The Miracle of Christmas

…Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel… – Isaiah 7:14

What is Christmas?  It is such a simple question, but the answers that you would receive if you asked it of a cross-section of people would be widely varied.  You might think that they were not even talking about the same day.  And such it should be.  For no other day has touched the very heart of humanity as this day has, and it is not surprising that its effects are manifold and diverse even among those who know it only as a pagan holiday.  What is Christmas?  It is simply the most marvelous miracle that has ever been known to this world since creation, and no man can escape its glory.

To see why this is so, consider the world prior to the first Christmas.  Genesis 3:17-19 says Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.  Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you…In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.  Or consider Ephesians 2:1-3 And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins…and were by nature children of wrath…Therefore remember…that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.  The pre-Christmas world is a pretty bleak one.  Borrowing from the above scriptures, it is as close to the classic definition of despair that we can get; cursed, dead children of wrath, having no hope and without God in the world.

But then came the miracle of Christmas.  The prophet foresaw its breadth of scope,   The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined — Isaiah 9:2.  The apostle bore witness to its significance, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.  And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it — John 1:1-5.  And the angels proclaimed its wonderment, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men! — Luke 2:14

And how great a miracle it was.  No longer cursed, but blessed.  No longer dead, but born again.  No longer children of wrath, but children of grace.  No longer without hope, but now having hope as the anchor to our souls.  No longer without God in the world, but — and this may be the greatest of all — having and knowing Immanuel, God with us.  How can we express the wonder of Christmas?  In what language can we find the proper phrases?  In what carol can we sing the right notes and melody?  How can we even hope to portray the eternity of that night with such shallow words as this description.  We can do no better than to proclaim the word which the Lord Himself has given to declare the fullness of what Christmas must be to me, to you, to us.  IMMANUEL, God with us.  Come, let us adore Him.

When You Give Yourself a ‘B’

This post comes from Pastor Bob Thompson (D.Min.) of Corinth Reformed Church in Hickory, NC. Bob has been a minister in the UCC for two decades.

Last week I decided to watch myself on TV.  I wasn’t glad I did.  I don’t know that I’ve watched my own sermon on video since seminary.  It is, at the least, kind of strange.

We not only don’t record our worship sermons on video at Corinth; we don’t even record them on audio.  The reason I was preaching on TV was that I had been a guest at Exodus Missionary Outreach Church.  Their services are taped weekly for editing and broadcast on WHKY-TV.

Honestly, I thought it was better sermon when I was delivering it than I thought when I watched it.  I found lots of ways it should have been improved in content and delivery.  I’d give it a ‘B’ if I were grading it as a preaching professor.

As most of you know, Linda and I have also been working on a home improvement project recently.  As I look around the room, I give myself a ‘B’ for floor refinishing, carpentry, sheet rock repair, and painting.  Hopefully the casual guest in our home will not notice the flaws, but I will always see them.

The combination of those two areas has me thinking about other areas of my life – parenting, pastoring, and, most importantly, living out a personal relationship with Christ.  ‘B’ at best.  Maybe not even that most days.

This column is not designed to evoke praise or encouragement.  I’m not looking for, or needing, words of affirmation.  I’m not down about life or ministry.

Instead, I’m very aware of grace.  God used that sermon at Exodus in spite of me to connect two very different congregations.  The “new” living room looks pretty good overall, and has created the larger, more open space we intended to create.  My kids are turning out great in spite of my flaws. ( As of this Sunday, for example, we’ll be 3 for 3 graduating from college – on time!  On Mother’s Day, Jeni will receive her Bachelor of Music degree from Appalachian State University, graduating summa cum laude [with highest honors].)

God is not looking for perfection.  That quality belongs to him alone.  He’s looking for people who are willing to let him take us where we are, willing to give our best, and willing to admit our own flaws, sins, and shortcomings.

So take courage if you feel in one area (or all of them, like me lately) you’re doing ‘B’ work.  God loves you and is using you.  If you’re perfect, you don’t need him.  Trust me – you need him.

