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)

Most Worthy of Praise (Psalm 96)

What do we pursue with all our strength? What is of such great relevance to our lives that we invest heavily into it? Crime gives us an indication of what people pursue. The three big pursuits of crime are money, sex, and power. People go to great lengths for the sake of these three things. That might not describe us, but these three may point to things we invest heavily into, such as wealth and security, relationships and intimacy, validation and influence.

Of the roughly 19,000 people in our town of Cobourg, how many are pursuing wealth, relationships and influence? Of the roughly 19,000 people in Cobourg, how many are pursuing God? How many see such a great relevance of God to their lives that they are investing in a relationship with Him?

Perhaps those who are pursuing other things are right? Perhaps wealth is more effective, human relationships are more important, and influence is more useful to daily life? Maybe security feels more necessary, intimacy more satisfying, and validation more important than figuring out the God question? As we consider Psalm 96, we quickly discover that the Psalmist could not agree:

Great is the Lord! He is most worthy of praise!
He is to be feared above all gods. Psalms 96:4 (NLT)

We might not think we have gods, but things like wealth, relationships, and influence become gods when they sit at the centre of our lives. The Psalmist would have us know that nothing we invest our lives in can compare to God.

The gods of other nations are mere idols,
but the Lord made the heavens! Psalms 96:5

The Lord is the Creator. How can anything compare with that?! We are often made to feel that churches cannot compete with sports and entertainment for the attention of people. Maybe so, however, nothing can compare with God for importance to people. God is most worthy of praise! The Psalmist goes on:

Honor and majesty surround him;
strength and beauty fill his sanctuary.
7 O nations of the world, recognize the Lord;
recognize that the Lord is glorious and strong.
8 Give to the Lord the glory he deserves!
Bring your offering and come into his courts.
9 Worship the Lord in all his holy splendor.
Let all the earth tremble before him. Psalms 96:6-9

God is most worthy of praise! Some would translate verse 9 with “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” While there are ugly sides to money, sex, and power, there is nothing ugly about God or His holiness.

The Psalmist continues,

Tell all the nations, “The Lord reigns!”
The world stands firm and cannot be shaken.
He will judge all peoples fairly.
11 Let the heavens be glad, and the earth rejoice!
Let the sea and everything in it shout his praise!
12 Let the fields and their crops burst out with joy!
Let the trees of the forest sing for joy
13 before the Lord, for he is coming!
He is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with justice,
and the nations with his truth. Psalms 96:10-13

God is the ruler who judges “all peoples fairly.” We can take note of the great joy evident in Creation at the thought of the coming king. God is a good king, the kind of king you long for. He is not the kind of king that causes you to run for hiding. God is not the kind of king whose presence you can’t stand the thought of. God is the kind of king you celebrate! God is most worthy of praise!

Thinking of the judgement of the coming king, those of us who are Christians might immediately jump to thinking of the final judgement at the arrival of Christ. The earlier singers of the Psalm would not have thought in those terms. They would have been thinking of freedom for their tiny nation from all their big oppressive enemies. God will judge their enemies “with his truth”. God is most worthy of praise!

If the earlier readers of this Psalm could see how much better the Creator was than all other gods they might worship, then in our day we can see even more clearly that God is most worthy of praise. We have an even better picture of God. We have even more reason to celebrate his presence. We have the benefit of God revealing himself in Jesus. We have the presence of the Holy Spirit. We celebrate the once for all work of Christ in breaking the penalty of sin. We celebrate the ongoing work of the Spirit in breaking the power of sin. While rescue from oppression as spoken about in Psalm 96 is important, God goes further to rescue us from the worst oppressor there has ever been; the evil one himself.

We pursue so many things, investing in them with vigour and even excitement. They are not all bad things. However, we may not pursue God with as great a passion as we pursue these other things in life. I forget the exact words, but Timothy Keller tweeted something like “the things you daydream about, can become the things you worship.” It can be very subtle, but God slips from the centre, and good things take His place. However, the good things, no matter how good, are are never a substitute for God. Our Lord is “most worthy of praise!”

(All Scripture referees are taken from the NLT)

How Idols Take Us Out of the Race

What is the harm in a few idols? As long as you keeping coming back to do “the God thing” from time to time, right? Some church attendance, some Bible reading, some prayer, some sort of religious something. As long as we do that a little idol worship in our lives is not a bad thing, right? In Ezekiel chapter 14 we learn of some idol worshipping leaders who come to Ezekiel to “do the God thing.” We can paraphrase God’s response with one word: “really?” Said with a very sarcastic tone of course. Idolatry  is a ridiculous thing to do and in Ezekiel chapters 14 and 15 we learn of three reasons why God’s people in Ezekiel’s day should commit themselves fully to the Lord. These three reasons still hold true for us today. So what are they?

