What in the World Part 2…Appendix 1 (Genesis 15)

by Aaron

At Element we are currently doing a series called What in the World Part 2 which seeks to answer questions you asked us last year. Last Sunday we answered this question: “In Genesis 15:17 it says that a smoking fire pot and flaming torch passed between the halves of the animals Abraham cut in half at God's direction. What is the significance of the fire pot and torch moving between the halves?” If you missed it you can listen/watch it here. After the message I had five more questions that people asked, none of them had to do with the central premise of the sermon, they were simply inquisitive questions (because inquiring minds want to know). So, don’t let these questions distract you from the central message that Jesus promised Himself to rescue us from our brokenness and then He fulfilled that promise.
The five questions are as follows, if you listened to the message this will make sense. Why was Abraham the only one who brought something to the covenant ceremony, why 3 years old, which way did they cut the animals, why didn’t the birds get cut, and why a young pigeon? Here are the verses in question: Genesis 15:9-10 He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half.
All of these are pretty easy to answer:
Why was Abraham the only one who brought something to the covenant ceremony – When Abraham left the land of His father(s) at God’s call he was doing alright financially, but he wasn’t extravagantly rich. By the time Genesis 15 comes around God has so blessed Abraham with animals and goods that he has to separate from his nephew Lot because the land couldn’t sustain them both. Abraham sees all that He has as being given to him by God’s hand, so essentially Abraham is simply bringing what God has already provided.
Why 3 years old – At three years old the animals would all be at full growth and strength. They would have many years of child bearing ahead of them, so to give these animals would have truly been a sacrifice. On a side note, a heifer had not born any offspring yet (much like Abraham), a goat was used as a sin offering later in temple worship (one was sacrificed and one set free as a scapegoat) that represented Israel’s sin had been removed from them, and a ram is what God will provide in the place of Abraham’s son on Mount Moriah as a sacrifice.
Which way did they cut them – I find this question very funny because it never occurred to me that there would be more than one logical way to cut animals in half. They were not cut long ways (head to tail), they were cut side to side (usually behind the rib cage).
Why not cut the birds – The most common consensus among bible scholars is that the birds were simply too small, it is why there are 2 birds listed and not one. Two birds can be laid over against the other on either side of the isle. If you cut a bird in half behind the rib cage, like the larger animals, there isn’t much left. One side would have what is essentially a whole bird and the other side a pair of skinny, tiny, bird legs.
Why a “young pigeon” – This is a great question and my answer is only speculation because I am not 100% on it. The word In Genesis 15:9 for “young pigeon” is the Hebrew word gowzal. The word doesn’t actually mean a pigeon, it meant a young nesting bird, and maybe so young its feathers haven’t even come in. By putting the “gowzal” opposite the turtledove could represent where Abraham is in regards to his faith (it is newborn but also counted to him as righteousness) and what Israel, his descendants, will become. In Psalm 74 God will call the nation of Israel His turtledove as term of endearment and love. God could be saying to Abraham that you are starting off like this new born bird, but you and your descendants when full grown will be my beloved ones.
Remember that Moses is the one chronicling these events, which means he is viewing everything in light of the law that has been given to Israel at Sinai. Moses probably sees much greater and far reaching significance to these events than Abraham does. After Jesus’death and resurrection we also get to see much greater and far reaching significance than Moses saw. As we talked about Sunday, Jesus shows up and walks through the pieces and makes a covenant to save His people no matter what. Jesus passes through the pieces, not Abraham, which means Jesus will uphold and provide a way for both sides of the covenant to be fulfilled in Himself.
1Peter 3:18 For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.

WITWpt2 (shorts!): What is Corban?

by Aaron

What in the World? Part 2 SHORTS!

