2018 “Bible Verse of the Year”

What was the most popular Bible verse of 2018? According to the popular Bible app YouVersion, the verse of the year was not John 3:16 or Romans 8:28 as you might expect. It was Isaiah 41:10.Dec 30.jpeg

Unfortunately, this verse is an indicator of what was on the hearts and minds of people around the world in 2018; fear and discouragement. We had many reasons for fear in 2018, such as changes in society and changes in our world with movements toward nationalism and various kinds of fundamentalism. We saw changes in relationships between nations, thinking especially of renewed trade wars. Most of us saw changes in ourselves. I am one year closer to the big five-O. Perhaps you are one year further away from it. Ageing can be a great cause for fear. Then there are the things that stay the same; wars and rumours of wars, continuing oppression, natural disasters. There were reasons for fear in Isaiah’s day as well. Israel was a small nation surround by strong nations. That can be cause for fear in any age, but certainly back in the days when empires were eaten up by bigger empires.

What do we humans do when we are afraid? Isaiah tells us:

The lands beyond the sea watch in fear.
Remote lands tremble and mobilize for war.
6 The idol makers encourage one another,
saying to each other, “Be strong!”
7 The carver encourages the goldsmith,
and the molder helps at the anvil.
“Good,” they say. “It’s coming along fine.”
Carefully they join the parts together,
then fasten the thing in place so it won’t fall over. Isaiah 41:5-7

The New Living Translation makes clear what most other translations don’t. The artisans and goldsmiths are making idols. We have a tendency of turning to idolatry in the midst of fear. In Isaiah’s time people thought idols could control the future. Are we any different today? What do we think controls the future in our day? In answering this we tend to either run toward superstition, or away from it so far that we run from the supernatural altogether.

It amazes me when I check the news headlines using the Internet on my tablet as to how often the daily horoscope shows up among the headline news. Here we are as very sophisticated people with great technology in our hands, and yet people are still looking to the stars for their future.

Superstition can sneak into Christianity very easily. I have often used an app on my phone called IFTTT which means “if this, then that.” I program this app so that when I do the right “trigger,” it will automatically do the right action. So, for example, I can say “time to eat,” and text messages are sent to our boys that dinner is ready. People often treat God that way. If I do this, then God must do that. I can control the future by doing a certain “trigger” which will force God to do the right action. Problem is, God is not an app or a phone that he must operate according to our scripts. God is sovereign. I am reminded of a prominent Christian couple who walked away from Christianity in 2018. God had not responded to them as they thought He should have. People do not tend to walk away from Jesus. They do, however, walk away from superstitious expressions of Christianity. Unfortunately, people tend to walk towards superstitious expressions of Christianity in times of fear.

While some, in thinking of the future, rush headlong into superstition, others will go the opposite extreme and become anti-supernatural. Nothing controls the future, it just all unfolds according to mechanistic processes. Even the process of thinking is said to be just a matter of one thing causing another, like a line of dominoes falling. Anti-supernaturalism can be found in certain expression of Christianity where people appreciate the benefits of religion such as structure, morality, and community. However, they don’t really believe in a transcendent and immanent sovereign God. The world is what it is and the future will be what it will be.

According to Isaiah, neither superstition, nor anti-supernaturalism speaks to our future. Who really holds the future? We find out in Isaiah 41:8-10

“But as for you, Israel my servant,
Jacob my chosen one,
descended from Abraham my friend,
9 I have called you back from the ends of the earth,
saying, ‘You are my servant.’
For I have chosen you
and will not throw you away.
10 Don’t be afraid, for I am with you.
Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you.
I will hold you up with my victorious right hand. Isaiah 41:8-10

God holds the future. Notice how Isaiah points to the past, present, and future. God’s people could look back and see a long standing relationship with God, “I have chosen you.” They have been his people for a long time. They can look to the present “I am with you, don’t be discouraged, for I am your God.” They can look to the future, “I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.” Nothing could provide hope and help in times of fear like God Himself. In thinking of the future we do well to leave behind our superstitions and our anti-supernaturalism and turn to God. He holds the future as surely as He has held the past and now holds the present.

The theme of “Don’t be afraid, for I am with you” will sound familiar to the Christian. We can think of the angels announcing the birth of Jesus to the shepherds:

They were terrified, 10 but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. 11 The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David!

Luke 2:9-11

That God had become present through Jesus was good news, and so “do not be afraid”! We are also reminded of the last words of Jesus to the disciples in the Gospel of Matthew:

And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Matthew 28:20

Like the people of Isaiah’s day, we can look to the past to see the relationship God has been pursuing with us. We can look to Christmas, we can look to Easter and the reconciliation that He has offered at the cross. We can also look to God’s presence in our lives now. We can look forward to God keeping His promises in the future.