First, idolatry creates distance in our relationship with God. Consider:

Therefore speak to them, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Any of those of the house of Israel who take their idols into their hearts and place their iniquity as a stumbling block before them, and yet come to the prophet—I the Lord will answer those who come with the multitude of their idols, 5 in order that I may take hold of the hearts of the house of Israel, all of whom are estranged from me through their idols.
6 Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: Repent and turn away from your idols; and turn away your faces from all your abominations. 7 For any of those of the house of Israel, or of the aliens who reside in Israel, who separate themselves from me, taking their idols into their hearts. . .  (Ezekiel 14:4-7 emphasis mine)

Keep in mind that as Christians we are under a covenant of grace, and so no matter what kind of distance we may put between ourselves and the Lord, we can no more change our child-of-God status any more than a spat with my Dad would make my Dad no longer my father. Through Jesus God has given us the right to become children of God. But estranged children we can surely become through idolatry.

Distance between ourselves and the Lord is most unfortunate. The way many Christians treat their relationship with God is like an athlete, a runner, who goes to a newly assigned coach and says “can you give me money for new running shoes please? That is all I want from you.” We do this when we have an attitude of “Lord, just get me to heaven please, Oh, and make life perfect until then too.” The coach responds with “I have something far greater for you: my time, my attention, my attentiveness to how you are running, my expertise in training and running, my wisdom, indeed I offer you me. I offer you a  relationship with me.” The Lord offers us a relationship and all the while we cry out “just get us the shoes.” Idolatry makes us content with the hope of heaven as we miss the fact that we are missing out on God.

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. (John 15:9)

Second, idolatry leads us down a path of evil. Consider:

Mortal, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and placed their iniquity as a stumbling block before them; shall I let myself be consulted by them? 4 Therefore speak to them, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Any of those of the house of Israel who take their idols into their hearts and place their iniquity as a stumbling block before them, and yet come to the prophet—I the Lord will answer those who come with the multitude of their idols, 5 in order that I may take hold of the hearts of the house of Israel, all of whom are estranged from me through their idols.
6 Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: Repent and turn away from your idols; and turn away your faces from all your abominations. 7 For any of those of the house of Israel, or of the aliens who reside in Israel, who separate themselves from me, taking their idols into their hearts and placing their iniquity as a stumbling block before them, and yet come to a prophet to inquire of me by him, I the Lord will answer them myself. (Ezekiel 14:3-7 emphasis mine)

Idolatry makes us comfortable with the abominable. It makes what is awfully wrong seem ok, or even good. Like, an athlete that cheats. Cheating through drugs seems ok, good even, if winning is the only thing. But if winning with integrity is important, then that is a different story. Idols kill our perspective on sin. Consider how the idol of Social Darwinism makes the elimination of a particular race seem ok, good even if you are Hitler. People become comfortable with the abominable. Consider how the idolatry of sex makes some comfortable with adultery or even rape. Consider how the idolatry of people can make a person comfortable with stalking. Though we need sensitivity here, consider how the idolatry of personal rights makes people comfortable with terminating life in the womb.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us . . . (Hebrews 12:1)

Third, idolatry makes us useless. Consider:

The word of the Lord came to me:
2 O mortal, how does the wood of the vine surpass all other wood—
the vine branch that is among the trees of the forest?
3 Is wood taken from it to make anything?
Does one take a peg from it on which to hang any object?
4 It is put in the fire for fuel;
when the fire has consumed both ends of it
and the middle of it is charred,
is it useful for anything?
5 When it was whole it was used for nothing;
how much less—when the fire has consumed it,
and it is charred—
can it ever be used for anything! (Ezekiel 15:1-5)

While I am enjoying the pre-teen and teen stages my boys are in I must admit to missing certain things from their younger years, like Thomas the Tank Engine. I do not, however, miss the Telletubbies. Thomas was not a fast engine, or a big engine, or even a pretty engine, but he was a useful engine. Practically every episode had some reference to Thomas being or becoming “a very useful engine.” As Christians we are called to be useful, to be fruitful:

Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4,5)

Idolatry keeps us from fully abiding in the vine, in Christ. Idolatry makes us fruitless, and useless. Idolatry would be like Usain Bolt running his competition in dress shoes, or Michael Phelps competing with water wings. It does not help get the job done.

So what if we find ourselves more like spiritual couch potatoes than spiritual Olympians? Is there any hope for us when idolatry has sidelined us form the race? Yes, there is opportunity to get back on track. God wants us on track:

I the Lord will answer those who come with the multitude of their idols, 5 in order that I may take hold of the hearts of the house of Israel (Ezekiel 14:4-5 emphasis mine)

When we are on the wrong track the opportunity is given to “turn around”, a Hebrew word in the Old Testament often translated as “repent”. Consider:

Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: Repent and turn away from your idols; and turn away your faces from all your abominations. (Ezekiel 14:6 emphasis mine)

When some people hear that word “repent” they automatically  respond with something like “how dare you tell me I need to repent! How dare you not accept me as I am!” In fact the call to repentance has nothing to do here with acceptance of who you are. It has to do with you not accepting the horrible situation you are in, not accepting that you are estranged form God, not accepting that idolatry has led you down a path of evil, and not accepting that being useless has become your status quo. Repentance is a very positive opportunity to re-evaluate and make positive changes. Athletes do it all the time as a matter of getting back on track. When idolatry takes hold, perhaps you and I should listen to God’s Holy Spirit and do likewise?

Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. (1 Cor 9:24)

All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV