Sermon for Christmas Day, Part 2

by Aaron


From last week
up until Christmas Day, we are trying to give you and your family some short blogs and readings to go over on Christmas Day. Element is not having services on Christmas Day, but still wanted to give you something to do with your family that focuses on Jesus. We are giving you a sermon Martin Luther preached on Christmas Day in 1521 (it has been translated into English in 1906 so forgive the “Olde English”).
 
Martin Luther started by talking about how God had shaken the nation of Israel and Rome on Christmas in order to bring about peace to His people. Luke 2:1-7 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

Luther goes on in his sermon referring to these verses: “Observe how exact the Evangelist is in his statement that the birth of Christ occurred in the time of Caesar Augustus, and when Quirinius was governor of Syria, of which the land of Judea was a part, just as Austria is a part of the German land. This being the very first taxing, it appears that this tribute was never before paid until just at the time when Christ was to be born. By this Jesus shows that his kingdom was not to be of an earthly character nor to exercise worldly power and lordship, but that he, together with his parents, is subject to the powers that be. Since he comes at the time of the very first enrollment, he leaves no doubt with respect to this, for had he desired to leave it in doubt, he might have willed to be born under another enrollment, so that it might have been said it just happened so, without any divine intent.

Since now all the works of Jesus are precious teachings, this circumstance cannot be interpreted otherwise than that he by divine counsel and purpose will not exercise any worldly authority; but will be subject to it...behold how very ordinary and common things are to us that transpire on earth, and yet how high they are regarded in heaven. On earth it occurs in this wise: Here is a poor young woman, Mary of Nazareth, not highly esteemed, but of the humblest citizens of the village. No one is conscious of the great wonder she bears, she is silent, keeps her own counsel, and regards herself as the lowliest in the town. She starts out with her husband Joseph…Imagine how she was despised at the inns and stopping places on the way, although worthy to ride in state in a chariot of gold.

There were, no doubt, many wives and daughters of prominent men at that time, who lived in fine apartments and great splendor, while the mother of God takes a journey in mid-winter under most trying circumstances...The Evangelist shows how, when they arrived at Bethlehem, they were the most insignificant and despised, so that they had to make way for others until they were obliged to take refuge in a stable, to share with the cattle, lodging, table, bedchamber and bed, while many a wicked man sat at the head in the hotels and was honored as lord. No one noticed or was conscious of what God was doing in that stable...O what a dark night this was for Bethlehem, that was not conscious of that glorious light! See how God shows that he utterly disregards what the world is, has or desires; and furthermore, that the world shows how little it knows or notices what God is, has and does.

See, this is the first picture with which Christ puts the world to shame and exposes all it does and knows. It shows that the world's greatest wisdom is foolishness, her best actions are wrong and her greatest treasures are misfortunes
.”
 
How often are we blind to the ordinary workings of God in our everyday lives—just like the people in Bethlehem?
How often do we overlook what God is doing because we are so consumed with our own comfort and security?
 
Take a moment to ask your family how they might have already overlooked Jesus today. Ask how, for this day, they can have an open heart and mind to see what Jesus wants to remind them of. Ask, “How can we live today so Jesus’ goodness and message are known because of how we see Him?”


Sermon for Christmas Day, Part 1

by Aaron
We’re almost through with 2016, and Christmas happens to fall on a Sunday this year. We have three Christmas Eve services at 7, 9, and 11pm; the 11pm service will actually let out on Christmas day, which led us to the decision not to have services Christmas morning (and…because I’d like to get some rest after such a busy night). However, some people really want to go to church services on Christmas day. I figured I would give you a few blogs leading up to Christmas, so you can have your own “sermon” discussion with your family on Christmas Day (if you are so inclined).
 
At Element, we believe that the first pastors to families are their parents. We believe instruction about who God is should begin at home. How to follow Christ should be modeled by loving parents who teach, disciple, rebuke, and restore the children entrusted to their care. That being said, we also know that at times, it is hard to know where to begin. What I would like to give you over the course of the next three weeks is a sermon (broken up) by the church reformer, Martin Luther, in 1521.

 
Martin Luther was German and obviously wrote and taught his sermons in German; what I give to you is the 1906 translation, so be aware of some of the older English. Before you think to ask, yes, Martin Luther gave this sermon on Christmas day, so he was obviously much holier than we are at Element.
 
He starts his sermon like this: “It is written in Haggai 2,6-7, that God says, ‘I will shake the heavens; and the precious things of all nations shall come.’ This is fulfilled today, for the heavens were shaken, that is, the angels in the heavens sang praises to God. And the earth was shaken, that is, the people on the earth were agitated; one journeying to this city, another to that throughout the whole land, as the Gospel tells us. It was not a violent, bloody uprising, but rather a peaceable one awakened by God who is the God of peace.”
 
Martin Luther’s life was marked by adversity as he attempted to properly live in and explain grace to others. He was put on trial for his views and there was a bloody and violent rebellion about “grace” during his lifetime. As www.religionfacts.com puts it, “The life of Martin Luther is one of the most fascinating stories in the history of Christianity. It has all the stuff of a good novel: parental conflict, spiritual agony, life-changing moments, near-misses, princes, popes, emperors, castles, kidnapping, mobs, revolution, massacres, politics, courage, controversy, disguises, daring escapes, humor and romance. And not only is it a good story, it marks a major turning point in western history and in Christianity.”
 
With all of these things looming in Luther’s life, it’s remarkable that he starts his sermon with how God came to bring peace to His world. He speaks of how the entire world was shaken for the purpose of peace. Luther was not against being a soldier or the concept of a “just war” (you can read Terry Miller’s great paper on it here), but he did see God’s purpose in Christ was to first bring peace--peace to our broken hearts and our broken world.
 
If you are doing this with your family on Christmas day, ask the following questions:

What do you think it means to have true peace?
How did Jesus’ birth herald the proclamation of that peace?
 
See ya next week.

Do Penance, What?!? Part 2

by Aaron
Last week in our blog we looked at the historical division that resulted in different Bible translations being used by the Protestant and the Catholic Church. The schism between the two theological perspectives hit the fan (so to speak) when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Church door in 1517…the theses seem to wholly revolve around the words repentance and penance. Here are the first two:
  1. Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, in saying, "Repent ye, etc.," intended that the whole life of his believers on earth should be a constant penance.
  2. And the word "penance" neither can, nor may, be understood as referring to the Sacrament of Penance, that is, to confession and atonement as exercised under the priest's ministry.
What does this mean and why does Luther say this? Let me show you two verses from two different Bible translations.
 
Matthew 4:17:
ESV(English Standard Version) - From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Douay Rheims- From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say: Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Acts 2:38:
ESV- And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Douay Rheims- But Peter said to them: Do penance, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of your sins: and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.
 

If you look at the words I underlined in the verses above, you see the difference, and it comes about because of a mistranslation of the Greek word “metanoeo.” Jerome’s Latin Vulgate (which the Catholic Church used since 1582 as the Douay Rheims version) translates this as “poenitentiam agite" ("do penance"). Metanoeoi doesn’t mean “do penance” though, it means to change one’s mind, have sorrow, and experience a true change of heart. Repentance is a work that God initiates within us that works its way out. Penance, on the other hand, is outward works to atone for our own sin. Mark Sohmer writes, “Repentance is of the heart. Penance is imposed by a Roman priest. Repentance is the work of the Holy Spirit. What God desires in the sinner is not a punishment of oneself for sins, but a change of heart, a real forsaking of sin, shown by a new life of obedience…in short, penance is a counterfeit repentance. It is the work of man on his body; true repentance is the work of God in the soul.”

 
This is where the rift widened during the Reformation—repentance and penance.
 
Part of the issue is the way Christians tend to latch on to pithy formulas for faith. During the Middle Ages, people liked grouping things in sevens (e.g., seven deadly sins, seven works of mercy, seven virtues, seven holy orders, seven liberal arts, etc.). The idea of seven “sacraments” emerged about 1000 years after Jesus, but was claimed to have been instituted by Jesus himself (because we love to blame Jesus for all of our stupid ideas, right?). These sacraments were: (1) Baptism, (2) Confirmation, (3) Eucharist, (4) Penance, (5) Extreme Unction, (6) Holy Orders, and (7) Holy Matrimony. The Reformers pointed out that the seven sacraments didn’t go back to Jesus. In response, the Catholic Church pointed to the Latin Vulgate passages to support their claims that Jesus instituted all seven. The Reformers said this “evidence” didn’t stand up to scrutiny because the Greek New Testament didn’t support Jerome’s mistranslation. The Council of Trent tried to shut the matter down again, however, by saying:

If any one saith, that the sacraments of the New Law were not all instituted by Jesus Christ, our Lord; or, that they are more, or less, than seven, to wit, Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist, Penance, Extreme Unction, Order, and Matrimony; or even that any one of these seven is not truly and properly a sacrament; let him be anathema.” (7th sess. 3 March 1557).