2018 may have been a year marked by fear and discouragement for you. Perhaps Isaiah 41:10 is a verse you want to memorize for 2019.

Don’t be afraid, for I am with you.
Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you.
I will hold you up with my victorious right hand. Isaiah 41:10

May your New Year be blessed and happy!

(Scripture references are taken from the NLT)

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Herod and a Ruined Christmas.

You may have the kind of Christmas that is not Christmas-card-perfect. There are a great many things that can be the “ruin” of Christmas. We fret over things like finding that perfect gift, or having the perfect family gathering around the perfect Christmas dinner enjoying perfect relationships. Reality may stay from those ideals. For others, Christmas is ruined by grief. There is one less setting at the table. Christmas may not be Christmas-card-perfect for you this year.

You would not be the first to have a ruined Christmas. Herod ruins a perfect first Christmas for Mary, Joseph, and many others as we discover from a Bible passage we often associate with Christmas:

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:16–18 NRSV)*

Christmas is ruined. However, was it even a Christmas-card-perfect Christmas before Herod’s killing spree? Rumours would have been swirling about Mary and the legitimacy of this child. Remember that Jospeh needed an angel visitation to be convinced. Bethlehem was an ancestral home, but Mary and Joseph were hardly home for the holidays. There was no room at the inn. There was no family gathering, in fact the first to show up were complete strangers. Meanwhile Mary and Joseph were bringing a child into a rather unsettled world. Roman power is in the background, indeed it is why they end up in Bethlehem. When Rome spoke, Jews jumped. At least, according to the Romans. Jewish people-power is in the foreground. Herod was stuck between Roman leaders, for the Romans said he could be king, and the Jewish people, many of whom were saying he ought not to be king. These were dangerous times and revolution hung in the air. Thanks to Herod the Christmas story ends with Mary and Joseph forced to flee to Egypt as refugees with their baby. Thanks to Herod the Christmas story ends with the grief of many mums and dads who lost their babies. The first Christmas was anything but Christmas-card-perfect. Herod made sure of that.

How do you define the perfect Christmas? Is it the perfect family with perfect people with perfect lives gathering for the perfect dinner, carrying out the the perfect family traditions, enjoying perfect Christmas baking while opening perfect Christmas gifts fetched from under a perfectly decorated tree? A lot of that stuff doesn’t happen for a lot of people at all, never mind perfectly. For some people, “Merry Christmas” is met with “I think I’d rather give it a pass this year.” For many people Christmas is a hot mess. Life itself just gets too messy for Christmas.

What really makes for the perfect Christmas? Christmas is not the celebration of sentimental moments that are free of mess. Christmas is the celebration of the moment God stepped into our mess. Every year around Christmas we mention Herod. Herod reminds us of the mess God stepped into through Jesus. So if your Christmas is messy and less that Christmas-card-perfect, celebrate God who steps into our mess. Let’s focus, not on the celebrations themselves, but on Him Whom we celebrate.

Herod ruined Christmas for himself. Look again at Herod. How was his first Christmas? Herod was self-focused. Herod was paranoid of losing a throne he did not belong on. Indeed historians tell us that Herod was so paranoid he had his favourite wife and some of his own children killed. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Herod was troubled by the news from the magi and indeed sought to destroy the one “born king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2). Herod knew he was king of the Jews thanks to Roman benevolence, but not by birth. It is no surprise that such a self focused person as Herod would have trouble celebrating the birth of Jesus. Nothing ruins Christmas like a focus on oneself, and one’s own power. Such a self-focus causes us to reject, rather than celebrate, Jesus.

God stepped into a messy world that first Christmas. But Herod was too self-focused to notice. God steps into our mess, but if we insist on being front and centre, if we insist on being the hero of our story, we won’t notice. We try to be the hero when we try to fix every problem. We try to be the hero when we act as if life can go on without God in it. We put ourselves front and centre by trying to put God in our debt, as if He owes us something. When we think of Santa Claus, we may think we are owed not a lump of coal, but a good gift, for we have not been naughty, but nice. However, the original Saint Nicholaus gave gifts, not because he owed the help to anyone but because people needed help. His inspiration was Jesus. God will never be in our debt, but He will give us the gift of eternal life, not because we are owed it, but because we are in need of reconciliation with Him. Christmas could have turned out very differently for Herod had he thought about himself less, and thought about God more.

If we are really focused on the birth of Jesus, rather than on the celebrations themselves, or on ourselves, then Christmas can never be ruined. No one can ever take away God’s Christmas gift to us.

*(The magi were most likely not included in the manger scene we envision in Christmas scenes. They likely arrived later. However, they are very much part of Jesus’ infancy so we traditionally associate them with Christmas.)