Here is another blog post that is answering another what in the world question you guys asked us last year. Currently, on Sunday mornings, we are doing our What in the World Part 2 series to answer your questions in sermon form, but some of these questions were too short for a whole sermon so we answer the shorter ones in our blog.
Today’s question is as follows, “In Mark 7, what is Corban?” This is an interesting question because the word “corban” in Greek is literally “korban” and only used in Mark 7:11 and nowhere else in the entire New Testament (in Matthew 15:5 he uses the word “doron” meaning “devoted to God” but not the word corban). I think the answer is short, so let me answer the question and then paste the entire section in context so you can understand what you are reading.
When you hear the word “corban,” if you live on the central coast of California, you probably think it sounds like a mediocre winery up by San Luis Obispo, but it’s not. The only reason we know what it means is that Mark defines the term for us as “given to God” in Mark 7:11. Because it is an obscure word Mark did us a favor by defining it.
There is some interesting aspects to the verses where it comes about in Mark 7. Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees about their rituals that have been elevated to the place where they take precedence over the realty of living life with God. It comes in the context of the disciples not washing their hands before a meal (I know you think, “Gross, everyone should wash their hands,”) but this type of hand washing had nothing to do with clean hands and had everything to do with ritual focused on false piety. The Pharisees ask Jesus why His disciples eat with “defiled” hands, not dirty or muddy hands.
Throughout the Old Testament God is trying to get His people away from ritual and toward an open heart to what God was doing in the world, in Hosea 6:6 God says, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Jesus answers the handwashing question of the Pharisees by going after them and pointing out their own corruption by showing how they have elevated ritual over true relationship with God. He does this by pointing out what they have done with money they claim has been “devoted (or given) to God.” When parents became older and frailer, Israelites were meant to care for them, but the Scribes and Pharisees let children off the hook if they gave a certain amount of money to the temple instead of helping their parents.
Simply saying, “it is corban” would gain them an exemption from helping their parents.
God never intended something good, like generosity to a temple (or a church), to be the impetus for getting anyone out of responsibility for caring for others in need. It reminds us today that God desires relationship and not a ritualistic obedience that has nothing to do with our hearts. We should not be looking for ways to get out of our responsibilities toward others, but living with focused Gospel intentionality because our lives are found in Jesus.
Mark 7:1-13 Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,

“‘This people honors me with their lips,but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’

You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)— then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.” 
Now you should go on to read the next verses in Mark 7 where Jesus talks about what DOES defile a person.


WITWpt2 (shorts!): Greater Works than Jesus?

by Aaron

What in the World? Part 2 SHORTS!

We have been doing our What in the World Part 2 series on Sunday mornings, where we are answering your questions about certain things in the Bible. There were some questions you asked that were not long enough to make a whole sermon out of, so we are answering them, calling them “shorts,” and posting them to our blog. This is the next “What in the World?” question we received: John 14:12 “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.” What in the World?
First off, it is always a good rule to read the Bible in context, so let’s take a step back and see what comes right before John 14:12. Before the verse in question, Jesus talks about us having trouble in the world, going to be with Him, and Jesus Himself being the only way to salvation. Jesus then says the following, starting in John 14:10-11: “Don't you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves.
Jesus says there are 3 things we must see if you want to realize who He is: What are His words (What did Jesus teach and instruct…What are Jesus’ works (How did He live)…and What are His miracles (What evidence is there of God’s works and miracles in Christ).
So, His words, work, and His miracles…that’s how we investigate Jesus.

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WITWpt2 (shorts!): I’m like the disciples, I lack understanding.

by Aaron
What in the World? Part 2 SHORTS!

At Element we are doing a series on Sunday mornings where we answer your questions that you gave to us last year in a series titled “What in the World Part I. Some of these questions are too short for whole sermon, plus we only have so many weeks for the current series, which means we are going to answer some of those questions in our blogs.
Today’s question is as follows, “Mark 8:14-21 – I am like the Disciples, after reading it in context I still don’t understand.” The answer will be short, so let me actually post the entire section the question pertains to (Mark 8):

14The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat. 15“Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.”
16They discussed this with one another and said, “It is because we have no bread.”
17Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? 19When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”
“Twelve,” they replied.
20“And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”
They answered, “Seven.”
21He said to them, “Do you still not understand?”

