Jesus, Dylan and the Signs of the Times

[A sermon preached on Psalm 6, Is. 21.6-10 and Mark 13.1-8 on November 15, 2015, on the occasion of the joint Church of the Redeemer, Wine Before Breakfast, Bob Dylan Rock Eucharist]

 
The snare drum hits, the rest of the band launches into the song,
Al Kooper’s Hammond B3 insinuates itself into the aural space,
and we know that we are in for six minutes of exquisite music.

One play for a dime, three for a quarter.

That’s how the juke boxes worked when I was a kid.
And that usually meant that you could get around
seven minutes of music for twenty-five cents.

Unless you chose “Like a Rolling Stone,” that is.
Play that early Bob Dylan hit and you could
dominate the airwaves for six minutes on a dime,
or eighteen minutes if you chose the same song three times on the quarter.

And that’s what I did.

It’s not that I knew what the heck the song was all about.

Populated by images of Miss Lonely getting juiced at her private school,
mystery tramps, chrome horses,
and a diplomat with a Siamese cat on his shoulder,
the song came across as a catalogue of surreal images
designed to confuse.

But there was something about the chorus that rang true.

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone.

Why did that chorus resonate so deeply with me,
indeed, with my whole generation?

Lost, alone, directionless, profoundly homeless,
living in a world of mass anonymity,
we were the rolling stone generation.

Like the late capitalism that was our birthright,
we were constantly mobile, but going nowhere.

Yes, the chorus said it all.
Indeed, the chorus was our anthem.

But for me the surrealistic images came to crystal clarity
at the end of the last verse.

You used to be so amused
At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse
When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal.

There you have it.

You may laugh at the deposed emperor,
you may be amused at his downfall,
but when he calls, you can’t refuse,
because his downfall is your downfall, and …

When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose,
you’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal.

There was something about this song,
that stripped it all down to the naked truth,
that saw through the pretense, the suburban boredom,
the propaganda and deceit of our culture,
and rendered it all unveiled.

We had no secrets left to conceal.

This is the apocalyptic ministry of Bob Dylan.
This is the ministry of unveiling,
of cutting through the fog;
of seeing what is before your face,
of exposing the lies,
of naming things for what they are.

Bruce Springsteen has said that while Elvis liberated our bodies,
Bob Dylan liberated our minds.

And to do that he needed to create
a new sound that broke the rules
of what a pop singer should sound like,
of what lyrics should convey,
of how long a song for radio should be.

Deeply rooted and informed by the richest poetic traditions,
with an imagination suffused with biblical imagery, narrative and metaphors,
Bob Dylan took his place on the watchtower.
He took up the ministry that is at the heart of the best songwriting:
to look, to listen, to announce.

Let the lookout announce what he sees,
and let him listen diligently to what is transpiring
in the affairs of humanity.

Let him read the signs of the times,
see where history is going,
hear the cries both of arrogant triumph and mournful lament.

Indeed, let the lookout on the watchtower,
let this joker and this thief,
discern where the Spirit is moving and proclaim,
“Fallen, fallen is Babylon;
and all the images of her gods lie shattered on the ground.”

That’s what apocalyptic vision is all about.

An unveiling of history,
a stripping bare of empire,
a dethronement of all false idols,
a tearing down of the sacred canopy,
a desecration of sacred spaces of oppression.

Like Dylan, Jesus changed the rules.
And like Dylan, the fans didn’t always get it.

You see, the disciples of Jesus couldn’t help themselves.

True enough, Jesus had been preaching against the Temple for years,
and yes, he had even staged some street theatre against the Temple
just a day or so earlier,
but when you stood in the shadow of its dazzling beauty,
surely you had to admit that this was a sight to behold.

This architectural wonder was a mountain of white marble.
When the sun rose in the morning it reflected brilliantly
off of the plates of gold that adorned this building.

And so the symbolic power of this built structure
did what it was supposed to do.

By conveying a sense of eternal permanence,
a sense that this was nothing less than the centre of the universe,
a sacred site of holiness and hope, of security and divine legitimacy …
this magnificent building captured the imaginations of all who beheld it,
the disciples of Jesus included.