Baby Jesus and the Surprising Visitors

When a baby is born certain people are invited to come and see. Usually they are loved ones; family, or good friends. Sometimes people take the intuitive to show up even without an invite. The birth is significant to them. Now let us look at the visitors on that first Christmas.

Shepherds are invited. Surprise! This is not an invitation from Joseph and Mary, who presumably would not have even known the shepherds. This is a special invitation from God! Why the shepherds? Why does God not invite the religious leaders or the political leaders? The shepherds were not the elite representatives of clean, holy, set apart Israel.
They were representative of the worldly, unclean, normal people of God. These are the kind of Israelites who would not be welcome in the most holy places of the temple. They are not holy enough. Why them?

“But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10–11 emphasis added)

The Wisemen take the initiative and show up. Surprise! Who are these wisemen? They are technically magi, which means they are astrologers, perhaps even priests, from a foreign religion and people. They would have been frowned upon by the holy and especially not welcome within the temple. But they were welcomed into the presence of Jesus. The magi represent those beyond Israel, people different from, and not as holy as the Israelites.

I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”

This is only the beginning of “surprise visitors” who are invited and welcomed.

Look to whom Jesus went; people on the margins, the unclean, the diseased, sinners and tax collectors, even a Samaritan woman. Look who took the initiative to call upon Jesus, to come and see Jesus; the diseased and unclean, sinners and tax-collectors, foreigners even.

I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people

Read through the Book of Acts and pay attention to whom the early church was sent. Anyone and everyone! There is even a special mission to an Ethiopian eunuch in Acts chapter eight. Phillip is sent on a mission from God to help the eunuch discover Jesus.

“As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”” (Acts 8:36 NRSV)

What if the question was “What is to prevent me from being in the presence of God at the temple?” We should not lose sight of the fact that the eunuch had gone to Jerusalem to worship. The answer would be clear; “you are a foreigner, a eunuch, you are not a priest, you are not the High Priest, you simply don’t make the grade and never will.” However, nothing hinders him from being baptized. Nothing hinders him from experiencing the presence of God in Jesus.

I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people

We have been looking at the “who and whom.” Now let us look at the “what.”

In the Old Testament, as God takes the time to teach about holiness, there is a constricting, a narrowing down of those who belong in the presence of God.  There is a narrowing down to those who are set-apart, or a “holy” people. They are narrowed down to being descendants of Abraham, then down to the descendants of Isaac, then down to the descendants of Jacob. Then there is a narrowing down to those who could approach God in the temple, those who were set-apart as the holiest of the holy. First there is a narrowing down to the tribe of Levi, then those priests who had properly prepared through consecrating themselves, then only the high priest. He was to be the cleanest of the clean, the holiest of the holy. However, even he does not belong in the presence of God. Only certain people make the grade and then even they can never make the grade. No one can truly stand in the presence of God.

We find this fact reflected in a passage from the Book of Revelation which reflects on the question “who can stand” in the presence of God given the consequence of sin.

“Then the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”” (Revelation 6:15–17 emphasis added)

This thought is reflected in the words of a song often sung during Advent and Christmas:

The sun cannot compare to the glory of Your love
There is no shadow in Your presence
No mortal man would dare to stand before Your throne
Before the Holy One of Heaven, . . . (from “Offering” by Paul Baloche, emphasis added)

This reflects the teaching of the Old Testament, that really, no one has the right to stand in the presence of God “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 NRSV).

We are not without hope. The question “who can stand” is answered:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, . . . .“These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9,14 emphasis added)

Back to “Offering” by Paul Baloche:

It’s only by Your blood
And it’s only through Your mercy Lord I come

While there is a constricting and narrowing down in the Old Testament, there is an opening up, a widening up which we see beginning at the birth of Jesus and continuing through his life and the ministry of His Church. The shepherds, the magi, the people on the margins, the unclean, the eunuchs, the Gentiles, anyone and everyone is invited and welcome.

We might give up hope for people. We might give up hope for ourselves. We are not the right kind of people, we don’t make the grade, we are too sinful, too different, too intellectual, too something or other. We may not be the kind of people who would make the grade for serving as High Priest but don’t worry, that job is already taken. Jesus is our High Priest, God the Son, and he has given his life as the ultimate sacrifice to reconcile us to Himself.

Don’t ever give up hope for others, or yourself. If shepherds are invited and foreign astrologers are welcomed into the presence of God, then you are too!

I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people

“All the people” includes you. The shepherds responded to the invitation by going to see Jesus. The magi took the initiative to seek him. Have you responded to God’s invitation? Are you seeking Him?

(All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV)