2019 Bible Verse of the Year

With 35 billion chapters of the Bible read using their Bible apps in 2019, the people who bring us YouVersion have some impressive statistics to back up their announcement of the “verse of the year.” It is the most looked up, most highlighted, and most shared verse in the YouVersion community. So what is it?

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. Philippians 4:6 (NRSV)

This speaks to the fear and anxiety in today’s society, and since the app is used across the globe, the anxieties felt around the world. This verse was written by someone who had great reason for anxiety and worry, for people who had great reason for anxiety and worry. It is in a letter written by the apostle Paul from prison, always a place of uncertainty in that time and place, to the Christians in Philippi who were facing persecution. So what does Paul say? Let’s consider what the Bible says about worry here, beginning with verse 4:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Philippians 4:4 (NRSV)

We rejoice, even though we may feel scared, mad, or sad. That might seem like an impossible thing to do, since we cannot normally choose our emotions. However, “rejoice” here is an imperative verb, it is an action rather than a feeling. According to Greek experts it is the activity of being glad or taking delight. It is possible to feel sad, and be glad at the same time. Paul is not contradicting himself when he says “we are saddened, but we rejoice” in 2nd Corinthians 6:10.

To give an example, I might be sorrowful that we are now in a Canadian winter and I cannot ride a motorcycle. But at the same time I can be glad that I have enjoyed motorcycling every year since 1991, and look forward to another season of riding in the spring. For another example, I am unhappy about my Mum having Alzheimer’s disease, and feeling distraught that she is now living in a nursing home. However, I am glad she is safe, and with our shared hope in Christ, I take delight in the fact that her best days are still ahead. My emotions have not changed, I am still feeling the emotions brought by grief, but I can focus my mind on things to take delight in. I don’t try to change my emotions from feeling sad to happy, but rather refocus my mind, engaging in the activity of rejoicing even while unhappy.

This is part of what happens in worship and praise at church gatherings. Whatever our emotions resulting from a difficult week, or a difficult season of life, in worship we focus on the big picture, the reality that is ours in God. There can be awful stuff happening in our lives which will result in negative emotions, but in worship all the awful stuff takes the background. The reality of God takes the forefront of our hearts and minds. We cannot change our emotions, but we can change our focus. We are told to “Rejoice in the Lord!” We focus on God. We focus on the big picture God paints for us which takes the focus off the limited perspective of our own field of vision.

Next:

Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Philippians 4:5 (NRSV)

We keep our cool, even though we may be mad enough to blow our tops. If our emotions take the forefront, then our relationships will be affected. When we allow the worries of life to take the foreground of our hearts and minds, we can easily hurt others. We can “kick the dog” so to speak. The Greek word for ‘gentleness’ has the idea of fitting, appropriate, or fair. Our response to the troubles of life can make our family and friends suffer unfairly, not to mention the poor dog. It is much better when we relate to people with the reality of God in the foreground. We relate to people, not as wounded people flailing away with swords, but as healed and healing people, experiencing grace and love from God, seeking grace and love in the lives of others.

And now for the verse of the year:

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. Philippians 4:6 (NRSV)

We can pray, even though worry seems like the best, or only, thing to do. When we rejoice, we put the big picture in the forefront. In prayer, we have the opportunity to get our concerns and frustrations back to the forefront. Our frustrations and concerns are important, so should not merely be hidden away as if they do no matter. However, we do not put them forward so they can consume us. We focus on them in order to name them and hand them over to God. What is the result?

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:7 (NRSV)

We may be uncertain about many things, but in Christ we can be certain God is our Heavenly Father who works out all things together for good (see Romans 8:28). One very literal translation puts it this way: “The peace of God, the one surpassing in value all reasoning, will watch over your inner selves and your thoughts” (from Scripture Direct Interlinear Greek Bible). While many understand this verse to mean something like “the peace of God is beyond understanding,” another possibility is; “having the peace of God is better than having understanding.” In other words, it is better to experience the peace of God, than have everything figured out. That is often our trouble, we want to have everything figured out, we worry and fret when we don’t. We don’t need it all figured out! Give it to God, Who already has it all figured out, Who has the power to do something about it, Who has the love to do something good about it, even if we can’t see it or understand it. Once we have given our concerns over to God, we can then refocus the mind again:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Philippians 4:8 (NRSV)

We have something far greater than knowing every detail of the future, and the ability to control that future. We have a relationship with the One who holds the future. Instead of worrying, let us go to God, rejoicing in our reality in Christ, relating to others with that reality in mind, giving our concerns over to God, then refocusing on all that is good. Whatever emotions you may experience in 2020, may you know peace, especially the peace of God.

The First Christmas. An Ordinary Day?