 
This became too much for the Reformers, most importantly Luther, who believed that the Bible clearly taught salvation through faith alone. He pointed to Jesus’ real words when he said, “repent” and not “do penance.” We do not atone for our own sin; Jesus did so at the Cross. Too many Christians today live in the Catholic Church’s mindset from the 16th century, trying to “do penance”…too many churches who claim to believe in grace encourage this mindset as well. Human beings cannot atone for their own sin before God. If they could, Jesus wouldn’t have had to die and rise again; the Gospel would cease to be the “good news” it is and become useless news instead. The truth is that we can never pay for what separates us from God; this is why God does it Himself in the person of Jesus. We do not have to “do penance”; we get to live lives of hope and freedom because Jesus has set us free to love God.

To bring this whole thing to a close, it is important to be discerning regarding how Scripture is translated, interpreted, and lived out. Remember that Scripture is all about Jesus and His saving work in our lives. He has paid the price we could never pay once and for all, this is why our lives should be marked by gratitude and joy…it is why they should be marked by repentance and not penance. 

Do Penance, What?!? Part 1

by Aaron
If most people know anything about the Reformation and church history, they think of Martin Luther, church doors, nails, grace versus works, indulgences, and a whole lot of fiery debates. Many today that look back on this movement think Protestants and Catholics were just splitting hairs on issues that today we could just live with. What most people miss is that there were, and I would say still are, some good reasons to vigorously disagree with poor theology.
 
The thing I would like to explore in this blog is the idea of penance versus repentance, but it is going to take us a long time to get there because I have to explain a lot of stuff first. The Protestant Church, after the Reformation, started translating and releasing Bible versions that went back to the best copies of manuscripts available. Today our translations are very good and also refer to the best available manuscripts. The Catholic Church, after the Reformation, stood firm in their longstanding use of the Latin Vulgate (a translation of Jerome, an early church father). (Please understand that this is a very simplistic rendition of many debates and things you probably would get lost in and not care much about.)
 
People in our Gospel Class like to ask, “Why does the Catholic Bible have extra books?” The answer is that before the Reformation, the extra books (Apocrypha) were not considered to be within the canon of Scripture. (Again, many people would like to disagree on this point, but I think history can prove me correct in this.) Please note these extra books were not considered bad; Luther even said they were useful and referred to them, but he did say they were not on par with Scripture. After the Reformation, the extra books became a way to distinguish ‘their’ Bible from ‘the other’ Bible (again, a simplistic interpretation).
 
Today, the five most popular Catholic approved Bibles are: Douay Rheims, New American Bible, New Jerusalem Bible, Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition, and the New Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition. Some of these are good translations, and the Catholic Church has made some strides forward as the Vatican has now called for translations from the original languages in Pius XII’s Divino Afflante Spirit. The Church has encouraged the use of more modern translations that utilize the best and earliest manuscripts, but—and this is why I write this as my “Part 1” of the blog—they still hold to an archaic translation of certain verses that skew the idea of grace.
 
For Luther, one of the largest issues he had was with the Catholic Church’s translation of Acts 2:38 and Matthew 4:17. We will explore this more in Part 2 of the blog. Luther noticed that the Catholic Church, in using Jerome’s translation, used the words “do penance” instead of the more proper “repentance.” I know, both of the words sound vaguely familiar to each other, but they are completely antithetical in terms of the Gospel (the Gospel being the good news that Jesus has come to restore and renew us through His own death and resurrection).Luther said that Jerome’s translation misled people into thinking that people must atone for their own sin when Jesus clearly died to pay that penalty before God, once and for all.
 
When the Reformation was in full swing, the Catholic Church shut down any conversation about the topic by saying in 1546, “If anyone shall not accept all these books in their entirety, with all their parts, as they are read in the Catholic Church and are contained in the ancient Latin Vulgate edition as sacred and canonical…let him be anathema (meaning “let him be accursed, or excommunicated,” 4th session, 1546).
 
At that time, the Catholic Church also showed disdain for the original Hebrew and Greek translations when they came out with what is known as a polyglot (meaning using several languages). This allowed the reader to compare the text in multiple languages side-by-side. There was Hebrew on one side, Greek on the other, and in the middle, Jerome’s Latin translation. The Catholic Church had this to say about the polyglot: “We have put the Latin translation of St. Jerome [the Vulgate] between these versions, as though between the synagogue and the Eastern Church, placing them on each side like the two thieves, with Jesus, that is the Roman or Latin Church, in the middle” (16th Century Complutensian Polyglot).
 
Pretty far reaching comparison, huh? I know, it sounds like I am bashing on the Catholic Church, but that isn’t my intent…really. I want to give you the historical background for what next week’s blog will cover when we talk about one of the main schisms of the Reformation, and to help us realize that today we are no different in how we let our personal biases influence what we believe as truth. Maybe, at some future date, I’ll even show you some ways the Reformers did this, too.
 
For now, simply keep in mind that repentance is what Jesus calls us to—to repent of our self-righteousness and pride, to turn from ourselves and to Him. Matt 4:17 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Who Doesn’t Love A Good Toy Story?

by Aaron
Sometimes I wish the cartoons I watched as a kid (and even watch now) were more biblical. I think it would be great if the Bible started like this: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And in the deep recesses of space, God hid five robotic lions, that when combined form Voltron, the legendary defender of the universe.
 
I am sure I could make almost any toy story into a biblical story. Adam and Eve with Ken and Barbie, Spiderman and responsibility, lightsabers and battling darkness, or Voltron and defending the universe from King Zarkon, Prince Lotor, and Witch Hagar (all of which I am sure you know). We love toys, heroes, and games because it allows us to step in and be the savior of our own story…which is the exact opposite of the real, biblical story.
 
It is interesting to me that whenever we write stories today, we find a way for humanity to be the answer—whether it’s through powered suits, powered spiders, or powered lions. I think we’re drawn to the idea that rather than being part of the mess, we are the answer to the mess. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), the Bible tells a completely different story. The Scriptures tell a story that the universe needs to be defended, in major part, from humanity and its self-centered mindset.
 
We have told ourselves stories today that help us avoid the reality of who we are. Have you ever heard anyone say to you, “They’re a good person”? It sounds like we are always trying to justify each other and ourselves. In the Bible there is a concept that comes out of our original fall from relationship with God called “original sin.” Today there are a lot of people who fight against this idea (like Voltron fighting against King Zarkon). Where the Bible teaches that we are all born with a sin nature and a proclivity toward evil, there is a whole push today that says that human beings are essentially born “good.”
 
What is so wrong with thinking we are born good? It hides the true nature of humanity behind a veil of lies as thick as the mirror world in Doctor Strange. By believing we are born good, we get to write off any bad thing we do as not truly being our fault. What I mean is that if we can convince ourselves that we are good at our core, then some outside force, a villain, has done something to us to make us do something evil or wrong. If we are essentially good, we would never choose to do wrong of our own volition. Something must have made us do it…therefore what we did is really not our fault.
 
If we accept the Bible’s proposition that we are born into sin, with a propensity for evil, then the things we choose to do that are wrong become our fault completely. It means that adversity doesn’t make us lash out and respond poorly; it simply shows us who we really are. If we are truly born into a sin nature, it shows us the necessity of a savior—and that savior cannot be one of us. This is exactly what the scriptures teach us, that God Himself had to come to rescue us from ourselves. Jesus wasn’t a man who placed himself in an Ironman god-suit; He is God who placed himself in a man-suit to pay the penalty for our sin that we could never pay.
 
A toy story mentality always ends up with us as the center of the story because we like being the center; we like not thinking we have to rely on anyone or anything else. We’re tempted to believe that if we just had that special suit of armor, that magic wand, the powerful lion, we could solve our own issues. I love toy stories as much as the next guy, but I believe it is more important to live in reality. The reality is that our God came to rescue us…and that is the Christmas Story that trumps all toy stories.
 
