The theme for this Advent and for this month’s stewardship focus is ‘Live Simply,’ which is appropriate given what life tends to be like as we gear up for the holiday season. There are parties to go to and shopping to get done. It seems that everything amps up, and we arrive at Christmas exhausted and ready to listen to something other than Christmas music. Or maybe it’s just me. We get caught up in all the things that need to happen—we think—in order to make this Christmas memorable. Or perhaps it’s in order to fulfill all the obligations we are committed to.
If you were to google ‘simple living,’ you would get over 122 million references—not so simple. Some of them talk about how you must be frugal in order to live simply. Make your own shampoo and laundry soap—I tried that. Wasn’t great. Grow your own food on the roof of your apartment building. Or, to live simple, you must reduce the amount of stuff you use and the square footage of your house—reduce your carbon footprint and your waste. All fine ideas, but it can actual be quite complex.
Some references talk about living off-the-grid completely. But I don’t think living simply means living cheaply or living with less stuff, necessarily. The documentary, ‘Affluenza,’ states at one point, “We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t know.” We clutter up our lives with stuff and activities that we are told will make us popular or admired—that will make us happy.
‘Living simply’ asks of us: what do we actually use and why? What do we really need and why? What is important to us…and why?
What was important to the Israelites of Isaiah’s time was safety. At the point where the west and the east meet, they were often the battleground for superpowers to take over. Control Israel, and you control the export systems of the world. But instead of dreaming of a different world as Isaiah suggested, they were making alliances with nations who would as easily trample them as look at them. They no longer trusted the God—who brought them out of the land of Egypt—to rescue them from the nations. They put their faith in the might of their neighbors, praying it wouldn’t backfire. They went about their daily lives, yet always looking behind them.
In contrast, the disciples in Matthew couldn’t help but look ahead in an effort to prepare themselves. When will the end happen? How are we to be ready? They were looking for a victory and simply waiting for it to happen.
We are not that different. We put our trust in our stuff before we trust God. We put our trust in our weapons—both the kind made of iron and that of words and hate and mistrust. We put our trust in human progress. But Jesus says—Isaiah says—Paul says—‘Wake Up.’ They offer us a different story—a story that defies nation against nation and accumulation with the image of transformation—transforming what was meant to bring death into that which brings life.
Isaiah’s vision has inspired a number of people over the years to do remarkable things. You know, that part that dreams of a time when people will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks—when what was meant for death will be redeemed into what is meant for life.
In December of 1959, the USSR dedicated a commissioned statue to the United Nations. It depicted a man, hammer raised, beating his sword into a plow. Given the timeframe of the dedication, it’s an audacious gift from a superpower to an organization meant to keep superpowers in check.
In 1974, a group of six veterans in San Francisco saw the need to take care of their comrades. They created a ministry that provides needs assessment, case management, employment, training, housing, and legal assistance to over 3000 veterans in the area. Their ministry is called Swords to Plowshares, again taking what was made for war and death and turning it into a thing of peace and life.
After the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, a group of Christians researched the process of turning guns into garden tools. Five years later, they accepted their first weapon and began a ministry that not only transforms tools of war into tools of life; they go deeper. Living in a community where street shootings are ‘normal,’ they ask where people get the guns, why they carry them, and how to change the culture.
It’s more than a political agenda—it’s a matter of life and death—a matter of faith. In today’s readings, both Paul and Jesus send out a call for people to wake up. Wake up from sleep—salvation is near. Keep awake, for you don’t know when the Lord is coming—like a thief in the night. Wake up from the satiated slumber of one who has more than you need; from the unsatisfied clamber for the big deals and massive savings on things you would otherwise not buy. Wake up from the day-to-day monotony of one who has gotten caught up in your own story. Wake up from the death-wielding, security-seeking, bars-on-the-windows kind of life that is afraid of the world. And wake up to hope. Wake up to peace. Wake up to life that really is LIFE. Wake up to the way of the Lord.
The passage from Matthew is part of a larger monologue by Jesus. The whole chapter is filled with gloom and doom. He tells about the destruction of the Temple, to which the disciples ask when it will happen. And Jesus spirals into his teachings about the end of the world. Nations will rise against nation, kingdoms will fall, there will be famines and earthquakes. They will hand you over to be persecuted—just like Jesus. False prophets will try to stake their claim as Messiah, and others will claim they know where the Messiah is. But the Son of Man will come when no one is looking for him because we are so focused on ourselves—what we want, what we need, what we don’t have. Isn’t that why wars begin? Because people nations focus more on getting what they want, what they need, what they don’t have instead of helping each other create those things so that all have life.
That’s what took Jesus to the cross. We may celebrate God’s faithfulness, but it was simply the fear of new life that got him killed. It was the fear of equity, the fear of the masses getting what they need, the fear of the unknown. It was the same fear that starts wars that killed the Messiah. But fear and death and violence don’t get the last word. God does. Life does.
So, when the world tells us that to have control over things is just a matter of more—more stuff, more security, more land, more freedom—Jesus reminds us that it won’t make us happy. It won’t make us better. It won’t make us freer or safer or more content. It won’t give us life. Instead, he takes all of the ways in which we create death and turns it into life. He makes us life-givers when it seems everything around us wants to take life.
This Advent, as we prepare to receive Jesus again for the first time, we are reminded that fear and discontent only feed each other. True life, simple life, is found in the footsteps of Christ, walking into death so that new life can spring forth.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church