In this section of the book of Isaiah, we see the beginning of Isaiah’s prophetic call. Though he has already pronounced the covenantal “woes” against unfaithful Israel, here we see him exclaim, “Woe is me!” when confronted with God’s infinite holiness and majesty. The hosts evaluate the significance of this event along with numerous messianic prophecies that begin to appear in chapters 5 through 9 on this edition of White Horse Inn.
It is a fact that Christianity is not a religion. It is a philosophy,” according to Bill O’Reilly. As part of his “war on Christmas” focus, the talk-show host faced off with the head of an Atheist organization in a recent interview. (For a different take, see this article from the Washington Post.) According to his guest, government-supported celebrations of Christmas constitute the state’s privileging of one religion. If I understand him correctly (and I don’t take that for granted), Mr. O’Reilly counters the argument by suggesting that while particular denominations are “religions,” Christianity itself is not a religion but a philosophy. In fact, he takes this as a settled consensus. Oddly, he includes Judaism along with Methodism and Roman Catholicism as “religions,” although Judaism is arguably distinct from Christianity.
I confess that I am not a regular Fox News viewer and only catch Bill O’Reilly when friends shamelessly forward clips like these. Although the political aspect of the debate is important, my concern here is the religious aspect.
How far will some go to protect the vestiges of cultural Christianity in our increasingly secular society? Is this civil religion so deeply ingrained that we are willing to redefine the very nature and message of Christianity in the name of Christendom? Perhaps Mr. O’Reilly has given us that answer.
Could it be, ironically, that the atheist had a better idea about the nature of Christianity? To be sure, the danger of Christmas for him is mainly political, as its benefit seems to be for Mr. O’Reilly. But at least he gets that it’s about a specific religion and its central claim.
For many today, Christianity is indeed a philosophy—an ideology, a culture, and a set of ethical principles. It may come with different specifics, depending on whether it hails from the left or the right side of the aisle. However, if I may so bold, those who take this view should probably not celebrate Christmas at all.
Christianity is first and foremost an announcement that God our Creator is also our Redeemer; that “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him will never perish but have everlasting life” (Jn 3:16). This announcement is proclaimed in the gospel and sealed by baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It is explained in the ecumenical creeds, especially the Nicene, and shapes our common as well as private prayer, devotion, and life in the world. Christ did not come to be the world’s greatest philosopher or social reformer, but to “save his people from their sins” (Mat 1:21).
In the historic practice of many churches, the Sundays of Advent move from the prophecies to the nativity, culminating in the anticipation of Christ’s second advent. In this way, the point is underscored that the one whose gentle birth we celebrate is also the one who will return at the end of the age to judge the living and the dead and reign forever.
Even members of my extended family, many of them now unchurched, are not offended to celebrate Christmas. I think they should be. Christmas is a dangerous holiday. It’s not a question as to whether I think everyone has a right to celebrate Christmas in their own fashion. I won’t be pulling down decorations at the mall. However, I do question whether we know what we’re getting ourselves in to when we presume to celebrate Christ’s birth.
To be sure, we shouldn’t forget that Christmas, like every Lord’s Day, is first and foremost about announcing good news to all people: sins forgiven and the inheritance of everlasting life. The comfort of “God With Us,” rescuing us, the Light shining in the darkness: this is at the heart of our faith and our celebration of Christ’s birth. And yet, apart from meditation on his return in glory, the Good News become reduced to sentimental banality about mothers and babies; children being our future, roasting chestnuts and blinking lights.
When the Apostle Paul was invited to address the philosophers in Athens, he proclaimed this gospel. Already he had been busy in the synagogue as he “reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead.” “‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,’ he said” (Acts 17:2-3). Then in the marketplace he reasoned with Greeks about Christ and his resurrection. That’s how he received the invitation to the big stage. He arrives at the climax of his argument: “For he [God] has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.” (v 31).
The baby in the manger is God, who reigns over all together with the Father and the Holy Spirit. He infuriated the religious leaders by identifying them as outcasts, condemned to destruction, while welcoming sinners into his fellowship. He claimed equality with God the Father, provoking charges of blasphemy. He bore our guilt because there is no forgiveness apart from justice and every human being is under the curse of sin and death. He rose again on the third day for our justification and as the firstfruits of the new creation. He sent his Spirit to unite us to him for reconciliation and renewal. And one day he will return to judge the world, welcoming his elect into everlasting glory and banishing forever those who have not placed their trust in him.