1 Corinthians 15:22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.

What Election Are We Focused On?

by Aaron
I am sure there are a million blogs about this past election and I don’t want to simply be another opinion in the cacophony of voices saying the same thing, so let me try to take a different approach. I am in the middle of writing a series we will go through when we are in our new building that is a re-centering on the Gospel of Jesus (I know, you are thinking ‘what’s new with that?’ You are always talking about the Gospel).
 
Today, in my message hopefully destined for 2018, I am writing about the death of Jesus, the centrality of that event, how it overshadows all of time…and the election. When Jesus came into the city of Jerusalem the week before His death, the crowds show up and they start singing and shouting (and I know some people’s singing sounds like shouting). John 12:12-13 The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying, (this is from Psalm 118)"Hosanna!" (Which means, “save now”) "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" "Even the King of Israel!"
 
At first this all looks great, but what they are really doing is telling Jesus what to do. ‘Save US NOW – Blessed is the King of Israel’—that’s the key, they are calling for a revolution and they want a King.
 
Jesus has, at this point, been preaching for 3 years in His public ministry and teaching people about what the Kingdom of God truly is. He keeps pointing them back to the rule and reign of God in our lives first, but no one hears His message for what is truly was. Instead, when Jesus comes into Jerusalem they bare palm branches which was indicative of receiving a military hero or king. They have missed the point of all of Jesus’ teachings about the “Kingdom of God.” People have agendas and because Jesus won’t fulfill their agenda they will instead yell, “Crucify him” a mere few days later. These people wanted to elect themselves a king who would rule how they wanted, when Jesus doesn’t do it, they turn on Him because we all think we know better than God how to rule.
 
We today call the presidential race an election because it comes from a Latin root meaning “choice,” we get to decide who holds offices that govern our laws. When we talk about the Gospel though, it was also an election, a choice, not made by us, but made by God Himself. God elected to save us by making a choice to send Jesus as a substitute for our sins. The death of Jesus for our sins is what God elected to do for us, but He used people’s rebellion to bring it about.
 
The chief priests arrest Jesus and send Him in front of the Roman governor Pilate to be tried (and sentenced to death). There is this very interesting interchange that takes place during His trail…it’s in John 18 & 19. The Israelites and Romans were a lot like us and they thought political power was the power to influence and fix the world, this is why Jesus keeps talking about the kingdom of God…this is why God keeps reminding them who the Messiah would be… Is 9:6-7 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. See, it’s a different kingdom. God keeps saying that what the human race needs is something that no human can give.
 
When Jesus is standing before Pilate being questioned He says John 18:36 “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” This is a remarkable statement and Pilate becomes totally dumbfounded by it…kingdoms work through military/political might and yet Jesus’ followers won’t rise up? The Jews wanted someone to slaughter Romans not save Romans, but Jesus came to save the Romans too!
 
We need to understand what the people in Jesus’ failed to grasp, we don’t elect Jesus, but He elects to save us and call us to be those who live in His kingdom now, today. He calls us as those who live in His kingdom to try and understand the motivations of those who disagree with us in order to help them see the reality that the Kingdom of God can be (here and now). Even as Jesus died for our sins on a cross those that trusted Him thought their “candidate” not only lost, but died. They in turn, on seeing, hearing and understanding the resurrection will in turn respond with love and grace that embraces those they consider their enemy and eventually change the world.
 
This is why the Gospel, the right understanding of God, Jesus death and ultimate resurrection, brings many things.
  • Hope – because we know our circumstances are not the final word, God’s is the final word. The Gospel reminds us that God will bring about His will because He is good for His promise.
  • Peace - The ability to yield ourselves to the will of the Father doesn’t mean we are passive and throw our hands up, we yield to God in the hard places so we get through it and move on to what God desires.
  • Clarity of the Love of God – We must remember in whatever circumstance that we find ourselves in, that the ropes and nails did not constrain Jesus to His beating and execution...His love for us did. God is bigger than our sin, our error, our mistakes, our elections, and He will bend all of this to His will. Our God is tremendously mighty and nothing is greater than our God.
  • Freedom – We live in a world obsessed with controlling and predicting tomorrow. Jesus says “don’t worry about it.” Plan, but don’t worry. We do not need to know the future because we know God and God knows the future and He is trustworthy. There is freedom in that. We don’t need foreknowledge we just need faith.
 
In your life what is going on right now may seem very big, but God is not just bigger, He is also close to us. When we rely in His strength we can have the strength and confidence to see the other side of an issue. We can become those who understand why people do what they do. We can then ultimately steer everything back to God’s Kingdom. We don’t need to teach our children to fear the future because we get to teach them to have hope for what God can and will, do even in the midst our sinful choices.
 
The Gospel trumps Hillary, Johnson, Stein, and even trumps Trump. Let us live in the Gospel and not in the passing fears that today brings, let us live in hope with the ability to listen to how one another thinks and feels, let us honor the image of God in one another, and let us put Jesus first in all things.
 

Is Life Worth Living

by Aaron
This morning I showed up to Element and there was a piece of paper taped to the main entrance door. You have to understand that this happens every once in a while. Sometimes it is other churches asking us things, sometimes it is crazy Christian gibberish about the wrath of God being poured out (complete with verses taken out of context), and sometimes, like this time, it is a question that seems genuine. I opened up the piece of paper and this is what it said in its entirety: “Is life even worth living?” Here it is in case you want to see it:


Because I have deep-rooted issues of my own, my mind immediately starts racing with a couple of questions. “Are they asking me, are they asking the church as whole, or are they asking God?” I wonder if there is a reason they didn’t stick around for an answer. I wonder if it was a homeless person, but then wonder where they would get paper, pencil, and tape. Like I said, I have my issues. My first and natural inclination is to want to answer the question, but because no one stuck around to hear the answer, I was just left frustrated. So…I wrote this blog about it instead.
 
Let’s ask the question (by the way, this is typically not how I would answer this person face to face…I would be much less logical and try to speak to their emotions), “Is life worth living?”. The word “worth” means to have a value, and as an adjective, it means “important enough to justify.” Is someone’s life important enough to justify? According to the Scriptures, the answer is a resounding “yes.” We are told that God made mankind in His image and that is what gives us our “worth”; we have worth simply because God says we do. Matt 6:25-26 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” That worth that we are assigned means that life is worth living.
 
I started to wonder what would make me question the worthiness of life, and I decided that if my wife died, I might ask that question. I would have what I imagine to be unbearable pain, heartache, and sadness; my life would be placed into turmoil because of what happened to me. Then I started to think that there would lie my issue: I had made my life all about myself. If I asked, “Is life even worth living?” it would be because I had centered my world upon myself and my own circumstances. Don’t get me wrong here, I understand it is much easier to say this and think this way when my world hasn’t collapsed around me…but it makes it no less true. The more we make our lives and our happiness dependent upon ourselves and our circumstances, the more we will be at the whim of circumstances beyond our perceived control (which is truly every circumstance in life). When our lives become about us, they will all eventually become not worth living, because in reality, we can’t control anything.
 
Ephesians 2:4-9 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…Worth can be defined by how much someone is willing to pay for something. The God of the universe gave the life of His son to pay the penalty for our sin and redeem us from a lost way of life. This redemption is not based up on our merit, but upon God’s goodness, upon the value He has given to us. John 3:16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” These are words of worth and value.
 
If we are a people who live our lives for ourselves, focused on ourselves and our desires, we will always end up in a place of regret. However, if we live our lives centered on Jesus and the good news of His hope and redemption, while we may still find ourselves in times of sadness, we will have a life that is full and free.
 
“Is life even worth living?”
 
I think the answer to that question depends on who we are living for—ourselves or Jesus. I think it depends on whether we allow our circumstances to define us or Jesus to define us, because Jesus defines us as worthy, which makes life worth living because our lives are about Him.

Happiness, Contentment, and Sobriety

by Aaron
I was reading an article on ESPN two days ago. For me (yes, Aaron), that is an odd way to start a blog because I do not normally (or ever) read ESPN, their website, or sports commentary. I would rather play sports than watch them or read about them. I am pretty sure it was click bait of some sort that made me look at it—if you’re friends with me on Facebook, it just might have been your fault. Either way, I ended up on ESPN’s site reading a blog about Michael Phelps, swimming, and how he is going to cope after the “golden age” of his life.
 
