Adventure with Pastor Aaron

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Worlds to Explore Between Two Covers

As the last vestiges of summer begin to slip away, as "sweater weather" approaches, as we sigh and fondly remember the vacation moments of the last few months, I have a question for you to ask yourself: whether you traveled near or far, did you get a chance to see and do everything you wanted to during that time? Did you get to spend as much time as you possibly wanted at every stop or location you visited? Did you get a chance to take your time, or did you have to rush through? I think it's a safe bet to say that your vacation time was probably much like my family's: fun, enjoyable, a few unexpected circumstances and a few difficult moments, but not long enough, and never enough time for everything. Even one stop in a vacation can provide a plethora of opportunities to explore, learn, eat, drink, and enjoy… But you can never do it all. As human beings, trapped in time, we will always be limited.

When I was growing up, there was a member of our church who attended the seminary in preparation to be a pastor. He came back home on one of his breaks, and while I don't remember much of what he shared with the congregation, there was one thing that stuck with me. He told us that the more that he studied God's Word, the more he realized he would never be able to learn or understand it all. This truism applies to any field of knowledge, but especially to theology. The Bible is a vast ocean of insight, wisdom, narrative, prophecy, miracles. The span of years we have in this mortal life could not bring us even close to having the amount of time we would need to sail every corner of that expansive sea.

Any season of exploration is naturally going to be met with a degree of limitation. If you're going to sail the seas and explore every corner of the globe, you use a ship; but if you want to explore the depths, you need a submarine or underwater exploration vessel of some sort. If you travel by train, you may be taking a whistle-stop tour of spots that you will have to revisit later. If you want to go deep, you will not also be able to go wide at the same time, and vice versa. Sometimes the best approach to exploration is going "an inch deep and a mile wide."

Jesus was a master at finding the balance between deep and wide. He traveled widely, taking the Good News of His Father's Kingdom's coming to people throughout Galilee, Judea, Samaria, and landing finally in Jerusalem. Historians estimate that according to the Gospel texts, Jesus walked over 3,000 miles during His ministry. During that span of over 3 years, He met many people, but He did not have the opportunity to go as deeply into the will of His Father as with others. Yet we have records of His conversations with his disciples as well as a collection of other people here and there (i.e., Nicodemus, John 3) with whom He delves deeply into the purpose for which He was sent and the meaning of His life, ministry, death, and resurrection. Jesus sent the message of God's love and compassion for humanity as wide as one person could go at that time, with the intent that others coming behind Him would go deep, watering, fertilizing, and tending to the seeds of His Father's promises that He had sown.

Jesus' methodology is evidenced in Luke 10, in His sending of the 72 disciples in pairs to prepare the way for Him. While John the Baptist prepared the hearts of people before Jesus' ministry started in one spot, by the Jordan River, the 72 were sent out. These early disciples (Greek mathetes or "learners") of Jesus were told to go out into the surrounding towns and villages with one simple message: "The kingdom of God has come near" (Luke 10:9 & 11, CSB). They were also given the power by Jesus not just to tell the news of the Kingdom's coming, but also to manifest it through wonders and miracles. The 72 were able to spread this simple initial message wider than Jesus was physically capable of accomplishing as a single person. They were His advance team, preparing peoples' hearts to receive the most potent dose of God's presence they would ever experience. When Jesus arrived in a region or town, and crowds of people gathered around him, they weren't looking for something completely new. They had already heard of Jesus. They had already seen a tiny glimpse of what He would bring. They were ready to meet Him in person.

Throughout the seasons of your life, you will have different opportunities to delve into the truth and promises of God as a follower of Jesus. Some opportunities will go deep. Others will go wide. This month we begin our whistle-stop tour of the books of the Bible, which will examine the full swath of Scripture, an inch deep and a mile wide. My prayer is that our exploration of the broad strokes of Scripture will encourage you to continue your study and enjoyment of God's Word outside of our time together. I fully trust that by the power of God's Spirit, it will continually reveal to you the adventure that is found in a life with God, a life enriched by imitating Jesus and empowered by the work of the Holy Spirit. There is plenty of adventure to be found between the two covers of this book we call the Bible. However, I pray that you don't stop there. I pray that you discover and embrace the adventure of living in a broken world, "in" but not "of" it (John 17:14-19), and loving real, broken, beautiful people around you, just like Jesus did. Following in His footsteps, letting Him take the lead, I'm sure you will discover that…

Adventure is out there!
Pastor Aaron

Summer Reads

What is the definition of a "summer read?" My understanding is that it is something akin to a literary snack. Something light, fun, enjoyable, and easy to read. Not something that demands a whole lot of attention or focus to be able to work through. Something to read at the beach, by the pool, outside a rustic cabin. A book that is the perfect companion to a vacation or even a short getaway. As summer starts to wind down, maybe you've had a chance to enjoy one or more of these narrative morsels.

