“Long Live the Poets”

Luke 1:68-79, Colossians 1:11-20  

“EMILY: “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?” STAGE MANAGER: “No. Saints and poets maybe…they do some.” ― Thornton Wilder, Our Town

God’s poet in residence – Gabriel the angel – once came to a religious man named Zechariah and told him a remarkable truth and old man Zechariah resisted with all his might. The story lines up with us because the truth is in trouble in America. “Post-truth” has been named as the word of the year for 2016 by Oxford Dictionaries. It is an adjective defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” A few years ago, Stephen Colbert noted the reduced nature of truth by coining a new word, “truthiness.” In our postmodern age, when all institutions are suspect and even regarded as illegitimate, it is no wonder that truth staggers to stay upright.[1]

Something has happened to our ability to hear and see the gospel. Jesus so often cried out, “You have ears but cannot hear; eyes and cannot see.” The gospel, from its beginning, hit people hard: disruptions, turmoil, disagreement, and rage. But we have domesticated the gospel and now it sounds just like our opinions. That was not always the case. I reviewed responses to Jesus that are recorded in the gospels. Here are a few: Some begged him to leave their neighborhood; some tried to throw him off a cliff; some laughed at him; some accused him of being in cahoots with the devil; some took offence at him; some mocked him; some denied him; and they hung him on the cross.

This is what the gospel does. Wherever the gospel goes, there’s trouble.

“Ya got trouble, my friend, right here, I say, in River City.”

For us the trouble is the powerful, transforming, earth-shaking power of the gospel. It’s not just the members of the synagogue in Nazareth in the first century who didn’t want foreigners among them. It’s not just the all-day workers griping about the one-hour workers getting equal pay. It’s not just the elder brother’s envy of the fatted calf celebration for the prodigal son. It’s not just Thomas doubting, Peter denying, all the disciples running from the cross like scared rabbits. It’s not just Zechariah who wants proof. As Martin Luther insisted, “It’s about us!” It’s you and me, brothers and sisters.

We think we are smarter than those first century people. If Gabriel told us that at an advanced old age we were having a baby, we would have jumped right up and said, “Praise the Lord, that’s great. I am so excited.” If we had been there, Jesus would not have died. Stanley Hauerwas tells a story about his cousin Billy Dick. “One Easter, when Billy Dick was six, he was in Sunday School. He was listening to the story of the crucifixion. He suddenly realized that the crucifixion was a bad deal. He waved his hand to attract the teacher’s attention. The teacher finally asked, ‘What is it Billy Dick?’ He stood up and blurted out, ‘If Roy Rogers had been there, those dirty S.O.B.’s would not have been able to do it.’” This is how we normally see ourselves. We are good people, church people, God’s people, gospel people. We believe that if we had been there at the crucifixion we certainly would not have let it happen. We would have stood by Jesus against Herod, Pilate, and the devil himself. We are Christians, by God, and nothing can cause us to disobey the gospel. By now you are aware that I believe that these are extraordinary presumptions.

Gore Vidal wrote a novel called Live from Golgotha in which network executives travel back in time in order to broadcast the crucifixion of Christ, but they find their plans complicated by a cyberpunk hacker intent on erasing Christianity with a computer virus. Far-fetched I thought in 1992 but now when I listen to television preachers go on and on about happiness and positive thinking and being wealthy, healthy, and nice without enough gospel to save the proverbial church mouse, I wonder if the gospel is being erased from the memory of the church. “This do in memory of me” is essential to our faith. The prophets, the Old Testament poets, insisted that we not forget the Lord our God who brought us up out of slavery into the land that flowed with milk and honey.

We forget that Jesus with his gospel has done battle with the powers that would rule our lives and has defeated them. It is an ongoing battle and the Church is essential to it. If I ever became a Catholic it would be because of the Catholic insistence that the church is not an abstract idea nor a voluntary association of believers nor a gathering place for individuals who don’t know they are not their own but are bought with a price; the church is a divinely commissioned and ordered community of apostolic faith, worship, and discipleship through time.

Now, more than ever, when truth is under attack, we the people of the church must make sure that the gospel is back in all its glory and truthfulness. It was, after all, our Lord, who claimed, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free,” and it was our Lord who said, “I am the Truth.” Still we struggle.

The people who worship a God who says all things are possible now live on the slogan, “That’s impossible,” or “We can’t afford that.” That we struggle to even hear a poet can be seen in the response of Zechariah to Gabriel. Zechariah was a charter member of the tribe of reduced truth and he was a priest spending his life in the Temple. Gabriel appeared to Zechariah and told him that his wife Elizabeth would have a child. And Zechariah, steeped in the tradition of reduced truth, of thinking only of what is possible, did not believe Gabriel. 18Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’ 19The angel replied, ‘I am Gabriel. Because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.’