For most of us, Christmas is no ordinary day. We prepare for it, we take time off, we meet with family, we play special music. This is no ordinary day. Yet the first Christmas was actually quite ordinary in many ways. It was not marked on anyone’s calendar as being a holiday, or anything out of the ordinary. Yet there was something extraordinary about that first Christmas. Let us consider the many ways Christmas Day points to both the ordinary and the extraordinary.

Mary. An Ordinary Woman. An Extraordinary Calling!

Mary was an ordinary young woman, like every other young woman. We don’t know too much about her, but we can assume that she had quite an ordinary childhood. Like other young women of her age, she was engaged to be married. Her life was quite ordinary, until she had an extraordinary calling from God.

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, 27 to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David. 28 Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!”
29 Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean. 30 “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favor with God! 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!”
34 Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.”
35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God. 36 What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she has conceived a son and is now in her sixth month. 37 For the word of God will never fail.”
38 Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” And then the angel left her.Joseph.

Luke 1:26-38 (NLT) 26

Joseph. An Ordinary Man. An Extraordinary Family!

Joseph was also quite an ordinary person. He was a descendant of David, but he was also a normal man like any other man. In fact when he learned that Mary was pregnant, he decided to do what any good man would do, he decided to call off the wedding. However, this was no ordinary child Mary was carrying. As it turns out, while Joseph was an ordinary man, he would have an extraordinary family.

This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph, to whom she was engaged, was a righteous man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly.
20 As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet:
23 “Look! The virgin will conceive a child!
She will give birth to a son,
and they will call him Immanuel,
which means ‘God is with us.’” Matthew 1:18-23 (NLT)

Bethlehem. An Ordinary Town. An Extraordinary Fulfillment!

That first Christmas took place in an ordinary town. Bethlehem at that time was probably no bigger than the small town we live in which only has 2000 or so people. It had a rich history, with King David being from Bethlehem. However, living in Bethlehem would feel no different to the locals than living in a small Canadian town does today. Life there was quite ordinary. But something extraordinary did happen there.

At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. 2 (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. 4 And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. 5 He took with him Mary, to whom he was engaged, who was now expecting a child.
6 And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. 7 She gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them. Luke 2:1-7 (NLT)

While being an ordinary town, through the birth of Jesus this town became the site of an extraordinary fulfilment of prophecy.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, 2 “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.”
3 King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem. 4 He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”
5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they said, “for this is what the prophet wrote:
6 ‘And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah,
are not least among the ruling cities of Judah,
for a ruler will come from you
who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.’” Matthew 2:1-6 (NLT)

The Shepherds. Ordinary People. An Extraordinary Invitation!

You might think that the birth of a long awaited king would be announced to a long list of important people, like rulers or religious leaders. God chose to announce the birth to quite ordinary people, shepherds working nearby. In doing so, God indicated that ordinary people are important people. They are important to him.

That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. 9 Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. 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! 12 And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in highest heaven,
and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”
15 When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
16 They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. 17 After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. 18 All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished, 19 but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often. 20 The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them. Luke 2:8-20 (NLT)

Jesus. An Ordinary Baby. An Extraordinary Baby!

Jesus himself was quite ordinary in some very important ways. He was a baby like any other. Despite the claim of a favourite carol, he cried like any other baby would. He needed fed like any other baby. He probably kept his parents awake at night, like any other baby! But he was also extraordinary. He was the incarnation of God. He was “Immanuel,” God with us.

In the beginning the Word already existed.
The Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
2 He existed in the beginning with God.
3 God created everything through him,
and nothing was created except through him.
4 The Word gave life to everything that was created,
and his life brought light to everyone.
14 So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son. John 1:1-4,14 (NLT) 

Christmas. An Ordinary Day. An Extraordinary Event!

That first Christmas Day was a very ordinary day. It was not marked as special on anyone’s calendar. There were no decorations. There were no Christmas carols. There were no Christmas trees. There were no gifts under the trees. There was no Christmas shopping. It was such an ordinary day, that really the only ones who knew about it were Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, and perhaps a few others. The Magi probably didn’t arrive until later. It was actually a very ordinary day with a very ordinary birth.

Yet that first Christmas Day was an extraordinary day. It was a day which would lead to the possibility and opportunity for reconciliation with God. Because of the Son of God, Jesus, who was born on that day, we could become God’s children.

But when the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law. 5 God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children. Galatians 4:4-5 (NLT)

He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. 11 He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. 12 But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. 13 They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God. John 1:10-12

We could go on to speak about how ordinary people would experience the extraordinary teaching, miracles, and presence of Jesus. We could speak of his crucifixion, unfortunately an all too ordinary event in that time and place. We could speak of God’s extraordinary love expressed through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Although we may feel like we are far far extraordinary people, we can experience that extraordinary love.

My family and I wish you a Merry Christmas!