The Bible can be viewed as the exact opposite of a summer read. It is deep, rich, profound, and life-changing because it is God's own voice to us. However, reading Scripture doesn't always have to be mental and spiritual "work;" it can certainly be a deeply enjoyable experience. Aside from being the most profound piece of literature ever written coming from God's own heart, written down over many centuries by many authors, it is also beautiful, poetic, sometimes funny, and often ironic. But its intent is always to give us real life with the God who made us, loves us, and walks with us still. It is meant to be read thoughtfully and inwardly digested, but it is also meant to be enjoyed.

Have you ever read the Bible all the way through? Some people will put themselves on a reading plan and feel the pressure to read it just to "check a box" so they can answer that question in the affirmative. And if you haven't taken the opportunity to read through this library of God's Word yourself, that question may involve the complex emotions of regret or guilt. God certainly desires us to hear His voice, both spoken and written. He wants to have THE say in our lives. Scripture is how He speaks to us. So reading the Bible from cover to cover should be the goal of every Christian at least once in a lifetime, but hearing from God through His Word is a practice that can and should be an everyday delight to the hearts of all people who know the God who wants the best for them.

A quote from the longest chapter in the Bible, coming from the longest book, reads like this: "Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light on my path" (Psalm 119:105, CSB). I've read that passage hundreds of times in my life. I've sung it dozens of times. But the thing that God brought to my attention recently is one of the many facets of its meaning. All of Scripture does reveal the magnificent nature of God in all the universe, and the profound reality of His plan for us to save us and buy us back from the slavery of sin, death, and the power of the devil...this is most certainly true. But His Word, His tender speech to you and me, is also designed to guide us on our individual path and walk with Him. The light of a lamp doesn't shine very far. In fact, many times it can only illuminate the next few steps in front of you. God rarely reveals all of His plan for His people. But He is steadfast and faithful in His commitment to provide enough light for the next step in your walk with Him. This is the purpose and function of Scripture in our lives.

Over the next year or more, we will be taking a tour through the library of God's Word contained in the Bible, one book at a time. Some books can't possibly be distilled down into one message, so focusing in on a key event or insight will be our method. Other shorter books will require a little bit more nuance and context to even make sense of them for our lives in 21st-century America. There are many important ways God uses His Word to speak into our lives. We can hear the Word spoken verbatim in church. We can learn from a sermon or other exposition of the Word. We can sit with a group of other Christians and discuss what we're hearing, like we do in Bible studies. My prayer is that you would seize this opportunity to read the books of the Bible on your own time, or come to Bible study and get a deeper, richer appreciation for what God is saying than might be expressed in a brief message. My hope for you is that as we walk through the pages of Scripture together, you would always hear the tender voice of God calling you to walk with Him, shedding a little bit more light on your next step, and empowering you by His Spirit to walk in faith. 

You may have noticed that I always sign off with one of my favorite quotes from the Pixar movie Up: "Adventure is out there!" It is equally true that adventure is IN there… in the pages of Scripture, ready to be discovered. It far outstrips the momentary lightness we might find in a so-called summer read, but rather contains a profound joy that comes from discovering the riches of God's narrative, in which we play a crucial role in our present time. So like Saint Augustine heard so many years ago, my admission to you is, "Pick it up. Read it." Adventure is IN there, in the pages of God's Story. And when you know the heart of God it'll be easier for you to see that...

Adventure is out there!
Pastor Aaron

True Rest

"Yes, my soul, find rest in God; my hope comes from Him.
Truly He is my rock and my salvation; He is my fortress, I will not be shaken.
My salvation and my honor depend on God; He is my mighty rock, my refuge.
Trust in Him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to Him, for God is our refuge" (Psalm 62:5-8, CSB).

