A Tale of Two Johns – John the Baptist and Johnny Cash

Text: John 6: 14-29 {The beheading of John the Baptist}

Pastor Dave’s Sermon from last Sunday

There were many requests for Pastor Dave’s sermon this last Sunday built around the life, the music and the theology of Johnny Cash. Below is a summary of that sermon complete with YouTube music video links to the songs that were talked about in the sermon.

Preface:

The life and witness of John the Baptist has much symmetry with the life and witness of Christian musician Johnny Cash. The sermon explored these connections through presenting John the Baptist and then presenting the story, the music, and the theology of Johnny Cash – whose music career spanned six decades and included Country, Folk, Gospel, Blues and Rock.

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Johnny Cash (given name JR Cash) was born in 1932 in Arkansas during the depth of the Great Depression. He had six brothers and sisters and the family saw themselves as poor Southern Baptist cotton farmers. In 1935 the family received land to live and farm as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Johnny’s deep patriotism was rooted in his conviction that his country had helped his family when they were down and out, and that he needed to give back—through military service and through caring for those in need.

When Johnny was 12 his older brother Jack was nearly cut in half in a saw mill accident. Johnny watched him die over the next eight days, and felt tremendous grief as well as guilt (that somehow he was responsible) over Jack’s death. That deep sense of guilt would be a theme that would run throughout his life.

Like John the Baptist – Johnny identified with those on the bottom rung: especially those in prison.

In 1950 Johnny enlisted in the Air Force and was stationed in Germany. It was there that he formed a band. In 1953 he wrote “Folsom Prison Blues” after seeing the documentary movie “Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison”. This was his first hit song, and one that features the ‘railroad’ driving tempo that is a hallmark of his music. He writes the song from the vantage point of a prisoner, even though he had never been to prison (Johnny was never in an actual prison, however, he was jailed seven times through his life . . . and long felt that if he had been poor rather than a music star, that he would have ended up in prison for sure). One of the dominant themes that runs through his entire life is the plight of those who are in prison. Two of his bestselling records were live recordings from prison: Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (1968) and Johnny Cash Live at San Quentin (1969).

Folsom Prison Blues

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kMyzoHBtaME

Like John the Baptism—Johnny called for not just talking about faithfulness, but living faithfulness . . . and Johnny also humbly acknowledged his shortcomings.

When Johnny returned from his military service in Germany, he and Vivian Liberto were married in 1954. His second hit song, “I Walk the Line” (1956) is about his personal commitment to marriage, fidelity and living within appropriate boundaries. Throughout his life, Johnny would openly admit his failure to live up to the ideals of marriage, fidelity and living within appropriate boundaries. In the 1970’s when he worked closely with Rev. Billy Graham, Johnny would regularly openly confess: “I’m the worst sinner of them all.”

I Walk the Line”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MYEBtRcmo4o

Like John the Baptist – Johnny identified with those on the bottom rung: Native Americans

In the late 1950’s Johnny began to share about the deep injustices that Native American’s experienced. This was not popular in an era when ‘cowboy and Indian’ movies were everywhere. Yet, like John the Baptist, Johnny spoke truth to power . . . even when it was costly (John the Baptist lost his head when he spoke truth to power). In 1964, Johnny’s entire album “Bitter Tears” was devoted to the plight of Native Americans. The album included “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” — a Pima Native American soldier who was in the group of solders that raised the flag at Iwo Jima. Ira was celebrated by the US Army after the war; however, less than a dozen years later he died drunk and destitute on the Pima Reservation in Arizona in 1955. The song rose to #3 on the Country charts and broke into the consciousness of the country.

The Ballad of Ira Hayes”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vmNKspKUaTQ

Taking His Own Life . . . . Johnny’s epiphany in Nickajack Cave

In October of 1967, Johnny was at rock bottom. Years of drug and alcohol abuse had taken a toll. He had been unfaithful in his marriage and that marriage had come to a ragged end. His music career was also in steep decline. Feeling very much like “the worst sinner of them all”, he drove alone to Nickajack Cave in Tennessee . With nothing but a flashlight, he walked into Nickajack Cave fully expecting to never come out. He walked deep into the cave until his flashlight gave out, he then continued on in absolute darkness until he felt he was so deep that his body would “never be found”. He then lay down to die. And as he lay deep in the bowels of that cave, void of all light. . . something happened. While Johnny felt there were never actual words . . . he would describe it as “an epiphany”, “a grace”, “a knowing that God was there”. Suddenly, he realized that he had made a horrible mistake, but it was too late . . . there was no way out. Yet, despite the obvious futility of it, he began to feel his way in the dark. He groped his way along for quite some time, and then he felt a little whisper of a breeze and followed it . . . until he saw daylight. His friend and soul-mate June Carter was there at the entrance of the cave along with her mother. June had a premonition that she needed to be there.

