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Advent 1: Turn Out to Be Something

December 1, 2019
Isaiah 2:1-5        Matthew 24:36-44

My daughter gave me a book of poems for my birthday written by Ashleigh Young – her MA supervisor from last year at Victoria and now her editor. One that struck me is called “Turn Out to Be Something”.


Turn Out to Be Something

I can wait! I can vanish from the fossil record
for twenty-five million years, as long as an amateur fossil hunter
someday finds a large and puzzling chunk of my jaw.
I can wait to become a writer
only to turn out to be a small writer
with stubby wings and a feathery appearance.
I can wait for someone to collect me from the sickbay when I’m five,
wait so long I’ll be fully recovered and grown when they come.
I can wait for a layer of sandstone to form over me
and freeze and thaw and freeze and be shattered
and be piped into the sea     as long
as that turns out to be something.

Each minute moves in a slightly different rhythm
to the others, like tiny flowers rippling at high altitude
or heads gathered around an archeological dig.
I can wait hours for the plane to come in
only for it to land and someone else’s dad to get out.
Definitely another New Zealand dad, but with
different colouration, different call.     I’m still waiting
and that’s something
though it might also be nothing.

When you say kererū I can wait for you to realise you mean kākā
only for you to carry on for the rest of your life
saying kererū when you mean kākā.
I can wait for the unkind person to turn out to be unhappy
wait for them to ask forgiveness and then
punch someone new in the throat and ask forgiveness again.
I can wait, as long as forgiveness is withheld.
I can wait at the table until my hunger turns me
into a barnacle searching for space on an overpopulated hull.
I can wait to behold the great alien snowscape
only for it to be a pile of weevily flour on the floor.
I can wait     as long as it still turns out to be something.

I can wait at the bottom of the crevasse with you
as long as the glacier shrinks back someday and we are found.
I can spend all the livelong day patting a dog that turns out to be a coyote.
I can wait years for news of a bizarre specimen washed up on the beach
only for it to turn out to be a person.
I can wait, as long as they turn out to be known to somebody.
I can wait for as long as I live, only to die
as long as this turns out to be something.

– Ashleigh Young – [from ‘How I get Ready’ (VUP, 2019)] Used with permission

One thing I like about this poem is the poet’s sense of our orientation as human beings towards the future… not just for ourselves but for the whole world we are a part of… we can wait… it somehow matters that it turns out to ‘be something’ and not nothing.

It strikes me that this is a deep Christian intuition. The world is ‘creation’ not simply because God is the reason it exists (and is not nothing). It is creation because God makes the universe to be something in the end. Creation is a moving process. Time is part of what it means. And so deep down we are creatures who can wait.

Turning to the Bible now… It’s Advent. Advent means coming. Jesus is coming (look busy!). The Bible knows that the future informs our every move. And both our bible readings have their own takes what looking to the future might mean… really different takes if you think about it.

Isaiah has this enormously positive vision of all the nations of the earth, of their own volition turning their swords into ploughshares and gathering together in peace, cancelling all military training, refusing to learn war any more. In the light of this vision Isaiah calls out ‘Of course this won’t work in practice, people’ – nah just kidding, he says, ‘O house of Jacob let us walk in the light of the Lord.’

Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel offers us quite a dark vision of the future. He imagines a time like that told about in the story of Noah’s ark, when (as Genesis says) the earth was “filled with violence.” But violence that no one really notices… in this world they are still eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage – it’s an image of business as usual, everyday life continuing on. The violence is largely hidden from sight perhaps. In this vision the coming of a Messianic figure (whether it be Noah in Genesis or The Son of Man in Matthew) is associated not with peace and joy, but with many (the large majority) being swept away like those who we caught unaware by the flood and some (a small minority) holding firm to the way of God and not being swept away, instead being ‘left behind’ (like people floating in an ark). And then he has another dark vision of a house owner drying to keep God at bay, trying to stay in control of his house and the Son of Man (the representative of God in the end – Jesus we might say) is like a thief trying to break into the house that refuses a place for God.

Two dramatically different visions of the future (positive and negative). 1. In one God is not merely welcomed. God is the joy of all people. Peace is established. 2. In the other God is a threat, a thief outside the door, or a dangerous storm, possibly symbolising the storm of violence like water behind a cracked dam (hidden from sight by business as usual). And when the dam breaks it swirls around God’s peacemakers and threatens to sweep them away also.