If you don’t know, after Phelps retired the last time (a few years ago), his life became meaningless because swimming, once the center of his life, was now gone. He went off the rails, so to speak, became addicted to prescription drugs, and wanted to commit suicide—all because he felt there was nothing in his life to give him meaning and purpose. Phelps went through rehab, got cleaned up, started swimming again, and at the 2016 Olympics won 1 silver and 5 gold medals. He has now said he is retiring again, but the question becomes: how will he stay sober, focused, and have purpose in his life?
 
It is here I would like to quote the ESPN article: “This time, Phelps insists it's different. He will no longer have swimming to keep his life within the boundaries -- to bring him happiness, contentment, sobriety. But he doesn't need it. He finally knows who he is beyond a swimmer. He no longer needs gold medals to define himself as a successful and productive human being. He has a fiancée who has been there through the good times and bad and loves him for the man, not the medals. He has a son who will blindingly care about him and has cried in recent days during FaceTime chats because he misses Dad.”
 
I hope you guys caught what the article actually said. Swimming will no longer give him “happiness, contentment, and sobriety.” That will now be provided by his fiancée and his son (who is an infant at the time I write this blog); this son’s job, according to the article, is to “blindingly care about him [Phelps].” Isn’t it obvious that this is a recipe for disaster? Has Phelps’ son agreed to these terms? If I was in Vegas and were to run odds on people’s misery, I would start taking bets against Phelps right now…not because I dislike him, but because I know basing his “happiness, contentment, and sobriety” on others will fail.
 
While not many of us are Olympic swimmers, this happens quite often in our culture. We have laid the things of God on people, because we think people can stand up under the pressure. When people fail to live up to the God-like standards we have set for them we think they have let us down. In actuality, we have failed them by putting them in a position they could never hope to fulfill. This is idolatry. How sad is it that an infant isn’t sacrificially cared for by a parent, but instead is seen as the thing that gives the parent’s life meaning?
 
Since the beginning of creation, man has always been drawn to becoming his own God. When that fails, as it always does, he is drawn to make something in his life, that he can control, become his God. Psalm 115:4 Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. Isaiah 44:13-17 speaks of how we will cut down a tree and use half of the wood to make furniture and use the other half to make a god we will fall down and worship. “Anothershapes wood, he extends a measuring line; he outlines it with red chalk. He works it with planes and outlines it with a compass, and makes it like the form of a man, like the beauty of man, so that it may sit in a house. Surely he cuts cedars for himself, and takes a cypress or an oak and raises it for himself among the trees of the forest. He plants a fir, and the rain makes it grow. Then it becomes something for a man to burn, so he takes one of them and warms himself; he also makes a fire to bake bread. He also makes a god and worships it; he makes it a graven image and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he eats meat as he roasts a roast and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, “Aha! I am warm, I have seen the fire.” But the rest of it he makes into a god, his graven image. He falls down before it and worships; he also prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god.” God goes on to say, “How dumb are you?”
 
The answer is…pretty dumb!
 
One of the reasons God continues to remind His people who He is throughout the Old Testament (which is often) is that they needed to remember that He is God—not people or things. Fiancées, children, friends, parents, spouses—no one can live up to god-like expectations, because none of us are God. My advice for all of us, including Mr. Phelps, is that if you want your life to have meaning and weather the challenges of life, stop exchanging one corruptible self-centered god for another and surrender ALL of your life to the true Lord, Jesus Christ. After all, no one else can promise true fulfillment and rest as Jesus can. He doesn’t “blindingly” care for us, but rather, died for you and me fully aware of our sin and betrayal. In spite of our brokenness, He paid the final and ultimate price so that we can be fully confident in His power to redeem our lives.  
 
Jesus says in Matthew 11:28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. The rest we long for is found in Jesus—there’s no need to look elsewhere. Jesus doesn’t help us fulfill our potential. He re-orients our life to how it was created to be, with Him as the center.

Q&A: Peter's Vision

by Aaron

Years ago, a friend of ours told us he believed that Christians misinterpret Peter’s sheet vision in Acts 10 to mean that we can literally eat all kinds of animals previously considered unclean. Peter’s vision is later explained (as you've pointed out in recent sermons) to mean that no person (i.e. Gentiles) is excluded from God's message/kingdom. My friend's point is that this is the only meaning of the vision, that we read too far into it by taking it to mean that we can literally eat any animal.

Have you considered this stance? What are your thoughts?

(Even further, what do you think of the idea that we were created vegetarian, if not vegan, based on the available food in the Garden of Eden?)

 

I hope I don’t sound too harsh, but your friend is a legalist. Legalists will look for any reason to ADD laws where there aren’t any laws.
 
Let me start at the beginning. (Or, in the beginning, if you will…)
 
In the garden, we were probably vegetarians…but remember the garden was called “good” and not perfect. That doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with being a vegetarian; we just can’t use the Garden of Eden as the standard to say this is how everyone should live. Everything changes once Noah exits the ark in Genesis 9:3. God says to him, “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything.” He does go into prescriptions about blood and such after this, but here we get the idea that we get steak (praise the Lord!).
 
When Jesus comes, He does follow dietary laws because He came to fulfill the law (Matthew 5:17). He couldn’t do that by ignoring it (haha). Jesus was showing us the true intent of the law…it was made for man’s benefit. The law was meant to lead us to Jesus and His grace as we realize living up to it is unobtainable. This is why Jesus fulfilled the law for us.
 
When you get to Peter and his vision, you see God moving his church toward understanding the greater call of mission. Dietary laws were part of the civil law (as was not wearing blended fabrics or cutting your sideburns). These laws limited the interactions that God’s people had with their surrounding neighbors, because they couldn’t eat the same things; they essentially hindered mission. One of the reasons God showed Peter the vision in Acts 10 was so Peter would understand that he COULD now eat with Gentiles.  It was about witness, and that witness included food.
 
A few years later, Peter actually forgot this and Paul confronts him in Galatians 2:11-14 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?

The circumcision party said what your friend did. “You can’t eat that; God’s vision for you wasn’t REALLY about food.” They tried to make everyone start to follow dietary laws again. Paul goes on to say, Galatians 2:15-16 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
 
Think about this…because we talked about this during Acts as well, is the prescription for circumcision still valid if the dietary laws are? That is part of the civil law as well. Why not tell everyone they have to be circumcised? Paul goes on in Galatians 5:2-12 and essentially says if the Law and circumcision is so great, why not cut off your whole penis? Then you will be REALLY spiritual! (Paul is being sarcastic). Paul then says these amazing words in Gal 5:13 For you were called to freedomGal 5:1 For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
 
I have no problem if someone wants to eat a certain way; they have that freedom. However, the second they say others have to eat a certain way (or be circumcised, or wear certain clothes, or cut their hair a certain way), they have left the realm of freedom and entered slavery. They have cut themselves off from those God has called us to minister and serve. The point of the freedom God gives is that we can worship God in any context we find ourselves in…serving others is worship, and we cannot serve others if we feel like we are better than them.

Book Review: Zealot

by Element Christian Church

This is a review that I did on my Goodreads page for the book Zealot by Reza Aslan, I thought it would be helpful for you as well.

A friend of mind read this review and said I sounded angry, I don’t think I am angry as much as frustrated. Let me start by addressing something that repeatedly comes up throughout the entirety of Zealot…We all have a bias. Each of us has a worldview that shapes how we process and analyze information. Research shows we are more likely to accept and gravitate toward people, things, and ideas that reinforce our beliefs. This is why critical thinking is so important...we must be willing to have our worldview challenged, but also be able to point to true evidence that reinforces it. Make no mistake when reading Zealot, Aslan has a bias, even though he claims not to. His bias is markedly strong on every page. When I read the book I had to put it down multiple times in order to avoid a metaphorical aneurism.
 
To be upfront about my own bias, I believe the Bible is a truthful, historically valid collection of writings, and that Jesus is the Son of God. I believe these claims have withstood time and the opposing arguments (like Reza Aslan’s) along the way. I wrote this review only after a former youth group kid shared his review of the book and stated, “Zealot is an attempt to look at the historical Jesus of Nazareth. Rather than looking at the founder and reason for Christianity, Aslan looks at Jesus the political revolutionary.” As I said, I had previously tried to read through the entire book, but put it down because it brings up the same arguments that have been disproved for the last 150 years, after the review of this young man, who I love dearly, I finally finished it. I assumed where the book would be going, and it turns out, I was right.
 