I like the question, because it is so honest, “I am like the Disciples, after reading it in context I still don’t understand.”
Simply put, rabbis’ would use anything thing they could find to teach their disciples about living the truth of God out in their daily lives. They would teach them to see the world as God saw the world. On this occasion the disciples are worried about how much food they have on their journey, because they were forgetful and didn’t bring enough. Jesus says to them, trying to relate it all together, to beware of the “yeast of Pharisees” and “Herod.”
The disciples scratch their heads and are like, “Is this because we have no bread? We should go and get more.” They failed to see that Jesus was taking a normal, every day thing, to teach them a deeper truth. While Jesus was teaching them this truth, they were stuck on what was in front of them and not on the “bigger picture” of what was going on in the world around them. So Jesus then, quite plainly, points out that bread, for Him, is not a problem (obviously, because He fed 5000 and 4000 people respectively, with almost no bread at all).
In Matthew 6:25 Jesus tells His disciples, “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?” Yes, things are important, but they should not distract is from God’s ultimate working in the world around us. Too often we get fixated on our needs AND wants and we stop seeing what God sees.
Herod was the ruler over the area where Jesus and His disciples had their ministry. The Pharisees were the most popular group among the common people of Jesus’ day. But they had both failed to see their place in how God’s kingdom was to function in the world. The “rulers” and the “popular” were people that everyone admired and wanted to be like, but they were nothing like God in character; in fact they usually pulled people’s vision away from God rather than to Him.
The yeast that Jesus speaks of is that influence. When you put more stock into the Pharisees and Herod than you do in God’s call in your life, it will work through all the dough (your life) and bring about a ruined product.
Think of others in our world who seek power (that’s Herod’s yeast), popularity (that’s Herod’s and the Pharisees’ yeast), or a certain brand of morality, whether it’s conservative values or liberal values (that’s the Pharisees’ yeast). Now, think of yourself and where any of those things have overtaken what God calls you to focus on first…that is what Jesus is getting at.
It is so easy for us to lose focus on what God calls us to in this life, it is so easy to fall into the trap of thinking about our own comfort (bread) because of all of the pressures (yeast) of our culture. Jesus reminds us that He is good enough to be trusted with our lives, so we should be on guard for anything that wants to remove our focus from Him.

What is Evil

by Aaron

Last Sunday we started a new series, which is actually part two of a series we did last year, called What in the World. In this part of the series, I’ll be addressing questions you still had about the Bible. Someone asked about Abraham and Isaac, both patriarchs of the Hebrews’ faith in God, lying about their wives being their sisters and God still blessing them in the end. I got around to the point that the question understands God, blessing, and righteousness incorrectly, because God cannot and does not only bless “good” people because (technically) there aren’t any. God must take bad people and change them, redeem them, and restore them.
I emphasized that we are evil and God Himself is the one that is good. I had a couple people ask me about why I say we are evil…and ask if I was overstating our condition. The short answer is “no,” I am not overstating my case. I also believe that unless we can come to understand the true heinousness of the sinful nature in us, we will forever have a losing battle between pride and humbleness thinking that we are “not that bad.” Romans 6:6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.
We always want to compare ourselves to others, and when we hear the word “evil,” we tend to think of child molesters or the Geoffrey Dahmers of the world. 2 Corinthian 10:12 But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding.

We want to compare ourselves to others or our own standard and conclude we aren’t “that bad,” but the only person we truly should compare ourselves to is Jesus. When we see ourselves in light of His goodness, we are evil. In The Grace and Truth Paradox, Randy Alcorn says this: “I’d imagined the distance between Dodd (a child molester and murderer) and me as the difference between the South and North poles. But when you consider God’s viewpoint from light-years away, that distance is negligible. In my standing before a holy God apart from Christ…I am Dodd…Unless we come to grips with the fact that we’re of precisely the same stock—fallen humanity—as Dodd and Hitler and Stalin, we’ll never appreciate Christ’s grace.” Human standards of morality have been proven to waver over the course of history, and yet God’s standard of absolute perfection has never changed.

