Poet and a Prophet
Author and pastor Brian Zahnd joined us last night via ZOOM to kick-off the season of Advent. Several of our churches are sharing his devotional book “The Anticipated Christ: A Journey Through Advent and Christmas”. He was asked a question concerning the prophet Isaiah…something like “Why is it so important we see the prophecy of Christ in Isaiah during the season of Advent? Rather than saying tongue-in-cheek that he [Isaiah] was obviously wrong much of the time…You [Brian] write that he didn’t know how right he was concerning Jesus.”
Zahnd reminded us that Isaiah was a prophet, and prophets are more like poets than conveyors of encyclopedic knowledge. Maybe they’re articulating a longing in the human heart, a crying out in all our human stories and experiences that gesture to a larger story in our midst. Even if it’s unrealized in us. The poem remains and invites us to find our place in the larger narrative.
I’ve had this song stuck in my head for a week now. It’s not new to me. It’s just one that I picked up again, renting space in my imagination this Advent season. It’s a gift from the Holy Spirit, by way of the prophet Bob Dylan.
They say every man needs protection They say that every man must fall Yet I swear I see my reflection Somewhere so high above this wall
I see my light come shinin' From the west down to the east Any day now, any day now I shall be released
A poem is just as much an image cast as it is a word spoken. Maybe that’s why the Hebrew prophets often begin with “the word the prophet saw”. They put pen to parchment and start painting in words.
Dylan’s words paint for me an image of longing, hope, from behind prison walls. I may be locked up now, but I can imagine my life on the outside, "One of these days I’m gonna bust out of this cell." Those bars come in all shapes and sizes…a loveless marriage, a craving that feels like a bottomless pit, a world at war, living next door to your neighbor for 5 years and not knowing their kids names, or getting COVID and realizing how frail our bodies can be…all of these are prisons of one type or another.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in 1943, “A prison cell like this is a good analogy for Advent. One waits, hopes, does this or that—ultimately negligible things—the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside.”
Dylan sees beyond the prison walls. A light shining from the ‘west down to the east’. You may be thinking, “ummm actually…..that’s not scientifically accurate”. The sun rises in the east. That’s where a new day dawns. Over time though, this song from Dylan has been associated with death; another power we are all subject to. Maybe the light he is speaking of is the setting sun, and not the rising sun. Maybe this is the prison from which he longs to break free. Don't let the sun go down on...me.
As a Christian, maybe there’s more to that thought than I even know. Maybe it speaks to a larger truth…a bigger story.
Down here next to me in this lonely crowd
There's a man who swears he's not to blame
All day long I hear him cry so loud
Calling out that he's been framed
Death is something we all face [the lonely crowd], and everybody dies alone. That doesn’t mean you won’t have friends and family at your side, it just means nobody is sharing in that experience in that moment. It’s something we all will face by ourselves. And that can be terrifying. We cry out “It’s not fair!”, we bargain and plead “I’ve been framed” crying aloud like Ebenezer Scrooge to the ghosts of Christmas, “I Want to live!”
And yet….I still feel this song is deeply hopeful. The prophet Dylan paints in picture and melody that he ‘shall be released’, his bonds broken, his burden laid down. I don’t hear resignation in that. Again, the tune is hope-full. To me, there is more the air of assurance. It’s ok. The day of my deliverance is gonna come. I can't manage these bars, but there's someone who can and will.
When we look at the night sky with or without the moon in view, we are surrounded by the dark vast wonder of space, and yet the Sun is still shining, hidden from view behind the earth.
The setting of the sun is the beginning of a new day in the Biblical story. “There was evening and there was morning, the first day.” The light is just around the corner.
Advent is this season that begins in the dark. Israel’s prophets halt us, reminding us to be prepared for the coming of the Lord. No one was expecting God to look and act like Jesus when he was revealed to the world in darkness. And yet Matthew tells us, “the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” quoting Isaiah, no less.
Our vision of Christ’s second coming should be shaped by his first arrival. Light in darkness. Hope beyond the walls of our present imprisonment. ‘God with us’ has arrived to rescue our souls from sin and our bodies from death. What does all that mean? It means I’m gonna keep singing songs of hope. Thanks be to God.