Most of my comments throughout this review are made at the times when I put the book down out of frustration with Aslan’s bias, it is why many of the things I say have a frustrated tone. If I could sum up this review in a few words, they would be this: “Aslan claims the New Testament writers were biased in their testimonies about Jesus, but he (Aslan) claims to be unbiased…he is full of BS.” That’s it. Throughout the book, Aslan shows his bias in how he masterfully twists biblical book order, phrases, verses, and history to fit his particular worldview, and yet consistently acts like he is not doing that. You lose credibility as an author if you can’t even cop to your own bias. Many people, if they are not aware of what he is doing, can easily be swayed by his less than true arguments.
 
As an example, Aslan, at the very beginning of the book, completely dismisses ALL of the apostle Paul’s writing in one paragraph—simply because Paul believed and taught the virgin birth, Jesus’ atoning death on the cross, and the resurrection. Seriously, just ONE paragraph to dismiss one of the greatest scholars in the ancient world. However, Aslan has to do this because the rest of his claims wouldn’t stand up to Paul’s theology. If that doesn’t scream “bias,” I don’t know what does. How about Aslan’s central premise (common among liberal scholars) that the synoptic Gospels took their information from an outside document known as “Q”? The “Q” hypothesis argues that Matthew, Mark, and Luke may not have even known each other, and that the Gospels were written after the fall of Jerusalem (70AD – or CE, depending on how you like to refer to the current age); they were a collusion of the church to deify Jesus and fit its theological structure. The biggest issue with this theory is that we have thousands of documents, fragments, and pieces of the synoptic gospels, but not one shred of evidence for the “Q” document/source material other than a bunch of liberal scholars saying “it must exist” because they cannot believe the New Testament could have been written any other way…can you say “bias?”**

 

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What Is Meta For?

by Aaron
A few weeks ago Eric Djafroodi gave a message about Stephen’s sermon in front of the religious leaders of his day. Stephen was the first deacon in the Church that was martyred for his faith. As I sat in service listening to the message, various things struck me and I wrote a short blog about it (you can find it here). As more time has passed, I keep thinking how brilliant Stephen was because he used his culture’s metaphors to explain the Gospel in a tangible way.
 
I originally wrote about how we (not metaphorically) need to understand what God is doing in real world sense of living on mission by being a blessing. After I wrote the blog I had a couple people ask what our current cultural metaphors are today.
 
The word “metaphor” itself comes from a root that means “to transfer,” where we transfer the idea of one thing onto another to give it more meaning. Like if you are into NASCAR and someone jumps out into the lead, sometimes people will say, “He took off like a rocket.” The imagery gives more detail to what you are talking about.
 
Our culture has metaphors that explain how people see the world today; it is important to identify  those metaphors in order to communicate effectively. After all, we want people to be able to connect with what we have to say, especially in terms of the Gospel. Currently (and this will date this blog years from now), the term LEMONADE is making a comeback because Beyoncé just released a critically acclaimed album with that title. This title is a reference to the adage: “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Her album has resonated with a whole culture that is struggling, in their own way, to be heard.
 
Martin Gannon, from the University of Maryland, writes, “A cultural metaphor is any activity, phenomenon, or institution with which members of a given culture emotionally and/or cognitively identify.” It is important to realize that metaphors will come to represent the underlying values of a culture. Sometimes when we feel out of touch with the “language today,” it is simply a misunderstanding of metaphor. Everyone is looking for a way to connect…and as Christians, we must remember that part of speaking the Gospel into culture is knowing the right words to use for connection and meaning.
 
The Apostle Paul used the metaphor of a BODY to describe what the church is meant to function like in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31. I’ll just quote verses 12-13: For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. With Paul’s words in mind, listen to much of what our society is saying today. Recently, the Huffington Post shared an article titled “Are We All One?”—obviously with a whole different connotation than the Bible, but this speaks to humanity’s ingrained desire to connect.
 
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians about the diversity in who we all are and how we can still connect and function together when centered on Jesus. One body with many parts can speak directly to the racial divide our country is experiencing today. How do we do this? We understand the metaphors of how people are looking to connect (tolerance, mother earth, all one) and speak plainly about how the only way everyone will ever work together will be by centering on Jesus and not on ourselves. The 2000-year-old metaphor that Paul used, a diverse body made up of many different parts living for the Gospel, is still just as fresh and relevant as an image today.
 
Acts 17:22-23 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.Paul, in Athens, notices how the culture was worshipping; he doesn’t demean or talk down to them, but simply takes their language and moves it to Jesus and the truth. Instead of telling those around us what they need to hear in words they do not understand, we must speak truth by noticing the words that are used.
 
I would challenge you to be more aware of the common images and themes that are so prevalent in our culture today. As believers, we should constantly be thinking about how the Gospel speaks and applies to those themes. Ask yourself, or better yet ask God in prayer, how can you “translate” the Gospel to our culture so that it is clear and relatable without compromising the truth?

A Prayer In Tragedy

by Aaron

Last week one of our Elders sent me a prayer that was written by Ravi Zacharias and posted on their website www.rzim.org
 
We thought that after the tragedies in the past few weeks, with our country more divided by death and confusion, we as God’s people must remember to be peace makers and seek the welfare of others. We will do this by lifting up everyone, victims and families, in prayer before our great and good God. Please take time to pray for Jesus to grow us into greater unity through the tragedies.
 
Here is the prayer by Ravi Zacharias in his post: A Prayer on this Day of Shock and Heartbreak. We offer it to you as a prayer of lament and hope.
 

God, our heavenly Father, our minds go back to the day when Jesus knelt beside his beloved city and wept, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:42).

We sense so deeply the same reality. We weep for our cities even as we bury our dead. The sound of gunfire is the grim sound of what has already shattered our relationships. We are witnesses of distrust, revenge, and anger. We see no one to lead us and guide us. To whom shall we go?

Our differences seem to lead us even farther apart. Oh, Lord of miracles, do what only you can do to save us from ourselves. Give us men and women who will lead us to reconciliation. Give us leaders who will bind us up to heal our wounds, not those who will only incite more hate.

Give us voices that will bring hope and not despair. Please comfort the bereaved and give humility to the ones who are resistant to your ways. Give us pause so that we might sit back for just a few moments to look to you before we look at our impulsive solutions.

We shed another’s blood when we are without answers. You shed your own blood as our only answer. We kill, buried in despair. You rise, giving us hope.

You told Peter to put back his sword and you restored the one wounded. That’s what we long for. A reprimand to the one who would injure and a healing within the one injured. God of miracles, please do it again. We need you. Our nation needs you. Our leaders need you. Many a home today will not have a loved one returning. Without you we have no hope. With you all things are possible—even for beauty to come out of ashes. We pray for the day of unarmed truth and unconditional love. Please answer our prayer.

In the name of Jesus your Son, our only Savior, we ask this.

Amen.

Truth and Meaning

by Aaron

I try very hard to look at the Bible objectively, to teach you as best as I can so you will see the Scriptures as they were meant to be seen, but I also know that is somewhat impossible. I don’t say that to diminish your trust in my teaching or your trust in the Bible; I say it because we must be careful to read OUT of the Bible what God wants said, and not IN to the Bible what we want it to say.

I recently had an experience of running into someone I haven’t seen in a couple of years. They had become “hyper-spiritual,” and I do not mean that in a good way. They had begun to look for numerical patterns in the Bible (we call this numerology). They took pictures of the clouds to look for signs from God, and they believed that when everyone “really” trusted Jesus they would all agree with him. It’s easy to dismiss someone like this as crazy, because they talk crazy, ask questions they don’t want a response to, talk over you, and become very adversarial, but I know my calling as being a witness for Jesus is to always steer people back to Him.

The Bible’s focus isn’t about numerology; the Bible’s focus is Jesus. When we get caught thinking God has hidden messages in the Bible, we miss the main point of why we have the scriptures at all. 

As I said, our experiences shape how we read and interpret the Scriptures, that is why we must always come back to prayer and listening to God’s Spirit. Christopher Hall wrote a great article about this when he wrote a review of Randolph Richard’s book: Misreading the Scriptures with Western Eyes. Our culture will help us see some things very clearly, but can also distort other things altogether.

In the article, they point out that even simple details in the parable of the prodigal son can be overlooked. “When 100 North American students were asked to read the parable and retell it, only six mentioned the famine the prodigal experiences away from home.” Americans forgot the famine and the hardship that pushed the young man to return home because, as the author suggests, “Most Americans simply have not experienced terrible famine.” When they had 50 Russians read the parable, “42 out of 50 mentioned the famine.” In Russia’s cultural history, World War II brought famine and starvation that rooted itself deeply in their collective consciousness. Both of our cultural contexts determine what stands out to us in a passage of scripture.