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The Problem With Labels – Appendix 1

by Aaron
I had a friend of mine proof read last week’s blog, when done they said it reminded them of this modern hymn written by Ruth Duck. I thought I would share it with all of you as well, enjoy:

Moved by the Gospel, let us move with every gift and art. 
The image of creative love indwells each human heart. 
The Maker calls creation good, so let us now express 
with sound and color, stone and wood, 
the shape of holiness. 

Let weavers form from broken strands a tapestry of prayer. 
Let artists paint with skillful hands their joy in lament and care, 
Then mime the story: Christ has come; 
With reverence dance the Word. 
With flute and organ, chime and drum, God’s praise be ever heard. 

O Spirit, breathe among us here, inspire the work we do. 
May hands and voices, eye and ear attest to life made new. 
In worship and in daily strife create among us still. 
Great Artist form our common life according to Your will.

The Problem With Labels

by Aaron
I think I am a bad Christian. I was reading a recent survey about movies made in 2016, and “who had seen what” over the course of the year. The Barna article stated, “Evangelicals were much less likely to view some of the other favorites among the general population including Deadpool (20% compared to 37% among all adults), Suicide Squad (13% compared to 24% among all adults), X-Men: Apocalypse (9% compared to 26% among all adults) and Batman vs Superman (20% compared to 31% among all adults).” What does it say about me that I have seen ALL of those movies listed as “less likely” to be viewed by Christians?
The article then says, “They (Christians) also watched Miracles from Heaven (21% vs. 9% among all adults) more than the general population.” Is it bad that I did not see this movie, and had never even heard of it prior to this article?
This is the problem we have today of labeling things “Christian” and “worldly.” When someone with any authority slaps a label on something and calls it “Christian,” many Christians begin to blindly consume whatever that thing is. I read a book about the “Christian” music industry a couple of years ago where the author lamented the fact that many “Christian” bands aren’t really Christians; it is simply a market in which they can easily make money.
Back in our Genesis series, I mentioned this kind of labeling is a result of chapter 3 (the fall), and not Genesis chapters 1-2 (God’s perfect vision of life and peace). All truth and beauty come from God’s gracious hand, and when we try to label art (in any form) as “safe for consumption,” we will always fail—we are trying to validate something that wasn’t intended to be validated.
When God blessed the world, He already validated it, and His voice and opinion are the ones that truly matter. I believe a Christian subculture can be dangerous with its own (often inferior) versions of coffee, stickers, paintings, and movies, because there are some people who will blindly accept it based on the label, who won’t critically think about whether it truly glorifies God. Believe it or not, there are things in our world that scream of truth and beauty and life and holiness that do not come from an approved Christian subculture…and there are dark and ugly things that have nothing to do with Jesus that do come from an approved Christian subculture.
As followers of Jesus, we must begin to ask the question about what we consume with our minds: “Does this reflect the harmony and beauty of God's peace?” I am not saying all the movies I have seen this year reflect God’s peace, but I also think it is amazing that God’s truth often shows up in the least expected places. There are many artists telling compelling stories that we should engage with—stories that tell the truth and grace of God in practical ways. 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the Gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.
To live on mission means to share the blessing of the Gospel, and this means making it known to the world in ways that speak to people exactly where they are. That means we must be aware of our speech, our actions, and our entertainment in ways that see the broader picture of truth and beauty. We must be able to engage in conversation with people in the beginning of their journey, not the end. We must always live in the truth of the Gospel of Jesus, but also take that truth into the common places of our world in words, art, and music that make sense in the midst of people’s struggles.
May we become a people who can appreciate beauty where we see it and glorify God in the midst of it.