In alignment with John the Baptist’s call for Repentance . . . Johnny turned his life Godward.

The epiphany in the darkness of Nickajack Cave truly was a turning point for Johnny. Johnny and June were married five months later at Franklin Methodist Church in Kentucky. It was a marriage that would thrive for the next 35 years until 2003, when both June and Johnny would die . . . less than 4 months apart. Johnny was passionate and open about “his ministry”. In 1969, Rev. Billy Graham, seeing the fruits of Johnny’s sincere “repentance and turn-around” reached out to him to help his son Franklin who was also struggling with addiction. It was the beginning of a partnership and friendship that would continue until Johnny’s death in 2003. Johnny joined Billy on a number of crusades. Billy realized that Johnny’s starkly confessional and self-deprecating honesty allowed him to connect with people turned off by the church. Johnny’s life, his music, and his testimony became a mainstay at many Billy Graham crusades.

Johnny’s repentant turn-around led him to do a number of gospel albums. He incorporated gospel music into his hit TV show: The Johnny Cash Show (1969 – 1971). He produced a movie on the life of Jesus: “The Gospel Road”. Johnny was also deeply drawn to the life of the Apostle Paul – whose own conversion he could relate to. This led to him writing a book on the life of Paul, which he titled: “The Man in White”. Johnny deeply resonated with Paul’s confessional words in the seventh chapter of Romans:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate . . . For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand . . . wretched man that I am!

Who will rescue me from this body of death?

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Like John the Baptist Johnny was willing to speak Truth to Power . . . His opposition to the Vietnam War and writing the song, The Man in Black

In 1970, Johnny was flying high. His albums were at the top of both the Country and Pop charts, he had a hit TV show, and he was touring with Billy Graham. However, deep within himself he came to believe that the Vietnam War was not a righteous war. In 1971 he wrote a song that communicated his deepest convictions: his identification with the poor and downtrodden, with those who struggled with addictions, with those in prison and with the elderly. The song also directly confronted the Vietnam War:

I wear the black in mournin’ for the lives that could have been,

Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.

And I wear it for the thousands who have died,

Believen’ that the Lord was on their side.

I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died,

Believen’ that we all were on their side.

In 1971 the Country music world was not speaking out against the war, especially in the South. Yet, despite losing a portion of his fan base, Johnny spoke out openly about the war. Even more significantly Johnny shared openly why he felt it was wrong: it was not in alignment with the words of Jesus. This led to some tension with Billy Graham at the time; yet, years later Billy would talk about how he, not Johnny, was wrong about the war and the way of Jesus.

The Man in Black” (performed the day it was written)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t51MHUENlAQ

Dying . . . after a lifetime of open repentance . . . the final years.

As Johnny moved into his 70th year, death was all around him. His close friend Waylon Jennings died in 2002 . . . Johnny and Waylon roomed together and abused themselves with drugs and alcohol together in the early 1960s. Johnny was now severely diabetic and his body was spent . . . the many years of drug and alcohol abuse had taken a toll. Yet, what has hardest on Johnny was that June was struggling with heart disease.

Johnny chose to share his growing angst with death musically through the song “Hurt”. It is a dark and painful song, filled with existential despair. It also allowed Johnny, who had been clean for 20 years, to confessionally remind the world of his own addic tion to drugs.

Hurt”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vt1Pwfnh5pc

“Hurt” was a big hit, and it re-introduced Johnny Cash to a new generation of people who were previously unaware of him and his music. When June died, May 1, 2003, her final words to Johnny were: “Get to work.” Johnny did just that. In the last four months of his life he recorded 60 songs. Most of these songs were deeply confessional and touched upon spiritual themes. Most of them were released by his family over the seven years following Johnny death September 12, 2003.

The first hit from the songs released posthumously was very much a song filled with “John the Baptist” repentance: “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”. Johnny took that old spiritual and made it confessional – rather than preachy.

God’s Gonna Cut You Down

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DQTCS6aWRSc

With the success of “Hurt” and “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”, Johnny’s message of ‘repentance’ was as clear as ever. Yet, the question that emerged was: Did Johnny only know the guilt and repentance? In other words, was there grace and hope and eternal life within his consciousness?

Or to connect it to the words of the Apostle Paul (Johnny’s “Man in White”), it was clear that Johnny knew this part of Romans 7 that said:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want,

but I do the very thing I hate . . . wretched man that I am.

But what about the transcendent hope; the final words in response to the question:

Who will rescue me from this body of death?

In 2010, Johnny’s family released an album entitled: “Ain’t No Grave” with song after song that affirmed that Johnny knew not only the humble repentance . . . . he also knew Paul’s transcendent words of life and life eternal:

Who will rescue me from this body of death?

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Ain’t No Grave Can Hold My Body Down”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RyfCTZB6Nrk

Amen.

 

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