I used to go to a Bible study where the leader would have us all read through a passage from the Bible and then ask, “What does this mean to you?” If I was in an ornery mood (which was often), I would start right in by being a loud-mouthed sarcastic participant, but if I wasn’t “in a mood” most of the room would stay quiet for a few minutes before someone would eventually say, “To me, this passage is saying _____.” People would start to answer, but not out of any source of knowledge from the actual scripture; they would answer out of their heart’s emotional response (which usually resulted in less learning and more ignorance).

Don’t misunderstand me, I think it is great to talk about how Scripture impacts our hearts. It is great to ask what a passage means, but as Hall says, “To make the individual Christian the starting point for interpretation and the center of a text's meaning—the Western pattern—is problematic.” In the book Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, they point out two main dangers in this approach:

  • If we, as a people, make ourselves the center of the search for truth in a passage of the Bible, we will skew things in our own direction and miss what the text is actually saying. The passage may very well be challenging us! We will, as I said earlier, read in to the text the things we want instead of allowing the text to examine and change us. The author says, “This…leaves us basing our Christian life on less than the full counsel of God."
  • The me or “I” centered approach to looking at the Scriptures confuses two words: application and meaning. We must understand that we are not the focus of Biblical texts—Jesus is. Yes, we are made in the image of God, Jesus did come to save us, and the story of redemption includes us as God’s people, but we must always first ask how a passage reveals Jesus. If our first question is “How can I apply this to my life?”, we will skip the meaning and be self-centered on application (not that application is a bad thing).

A major problem with how the Church in America has taught the Scriptures is that it is a very man-centered view. We tend to make people the point, and not God—who made people, revealed Himself, and calls us into relationship with Him. When we make the Scriptures man-centered, we will assume there are hidden messages, secret codes, and the ability to “unlock” all we have ever dreamed. But if the Scriptures are about God being first, they will change our whole view and we will begin to realize that Jesus is the author and finisher of not just our faith, but the Scriptures as well.


Let’s not forget Jesus’ words in John 5:39-40 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.

Crux Sola Est Nostra Theologia

by Aaron
If you just read the title of this blog and thought, “Did Marianne’s cat walk across Aaron’s keyboard?” the answer would be a resounding, “No.” Sometimes I get in these moods where I want to just write something for the fun of it…that usually means something no one else really cares about, like theological words and phrases.
 
When the Magisterial Reformation of the church occurred, some wonderful bits of theology were emphasized to the “common” people. The reformers (like Calvin, Luther, Zwingli, and Simmons) wanted normal everyday people to understand more of the truth of the scriptures. This resulted in an emphasis on what were known as the “five solas.” The word “sola” means “alone,” but unlike getting lost in the woods, this use of “alone” means “by itself and no other.” Here’s an explanation of each of the five solas:
  • Sola Fide – Faith alone. We are justified before God by faith alone. (Rom 3:28)
  • Sola Gratia – Grace alone. We have no claim upon God and He saves us by His grace. (Eph 2:8)
  • Solus Christus – Christ Alone. There is no human achievement that takes the place of Jesus and His work. The Reformers loved to say over and over, “Justification is by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone.” (Acts 4:12)
  • Sola Scriptura – Scripture alone. The Bible is our authority, not Popes, churches, traditions, or councils. When men contradict the Scriptures, we are to remain faithful to the Scriptures. (2 Tim 3:16-17)
  • Soli Deo Gloria – To God alone belongs all glory. God does all things for His glory and so should we. (Romans 11:36—For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.)
If you would like a more in-depth (but still brief) explanation, you can check out this short article on the Gospel Coalition website: (https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/scottysmith/2007/12/03/the-solace-of-the-reformation/).
 
When we say “sola means alone,” it means by itself in a good way…not in an eating-lunch-by-yourself-kind-of-way. These things alone are sufficient for a fruitful understanding and practice of the Gospel. The Protestant church has held these solas as foundational to who we are in a “deep rooted faith in God” kind of way, but some people forget that Martin Luther added a sixth sola while defending himself at the beginning of his time as a reformer.
 
On October 31st (What? Halloween?), 1517, Martin Luther wrote his famous 95 Theses that he nailed to a church door in Wittenberg. These words were mainly to combat the selling of indulgences by the Catholic Church. (Indulgences were pardons you could buy to make up for your sins). The posting of questions was not something new, and most historians agree that Luther was shocked that his 95 Theses caused the stir that they did. However, we’re glad today that they had such a strong impact. Luther’s challenge to the Church was to essentially change its ways, because Jesus alone (Solus Christus) paid for our sin.
 
On April 26, 1518 (no one ever said the Church was fast at doing anything), Luther was called upon to defend himself and he did so in what we call the Heidelberg Disputation. In this disputation, Luther laid down the principle of Crux Sola Est Nostra Theologia (“the Cross alone is our theology”). Luther, in this sola, was not discounting the birth or the resurrection of Jesus; he was directly combating the idea that you could buy your way into God’s graces. He was saying that Jesus alone (Solus Christus) paid for our sin at the Cross (crux sola).
 
Luther pushed for an understanding that all human history comes to a head at the cross of Christ and that without a proper understanding of the Cross, we will misunderstand everything else (even the other 5 solas). I think for us, an understanding of the centrality of the Cross is also more important than most people realize. The Cross is where Jesus paid for our sin. The Apostle Paul uses many metaphors for this:
  • For those who get focused on the temple, he uses the words sacrifice or atonement (Rom 3:25)
  • For those who love the law, he uses the word justification (a legal term)
  • For those who love relationship, he uses the word reconciliation
Scot McKnight wrote, “The metaphors Paul chose determined the problem they addressed: if the word is redemption, the problem is slavery; if the word is sacrifice…the problem is sin…; if the word is reconciliation, the problem is alienation.” The cross is the means of liberation, reconciliation, justification, and atonement for our sin—not the church, not men, not worship, not law—only the work of Jesus through the Cross.
 
We are a people who must understand Christ’s sacrifice in a sola type of way. If we do not understand the Cross, we will preach a false gospel that elevates people as being central AND ALSO begins to slowly demonize God Himself for requiring a sacrifice of us. Our sin required a sacrifice, but God Himself stepped into human history to BE that sacrifice. This is why “justification is by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone” changes everything. The truth of these words is given to us throughout the entirety of Scripture (Sola Scriptura), and God is the one who gets all the glory (Soli Deo Gloria)…but an understanding of the Cross of Christ (Crux Sola) is what brings it all into proper focus.  

Live The Message

by Aaron
The start of this blog is more of a public apology to Eric Djafroodi. If you were at Element last Sunday morning, you know that I gave him the longest section of Scripture to preach on in Element’s history. As I was sitting at his practice run-through (AKA 1st service…just kidding), I wanted to reemphasize something that stood out to me from Eric’s (Stephen’s) message—the idea of speaking intelligently into our cultural contexts.
 
If you were to read through Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7:2-53, you might walk away thinking that it was the strangest message you have ever heard, that certain points didn’t land, and that the Gospel wasn’t clearly articulated. All of those things would be false, because Stephen perfectly articulated the truth of the Gospel in a context that was highly relatable to his audience: the Jewish ruling council (the Sanhedrin). The Sanhedrin were not concerned with transgender bathrooms, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, gun control, three strikes laws, or any laws other than those handed down in the first 5 books of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Torah).
 
Stephen spoke in a way his listeners could understand, as should we. Sometimes we get caught up in using “Christian” words (“Christianese”) and forget that many of our co-workers, neighbors, and friends don’t understand words like atonement, redemption, grace, or even hope in the same way that a believer in Jesus would. We must be careful that when we use words we say them in a way that connects and makes our understanding clearer by adopting the cultural metaphors around us.
 
Stephen tells the religious leaders that God is not confined to the nation of Israel because God chose a man named Abraham before Israel was even a country. He then sent His people into the land of Egypt before eventually giving them an inheritance of the promised land. Over and over God is showing them that He is not confined to a space, but that He blesses and intends for those who follow Him to bless others.
 
Stephen tells the religious leaders that God is not confined to their temple, their holy space. When Moses meets God, it is out in the middle of nowhere and God tells him to take off his sandals because the place where he is standing is holy. What made the place holy? The presence of God made the space holy; the space itself held no special significance. Today we like to make some spaces more holy than others (whether it is a baseball hall of fame, or a Hollywood walk of fame, or a rock ‘n’ roll hall of fame); we need to understand that it is God’s presence that makes a place sacred and holy.
 
