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Sermon: How to Decorate Your Life

December 11, 2011

Isaiah 61:1-4, 11

When it comes to decorating our home for Christmas, my wife Desiree and I have two distinctly different styles.  My style could be described as minimalist—or as Desiree puts it, “Grinchy”—and her style is best described as Times Square.

If I lived by myself, my house might have a tree during the Christmas season, and most times, that tree would get decorated.  In Desiree’s ideal world, the house would be lit up like the house from the Chevy Chase movie Christmas Vacation, only not so subtle.  We’re different.

You have to admit that Christmas decorations are a part of the charm of the holiday season, whether you like a little or a lot.  Lights and wreaths and song reflect the festive holiday mood, and help us to enter into that spirit of joy and peace that we connect with the birth of Jesus.

The promises that Christians have come to associate with Jesus’ coming, the words of the prophets of Israel—particularly the prophet Isaiah—are themselves associated with festive rejoicing.  Today’s text takes us right to the reasons Jesus’ birth is such a joyful occasion.  Jesus’ coming brings good news.  It brings freedom and reconciliation and restoration.

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…to comfort all who mourn.

That is a reason to rejoice!

Isaiah wasn’t speaking about Jesus specifically in these verses.  He was prophesying about the one who would bring the people of Israel back from exile so they could rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple.  It is hard to know which historical figure Isaiah intends.  It could even be the pagan king Cyrus, who gave the order to allow the exiles to go home.  But Jesus himself used these verses in his first public preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:14-30).  He took this mantle of liberation upon himself.  He is the one full of God’s spirit, anointed to bring good news, and we rejoice at his birth.

What I love about this text from Isaiah is that this inner joy at freedom and liberation is reflected in the outer person.  The people who were formerly mourning at the state of affairs of their lives, who were wearing the ashes of repentance will now be wearing a garland.  Isn’t that great Christmas imagery?  They will wear the oil of gladness, and a mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.  They will decorate themselves on the outside because they have been renewed on the inside.  They were formerly depressed of spirit, and mourning the loss of their homeland, but that has changed.  Something new and wonderful has happened.  Do not weep, but rejoice, and let the whole world see you are rejoicing.

Some people believe that in this nation our freedom to celebrate Christmas is imperiled, that our ability to show the world that we are rejoicing at our remembrance of the birth of Jesus is under threat what with the insidious “Happy Holidays” and the so-called War on Christmas.  And you know what, there are some Americans who believe we should not display our garland of salvation and oil of gladness to the world.  Quite in opposition to the prophet Isaiah, they believe that public rejoicing over the birth of Jesus is completely inappropriate.  They are called Pilgrims, and they arrived in this land hundreds of years ago.  They established the first colonies that became the United States of America.  And they didn’t like Christmas.

The following notice comes from the 1700s:

PUBLICK NOTICE: The observation of Christmas having been deemed a sacrilege, the exchanging of gifts and greetings, dressing in fine clothing, feasting and similar satanical practices are hereby FORBIDDEN with the offender liable to a fine of five shillings.

The notice from the prophet Isaiah comes from the Sixth Century b.c.: give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.  There may be a time for mourning and repentance, but the salvation of Jesus Christ gives us true reason to rejoice.

In my curmudgeony life, Christmas decorations work on me.  I don’t put up a tree and put out lights or otherwise decorate my house because I am feeling joyful, I do it because my wife orders me to do it.  I do it because a date on the calendar has arrived, and it is time to start hauling up the boxes from beneath the house.  Yet, as the decorations go up, as the houses light up one by one, my spirit lifts a little bit.  I become less of an adult weighed down by the problems of the world, and more of a child, imbued with a spirit of hope and anticipation.  The outer decorations do not come up because I am happy on the inside, but I become happy on the inside because I see the festivity of the outer decorations.

And so, if that happens because of some lights and an inflatable Santa Claus driving a stock car on the lawn down the street, why couldn’t I intentionally decorate my life to have the same effect—on myself and on others.  If my life were that radiant, don’t you think it would have an effect on me and my mood?  Don’t you think it would have an effect on others?  We always made fun of the science teacher in high school that wore a tie that had Christmas lights that actually lit up, but think about it.  It is hard to take yourself too seriously if you’re wearing a tie like that.  How grumpy can you get if you’re wearing a tie that has twinkling lights on it?

So I thought, what would it take to decorate my life?  How do you decorate a life anyway?  That got me thinking about our Advent wreath.  There are four candles here.  They are named Hope, Peace, Love and Joy.

Decorate your life with Hope.  Tutor a young child or plant a tree.  Those are hopeful acts.  They display confidence in a future God will provide.  Decorate your life with Hope.

Decorate your life with Peace.  Give a telephone call to someone with whom you have been estranged.  Share a plate of cookies with the meanest neighbor on the block.  Those actions fulfill our calling to be peacemakers.  Decorate your life with Peace.

Decorate your life with Love.  Give up a precious Saturday and donate your time to building a Habitat for Humanity house.  Visit a lonely neighbor.  Those kinds of sacrificial actions echo the sacrificial love of God through Jesus Christ.  Decorate your life with Love.

Decorate your life with Joy.  Join a group of Christmas carolers.  Take a poinsettia to someone in the hospital or a nursing home.  Do something—anything—that adds a little more beauty to this already beautiful world God has put into our hands.  Decorate your life with Joy.

As much as I hate to admit it, I think Desiree is right…again.  The outer decoration can help create an inner reality.  It isn’t simply that I put up a tree or take on the oil of gladness because I am joyful and happy.  They help me to become joyful and happy.  And why am I joyful and happy?  It certainly isn’t because everything in the world and in my life is perfect.  It is because God has brought good news.  The oppressed are being released.  The brokenhearted are being comforted.  The captives are being set free.  God has already begun this work, and it continues, and that is why we continue to celebrate birth of the agent of God’s saving work, Jesus Christ.

So go, decorate your life with Hope, Peace, Love and Joy.

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