My wife and I grew up in Herbert Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God (WCG) for nearly 30 years. I am 55 years old now. WCG considered itself “God’s one true church” (for a great message about how to avoid the arrogance of claiming exclusivity by balancing those claims like Jesus did with grace, love, and mercy, click the link to hear Christian apologist, Michael Ramsden). I met my wife in 1983 at WCG’s Ambassador College in Pasadena, CA.
WCG leadership changed between 1986 and into the mid-1990’s. New leadership had asked area Christian leaders why WCG was considered by some Christians to be a cult. Their answers resulted in significant and dramatic WCG doctrinal changes in the early-to-mid-1990’s.
During the mid-1990’s, my wife and I’s lives were in an upheaval. Seven people we knew had died in an 18-month period, and we almost lost one of our twin daughters, Brittany. Many theological questions and much searching to see where God was, resulted in what I realized later was the empty, broken place I had heard in Christian testimonies. John MacArthur’s and Greg Laurie’s ministries on WMIT in Black Mountain, NC really helped us discover the truth of God’s word during that turbulent time. Because WCG considered itself the exclusive church with God’s truth, I discovered that the foundation of my faith was in a set of religious beliefs rather than fully resting in Jesus Christ.
WCG adamantly taught that Christmas and Easter were pagan holidays not to be observed by true Christians. To do so was considered mixing pagan worship with worship of God, and therefore sin (a bit about that later). Too many WCG families allowed those beliefs to tear Christian families and friends apart during WCG’s history. WCG observed God’s annual holy days in Leviticus 23, including the 8-day Feast of Tabernacles.
After exiting WCG, my wife and I saw things very differently about Christmas. My wife wanted to run as far away from the legalism in WCG and yet I did not want to put up a Christmas tree in our house. I knew the passages about the golden calf (Exodus 32), the Gentile Christmas tree (Jeremiah 10:1-5), and the warning of mixing of paganism into the worship of God (2 Kings 17). My mother-in-law visited during this time and warned me that leaving WCG would mean we would soon be putting up a Christmas tree. I adamantly disagreed. I was not going to put up a pagan Christmas tree. That much, I knew WCG had right.
In 1995 we were blessed with twin girls and in 1999, a son. Eventually with the children, there was inevitable conflict in our house every December. I am thankful that it was my wife who finally decided to turn me over to the Lord with the issue of Christmas and yield in submission with humility as 1 Peter 3 describes.
Through this time, God was calling us to serve in overseas missions. In early 2013, my sister, D’Etta, called me excitedly and said that she had been reading Isaiah 55 and she felt strongly that we would be leaving for the mission field with great joy. She was so impacted by this insight, I noted what she said and recorded the passage (in the picture to the left) and her comments in my journal.
That year there was no significant joy. We moved our family to Uganda that year, but often while there, God seemed silent, distant, and Michelle and I continued to experience conflict and argue. We returned to America in mid-2014 due to lack of funding. The Isaiah 55 Scripture passage had long left my memory.
In 2015 we sold our house, Michelle and I went into marriage counseling due to conflict, and our daughter, Alexis, got married. As we waited for God to move, in November 2016 I happened across Isaiah 55 and began studying the part about the word of God going throughout the earth like rain producing seed and bread. A phrase caught my attention, “all the trees of the field” are clapping their hands (55:12). What did that mean? The context speaks of the Creator’s magnificent power and work, which are much higher than the understanding and work of men. That power and work results in the creation glorifying and praising God, just as the shepherds went away from meeting the Christ child in Luke 2:20 glorifying and praising God (but I’m getting ahead of myself).
The two trees mentioned there (Isaiah 55:13), the myrtle and the cypress (or juniper) replace the thorn and the brier. As I studied this passage in depth, I discovered the myrtle tree, a fragrant deciduous tree, was used in worship by Israel at the Feast of Tabernacles (an 8-day joyous feast of celebration, Nehemiah 8:15). The cypress is an evergreen fir tree used by Gentiles in pagan worship, but Gentile worship when converted in the New Testament turns to love, serve, obey, and worship the one true God and away from idolatry (Acts 28:28; 1 Corinthians 10:31). It dawned on me that the Gentiles (a few centuries after Jesus was resurrected) began using the evergreen tree for celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ! When coming to faith in Jesus Christ, Gentiles stopped worshiping the creation and began worshiping the Creator. Certainly these Gentiles used trees in their worship of Jesus just as Israel had done at the Feast of Tabernacles. For them, Jesus was very much like the evergreen tree (Hosea 14:8). This passage in Isaiah 55:12-13 was prophetic: one tree represents the Jews (the myrtle, Neh. 8:15); and the other tree the Gentiles (the evergreen fir, Hosea 14:8) as a prophecy of the coming unity in the new covenant of Jew and Gentile under the Lordship of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:14). The glory then goes to the LORD for a name (Psalm 96:12; Isa. 55:13). Wow!
After this insight around Thanksgiving in November, I agreed to put up a Christmas tree in our house. What happened after that yielding was incredible. I caught a deeper glimpse of the gospel. Every Christmas song I heard in December that year which spoke of the coming of Christ as a baby, literally brought me to tears – sometimes sobbing with amazement that a holy God would enter a sinful world so that sinners could have light and life with Him forever. Jesus came for pagan Gentiles in their sin.