The Necessity of The Reformation

Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me….I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.  Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you. – Philippians 3:12-16

The Feast of the Reformation is not part of the universal Church calendar although all portions of the Church that were in existence at the time of the Reformation knew its effect.  Unfortunately, the Reformation is one of the most poorly understood occurrences in Church history, and it is usually forced into one of two extreme positions.  Either it is viewed as one of the most destructive forces ever to be unleashed upon the Church (destroying an integral unity of faith which traced its lineage back to the apostles); or it is viewed as one of the most constructive forces ever to be unleashed upon the Church (rooting out corruption and restoring the Church to the bedrock of faith first practiced in the apostolic age).  In the final analysis we see that it was both destructive and constructive, but more importantly it was necessary and brought to pass by the hand of God as part of His promise that He would present it to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that it should be holy and without blemish. – Ephesians 5:25-27.  Philip Schaff, in his History of the Church, holds that the Reformation of the sixteenth century was, next to the introduction of Christianity, the greatest event in the history of the Church.  In a real sense it marked the end of the middle ages of the Church and secular society, and the beginning of the modern age in which we currently live.

To understand the Reformation, we must understand three distinct movements of the age, Catholicism, Romanism, and Protestantism.  Catholicism represented the Church universal, the body of faith and doctrine, the liturgy and sacraments, and the calling of the people of God which had always been within the Church since her birth on Pentecost.  When the Holy Spirit was poured forth upon the Church, He placed within her all that was necessary to fulfill the great commission of her Lord Jesus Christ.  But the Church gravitated towards the principle of Christian authority under God.  While it had been successful in discipling both the Roman and the barbarian nations, the Catholic authoritative spirit became entrenched, and Schaff points out that the Church became traditional, hierarchial, ritualistic, and conservative in its nature.  Protestantism sprang from the same root, but it was biblical instead of traditional, democratic instead of hierarchical, spiritual instead of ritualistic, and progressive instead of conservative.  It was founded on the principle of Christian liberty in Jesus and was a breath of fresh air of the same type as the mighty, rushing wind that first blew through the Church on Pentecost.

Romanism, on the other hand, was a separate movement of the Latin Church which aligned itself against the principles and practices of the Reformation.  This movement was formally codified by the Council of Trent beginning in AD 1545 (often referred to as the Counter-Reformation) and later completed and ratified by the First Vatican Council in AD 1870.  At the heart of these council’s decrees were the teaching and defense of the dogma of the Roman papacy’s absolutism (a recognition of Rome as the sole head of all Christendom upon earth) and its infallibility (an acknowledgement that Rome speaks without error in matters of faith and practice).  These standards isolated the Roman Church from all other church groups of its time.  With these three distinctions made, we can still claim to be catholic while avoiding the excesses of the Romanist position.   The Reformation Church can therefore legitimately show itself as a continuation of that catholic lineage which had its foundation upon the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the cornerstone. – Ephesians 2:20.

A short article such as this cannot hope to capture all of the reasons why reformation of the Church was necessary.  Let me only relate this one story as illustrative of the corruption of Romanism which had infected the Church of its age.  At the height of the papacy’s power and influence at the end of the 13th century, it is said that Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest defenders of the Roman Church and Papacy, had an audience with the pope.  The pope is said to have showed the theologian the papal treasury and then to have remarked “Thomas, the Church can no longer say as Peter once did to the lame man ‘Silver and gold have I none.’”  “That is true, your holiness”, Thomas replied, “but neither can she or Peter’s successor lay hands on that lame man and say in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.”  The Roman Church had, as the Apostle Paul said, a form of godliness but denied its power. – II Timothy 3:5  As Schaff remarks, the entire Church was one large tinder pile (perhaps reminiscent of Jesus’ teaching in John 15:1-6) and it only required one spark to set the fires of purification underway.  The history of the Reformation is a history of those sparks, in Germany, in France, in Switzerland, in England, wherever the Spirit of God moved in revival.  The spark which we celebrate as representative of the movement, is October 31, the day on which Martin Luther, in AD 1517, nailed his 95 thesis to the door of the Wittenberg cathedral.

Let me make one more distinction.  This was not a Renaissance within the Church; that was a purely secular movement which spanned the 14th to the 17th centuries.  This was not a return to some golden age or ideal condition; this was a true reformation, a purging of that which was corrupt so that the Church could continue on from the place to which God in His sovereign grace had brought her.  It is true that it sought to recover some of the purity and focus of the apostolic age, but it was beyond her power to physically return to that age.  It was a much different society and a different time which confronted her.   The spirit of the reformation is best expressed in Paul’s statement in in Galatians 5:1, Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.  The Reformation, in closing, restored to the people of God three important principles of Christian living.  It established the supremacy of the scriptures over church tradition.  It established the supremacy of faith over works.  It established the supremacy of the Christian people (the priesthood of all believers) over the exclusive priesthood of clericism.  It, not the Roman Church, is the true continuation of that root of catholicism which touches upon the apostles.  It reminds us that the entrance is narrow and the way difficult which leads to life, but the way is nothing more than the road which Jesus Christ walked when He was upon this earth.  It only remains for us to follow Him wherever He calls us and to trust that He is able to complete that which He has begun not only in us, but in His Church upon the earth.


