The Time Was Ripe: Bruce Springsteen, Hope and Jesus

On Sunday, April 21, the Wine Before Breakfast band led a service celebrating the music of Bruce Springsteen at the Church of the Redeemer in Toronto. This sermon was preached as a part of the evening’s liturgy.

The time was ripe for the question,
and the suspense was unbearable.

This wasn’t the kind of thing that you played around with.
This wasn’t the time to be elusive.

While some asked the question to confirm their worse suspicions,
for others the question arose from their deepest hopes.

“Give it to us straight,
don’t mess around with us,
if you are the Messiah,
then tell us so plainly.”

The time was ripe for the question,
and the suspense was unbearable.

I mean, hadn’t he just awakened such hopes
with all of his talk about sheep and shepherds?

I am the good shepherd,” he had just proclaimed,
stunning the people with the double audacity of it all.
Audacious for a Jewish man to employ those two words in this way,
­– “I am” –
and audacious with its reference to the deepest Messianic hopes
– the hope for a shepherd leader who would feed the flock,
protect the sheep and bring them home.

So, given that kind of talk,
the time was ripe for the question.

But it was also the right day for such a question.
The time was ripe, even on the calendar.

It was at the time of the Festival of the Dedication.
It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple.

It was the Festival of the Dedication.

The festival that recalled the desecration of the Temple
under Antiochus Epiphanies some two hundred years earlier.
The festival that marked the re-hallowing of that desecrated altar.
The festival that attempted to repair the damage,
to make holy what was now profane,
to put life back together again.

The festival that attempted to restore the promise,
to restore the hope,
to restore the very story of their lives.

So here is Jesus, on this day of all days,
standing in “Herod’s” temple,
with all the ambiguity that this place now carried;
in the face of the disappointment of Israel;
in the midst of a promise left unfulfilled;
before a people longing for a shepherd,
longing for fulfillment,
longing for their dreams to be realized,
indeed, longing for the Messiah,
and the time was ripe for such a question:

“If you are the Messiah,
then tell us so plainly.”

The question seems so simple.
It seems like it demands a simple yes or no answer.

And everything – literally everything! – hangs on it.
This is a question of life and death.
This is a question of hope or despair.
This is a question of dreams or nightmares.
This is a question of promise fulfilled or promise denied.

“If you are the Messiah,
then tell us so plainly.”

And we’ll never catch the intensity of this question,
the deep pathos and longing that the question carries,
if we don’t get the depth of disappointment,
and the terrible sting of disillusionment,
that lies behind the asking.

Indeed, the question remains a matter of mere historical curiousity,
perhaps even a dead question,
if we don’t find ourselves asking it
out of a similar place of disappointment
and disillusionment.

Bruce Springsteen gets it.

He gets the pathos,
he gets the disappointment,
he gets the disillusionment.

The Boss speaks with such authority
not just because of the artistic power of his music,
and not just because the E-Street band has such an unparalleled chemistry,
but because he writes out of that place of disappointment, disillusionment,
and maybe even desecration
of a land, of a people, of a dream.

Springsteen is born in the USA,
and so he chronicles the disappointment of the American dream;
he writes from the place of a dream that has proven to be a lie,
where everything important has vanished into air;
he writes from a place of incurable hope and longing
that will come down to the river,
though he knows the river is dry;
he writes songs for when the bottom has dropped out,
where you once had faith but now there’s only doubt,
for when you pray for guidance and you are met with silence.

And while some will act like they don’t remember
and others like they don’t care,
Springsteen will counter both this amnesia and this numbness
with songs that will tell the stories and awaken memories,
of working class kids getting married too young
and struggling to make a go of it,
of factory workers fueling the American economy
while experiencing a slow and violent death within themselves,
of railroad union workers shot down by the company men,
of little African American girls murdered
when a Birmingham church is bombed,
of Mexican laborers who don’t make it across that desert
to the land of hope and dreams;
and with songs that will cut through the numbness with passion
by naming the disappointment,
refusing to cover up the lies,
blowing away the false dreams that tear us apart,
keeping hope alive in the face of death,
and envisioning a new day dawning,
against the evidence,
in the face of the deception,
in radical reversals,
and, yes, in the spirit of Jesus.