Feel the Burn (out)

by Aaron
I recently read an article about pastors and what causes (or can cause) burnout. One of the largest causes of burnout is division within a church’s eldership. At Element, we believe the word “elder” is synonymous with the word “pastor”; as a result, Element’s eldership is very small—currently only three people. If you were to count all the people Element has had as elders (including those who have moved away), our total would be a whopping five people.
You can go to the “Who We Are” page of our website and see our list of current staff and elders (myself, Eric, and Mike), but this doesn’t show you Tom Holmquist (Montana or bust) or Jonathan Whitaker (who occasionally teaches when he is back in California or writes a blog when he is feeling whimsical).
The article I read showed that if a church has a power struggle among the Elders, the burnout risk is four times as high! If the Elders have a bad relationship with one another, the risk is almost five times as likely. Yet, when the Elders act in a singular vision, burnout is nearly cut in half. Praying together also has the effect of cutting the risk of burnout in half.
I tell you this because the Eldership at Element is on the same page in what we hope Jesus would do in all of our lives. We want to see Jesus high and exalted (above ourselves), redemption understood in how Element functions and teaches, and true worship lived out in everything we do as a church body. We believe the Gospel is practical and speaks to every part of our lives. I feel blessed to serve with the Elders at Element.
In the coming months, Element will be entering a new phase of life. Our lease in our current building will be ending and we will be moving. In the midst of this transition, I want you to know that our vision hasn’t changed (although, it may have become more refined over time). Your Elders want to see Jesus proclaimed in all we do—no matter where we are. It is humbling and exciting, and I hope you share in those feelings as well.
1 Peter 5:1-2 So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
We serve under our great Head Shepherd, Jesus. It is an honor and privilege to lead and serve Element as a church body, especially because we can trust Jesus in where He leads us.

Mandela Effect

by Aaron
False memories cause people to come up with some crazy ideas, the “Mandela Effect” is one of those. The name the Mandela Effect comes out of a collective conscious memory of many people who believed Nelson Mandela died while he was in prison (he didn’t, he actually died December 5, 2013). So many people believe they remember him dying that some people have postulated that there must be multiple universes and we are remembering facts from a different timeline.
It makes me think of the crazy hoops we will jump through to not have to come to grips with the fact that sometimes we are simply wrong.
This whole thing came to my attention because I was reading an article on Relevant’s website that talked about people trying to find a movie called Shazaam staring the comedian Sinbad. There was a movie in the 90s called Kazaam staring Shaquille O’Neil, but they swear that wasn’t it. This movie Shazaam doesn’t exist, the comedian Sinbad said he never made, but some people will not believe their memory could be wrong. 

There are tons of these false memories, I’ll just give you a few:
  • Queen’s song “We Are the Champions” does not end with “of the world,” it just ends.
  • Darth Vader never says, “Luke, I am your father,” he says, “no, I am your father.”
  • C3PO has a silver leg.
  • The Queen in Snow White never says, “Mirror, mirror on the wall,” she says, “magic mirror on the wall.
  • Fruit Loops is spelled Froot Loops.
  • Mr. Monopoly doesn’t have a monocle
  • Curious George never had a tail.
How many did you think were true?
This is why I think it is important to read the Scriptures and RE-READ the Scriptures. Sometimes we are so sure the Bible says something it doesn’t, and that could lead to disastrous consequences. I know, for me personally, every time I read something in the Scriptures, I swear I have read a hundred times, I always see something new. I believe remembering who God is by being immersed in His words given to us is a great help in all of our need.
Throughout the Old Testament, God continually reminded His people to “remember.” The Hebrew word for remember is Zakar. It can mean so many different things in terms of memory that it is sometimes difficult for us to relate to the word correctly, as most of us did not grow up in a culture that stressed it so frequently. Zakar has the connotation that in remembering something, it then changes how you act and treat others, as well as how you treat God. It essentially means that those who have a relationship with God will remember they have a relationship with God and act like they have a relationship with God...to the extent that everyone around them will know they have a relationship with God.
The Scriptures are clear that God remembers us. In Genesis 8 God remembers Noah, Exodus 2 He remembers His covenant with Israel, Genesis 30 He remembers Rachel, on and on the scriptures remind us that God is faithful. Deuteronomy 31:6 “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.” This is a promise that God continues to bring into fulfilment through the person of Jesus.
I do believe there are certain things we are called to not remember, such as the things that lead to bitterness, but even while doing that we are told to remember God. The implications in failing to remember God would mean that we have abandoned Him. It is interesting that scripture does not speak of God abandoning us and yet we so often abandon Him, most of the time when we need Him most.
We forget God and remember our pain, which is the exact opposite of all that God says to do. Think of all the money our world would save in therapy bills, medication, and late night infomercials if remembering God and forgetting the evil done to us truly became our reality. That would be better than the crazy Mandela Effect any day!