Stephen then went on to show that any time someone came to show who God was and is in a real way, they ended up being killed for their faith. Stephen showed how the nation of Israel constantly rejected their calling to be a blessing and made the blessing of God all about themselves; they held themselves as a privileged elite in the world, rather than a Kingdom of priests.  
 
So, let’s see if we can connect this to us and our culture…
 
Like Stephen, we are called to be people who can speak the truth into our current cultural setting in a way that makes sense. What can stop us from doing this in a practical way? Living like the religious leaders Stephen is speaking to. We have a tendency to see the world in our own context, just like the Sanhedrin. We want to confine God to our sacred places, we want to determine who can be eligible for the blessing of God, and we more often than not reject the calling that God has placed on our lives to be a blessing.
 
I think we should begin to ask where, metaphorically speaking, we need to take off our sandals, because God is moving and working in places we refuse to believe or recognize. I think we need to understand where we have tried to confine God and His work to fit our narrow cultural view. I think we must open our eyes to understand the blessings we have received are blessings that God intends for us to share with others.
 
When we refuse to live as God’s priests to the world, we are refusing to live the calling of God. 1 Peter 2:9 But you area chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. We, many times, are just like the men Stephen addresses; we think because our great God has redeemed us, we are better than others. We think the blessings we have received are somehow because of our own effort, or because we have done something good enough to deserve them…but the truth is that we have been blessed to bless others and give our blessings away.
 
The biggest cultural push of our day is tolerance for only the things that are deemed tolerable. Laws are passed and people fight for a view that is constantly letting individuals do anything they/we want as long as our hearts say it OK (you can insert the conservative or liberal movement you wish here). How do we speak the gospel into that? It starts with understanding that the scriptures teach that our hearts are wicked and cannot be trusted to be other than self-serving. Beginning to understand how God has made us, how we have marred His image, will begin to bring compassion because we will see the brokenness around us. When we love them as God calls us to we will begin to understand them better, when we understand others better we can speak to the depth of their brokenness as well as ours in a way that is full of Gospel truth and blessing.
 
Blessing others does not mean letting them get away with everything they want; it is speaking the truth and offering love and hope, while showing how to live a life that loves God in practical ways. How can you love your neighbors? How can you love your friends? How can you love your coworkers? How can you love your family, your spouse, your children? Live out the blessing of God in others’ lives, while not begrudging them for your effort, energy, or trampling on your blessing. It was never yours in the first place. It was always meant to be given away. 

The Law

by Aaron

After briefly talking about “The Law” on Sunday, I had a few questions from people that I thought I would briefly try to recap and answer.
 
The Pharisees taught and lived mostly what was known as the Oral Law, the Sadducees lived more in line with what was called the Written Law. The Written Law was more of a letteral (not literal) view of the Torah, where you lived it word for word. The Oral Law was more about the meaning behind the words of the Law. The oral interpretation was to make the Law more understandable and livable because they knew not everyone, especially foreigners, would understand the Law.
 
Many of the things Jesus taught lined up with the Oral Law, understanding that the Laws were made for man, not man for the Laws. As an example, if your animal fell into a ditch on the Sabbath the Written Law adherers would say to let it die and not to violate the Sabbath, the Oral Law adherers would say it is ALWAYS lawful to do good and you should pull your animal out.
 
The word Law can refer to the whole Old Testament, God’s specific 613 Laws found within the Torah, or the Torah itself (5 books of Moses). You find in the books of Moses, 613 Laws that can be broken in 3 categories.

  • Ceremonial Laws: these would refer to the temple, the priesthood, the sacrificial system.
  • Civil (or Magisterial) Laws: These would be how God’s people were meant to live as residents under His earthly Kingship. The Hebrew people didn’t have a King (except for God) so God gave decrees that ran their governmental system.
  • Moral Laws: These would include the 10 commandments (Don’t kill anyone, don’t steal anything, don’t lie, don’t gossip, don’t worship false gods.)

Many Christians today misunderstand what happens when we speak about these Laws today. Some want to take and try to live all of them, which is a strict form of moralism that tends to lead to defeat and failure. If we understand the scriptures as whole everything begins to make more sense.
 
The Ceremonial Laws were all fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus is our priest, Jesus is our sacrifice, Jesus fulfilled all of the ceremonial laws which brings us great freedom in worship. We also do not live in a theocracy, we live in a representative republic, this means the Civil Laws are not intended for us (you can wear a poly-cotton blend, shave your sideburns, and eat shrimp and not be in sin). The Moral Laws are the decrees that represent the character of God and they are still binding on us. Jesus dying to “fulfill the law” (Matthew 5:17) doesn’t mean we now get to lie, murder, and steal from others.
 
In Romans, the Apostle Paul reminds us that the Law was good, it had an intended purpose: to draw us closer to God. The Law was meant to help us see how futile righteousness is on our own and that we need a redeemer.
 
As I said on Sunday, our job is to live as God always called His people to live, being a blessing wherever we are. Our job is not impose moralism or to run away from our culture, our job is to live on mission with the good news that Jesus has fulfilled the law, called us into relationship with Him, and is making all things new.  

Missional Calling of Jesus

by Aaron
Last Sunday I tried to give you a succinct definition of a phrase we say while studying the book of Acts, “The Missional Calling of Jesus.” I told you I would then post a blog, that a few of you will read, that you could have with you to better understand this phrase in a tangible way.
 
So, when we say things like the “missional calling of Jesus,” what do we mean? Stick with me as we go through this because it will get a little redundant.
 
Mission is simply our purpose. Element’s mission statement is this: “We exist to glorify God by teaching and living out the scriptures, transforming community into Gospel community, and planting churches.” In our lives we should glorify God, but we do that by living out the scriptures and moving from shallow relationships into deeper relationships that are centered on the Gospel. When we live with each other, centered on the Gospel, we begin to disciple one another.
 
This means our relationships take shape as we orient life around making disciples who make disciples—these disciples (who are us) become a blessing to the earth.
 
How do we disciple each other? By understanding and living the gospel in each other’s lives (see, I said it would be a little redundant).
 
What is the Gospel? The book Called Together defines the Gospel like this: The Gospel is the good news that Jesus has defeated sin, death, and evil through His own death and resurrection, and is making all things new, even us.
 
Living the Gospel in our lives means living in the reality of salvation and redemption that we have been given by grace through Jesus. As we understand His grace, love and discipline more fully, we live that out in each other’s lives.
 
This means we live in community centered on the Gospel. As I said, again, it sounds redundant, but it all goes together
 
Community is how God intends for His people to live with one another. We are saved individually, but we are also saved to live in community with one another just as God Himself lives in community in the Trinity.
 
Living the missional calling of Jesus is about mission, calling, purpose, being a disciple, making disciples, living the Gospel out, and community. These various aspects weave themselves together so we as a people can live the life God intends, on mission, glorifying Him, lifting up Jesus, submitting ourselves to his Lordship, while we grow deeper into the grace that He has given to us.

Not A Political Blog

by Aaron
I know, when I have to start out saying this is NOT a political blog, it seems like this must be some sort of political blog…it’s not, trust me (I’m not a politician). What I want to share is in regard to engagement in the current political process; it has very little, if anything, to do with candidates and policies; it actually ties in to what I was saying last Sunday (if you missed the message you can listen here).
 
In past few weeks I have had conversations with people from a wide variety of political persuasions, but one thing seems to be a constant, they all show their dislike for the other party by making fun of the opposing candidate’s name. As believers in Jesus I believe we should make our views known, but not in a way that destroys the humanity of someone else.  Many people I have talked to do not even know what the buzzwords of their favorite candidates mean; words from ‘democratic socialism” to “conservative values.” I say this to point out to you that the most recent study done of American politics shows that most people have no idea what their candidate of choice would actually do as an elected official, which tells us we are going by how we feel and not basing our decisions of who to back based on facts and truth.
 
According to the latest Barna survey (Barna.org), Christians who say they are most concerned for the upcoming election and the future of the United States are actually the most indifferent to their candidates’ actual beliefs. I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen this firsthand with certain friends. These friends are often very vocal about their opinions on social media, but when you talk to them in person, they admittedly have no clue about a candidate’s policies—they just like them. This should be concerning to us not just as Americans, but as Christians first. Our support of a candidate should not be because of our feelings; it should be because we hold certain core beliefs.
 