So Springsteen helps us to ask the same question as those folks
on the day of Dedication, in the temple, so long ago:

“If you are the Messiah,
then tell us so plainly.”

In the face of our disappointments,
in the face of the failed promises
in the face of the deceitful dreams,
in the face of our exile,
in the face of our national identity crisis,
in the face of a discredited mythology
in the face of our stolen hope,

“If you are the Messiah,
then tell us so plainly.”

Don’t mess with us on this one,
don’t set us up for another fall,
don’t play with our deepest longings and hopes,
this is life and death stuff for us,
so tell us plainly,
are you the Messiah?

And Jesus replies, so what do you see, and who do you hear?
He just won’t go down the path of a simple ‘yes or no’ answer.

Take a look.
Open your eyes.
Do you see what I am doing?
Have you got vision to see beyond the lies,
beyond the failures,
beyond the media spin,
beyond the rhetoric of the status quo?

Am I the shepherd that you are waiting for?
Well, my sheep can see what’s going on.
And my sheep hear my voice.

There is a recognition here.
Somehow through the cacophony,
through the noise of the bombs,
through the top forty trash,
through the sound of industry,
through lies,
my sheep have ears to hear,
and they hear my voice.

And those who hear my voice,
are those who I know.

I know them by name,
I know them with the love of the great shepherd.

They hear me, I know them, and because they hear and are known,
they follow me.
So get on board little children.

Am I the Messiah?
Well listen closely,
follow me,
and you’ll find out.

But it’s hard to hear, isn’t it?
It’s hard to catch a sense of the meaning through the noise,
the noise all around us,
and the noise the drowns out so much deep within us.

And I guess that’s why we need poets and artists,
story tellers and songwriters.

I guess that’s why we need someone like Bruce Springsteen in our lives.

The Boss isn’t the Messiah,
but I think that he’s got his ears open to Jesus.

The Boss isn’t the answer,
but he’s got all the right questions,

and he has that unique kind of vision that points to the answer.

You see, maybe you didn’t really know how deeply hungry you were,
but Springsteen singing “everybody’s got a hungry heart”
occasioned the awakening of those deep, deep hunger pangs.

Or maybe the doubt and disappointment was leaving you numb with despair,
but then you heard the Boss singing that on
this train,
dreams will not be thwarted,
this train,
faith will be rewarded,
this train,
hear the steel wheels singing,
this train
bells of freedom ringin’
this train,
carries broken-hearted,
this train,
thieves and sweet souls departed,
and somehow, in that song, your faith was renewed,
somehow, the very power of the song gave you hope,
somehow, you knew that the song was for you,
somehow … somehow … as the Boss and the E-Street band were singing
you heard Jesus saying,
I give eternal life, and you will never perish,
No one will snatch you from my hand.
No one will snatch you from my hand.

And somehow, as Springsteen sings,
Rise up shepherd, rise up
your flock has roamed far from the hills
stars have faded, the sky is still
sun’s in the heavens and a new day is dawning
somehow, you can actually see that new day,
you can taste it,
you can feel the warmth of it,
you can begin to imagine anew.

And who knows, you just might get a glimpse of the martyrs standing around the throne
shouting as loud as a Springsteen concert,
“We are alive,
our souls and spirits rise,
to carry the fire and light the spark,
to fight shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart.

We are alive because
salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”

And maybe, just maybe, you’ll catch a vision in which
we will be hungry no more, though everybody has a hungry heart,
we will thirst no more, even though the river is dry,
the sun will no longer strike dead Central American sisters and brothers
striving for El Norte.

And maybe, just maybe, you’ll catch a vision of the promised land fulfilled,
because the Lamb who was slain will be our shepherd,
he will guide us to the waters of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.

No one will snatch us away,
and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.

Every tear from our eyes.

Except, maybe, the tears that well up when we hear those words.
Except, maybe, the tears that well up when we catch that vision.
Except, maybe, the tears that well up when we listen to a Bruce Springsteen song.

The time was ripe for such a question.
The time is always ripe.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian, a retired CRC campus minister, the founder of the Wine Before Breakfast community, and farms with Sylvia Keesmaat at Russet House Farm.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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