After 30 years of legalism, I certainly understand Christians are to repent of sin and not stay in it. Yet now I see this issue as one of Christian freedom and conscience (Col. 2:16-17). God’s holiness hates paganism and false idolatrous worship. God’s amazing love in Christ pleases Him to bruise Him for our sake that we may be sons of the living God. I hope and trust I will never get over that love and His mercy. For mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13). There was great healing and finally *PEACE* in our family as we together worshipped Jesus’ coming to save the world.
But God was not finished. In the summer of 2017, I planned to go with our youth to a Christian summer camp. We were to leave for the beach on an early Monday morning in July. The preceding Sunday our pastor gave a sermon on Psalm 90. He said that this psalm was always read by the Jews the night before the Feast of Tabernacles started – a feast where celebration and rejoicing was commanded. It is a psalm of repentance, God’s presence, God’s sovereignty and ending with joy and His beauty. The sermon impacted me greatly.
On the next day, we left for the beach with the youth. As we made the 5-hour drive, I began to talk to our pastor’s wife and a mutual friend in the van about our history in WCG and observing the Feast of Tabernacles for more than 25 years. We talked about how I finally put up a Christmas tree the previous December in 2016. When we arrived at the youth camp, the camp opened that evening at 7 PM to my shock and surprise with Christmas carols in July! Their theme that year (in the summer) was the coming of Jesus Christ. Seven Christmas trees lined the stage! As we sang Christmas carols in July, those leading the singing on stage asked everyone to raise their hands in clapping, joyful singing, and shouts of praise to God. No one in the auditorium but the two people in the van with me knew what God was doing.
I broke into tears of joy as I realized this was the fulfillment of the Scripture in Isaiah 55:12-13 my sister, D’Etta, had shared in 2013. As we saw in yesterday’s post, the Bible uses trees as a symbol of people. Because of the cross (a tree, 1 Peter 2:24 ESV) we were leaving for the mission field in Uganda in September with peace in our marriage and “trees” (the people) on stage were rejoicing and clapping their hands before the LORD. We truly went out with peace and joy. The thorn and brier (Genesis 3:18, the thorn and brier are symbolic of what the work and toil of humanity produces; that is, personal and relational pain and suffering by symbolically cutting and drawing blood because those thorns are a result of humanity’s carnal sin nature) in Isaiah 55 are being replaced with trees of worship (blown by the winds of the Spirit). Jesus used the metaphor of wheat in John 12, but a tree metaphor is similar, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). He dies by bearing the sin and “work of men” and the result is life and reproduction. “And it SHALL be to the LORD for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off” (Isa. 55:13).
One final note. Today, some people argue that observance of Christmas is not commanded in the Bible. That is true. I just want to leave you with this: the shepherds received no command of God in the story to go see the Christ-child. They simply received a “good news” (a spiritual insight about Jesus’ birth) invitation which was joyous. And because of the invitation and revelation (insight) about Jesus, they decide to go see Jesus (2:15). The great joy is brighter than the duty of a commandment. God does not force people to come to Him for salvation or to worship. Motivation from an invitation and revelation of good news is greater than motivation by duty (Luke 17:5-10). It is always your choice.
What was the result of receiving the good news and making the decision to spend time with Jesus? “Glorifying and praising God” (Luke 2:1-20). That is what happens when a poor person meets the living Jesus Christ. They know they are now rich beyond measure. Their life has radically changed (2 Cor 5:17). This is where the gospel has impact in a sinful, pagan, and worldly setting. When followers and believers in Jesus Christ announce the “good news” (gospel) like the angels did, those with a right heart will respond and glorify the One, true God. All these days – whether Christmas, Easter, or the “appointed days” from Leviticus 23 – are not nearly as powerful as the proclaiming of the gospel of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 2:2). When we yield and submit to the gospel, and learn that principle, there is great power to radically and fully change lives as God brings people to repentance. May we all continue to learn the depths of His love and motivation (this is what Paul prayed for the mature churches in Ephesus, Eph. 3:18-19).
So, my mother-in-law was right – we did eventually put up a Christmas tree. But, wow! What a journey Jesus took us through. My love for Him has deepened, and I would never have thought in 10,000 years that would have happened. “But God…” (Eph. 2:4)!!! This time of year listen for those stories (some people call them testimonies) which praise and glorify Jesus and God, not out of a sense of duty and cold observance like a slave or servant, but one out of simple love and joy for revelation of Jesus. That is what good news from God can do to a person – create a life story of radical change which results in glorifying and praising God for His work, His gifts and His love. Your choice.
Seek and pursue passionately for the peace and joy in the unity of the Holy Spirit under Jesus Christ. For that PEACE in Christ, for that JOY and celebration, I thank God for sending His one and only Son in humility as a baby born to grow, take on our sin, die, and be resurrected for our salvation – all unearned! Wow! My heart is drawn more to Him and His love for Gentile pagans like myself. I cannot wait to see Him and worship Him face-to-face.