What’s Your Category

by Aaron
Marketing and research into demographics is big money in advertising. Everyone is trying to put people in the correct hole in order find out how to market the right “stuff” (be it body wash, cable tv, or diapers young and old) so companies can make more money. Figuring out who people are, where they go, what they like, who has the most disposable income, and who is most likely to spend that disposal income is what keeps some executives up at night.
I was reading through some very broad categories this week and thought it would be fun if I threw them out for you to see where you would fall. These are not like most research companies who want you to buy their phone or bubble gum, I picked these because they reflect people who would read this blog (some times that could be less than 10 people).
These categories come from Barna.org
Here is one about age…are you:

Millennials: Born between 1984 and 2002
Gen-Xers: Born between 1965 and 1983
Boomers: Born between 1946 and 1964
Elders: Born between 1945 or earlier

In thinking about the above categories remember your childhood and what things brought you the most joy. Did you have cell phones, have to wear a helmet when you road your bike, was your mom spanking you in the middle of the street not only acceptable but normal?
In regard to faith are you:

Practicing Christian: Those who attend a religious service at least once a month, who say their faith is very important in their lives and self-identify as a Christian.
Born again: Have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and believe that, when they die, they will go to heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior.
Evangelical: Made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and believe that, when they die, they will go to heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, plus seven other conditions. These conditions include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended.
Non-evangelical born again Christians: meet the born again criteria but not all of the seven other criteria to be classified as an evangelical Christian.
Other faith: identify with a non-Christian faith, or identify as a Christian but report beliefs not aligned with historic, orthodox Christianity.
Notional Christians: identify as Christian, but do not meet the born again criteria.
No faith/skeptic: identify as agnostic or atheist, or as having no faith.

How about church attendance:

Very active: attended a church service in the past seven days, not including a special event such as a wedding or a funeral.
Semi-active: attended a service within the past month (but not within the past week).
Less active: attended a service within the past six months (but not within the past month).

There are literally thousands of categories and sub-categories that others break people into (or we do depending on circumstance). After you figure where you fall on these categories ask yourself if that is where you want to remain. In what areas do you want to grow? What categories aren’t listed above that you would list for yourself? 
I know this blog isn’t what you would normally except on a church site, but I guess that puts us in a category all of our own. 

More Motivation

by Aaron
Look, I know we live in California and everyone likes to mock us when we complain about it being cold…but just because they live in a place that nothing can survive without human ingenuity doesn’t make my plight less severe when the temperature drops into the 30s. I was thinking about this the other day when looking in my backyard covered with bone chilling frost (the back yard was covered with frost, not me). In my own little way I call this “snow” because it’s the only other season I get.
It seems to me, over the last couple of years, we didn’t get a winter, just variations of summer. Now that winter is actually here, at least our version of it, I find myself feeling like it isn’t enough. I want colder, I want more rain, I want more clouds and bundled up snuggling with my wife as we binge watch some stupid TV show.
I think I always want more.
But not more in a good way.
Like the last blog I wrote (PWS) about my package withdrawal syndrome, I find myself in a kind of funk after the holidays this year. I keep trying to “get into” things or hope something different would happen that would motivate me to feel like life is kicking me into gear again. This is really what the problem is, what do we do when we feel like we don’t have motivation.
This is why I believe that the Gospel (the good news of what Jesus did and continues to do) is so important. The Gospel reminds us that our motivation is simply a response to what God has already done. I think it is why Paul says, So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Cor 10:31) Or, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col 3:17)
When Paul says these words, he isn’t talking about working hard so God loves us, he is talking about loving God in all we do as the motivation for what we do. Rather than waiting to be inspired, we need to remember what Jesus has done and that should inspire us. When wondering, “what should me out of bed” or “off the couch” any given day, we should remember that the glory of God is what motivated God to save and rescue us. If God’s own glory motivated redemption, how much more should it motivate us to live lives that honor His name?
I am not saying that snuggling with my wife can’t be glorifying to God, I believe it can, but waiting to be inspired to do something worthwhile is missing the point. All inspiration for life and godliness sits directly in front of us, for us to ignore it is folly.


