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December 24th, 2018

What would the world be like if Christ had never shone his light into the darkness?

Isaiah 9:2

December 23, 2018

A Great Gift

I don’t know why you came to this service, but I can tell you why we have it.  I don’t know why on the Sunday before Christmas it’s worth 3-4 hours of time for you and everyone in your family to dress up, wait for an hour, then listen, sing, pray, and hold up candles.  I can tell you why it’s worth that time and more in preparation for me, when I have a one-year-old grandson and seven other family members here this week.

It’s because I believe what Isaiah 9:2 says: “the people walking in darkness have seen a great light.”  It’s because God became man. Nothing has ever been the same.

Not everyone buys into the idea that the message of Christmas makes the world a better place.  Sometimes it’s personal.  How is Jesus making the world better if I just lost my job, or my marriage has fallen apart, or my child is dying?  Wouldn’t the world be better off without Christians?  After all, aren’t they responsible for the Inquisition, for slavery, for the Holocaust?  Isn’t the world darker because of Jesus and his people?

The question reminds me of that classic scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life” where George Bailey meets his guardian angel, Clarence.  George has decided the world would be better off without him, so he’s going to take his own life.  Clarence gets an idea and looks up.  “Can we do that?”  He says to George, “You’ve been given a great gift, George.  A chance to see what the world would be like if you had never been born.”

What if Jesus had never been born?  What if this Light had not been shining down through these past 2000 years?  If you Google “Impact of Christianity,” you’ll find lots of articles and books that have been written to answer that question on a universal level through the last 2000 years.  I want to address it a little closer to home.

The light of Corinth

During the last few weeks, I have been researching, writing, and narrating a documentary video of the history of this congregation for our 150th anniversary celebration next May.  In the process I have uncovered stories about our spiritual ancestors that remarkably parallel the impact of Christianity worldwide.

Human dignity.  While it’s true that Christians have been responsible for some terrible abuses of power through the centuries, the overall story is one of championing the cause of the poor, of women, of children, of the oppressed, of minorities, of the unborn.  Our founding pastor, Jeremiah Ingold, wrote a remarkable pastoral letter to other North Carolina Reformed congregations after the Civil War, saying that it was God’s providence the South lost.  We now have a responsibility to provide for the freed slaves to have homes, jobs, and education, so they could have a better life.

Freedom.  I realize there are dark periods in Christian history, but nations where Christianity has dominated – for most part western Europe and North America – have been champions of global liberty.  Our breezeway has several plaques bearing the names of veterans, including those who paid the ultimate price.  Orin Sigmon, a member of this congregation, gave his life in World War I at age 30 in the Second Battle of the Marne, the turning point in favor of the allies.  Where would the world be if Christians weren’t willing to give all in defense of freedom?

Compassion.   We could talk about all the works of mercy done and funded by Christians around the world to feed the hungry, visit the prisoners, and heal the sick.  Right here in our own community, Corinth has partnered with other Christians to found Habitat for Humanity, Cooperative Christian Ministry, the Soup Kitchen, Hospice, and more.  You’ve probably heard of the Miracle of Hickory, an emergency polio hospital constructed in 1944 in only 54 hours with a massive volunteer effort, including Corinth members.  We were dubbed with a pejorative nickname, “Polio City,” because of our willingness to treat 500 victims of the dread disease.  Corinth’s, Harry Althouse, served as chaplain for the Catawba County Chapter of the Polio Foundation.

Education.  Jeremiah Ingold, our founding pastor, founded Hickory’s first school, the Free Academy, in 1860.  A generation later, Corinth people had the vision for a female college to complement the all-male Catawba College, also founded by North Carolina Reformed people.  The vision was legendary not only for education, but for equal education provided for women. This again parallels a worldwide partnership of the Christian faith with literacy and education.

Arts.  What was originally Claremont College is now Hickory’s SALT Block, with Science, Arts, and Literature Together.  The Hickory Choral Society recently celebrated its four decades of partnership with Corinth.  Corinth installed Hickory’s first pipe organ in 1890 and will continue its tradition of classical music with the expansion of our organ in 2019.  We also have a high quality contemporary music worship services and team.

Christians across the years and around the world have often led the advance in the liberal arts.  You do realize, don’t you, that it was the passion to get the Bible into the hands of ordinary persons that lay behind Gutenberg’s printing press?  What would the world be like without advances of science and technology pioneered by Christians?

Grace.  At the heart of the Christian message is the idea that God has made a way not to treat us as our sins deserve.  He has come into our world in the form of a baby born in Bethlehem who grew up to share our full range of humanity, then suffered and died for the sins of those who rejected him and indeed, the whole world.  He died for us, then rose again to give us new life.  The purpose of all this is to relationship.  We Christians embrace a unique idea among the religions of the world – that God is eternally one God in three persons.  He made us in his image to love and be loved like he did before time began. Grace toward the undeserving and love for those who can’t give anything back are the DNA of Christians.  To be sure, we don’t always practice this, but what would the world be like if we weren’t at least trying?

Corinth, once itself a mission church, today sends missionaries, shoeboxes full of toys, clean up buckets, and relief teams wherever we can.  We’ve helped Safe Harbor here in Hickory fund a learning resource center in their new home for women being transformed by the Gospel.  This fall we dedicated the Corinth Hope Center, which sits between a sewage pit and city dump in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, to provide tutoring, food, shoes, and nutrition among the poorest of the poor.  Closer to home, our Good Samaritan Fund helps families in crisis.  Recently here in Hickory we resettled a single Mom leaving an abusive relationship.  She texted me:  “Mr. Thompson, Thank you so much for the gift cards, beds, furniture, microwave, bed sets, blankets, pillows, utensils, cooking set, and bowls.  We are overwhelmed by your kindness and generosity.”

It’s not just “out there” in the community or around the world.  One of the major impacts of Christianity is on those who gather each week for worship, learning, and encouragement.  Imagine what the world would be like if children didn’t grow up in families and churches with a sense of identity and purpose and security that comes from learning they are unconditionally loved by God and other people.  Imagine how much pain would be inflicted on the world if Christians who face tragedy and hardship didn’t have each other to help us believe, heal, be comforted, and get stronger.

What would Hickory be like if this one church had not been here to shine Jesus’ light for 150 years?  We are only one of 150 churches in this town alone who worship and witness and serve and love?  There are an estimated 37 million churches across the globe today shining the light of Christ.  What would the world be like without them?  I shudder to think of it.

We gather on this night to light our candles in witness that the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.  That light is Jesus Christ.  On this night, we renew our commitment to love God and love one another the way we have been loved, that the world may know Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  Amen.

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