All Saints Day

After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number of all nations, tribes, peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God Who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’ – Revelation 7:9-10

One of the greatest weaknesses in any society occurs when it can no longer differentiate between the sacred and the secular, the holy and the profane.  God rebuked His priesthood for this very failing in Ezekiel 22:9, 16 – You have despised My holy things…her priests have violated My law and profaned My holy things.  They have not distinguished between the holy and the unholy, nor have they made known the difference between the unclean and the clean…  When this difference is lost, sin becomes acceptable and even fashionable, the things of God become objects of contempt, and society casts off restraint.  It was entrusted to the priesthood to instruct the people in this clear difference, and for that reason, the Church has always believed that God is able to sanctify (that is, to make holy) time, things, places and people.  And one of the days that is set aside in the liturgical calendar to recognize this divine action is All Saints Day.

In order to understand the significance of a day dedicated to the remembrance of all saints, it is first necessary to understand what it means to be a saint. This is a word which is used in both the Old and New Testaments.  In Psalm 16:3 it declares,  And to the saints who are on the earth, they are the excellent ones in whom is all my delight.  Or in Jude 14, Behold the Lord comes with ten thousands of His saints.  In both Old and New Testaments, the word saint is derived from other words which help us to understand the divine meaning in the designation.  In the Old Testament, saint derives from a word which means sacred.  When it is used as a verb, to sanctify, it refers to those things, places or people which are set aside for use in the worship of God.  A reading of the Old Testament Torah gives us the very clear picture that such objects, places or people are set aside as belonging to God.  As such, they are to be used solely by Him for His purposes, and in the way He sees fit.  In the New Testament, saint derives from a word which means the holy ones, those separated out of the world to be a holy people to the Lord.  We need only compare the descriptions in I Peter 2:4-5; 9-10 with Exodus 19:5-6 to see the consistency of God’s calling throughout the entire scriptural record.

And it’s just at this point that we start to understand what it means to be a saint of God.  It has nothing to do with attainment, something or some place for which we have worked or disciplined ourselves.  It has everything to do with calling.  It is that state in which we find ourselves when God’s grace has called us out of the world and translated us into the Kingdom of His beloved Son.  That is why Paul addresses some of his epistles to all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints… – Romans 1:7 , or, To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord... – I Corinthians 1:2.  It’s no wonder that Paul urged the Church to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.  And do not be conformed to the world…. –  Romans 12:1-2.  It was nothing more than what was expected of them in their calling!

Now the Church has set aside November 1 near the end of the liturgical year to celebrate the remembrance of all the saints of God.  Throughout the year there have been remembrance days in which specific saints are remembered who have had a special or important place in the foundation of God’s continuing work of salvation through the Church, but on this day, the day of all saints, we remember every member of the Church triumphant (those saints who have passed on to glory) and renew unity with every member of the Church militant (those of the brethren who yet contend for the faith upon the earth). The day is intended to remind us that when we gather as the Church we have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things…- Hebrews 12:22-24.  Concerning the history of All Saints Day, it has been celebrated in the Church dating back to the 4th and 5th centuries, and was formally added to the liturgical calendar by the bishop of Rome in AD 610.  But as we have already pointed out this formal declaration was only the recognition by the Church of a work which had been decreed and brought to pass by God in the calling of His people.

Sacred or secular, holy or profane…the world may downplay or even deny such distinctions as being outdated, but it is upon these distinctions that God has founded His Kingdom.  The record of scripture is clear, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. – Leviticus 19:2   God has never changed, His calling has never changed, it is only the world that no longer has a clear understanding of the unclean and the clean.  May we, the saints of God, raise up that standard once more in order that our history, the things which fill our lives, the places in which we dwell, and the people of our communities may once more become consecrated to the service and use of God.

Why do We Go to Church on Sunday?