I believe that God has placed us in a country where our vote not only matters, but counts. I believe that if you don’t vote, you have no right to complain about what happens in our political process (this includes Facebook posts). I also believe that we cannot simply vote for “the nicest guy” because the nice guy may in fact be perpetuating evil. What are the things that God has clearly told us as believers to fight for?
  • That life is precious and all people have dignity. Does your candidate of choice treat others with respect and fight for the value of all life born and unborn?
  • That we are to be peace makers. Does your candidate of choice seek peace before the occasional necessity of battle?
  • That truth is a staple of our lives. Does your candidate of choice tell the truth or have they been found lying?
  • That we are to become a generous people. Is your candidate of choice generous with their own wealth and not just everyone else’s?
We choose what is good and right because it is what Jesus calls us to, not because it is politically expedient or socially acceptable. Let’s face it; being “right” most times it is neither of those. James 4:17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. Our problem is that many times we don’t like “the right thing.” We like the thing that makes others like us, and unfortunately (or fortunately), that is not what we are called to.
 
1 Thessalonians 5:22 reminds us Abstain from every form of evil. We don’t just get to stay away from the “greater” of two evils and vote for the lesser, we are to abstain from it. I believe we should be involved and we should share our views, but they must be informed by Jesus first. If we decide to support a person, we must take a close look at their lives so we are not inadvertently lifting up evil. In all things we must remember that the world is messed up by people and people are not the solution, Jesus is. The only person who will ever bring lasting hope and change is our great redeemer. If you have a chance to lift up anyone this political season, lift of Jesus.

To Die For

by Aaron
I am going to write this blog to get this out of my system, I am going to rant and rave about my current situation. Almost everyone on our staff at Element, at the moment, is on this Whole30 diet where you can’t eat anything you would normally eat (unless you normally eat like a goat). The diet is expensive, hard, and if I don't feel better at the end of 30 days, I am going back to my old diet.
 
Oh how I miss my friends called Oreo's, grilled cheese sandwiches, Raisin Bran, rice, wraps, chips, and bread. I am coming to loathe fruit smoothies and eggs. I know I am irritable, I am hungry, craving cookies, and think slamming my face in a car door for 30 days would be easier than trying to read every label on the food I buy. I went to TWO of our local hippie markets trying to buy food as listed on the whole30, but they don't really carry stuff as organically made as they would like you to think.

I am coming to believe that the operative word in “diet” is the word “die.” But then I also think that as a follower of Jesus the word “die” shouldn’t be too shocking to me. We are called to die to ourselves, it was one of the things Jesus emphasized in Luke 9:27, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” These are words about embracing death, not because we are fatalistic, but because the call of Jesus in our lives holds more weight and significance than everything else.
 
I think part of the problem in Christianity today is that we treat faith like it is a diet. We deny ourselves so we feel better, we work hard to reach our own goal (not necessarily Jesus’ goals), and when it gets hard to live on mission, we cheat. Sometimes the word “cheat” is being generous because most times we don’t even cheat, we just give it up completely while still trying to convince everyone else we are still eating (living) healthy.
 
We are a people who see our normal habits of life, usually engrained in us from our culture, as healthy and reasonable even as we slowly eat ourselves to death as we mindlessly consume all that is offered (metaphorically). When Jesus comes into and invades our lives he calls us to give up certain things that are killing us, but we typically find a reason to put it off, or even find ways to justify why it is OK. We are so short sighted that we convince ourselves that our lives today are more important than our lives in eternity. Taking the short view discourages mission, dampens a healthy trust of God and His word, and places our focus more surely on our own messed up hearts.
 
Luke 9:23-25 And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?"

Maybe, instead of doing a Whole30 diet, we should all do a diet that follows Romans 12:2 “Do not be conformed to this world,but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Having God renew our minds so we see what He sees is true about our own lives and those around us is central to this renewal process.
 
In my opinion, the best place to start our diet is to quit assuming we are healthy and doing great and simply allow God’s Spirit to do a careful inventory of our lives. We must also begin to listen to what others say to us (those who love us enough to be honest). We must trust God’s redemption of our life enough to stop consuming our own self-propaganda and begin to live and walk in the new life He promises. Why? Because he promises not just a Whole30, but a WholeEternity of true life.
 

Advent Week 4: Peace

by Aaron

I honestly don’t know where or how to begin writing this blog, as I think that no matter what I say, someone will take offense to it. That is what is wrong in much of our country—we are far too easily offended because we see ourselves in God’s place. What I mean by that is we want everyone to listen to our own opinions and not have their own; when others have their own opinions, we want them to keep quiet.
 
I currently have a few friends on Facebook, but really two of them come to mind as I write this blog. One is ultra-conservative (which doesn’t always equate to biblical) and every half hour they are posting something about refugees or guns. I have another friend who is ultra-liberal (which doesn’t always equate to biblical), thinks Bernie Sanders is like the second coming, and every half hour they are posting something about refugees or guns. Both of these friends believe in Jesus, would confess His name in a heartbeat, would say they are surrendered to God’s Holy Spirit in their lives, and yet they couldn’t be more different in all areas but one: they have both, on many occasions, put their cultural/social preferential feelings above the Gospel of Jesus (as we all tend to do).
 
They would both deny it, and I am sure I will get 2 emails/phone calls/texts when this blog hits (if they can pull themselves out of the latest news and Facebook cycles long enough to read it). I see both of them, and many of us, living in anything but peace today because we are so focused on our individual feelings of insecurity and fear (sometimes we call these “rights”).
 
The thing that is supposed to offend us, according the scriptures, is the call of the Cross of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 1:18 and Galatians 5:11). Even while reading that last sentence, a person who places conservativism above Jesus will think, “Yeah, that’s why those liberals are so offended…they don’t understand the truth, like Jesus.” Likewise, someone who places liberalism above the Gospel will read the same sentence and think, “Yeah, that’s why those conservatives are so offended…they don’t know how to love correctly, like Jesus.”
 
Charles Spurgeon once said in his message “The Offense of the Cross” (all the way back in 1898), “The offense of the cross lies, first, in the way in which it deals with all human wisdom.” (you can read the entire sermon here) Until we realize that our wisdom is rubbish outside of the call of Christ, we will forever be chasing peace and never achieving it. Peace comes from the knowing and following Jesus. That is one of the main messages of Advent and Christmas--that our God has sought us on our best days, our worst days, and our days that are so embarrassing we wish we could have a “do-over.” God is the one who seeks the lost. The lost, by the way, includes Muslims, conservatives, liberals, pacifists, illegal immigrants, born natives, naturalized citizens, the KKK, the NAACP, the NRA, and any other acronym you want to throw at it. We, the people who live on planet earth, are the lost. We all have one thing in common, the need for Jesus to save us not from each other, but from ourselves, our own wisdom, and our sin.
 
There are people in our world today that follow religions that want to kill others, but we must understand that those people who do the killing are known by God, loved by God, and are just as broken as we are. Knowing they are broken should not keep us from stopping them and protecting others, but it should give us some compassion for their lost state. Our prayer should be that we would all see the world as Jesus does, not the way we do. Until we realize the offense of the cross is meant for us, we will continue the cycle of violence (many times with our words instead of guns). Until we come to truly surrender ourselves to the wisdom of Jesus first, the Gospel will not be fully proclaimed and taught through our lives.
 
Don’t get me wrong in anything I am saying. My wife and I go to the gun range to practice so we could stop someone if needed. I believe the scriptures teach personal responsibility, hard work, private property rights, the protection of those who cannot protect themselves (most specifically the unborn), and the beauty and truth of family. I believe the scriptures teach that human beings should be honored and cared for no matter if they are foreigners or natives, that the outrageous charging of interest is sin, and God calls all of us to treat others with dignity and respect. But I also believe no one will be changed by preaching “family,” or “personal responsibility,” or “hard work;” people will be changed by preaching Jesus. Jesus is the one who changes hearts and lives so let’s preach Him first.
 
When it comes down to it, our differing views will never lead to peace unless Jesus is first in our lives. Think about this…in John 13:35, Jesus says, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Jesus doesn’t say if you agree with one another on everything; He says by how you LOVE one another. This could be how you disagree, how you think about what you post before you post it online, and how we think first with a Gospel mindset above a cultural one.
 
Jesus came to bring peace. Let’s be peacemakers—not defined by our world’s standards—but by Jesus’. Matthew 5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”

Truly, He taught us to love one another
His law is love and His gospel is peace
-O Holy Night