The baby grew up. He is the conquering warrior of Isaiah 59 and before there can be an unending wedding feast in Revelation 19, there is the “wrath of the Lamb” in chapters 14-18. In those gruesome battle-scenes, the earthly city—represented collectively as “Babylon the Great”—is not confirmed in its cultural identity and civic pride, but is reduced to rubble. Instead of celebrating the shopping season with shareholders, the CEOs mourn that advent. The rulers of the earth beg that rocks fall on them to hide them from the wrath of Bethlehem’s child. If we do not recognize the holy child as the Lamb who died, was raised, and is coming again in judgment and everlasting blessing, then Christmas isn’t our holiday, but a dreadful anticipation of the final reckoning.
So Christmas is a wonderfully comforting holiday. In this era between his two advents, Christ is restraining Satan by his Word and Spirit, drawing sinners into the safety and joy of his banquet hall. Yet it is also a dangerous holiday, especially for those who defend it only by using it, “having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Tim 3:5-7). Are we really sure that we want to celebrate this birth? Are we glad when pass by the nativity scene on the city lawn, defended as an American “philosophy”?
Better to gather together in churches—even under conditions of persecution around the world—where (one hopes) Christ is proclaimed as the Judge and the Justifier of the ungodly this Christmas. And there, with faith in the holy Lamb, we can hear the angel say also to us, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord” (Lk 2:10).
White Horse Inn is pleased to announce a new member of our team! Mark Green (above left with Mike Horton) was named by our board of directors as the new President and Chief Operating Officer in August. Over the last several months, Mark has been settling in at the world wide headquarters of White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation. He keeps mumbling about “a herd of cats,” but otherwise we think he’s fitting in just fine!
Mark comes to us with years of executive experience in the for-profit sector. He’s lived and worked all over the world, literally! While working on various projects in other parts of the world, Mark was able to see first-hand how Christianity fared both under persecution in the Middle East and surrounded by apathy and materialism in Europe. He brings a global mindset with him to his work at White Horse Inn at just the right time: God seems to be opening up doors to take our materials to some of the more than 150 countries that regularly access our website every week.
Recently Mark sat down with Mike Horton to talk about how he sees his role in supporting our efforts toward a modern reformation. We hope that you are as encouraged as we are by Mark’s passion for the Gospel and his desire to see the influence of White Horse Inn continue to grow and spread. Along with Mike Horton, the other hosts of the White Horse Inn, and the staff, please welcome Mark Green!
Chris Cox and Bill Archer have written an unsettling piece for the Wall Street Journal about the sobering reality of the US Debt. Though some may be familiar with the $16 trillion figure, there are few who realize that this is actually just the tip of the iceberg. According to the article, the true number is actually closer to $86 trillion (which amounts to 550% of our GDP). Cox and Archer argue that the government has gotten away with underestimating the actual price of our national debt since it has not needed to furnish the kind of financial documentation required of most businesses. “The actual figures,” they write, “do not appear in black and white on any balance sheet.” While the U.S. Treasury “does list liabilities such as Treasury debt issued to the public, federal employee pensions, and post-retirement health benefits…it does not include the unfunded liabilities of Medicare, Social Security and other outsized and very real obligations.”
The problem is that all the revenue collected for these particular entitlement programs is not actually being saved for the future, but is being paid out to current retirees. And this will all fall apart when more and more of our nation’s baby boomers start collecting retirement benefits. The government is currently borrowing 1 out of every 3 dollars that it spends, so what will we do when the majority of the boomers are retired? According to the authors, “Borrowing at this scale could eclipse the capacity of global capital markets–and bankrupt not only the programs themselves but the entire federal government.”
Peter Schiff, an American economist who won my respect after correctly predicting the ’08 housing bubble crisis and ensuing recession (check out “Peter Schiff was right” on YouTube), has written in his most recent book that politicians from both parties do not have the courage or will to face this issue squarely. And so he argues that our representatives will most likely continue to underemphasize the magnitude of this problem year after year until eventually the entire system collapses.
It seems to me that all this provides and apt analogy for the sobering reality of our true spiritual condition. Many of our pastors and church leaders regularly downplay the seriousness of our plight and offer helpful suggestions about doing better with God’s help, or even worse, get us to focus on having our best life now. Yet, at the end of the day, none of us is completely honest about the depth of our depravity. We know we have some debt, and we know we have a spending problem, but we still think it’s something we can manage. In reality, solving our debt problem in these ways is a little like attempting to drain the Pacific Ocean with a tablespoon.