This is our monthly entry by elder Russ Rohloff:

This is part of a bigger question that has to do with participating in God’s salvation history, or what the Church refers to as marking time.  The simple answer is that God requires us to tithe our time to acknowledge His purposes in a similar manner to how we tithe our money or possessions.  This is not because He needs our time, but it is the manner in which He chooses to sanctify our time.  Paul spoke of this in Romans 11 when he said, “If the first fruit is holy, so also is the entire batch.”  In the Mosaic Law God simply stated “Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy”.   The account in Exodus 20 states that we observe this day as holy because the Lord created the heavens and the earth and rested on this day of fulfillment.  The account in Deuteronomy 5 adds that we observe this day because the Lord has acted to deliver us from bondage.  This one day in seven was given to recount the two great acts of God in our world, creation and deliverance, and a participation in those acts of grace in turn sanctified all of life.  The main difference between Old and New Testament times is that we observe our Lord’s Day at the beginning of the week, not the end, for it is on Sunday that Jesus rose in power to affirm our deliverance from death.  The marking of Sunday as holy is a tithe of our time in which we dedicate our week to God’s purposes and thus declare all of our week holy (consecrated or set apart).

The Old Testament is full of references to marking time so that the followers of God might participate in His salvation history.  The Sabbath day marked one day in each seven as holy to the Lord.  Similarly Leviticus 25 says that one year in every seven years is holy to the Lord in order to give the land rest, and one year in each seven of seven years (1 in 50) is the jubilee year of the Lord in which all debts are forgiven.  In Leviticus 23 the Lord commands that Israel should keep seven holy convocations that Moses calls “the appointed times of the Lord”, each of which were intended to be present reminders of the historic work of God’s deliverance on their behalf.  And in order to further highlight the importance of the salvation work of God, the nation kept a sacred calendar that was different from their secular calendar.  The beginning of the sacred year is detailed in Exodus 12 and includes the month in which Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread is celebrated, while the civil New Year, Rosh Hashanah, comes much later.  The first celebrated the reality of God’s deliverance, the second the miracle of His creation and order.

Now all that is said as a reminder that time and history lie in the hand of God, and we need that cyclical reminder in our own lives to allow us to participate and fully receive the deliverance and freedom that He alone can give.  There has always been debate over what keeping the Lord’s Day means, what the day should include, what the day should not include.   Each of us must judge what the day means and holds for us according to our own conscience before God, but a good starting point for any understanding of keeping the Lord’s Day holy has to be Isaiah 58:13-14 and that is where I will close.

“If because of the Sabbath, you turn your foot from doing your own pleasure on My holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy day of the LORD honorable, and honor it, desisting from your own ways, from seeking your own pleasure and speaking your own word, then you will take delight in the LORD and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; and I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

Why do we go to church on Sunday?  To set our entire past, present, and future into the history of God’s marvelous work of grace, to mark and set apart our lives as dedicated to His purposes, and to delight in all that He offers.  This day is a gift from His hand, made especially for us, a day to renew covenant in our mind, heart, soul and spirit.

Waiting Tables: An Introduction to the Spiritual Gifts

This is a guest post by one of our elders here at Red Door Church, Russell Rohloff.  “Russ” has served in many capacities at Red Door over the years and has an extensive and broad church background. In this post he draws attention to gifts of the Spirit that were emphasized in historic Christianity, stemming from passages like Isaiah 11:1-3.

We assume that spiritual gifts are intended for some great work to reconcile the world to Jesus, but being filled with the Holy Spirit and His gifts is the ordinary condition of being a Christian.  It is as required for waiting tables as it is for standing before the Jewish Sanhedrin or disputing with the Greeks on Mars Hill.  Lewis Sperry Chafer puts it in this way, “…the child of God, facing what seems like an impossible responsibility in his heavenly walk and service, is directed to the Spirit as the source of all sufficiency.  Every moment in a spiritual life is one of unmeasured need and superhuman demands, and the supply of enabling power of grace must be constantly received and employed.  To be filled with the Spirit is to have the Spirit fulfilling in us all that God intended Him to do when God placed Him there.  To be filled is not the problem of getting more of the Spirit, it is rather the problem of the Spirit getting more of Christians.”

Whenever spiritual gifts are discussed, we turn to familiar New Testament epistle passages like 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 and 28 or Romans 12:6-8.  But for centuries the Church started at Isaiah 11:1-3a “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots; and the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord, and shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord…”

These are what might be referred to as the primary gifts.  As the Holy Spirit enters the heart of a regenerated person He brings these gifts with Him.  We all recognize that even in unregenerate men there are natural virtues present that reflect the image and likeness of God.  Even the worst of criminals can truly love someone; the most atheistic of soldiers can show courage under enemy fire; the most worldly person can exhibit generosity.  Virtues perfect the natural part of man and move him to good works in life.  But there is a higher calling that touches his spiritual part and the perfection to do not only good works but God-works requires the infilling and inspiration of God Himself.  The gifts in Isaiah equip us for that task.