by Aaron
I think I am experiencing a new phenomenon that could only happen in America after a holiday like Christmas. I am calling it P.W.S. (which stands for Package Withdrawal Syndrome). I think there should be a study done on this to see how serotonin levels in my brain are affected by what is happening to me, or more specifically, what I am currently feeling; I am experiencing withdrawals! 
For weeks, I was receiving packages from Amazon, or some other online retailer, every day at my door with my name on it. Even though I had to pay for what was in these said packages, I started to feel like someone (me, namely) loved me. Now that Christmas is over, the package deliveries have stopped (or at least slowed considerably), and I find myself longingly looking for boxes on my front door step. I am starting to get kind of sad.
Withdrawal syndrome is real, even if no one has ever linked it to packages at your front door before. Withdrawal syndrome has also been called “discontinuation syndrome,” which I guess would actually make more sense for what I am going through. Typically, it only happens with reduction or discontinuation of certain types of medication, but can’t package delivery be a type of soothing balm for someone as insecure as me?
People experience withdrawals with all kinds of things: alcohol, antidepressants, nicotine, opioids, benzodiazepines…even cannabis! Even though I don’t have a degree in neuroscience, I am going to call P.W.S. a real thing (because we live in an internet culture and self-diagnosis is how most of us operate). Let me give you the symptoms and the correct course of treatment if you are experiencing P.W.S. and don’t know what to do next.
P.W.S. happens when a culture focuses too much on stuff, or things, to make themselves feel happy and fulfilled. P.W.S. has been closely linked to self-absorption, self-centeredness, or self-focus. When the thing that make one feel better is removed, he or she begins a slow spiral into depression, which may result in more packages being ordered from online retailers to self-medicate. This cycle can result in a lifestyle of accumulation of things that a person doesn’t need, but feels like they have to have; it can also result in massive debt.
The only cure? Killing the self.
When I say “killing the self,” I do not mean physical death, although if P.W.S. is not taken care of soon enough, it may eventually result in that outcome. Killing of self refers to what we worship and where our gaze lingers. In Matthew 16:24 Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Jesus uses an implement of death to speak about following Him and living in the Kingdom of God.
Tim Keller says about this verse, “A better way to put it is the minute you believe in Jesus Christ you died on the cross with him.” As followers of Jesus, every day we get up and remember we died to our old way of life, of looking for packages and things to bring us joy. In Jesus’ day if you happened to see someone walking with a cross, it wasn’t weird like it would be today; you would see that person and know it was the last thing they would ever do in their life—they were going to their death.
Jesus calls us to be a people who, in spite of trouble and hardship (sometimes as simple and confusing as package withdrawal), to look to the Cross in everything. It’s not focusing on our own death, but Jesus’ death and resurrection, that keeps our hearts and eyes on what matters most. Our own happiness and fulfillment was never meant to be what drove humanity; it was focus on, and worship of, the only one who is worthy of our devotion and praise.
That’s Jesus (not Amazon) in case you happened to be fuzzy on that last point.

Sermon for Christmas Day, Part 3 (Merry Christmas)

by Aaron

Well, it is finally Christmas Day and there are no services at Element…whatever will you do? How about you read this blog, as well as the ones from the last two weeks, and go over the questions with your family? Over the last 2 ½ weeks, we have been looking at pieces of a sermon by Martin Luther written in 1521 and delivered on Christmas Day. (Obviously, he was holier than we are because he went to church on Christmas). 

