Berry’s joyful hot licks in “Maybellene,” the Coasters slapstick tour de force “Charlie Brown,” the mournful “Tears on My Pillow” by Little Anthony and the Imperials, or the impenetrable and probably scandalous “Louis, Louis” by the Kingsmen.
In some of these dusty stacks, you may find a recording by the great blues master, Jimmy Reed. A share-cropper’s son, Reed brought the throbbing harmonica-and-guitar-driven black rhythm-and-blues of the Mississippi Delta into the popular rock-and-roll mainstream. In the years since then, many of us fancied ourselves as part of the budding rock band. My friends and I did! We would play and replay 45’s we had purchased at the church rummage sale attempting in vain to capture the sound. But how do you imitate someone like Jimmy Reed? The pain-soaked cries of his mahogany voice could not be imitated by our too-tight, too-white, suburban throats.
There’s an interesting story behind the Jimmy Reed records. In placing the phonograph needle again and again in the grooves of Jimmy Reed’s records, you began to notice something curious. If one listened very carefully, there could be heard ever so faintly in the background, a soft woman’s voice, murmuring in advance, the next verse of the song. The story that grew up around this – and perhaps it is true – was that Jimmy Reed was so absorbed in the bluesy beat and the throbbing guitar riffs of his music that he simply could not remember the words of his own songs. Sometimes succumbing to the temptations of alcohol and late-night parties had clouded his mind. He needed help with the lyrics, and the woman’s voice was none other than that of his wife, Mary (“Mama Reed”), devotedly coaching her husband through the recording session by whispering the upcoming stanzas into his ear as he sang.
Many Christians will surely recognize a parallel experience. Jesus tells his followers that the role of the Holy Spirit is, in effect, to whisper the lyrics of the gospel song (or gospel story) in the ears of the faithful. When Jesus was present, he was the one who instilled in them the right words, coached them through the connection with his teachings, with the words of the Hebrew prophets, and taught them the joyful commandments. But now that Jesus was approaching his death, now that he is drawing near to the time of departure, the disciples would soon be on their own without him. So the task of reminding the faithful of Jesus’ teachings would be handed over to the Holy Spirit:
If you love me, you will keep my commandments…
And you will be given another Advocate, to be with you forever.
This is the Spirit of Truth.
The primary task, then, of the Holy Spirit, is reminding the faithful of the truth, jogging the memories of the followers of Jesus about all of his commandments so that they can keep them in love, whispering the lyrics of the never-ending hymn of faithful obedience in their ears. It may surprise us to think of the Holy Spirit in this way, as a quiet, whispering teacher of the commandments of Jesus. Often the Spirit is advertised in flashier terms: The Spirit gives us spiritual ecstasy; the Spirit evokes speaking in unknown tongues; the Spirit prompts dramatic and miraculous healings. Indeed, the Holy Spirit of God does do all of these things. But these are all derivative of the one, primary activity of the Spirit – reminding the children of God about everything that Jesus taught and commanded, whispering the gospel lyrics into the ears of the forgetful faithful.
When Jimmy Carter was running for President of the United States, one of the more vivid moments in the campaign passed by almost unnoticed. One Sunday morning, candidate Carter had been worshipping at the Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. When the service was over, he exited the church into a swarm of press encamped on the church’s front lawn. Cameras whirring, lights glaring, microphones thrust forward, the media mavens moved in for interviews, pushing themselves to think of clever questions to ask a presidential candidate on the way out of a church. “Did you like the sermon?” “Did you enjoy the choir this morning?” “Do you plan to remain a Baptist in Washington?” — on and on the trivial questions spewed.
Suddenly, a reporter, probably in a stroke of luck, shouted out a question that genuinely mattered: “Mr. Carter, suppose when you are President, you get into a situation where the laws of the United States are in conflict with what you understand to be the will of God. Which will you follow?”
Carter stopped, looked up, and blinked into the bright Georgia sun, obviously turning the question over in his mind. Then, perhaps still “in the Spirit of the Lord’s Day,” perhaps with the Spirit gently whispering the lyrics of the gospel story into his ears, he turned toward the reporter and replied, “I would obey the commandments of God.” Alert aides, alarmed by his candor, unnerved by their candidate’s near-treasonous remark, hurriedly whisked him away from the press and into a waiting car. Carter, the politician, should have avoided the question, or espoused loyalty to the law of the land, but Carter, the Christian, had the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ whispering in his ear, “Do you love me? The world cannot see or know me, but do you love me? Do you keep MY commandments?”
The reason we need the Holy Spirit murmuring, whispering the gospel story in our ears, of course, is because we are notoriously forgetful! As one commentator has pointed out, “an early Christian definition for being lost…was ‘to have amnesia.’” We are amnesiacs who cannot keep our calling clearly in mind. Like the great Jimmy Reed, we are caught up in the rhythms of the music and the temptations of our human existence, and we forget the lyrics of the gospel story. We know that we are created to serve and love one another, but the pressure builds, and the temptation to seek revenge is strong and we simply forget who we are, whose we are, and what we are created to do and be in life. When, in situations of challenge and stress, we remember the comfort, love, and responsibilities of our faith in Christ Jesus, it is because the voice of the Holy Spirit whispers the lyrics and claim of the gospel story in our ears.
Quite a few years ago, I had the privilege of meeting and visiting with Violet Boyd, the grandmother of 12-year-old Jaya, who came by herself to worship in the congregation I was serving. Violet was in the end stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. I was told that Violet had been a Sunday School teacher for many years in her Methodist Church in Illinois, teaching primary grades. Now, in her declining health, Violet had not spoken more than a couple of words in the previous two years. Wanting to establish a line of communication with Violet, I began to ask her if she remembered what she had taught those children in Sunday School. There was no response, or even recognition of my presence. So, I began to offer the Lord’s Prayer, and Violet began to speak a few words along with me. I recited John 3:16, and again, a few words were uttered by Violet. But by the time I sang, “Jesus Loves Me,” Violet was singing almost half of it with me – the Spirit was whispering the lyrics in her ear. Even though Violet’s mind was no longer attached to the basic events of life, she could still hear the whispering of the Spirit, and connect that to the scriptures and songs she had learned and taught in her younger days. And her soul was at peace!
We’ve all been there: absorbed in the rhythms of life, unthinkingly succumbing to the temptations around us, too busy to consider what Jesus would have us to do. We’ve been forgetful of the scriptural teachings, careless in our relationships by conveying hurtful words and deeds. We have neglected to be intentional about connecting with our Savior and pursuing the ministries of justice, love, and witness that Jesus entrusted to us. By the grace of God, the Spirit whispers the lyrics of the saving gospel in our ears, and we have the opportunity again to join in the song, and to let the melody soar through our lives in Christian ministry.
Listen! Listen for the Spirit of the Living Christ whispering the gospel song, the gospel story to you! Listen!