Which begs us to ask the question. Which is true? What is the future that should inform our actions? What is our advent? Can both of these images be true in some way? What does it mean for us to be people who like the poet… hope that our lives ‘turn out to be something’.

But first let’s go back for a moment to two dark versions of the future: the surprise-that-sweeps-you-away-like-a-flood version and the household-controlled-by-the-householder-keeping-God-outside-in-the-night version. They reminded me of the old debate between readers of George Orwell’s ‘1984’ and readers of Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’. In one vision the world is controlled by Big Brother like the housekeeper (state, corporations). The control is external. And in the other vision the citizens are unaware of the violence that defines their life because they are drugging themselves into happiness – the control is internal. If their world collapses it will come as a total surprise – not because they don’t know where to look for the threat but because they think they live in the best of all possible worlds. They think they are fine. The control is internal (like with social media, consumerism, addictions etc). Two dark visions which look like they have found their perfect fusion in our late capitalist world.

Which leads me to another question: If that is the world we live in… What would make for Isaiah’s vision to come true? What has to happen to the world we live in for the nations of the world to be so transformed that they beat their proverbial swords into ploughshares? (talk to your neighbour)

What would make Big Brother let go of his fears and control? What would pop the bubble of self-delusion, distracting ourselves to death with various addictions and escape routes – what would open our minds to the possibility that the brave new world (American dream? nightmare) is a violent delusion?

And once you realise that something has to happen you start to realise that there is no kingdom without judgement. No heaven without temporary hells along the way. The world needs to be invaded by a thief, the world needs to be swept away as if by a flood and revealed for the unstable lie it is… before ultimately it can enter into the kingdom of peace. I think Jesus knew that. The world will need a truth that sets it free. And it may be a painful truth.

I am rather fond of an internet meme which shows a couple of wealthy shoppers carrying bags with expensive fashion labels on them who are caught in a flood and rising waters – possibly reminiscent of the threat of climate destruction. And the caption is:

It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism…

We can imagine physical disasters but something which emerges as a judgement on our way of life… that we cannot imagine. We cannot imagine the end of this cultural world – like God breaking in like a thief into an expensive house…

So what does St Paul think about all this. Of the arrival of Jesus in the world – ‘second coming’ we sometimes say.

1 Corinthians 15 Paul very clearly is with Isaiah on this. God will bring the whole world into the peace of God’s life, that all will be saved… but in a complex manner.

See vs 21

“For, since death comes through a man, resurrection of the dead also comes through a man. For just as in Adam ALL die, so also in the Anointed ALL will be given life.”

Everyone, all of humanity, not certain races, all of humanity is caught up in this destructive way of living that is ruining our world – Paul thinks of it as the dominion of death, or spiritual death. Paul has a kind of parallelism in his rhetoric. The problem effects us all, the solution will be given to us all. All who were drawn into the life represented by Adam will also be drawn into the life of Jesus the peace-King. (Like Isaiah)

But not through some magic button… judgement (the way in which our self-understanding, our ways of being are interrupted by God and reoriented) means that Paul is does not think of salvation as a simple matter like walking through a pearly gate … our bubbles need to be popped, illusions need to be shed, death needs to be tamed … So Paul describes a staged process of judgement and redemption.

“… all will be given life, each in the proper order; the Anointed [Jesus] as the first-fruits, thereafter those who are in the Anointed at his arrival [those who have been drawn into the life of Jesus as disciples], then the full completion, when he delivers the Kingdom to him who is God and Father, when he renders every Principality and every Authority and Power ineffectual. For he must reign till he puts all enemies under his feet. The last enemy rendered ineffectual is death…

…vs 28 And when all things have been subordinated to him, then will the Son himself also be subordinated to the one who has subordinated all things to him, so that God may be ALL IN ALL.”

[for further discussion of the question of universal salvation check out Robin Parry’s lecture series

The age of peace is coming… don’t arm yourself for business as usual the violent system we live in will be disarmed… the swords we use to keep the third world in captivity will be disarmed…. etc The system will go down. Prepare yourself for the age of peace.

Judgement will not be easy… but a painful truth and a difficult transition. The bible often imagines it like burning (but purifying) flames.

Peace comes in the end. God redeems in the end. But in a kind of deep connection with that new dawn… there is a breakdown of an old system of violence controlled by death

Judgement then peace… they are two dimensions of eschatological vision. Both are true.

For in the end says St Paul, God will be all in all.

It really will turn out to be something.

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