Luther has spoken of God shaking the world to bring peace, he has spoken about how we miss Jesus in the ordinary because our lives are so consumed with self, and today, we will go over where Luther begins to speak of grace in an unconventional way.
“Grace does not interfere with nature and her work, but rather improves and promotes it. Likewise Mary, without doubt, also nourished the child with milk from her breast and not with strange milk, or in a manner different from that which nature provided, as we sing: ubere de coelo pleno, from her breast being filled by heaven, without injury or impurity. I mention this that we may be grounded in the faith and know that Jesus was a natural man in every respect just as we, the only difference being in his relation to sin and grace, he being without a sinful nature…It is a great comfort to us that Jesus took upon himself our nature and flesh. Therefore we are not to take away from him or his mother anything that is not in conflict with grace, for the text clearly says that she brought him forth, and the angels said, unto you he is born.

How could God have shown his goodness in a more sublime manner than by humbling himself to partake of flesh and blood…But what happens in heaven concerning this birth? As much as it is despised on earth, so much and a thousand times more is it honored in heaven. If an angel from heaven came and praised you and your work, would you not regard it of greater value than all the praise and honor the world could give you, and for which you would be willing to bear the greatest humility and reproach? What exalted honor is that when all the angels in heaven cannot restrain themselves from breaking out in rejoicing, so that even poor shepherds in the fields hear them preach, praise God, sing and pour out their joy without measure? Were not all joy and honor realized at Bethlehem, yes, all joy and honor experienced by all the kings and nobles on earth, to be regarded as only dross and abomination, of which no one likes to think, when compared with the joy and glory here displayed?

Behold how very richly God honors those who are despised of men, and that very gladly. Here you see that his eyes look into the depths of humility, as is written, "He sitteth above the cherubim" and looketh into the depths. Nor could the angels find princes or valiant men to whom to communicate the good news; but only unlearned laymen, the most humble people upon earth. Could they not have addressed the high priests, who it was supposed knew so much concerning God and the angels? No, God chose poor shepherds, who, though they were of low esteem in the sight of men, were in heaven regarded as worthy of such great grace and honor.

See how utterly God overthrows that which is lofty! And yet we rage and rant for nothing but this empty honor, as we had no honor to seek in heaven; we continually step out of God's sight, so that he may not see us in the depths, into which he alone looks…He works in opposition to these temporal things, looks with favor upon that from which the world turns, teaches that from which it flees and takes up that which it discards.

And although we are not willing to tolerate such acts of God and do not want to receive blessing, honor and life in this way, yet it must remain so. God does not change his purpose, nor does he teach or act differently than he purposed. We must adapt ourselves to him, he will not adapt himself to us. Moreover, he who will not regard his word, nor the manner in which he works to bring comfort to men, has assuredly no good evidence of being saved. In what more lovely manner could he have shown his grace to the humble and despised of earth, than through this birth in poverty, over which the angels rejoice, and make it known to no one but to the poor shepherds?”

On Christmas Eve we talked about light, that Jesus came into the world to expose our darkness. One of the ways we live in darkness is by constantly thinking the rich, famous, or powerful have everything we could ever want or need. (I wonder if they got everything wanted today in terms of “stuff.”) We raise people higher in our own estimation and want what they have, but God comes in the form of Jesus and shows what really matters; it is not the high and lofty, it is the common and ordinary. We are a people who live in the common and ordinary places and that is where Jesus chose to make Himself known.
This Christmas day, ask your kids what would bring them the most joy: having God speak words of grace over them, or having their favorite movie star (or super hero) show up for dinner? Talk about how God’s grace reminds us that living in the ordinary is good, and that as we live for Him in ordinary places, His grace becomes more deeply known and understood.
Merry Christmas, Element.

Download PDF version of entire sermon

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.