Zechariah, keeper of the poems of Israel, should have known, but through long years of skepticism, he had lost the ability to believe heavenly poets. Zechariah had forgotten the story of his people – Abraham and Sarah. If Sarah, why not Elizabeth? If Elizabeth, why not us opening our hearts to the poetry?

Poetry celebrates by pushing human language beyond its normal boundaries to larger, new truth. Poetry invokes new horizons, perhaps as Gadamer puts it, “a fusion of horizons.”[2] Or as Dr. Seuss imagines, “Life beyond Z”: “My alphabet starts with this letter called yuzz. It s the letter I use to spell yuzz a ma tuzz. You ll be sort of surprised what there is to be found once you go beyond Z and start poking around ” In the words of the poet, Wallace Stevens, “It is possible, possible, possible. It must be possible.” Ezra Pound claimed that the poets are the antenna of the race.

Richard Lischer, in The End of Words, says that we are “suffering a certain exhaustion with words,” and “Mass violence overrides the significance of language.” Violence mocks our words.

Whoever has a vocation in language and proposes to communicate where “deep calls to deep” is in serious trouble in our culture. Lischer minces no words here: “When the message of Jesus Christ can be Nazified, or made the tool of racism, anti-Semitism, apartheid, [Islamophobia],or capitalism, it is time for preachers to “shout our mouths” and take stock of themselves” before speaking again. The idea of Zechariah shut-mouthed for five months may be the very Ph.D. seminar we language-bearers need most. We live among a people with a diminished capacity to hear. The prophecy of Amos and Paul, two of our greatest poets seem to be coming true now:

“The time is surely coming, says the Lord God,    when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water,    but of hearing the words of the Lord. 12 They shall wander from sea to sea,    and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord,    but they shall not find it” (Amos 8:11-12).

“For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, 4and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. 5As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully” (2 Timothy 4:3-5).

I think God spoke in poetry because it means we have to go slow in order to understand. Interpreting poetry is never cut and dried and we must exercise our critical thinking skills to ask, “What does this mean for us?” Anyone who ever struggled to understand the poetry in English 1001 knows. God tells the truth in poetry – with metaphor, analogy, story, and symbols – to make us read slowly and carefully and not jump to conclusions.

For example, listen to this one sentence poem by William Carlos Williams. What do you think it means? so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens  (William Carlos Williams) I didn’t get it the first time I read it. Then the opening line seemed to me like the key: So much depends on our ability to see the objects around us and their deeper meaning. Life depends upon perception – the ability to see with the eyes of the heart. Likewise, the text from Luke insists that perception opens our eyes to the coming of a new world.

In Dead Poet’s Society, Mr. Keating asks the class: Why do I stand up here[on my desk] Anybody?

Dalton: To feel taller!

John Keating: No!

John Keating: Thank you for playing Mr. Dalton. I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.

Poetry begins in the silence of old man Zechariah struck mute by God’s power. It took five more months for the baby to be born and the same amount of time for Zechariah to believe the poem once again. Whenever we allow the Holy Spirit to show up – the giver of poetry, the giver of language, the genius with words, the poem is born – a new creation. Old man Zechariah still can’t speak after the baby is born and can only write on a tablet, “His name is John.” Then it happens. Zechariah breaks into poetry. Zechariah dances a jig, and out pours poetry. Horrified joy. Gospel faith. There’s going to be a king unlike any king that has ever ruled. My boy, my boy, John, will build the king’s highway, smooth his way to the palace.

May our hearts ring with the poetic expression of the gospel. With God all things are possible. In beginning God created the heavens and the earth. He is not here! He has been raised from the dead! May what gets preached here be the real gospel that shakes our foundations, frightens us into joy, and changes our hearts and minds. Long live the poets!


[1] One portion of the Christian church has spent decades attacking the public schools under the distorted disguise that taking prayer out of public schools was destroying the morals of our nation and that evolution was an invention of the devil rather than the studies of Darwin. The university has been under sustained attack for more than forty years as the seeding bed of liberalism, socialism, and communism. The churches are entangled in more social issue brush fires than a battalion of firefighters can put out and the conflicting truth claims tossed about confuse the public. The press has so many different versions of the truth people find it hard to know what to believe any more. America is bereft of mediating institutions.

[2] Gadamer defines “horizon”: Every finite present has its limitations. We define the concept of “situation” by saying that it represents a standpoint that limits the possibility of vision. Hence essential part of the concept of situation is the concept of “horizon.” The horizon is the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point… A person who has no horizon is a man who does not see far enough and hence overvalues what is nearest to him. On the other hand, “to have an horizon” means not being limited to what is nearby, but to being able to see beyond it…[W]orking out of the hermeneutical situation means the achievement of the right horizon of inquiry for the questions evoked by the encounter with tradition. Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. New York: Continuum, 1997, p.302.