So where are the preachers who have the courage to tell it like it is. Where are the leaders who are prepared to tell us that we’re not merely bankrupt, but need to borrow $86 trillion in order to be bankrupt! Is there anyone out there who is presenting the unvarnished truth, that our deepest problem is unfixable, and that the only way forward is to declare our own insolvency before the divine creditor?
The good news is that this particular creditor is infinitely wealthy, and has of late made news of a debt cancellation program which he has authored. Those who are chosen for this program must face up to the facts, confess their true poverty of spirit and put their trust completely in his care. When we do this, he promises to forgive us “all our trespasses by canceling the record of debt that stood against us.” But that’s just the beginning. Not only will he cancel all our debts, but he has also promised to adopt us into his family, making us his heirs. In fact, he’s currently planning a huge banquet celebration for all the new members of his family in the not too distant future. Got nothing to wear? No worries; he’s even providing the wardrobe. And on the invitation we read, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”
Way back when, Kim Riddlebarger introduced me to Rod Rosenbladt, one of his professors at Simon Greenleaf School of Law. Twenty-five years later, here we are still doing “theology on tap” together at the White Horse Inn. I can’t calculate the gifts that God has given me through the magnificent Dane over these many years. For his insights, challenges, conviction—and most of all, his friendship in the gospel, I’m greatly in Rod’s debt and I know that Kim and Ken feel that way as well. We’re delighted that Concordia Today Magazine has published a tribute to Rod’s work in its latest issue.
UPDATE: Our friends at New Reformation Press have made a pdf of the article that you can download here.
Part of the Israelites’ new responsibility after the Exodus from Egypt was to serve “eviction notices” to the pagan nations then occupying the land. Over time, however, God’s covenant people disobeyed him and eventually became indistinguishable from their pagan neighbors. Through the prophet Isaiah, God responded to this unfaithfulness and told his people they too would soon be evicted from the land. The hosts continue their exploration of the book of Isaiah and discuss how God begins to reveal more about the coming messianic deliverer, not only through Isaiah’s words of judgment and condemnation, but also through promises of comfort and grace.
Last year, my wife and I braved the Black Friday madness–at Walmart, of all places. It was a study in dystopia. I have never seen so many people so desperate for so little. We did have a shopping list, but it became apparent very quickly that people watching was a far better use of our early morning hours.
In the spirit of saving you the hassle and making sure that you actually get something more worthwhile than a $5 blue-ray of I Love Lucy episodes, we’re inviting you to take 50% off all downloadable media (MP3s and study-kits) at the White Horse Inn store through cyber-Monday.
Simply go to the store and use the following code at checkout: 2012CYBER.
What was the role of an Old Testament prophet, and how are we to interpret this kind of literature in our own day? What are the particular themes and messages that the prophet Isaiah addresses? How are the blessings and curses mentioned throughout this prophecy related to covenants already established? How is Christ revealed throughout this book? The hosts will deal with these questions and more as they begin a new six-part series on “The Gospel According to Isaiah.”
As one of our faithful readers was perusing the current issue of Modern Reformation, he came across this sentence in the Geek Squad section:
Refracted by/through the Fall, the cultural mandate is no longer holy work. It is profane though legitimate and common and valid for all creatures created in God’s image.
This raised a bit of concern among our other friends–what do we mean when we say that everyday work (whether it’s caring for a home and family or changing a transmission) is ‘profane though legitimate’? Our Executive Editor responds below:
We very much appreciate thoughtful interaction with MR – that’s how good conversations develop, especially when helpful correction is offered. I’m afraid we made a poor choice of words, and this unfortunately slipped through our editing process. As new creatures in Christ, we are being “built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5). We therefore lead joyful, worship-filled lives East of Eden, thankful for God’s mercy and for our new life in Christ. The whole of a Christian’s life is rendered as service unto God, as an expression of thanks; our work is “holy” in that sense, just as the questions and comments above imply.
What the abbreviated chart was intended to communicate is that our vocations are also common rather than distinctively sacred. We are all priests, in the sense 1 Peter implies, but we are not all specially called to be ministers of the Gospel, nor need we justify our work as contributing objectively to the building of the redemptive kingdom of God. Vocations are wonderful gifts given by God to all people; the cultural mandate continues, although it is refracted by the fall. Legitimate vocations contribute to the good of all people, though this good is creational and of a general usefulness as distinguished from a redemptive service to mankind (i.e., the ministry of Word and Sacrament). And one would certainly assume that legitimate vocations do not represent “profane” or evil work!
Thanks for reading with a keen eye and raising the issue in the comments.