“Look at this, Rabbi. Just look at the intricacy of this architecture.
Look at how large those slabs of marble are.
Just think for a second of the engineering marvel of this construction.”

And Jesus sighs and tells them that they need to look more closely.

Take a good look, Jesus says, because its all going to come down.
Not one stone … not one stone! … will be left on another.

Look closely and you will see the fault lines.
Look closely and you will see that the façade is just that, a façade,
a cover-up, an appearance of strength and security,
a charade of the sacred.

Look closely and you will see that the centre will not hold
and this building in all of its sacred glory doesn’t just talk,
it swears obscenities,
this is an architecture of propaganda,
all is phoney.

So to help them get a better perspective on things,
Jesus takes them across the valley to the Mount of Olives.
From that vantage point you can see the whole edifice.

And my hunch is that from that perspective the thing
looked even more impressive,
dwarfing not only the people standing at its doors,
but the whole city all around it.

“So when is all of this going to happen?” the disciples ask.
“What are the signs of the times?”

And Jesus gives them a lesson in political discernment.

Abandoning all revolutionary triumphalism he tells them,
that things will get worse before they get better;
that the strongest wall will crumble and fall;
that they must cast aside all this nationalist loyalty and pride;
that a hard rain is gonna fall;
that they must not be deceived by any ‘God-is-on-our-side’ optimism,
that there will be wars, rumours of wars and masters of war;
that there will be terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris;
that nation will rise up against nation;
that there will be earthquakes and famines as creation rebels …
that this whole house of cards will collapse …
but this is only the beginning.

These are the birthpangs of the new age, Jesus tells them.

Birthpangs.

And I’ll bet that many of us are thinking right now
that this labour has gone on long enough.

Maybe some of us are starting to doubt
that there will ever be this new birth.

Maybe the news of the day,
the disappointments of our lives,
the unveiling that has happened before us,
leaves us with not with the lookouts on the watchtower,
nor with Jesus on the Mount of Olives,
but with the psalmist;
languishing, bones shaking with terror,
our very souls paralyzed in fear and anxiety,
weary in our despair,
weak in grief,
every night our bed wet with tears.

I don’t know, is that you?

Jesus says, “don’t be alarmed.”
Don’t be caught off guard.
Don’t be stripped of your hope in the midst of this great undoing.

But maybe you are way beyond alarm.
Maybe you are growing numb from hopelessness.

So it’s a good thing that we brought Bob Dylan to church tonight.
Maybe he isn’t just an apocalyptic visionary, but can be a pastor for us.

In the face of the chaos, the fear and the collapse,
maybe we need to hear Dylan sing,

‘But you and I, we’ve been through that,
and this is not our fate.
So let us not talk falsely now,
the hour is getting late.”

No cover up, no averting our gaze,
but also no being overwhelmed by what is before us.

This is not our fate.
There is a hope that is deeper than fate.

That is a recurring theme,
a rich vein, running through Dylan’s body of work.
There is a hope that is deeper than fate.

In the midst of the storm,
while the bombs are blowing up all around us,
while the thunder rolls over us,
caught in the middle of this cataclysm,
Dylan has the audacious imagination to hear and see
nothing less than the chimes of freedom flashing.

If the vision of the Temple can be deconstructed
so that there will not be one stone left upon another,
might we have the imagination to see these chimes of freedom …
flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight,
flashing for the refugees on their unarmed road of flight?

Might we be able to hear these chimes
tolling for the rebel, tolling for the rake,
tolling for the luckless, the abandoned and forsaked,
tolling for the outcast burning constantly at stake?

Through the cacophony of our own inner storms,
our own inner battles,
do we have the ears to hear deeply within us, those chimes
tolling for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed,
for the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out and worse,
and for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe,
– that would be me, that would be you –
dare we gaze upon the chimes of freedom flashing?

Bob Dylan is not Jesus,
but in his apocalyptic vision,
his unveiling of the times for us,
in his stubborn insistence on hope,
and his deeply biblical vision of freedom,
Mr. Dylan does bear some resemblance to Jesus.

And for that I am deeply grateful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian and the CRC Campus Minister at the University of Toronto. He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is cowritten with Sylvia Keesmaat and entitled Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.

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