A New King in Town at Christmas. Dealing With the Powers That Threaten Us.

What is the biggest threat to your well being this Christmas? It might be health, family dynamics, addiction, work or a lack of a work. It could be Christmas itself, with all the stress that often comes with it. For many it is the anxiety in the air thanks to events and politics all around the world. What was in air when Mary and Joseph were making their trek to Bethlehem? What was felt to big the biggest threat to everyone’s well being that first Christmas? Luke mentions it when he begins to tell us about the birth of Jesus:

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. Luke 2:1 (NRSV)

The emperor was the big threat of the day. Rome was looming large in the background of the Christmas story. The power of Rome was looming large in the background of everyone’s story. When Luke describes what happened on that first Christmas, he tells us in a way that subtly shows a contrast between the emperor and a new king. There are subtle hints of a movement from the powers that be, to something much greater. As the angels announced to the shepherds; there is a new king in town.

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: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!” Luke 2:10-14 (NRSV)

Let us consider this move from the emperor, to the true King.

There is movement from the peace of Rome to the peace of God. There is an expression, pax Romana, which refers to a time when there was relative stability and peace between nations and peoples, thanks to the Roman Empire. However, this peace could be defined as an absence of conflict. It did not mean there was perfect harmony. It was the kind of peace that is held when a bigger power threatens to wipe you out if you fight with your neighbour. With this baby king, there would come a different kind of peace, the kind of peace implied by the Hebrew term “shalom.” It goes far beyond absence of conflict, to the presence of perfect harmony. This kind of peace comes when you love your neighbour. This baby king will bring true peace; reconciling us to God, and teaching us to live reconciled lives with others.

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!” (verse 14).

There is a movement, from the privilege of one class of people, to the opportunity for blessing for all people. The Roman empire could give you great freedom and opportunity, if you are free, and not a slave, if you are male, and not a female. Life in the empire was not that great if you were not born in a privileged position. The angel announces good news for everyone: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” (verse 10 emphasis added). Because of this new king, Paul could later write:

. . . for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:26-28 (NRSV)

There is a movement, from indifferent and uncaring, to intensely interested and caring. Augustus would have known nothing about Mary and Joseph. Caesar Augustus didn’t know, and likely didn’t care that his census made life difficult for Mary and Joseph. God knew Mary and Joseph. God chose to announce the new king’s birth to shepherds. In doing so, God showed his intense care and concern for the regular folk.

There was a movement from taxes gained to a gift given. The purpose of a census in the ancient world was to predict military strength and tax revenue. While the Jews were exempt from military service, they were not exempt from paying taxes. Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem so that the powers that be could figure out what they would be getting. In the bigger picture, Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem because there was a precious gift that God was giving.

There was a movement from a small world to the universe. “All the world” (verse 1) was not all the world, it was just all the world under Roman jurisdiction. It felt large to the people of that time and place. But it was not, especially compared to all the world, or better, worlds, under God’s care. The angels announce “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!” (verse 14). God’s sovereignty stretches everywhere. This new king was a much bigger deal than Augustus.

There was a movement from a very temporary Augustus to an eternal Lord, God. The Christmas story begins in chapter two, verse one with Augustus, the most powerful man of that time. The angels announce the birth of  “the Lord” in verse eleven. Augustus Caesar is dead and gone by chapter three. By the end of the whole book, Jesus is killed, but not gone. The Lord God is eternal, here long before Caesar, and here here long after.

There was a movement from the fear of Rome, to the love of God. The cross was originally a symbol of fear, the fear of Rome. It was a method of execution and it induced terror. The word “excruciating” comes from crucifixion. The pax Romana, the “Peace of Rome,” existed partly due to the Roman cross. Crucifixions were common and public. You could see people hanging on crosses on your way into town. Step out of line and you could end up on one yourself. However, the cross has now become a symbol of love, of power turned on its head. It is the symbol of God’s reconciling love through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Rome used the cross, and the fear it represented, to keep the peace of Rome. God used the cross, and the love it represents, to bring us peace with Him.

Rome loomed large as a large threat in the days of the first Christmas. Indeed, the Romans did eventually destroy Jerusalem. Augustus, and Rome, had the power to destroy many an individual, and a people. We may feel threatened by the powers looming in our lives. There is a downturn in the economy, or in a company. There is a downward spiral of ill health. There are powers that threaten to undo us, which are indifferent to us. However, there is power which holds us, and rescues us, which is intensely interested in us. Christmas is a signal of a big change; from the power of Rome to the power of God. What is your Rome? What is the power looming in the background of your life? This Christmas, make the move from the fear of Rome, to the love of God. The Christmas story begins with the power of Rome, but ends with the glory of God. Will yours?

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!” Luke 2:13-14 (NRSV)