Wisdom places within us the holy fear of God by which we recognize the emptiness of the world and see the value of God’s purposes and will.

Understanding equips us to lay hold of truth.  Before truth was made relative, to recognize and live in the world as it really is, was considered sanity; to live otherwise was fantasy.  Understanding equips us to recognize the truth and to detect error.

Counsel is called the gift of prudence, the ability to govern and discipline ourselves by the use of reason.  We would call it good judgment, a practical gift helping us not only to form a plan, but more importantly to carry it out in accordance with the will of God.

Might is also called the gift of fortitude.  It is spiritual backbone, the strength of mind and will that enables us to encounter danger or bear pain with courage and assurance in God’s faithfulness.

Knowledge enables us to respond to the teaching of God’s truth, to know God as He truly is, and to judge everything else in relationship to the work of grace and salvation.

Fear of the Lord is mentioned twice.  The first time is a positive love that moves us towards God, and the second a negative love that makes us dread to be separated from Him.  This first is also called piety, a true reverence towards God marked by visible loyalty to Him and His kingdom, and quickness to do all that He requires.

Quick Understanding in the Fear of the Lord (KJV) is difficult to translate exactly.  The NKJV translated it as “His delight is in the fear of the Lord.”  The Jerusalem Bible translates it as “The fear of Yahweh is his breath.”  This gift fills us with a fresh and living delight to serve the Lord.  It makes us dread sin which separates us from His grace and cling to Him.

In summary, these gifts of the Holy Spirit are given to every believer as the Spirit of God comes to dwell within us at salvation.  They are the very gifts that are necessary for growth in godliness and are ours as a second-birth right.  They make us attentive to the voice of God, tender [not hardened] to the works of God’s grace to transform us, and ultimately move us God-ward making us obedient to the presence and direction of the Spirit of God.  All other New Testament gifts flow out from these.

What is a Mainline Church?

Bob Thompson (D. Min.) is a good friend and trusted mentor of mine.  I asked him if he would kindly pen a brief explanation about the mainline church which answered the oft asked question: “What is a mainline church?” Bob is pastor of Corinth Reformed Church (UCC) in Hickory, NC where he has ministered for over 20 years. His concise, yet insightful response is below: 1

What is a Mainline Church?

The term “mainline” originates from the “Main Line” of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and was used in that connection as early as 1841. Today “mainline” is most often used of Protestant churches with a historic, national, and pervasive impact on American identity. Mainline churches differ in many ways from one another, but they share a common timeline, similar internal struggle, parallel numerical growth and decline, an ecumenical connection, common corporate priorities, and a shared theological vocabulary.

The first mainline churches were the Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and Episcopal churches, which together made up 55% of America’s population in 1776. Their numbers dramatically declined in the 19th century as the upstart groups, primarily Baptists and Methodists, fueled by revivalism in the frontiers, changed the religious landscape. The self-identified and loosely-connected “Christian” churches threw off hierarchies and labels. A wave of German immigration in the 18th and 19th centuries also created mainline branches.

Churches today identified as mainline are primarily the following[1] –

    • The United Church of Christ (UCC), which includes the streams of the Congregational churches, the O’Kelly Christians, and two German-American bodies
    • The Episcopal Church USA, often garnering influence disproportionate to its declining numbers
    • The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), historically Germans with a history of schism and reconciliation
    • The Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), one of the original mainlines, also separating often and occasionally reuniting
    • The United Methodist Church (UMC), another body that split when the country split and reunited its major factions decades later
    • The American Baptist Church (ABC), the non-Bible belt Baptists
    • The Disciples of Christ (DOC), a Christian connection body centered in Kentucky that birthed the Second Great Awakening

Three primary forces shaped mainline identity in the first part of the twentieth century: modernism, the social gospel, and ecumenism. They reached the height of their influence around the middle of the century, and declined in numbers and influence as their values blended into the culture and more conservative churches appealed to masses longing for spiritually-based answers.

No church today can lay claim to an ongoing and pervasive impact on American identity. In a splintered world of competing loyalties trumpeted by a plethora of broadcast, print, and online media, most Americans choose (or reject) their religious loyalty the same way they choose any other loyalties: comfort, convenience, and contribution to a sense of self-actualization.

Bob Thompson, Corinth Reformed Church, Hickory, NC

  1. After Bob penned this piece and I published it online, I found another, excellent piece on the mainline church at the Huffington Post Blogs by William G. Bradshaw titled Mainline Churches: Past, Present, Future.