Vacation is good. Vacation can be relaxing. But vacation can also be a lot of work. Planning. Packing. Double-checking everything. Auto maintenance or purchasing airline tickets. The mad dash to the airport or the long hours in the car. Finding and paying for accommodations. Discovering delicious and unique options for food that won't break the vacation bankroll. And if all that wasn't enough, sometimes it's even work to find the right place to get comfortable, plop yourself down, and just BE. A patch of sand? A rock on a mountain vista? Feet dangling in the pool? Decisions, decisions. There is a reason that people who come back from vacation often quip, "now I need the vacation after 'the vacation!'"

I think what everyone is actually looking for, in real life and also in "vacation mode," is true, satisfying, soul-restoring rest. What we seek is something that is truly not available to us in a sin-broken world. The rest we are able to achieve is, at its best, just a shadow of what God would have for us. We can search the world for ways to be relaxed and rejuvenated, but the only way we find satisfying rest is in the arms of God. Jesus often beckoned His disciples to come away with Him to a quiet place so that they could be bolstered and restored for the work ahead. The work of the Holy Spirit in our lives is to draw us closer to the heart of the Father, who created us as human beings and wants us to stay human beings, not become human doings that find their identity in good works. He truly does want you to know the peace of having a place in His family... simply because He loves you.

Our souls can only truly find rest in God. Our hope can only come from Him and His plan. If we want to be on solid ground, we will look for Him to be our Fortress that cannot be destroyed or shaken. Our salvation truly does depend on Jesus' loving sacrifice, and we can trust that His resurrection has given us an eternal refuge in God's house and family.

Whether or not you are able to get out and find some enjoyment and temporary rest in a longer vacation this year or not, my prayer for you is that you would find rest for your soul and the only One who can give it to you: God. Blessings on your travels. May your homecomings be sweet. And may the (true but imperfect) rest you receive encourage you to long more passionately for the Day when you will be completely and totally HOME.

Adventure is out there!
Pastor Aaron

Taking a Break

Solomon in all of his wisdom, opportunity, and power, wrote this admonition to those coming after him who would seek knowledge: "But beyond these [wise teachings], my son, be warned: there is no end to the making of many books, and much study wearies the body" (Ecclesiastes 12:12, CSB). As someone who does quite a bit of studying, researching, and thinking, I very much resonate with this sentiment. The study of God's Word and paying attention to the world around us are both noble, vital tasks to being the people God made us to be, no doubt. But it's also exhausting.

Enter summer.

It's a time to do a lot of "RE's." RElax. REcreate. REstore. REvitalize. REnew. We all need moments or even extended seasons for this God-honoring activity...and often we must intentionally mark off the time and space for it. Working from a place of rest is good, while the other way around drains our life and sometimes our humanity.

Jesus needed time away. If we're following in His footsteps, we should take time away, too. So in the interest of actively following His pattern, I'm keeping my article short this month, especially as I prepare to head off on a vacation with my family. Instead of more of my words and musings, here's a part of Jesus' story:

"Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, [Jesus] got up, went out, and made His way to a deserted place; and there He was praying. Simon and his companions searched for Him, and when they found Him they said, 'Everyone is looking for You.' And He said to them, 'Let’s go on to the neighboring villages so that I may preach there too. This is why I have come.'" (Mark 1:35-39, CSB). 

Notice how Jesus doesn't apologize for not being available to those who sought Him. He was spending time away with His Father, and being purposely "unavailable" for a specified time can be empowering and life-giving.

I am very grateful to everyone in my Immanuel family who actively support my well-being and the health of my family. We pray that you also have time for relaxation and renewal during this summer, as we seek these things for ourselves. I am confident that when your aim is to get away, or even specifically because you're getting away from your normal patterns for a while, you'll discover the Kingdom wherever you go, because...

Adventure is out there!
Pastor Aaron

Freedom in the Truth

Have you ever had a moment when you started to doubt something that you had been told multiple times, had previously believed to be absolutely true, but had become nearly impossible to reconcile with your current circumstances? As someone who puts a lot of stock in intellect and enjoys deep thinking and thought experiments, I am perpetually amazed by two opposing ideas that often come crashing into one another: first, the ability of the human mind to grasp and even start to understand the world and environment in which God has placed us, and second, our failure, often at critical junctures, to remember and act upon the things that we hold close and know to be true.

Truth is a beautiful thing. Truth is a life-giving thing. Truth is foundational to our relationship with God, with one another. Truth is crucial to our very existence. God has spoken Truth into our world, and we participate in it. He spoke it in the Old Testament through the prophets, and He brought it into existence through Jesus. The truth is manifold in our world. Why then do we have such a difficult time remembering the truth? Why is it so easy to believe lies about God and about ourselves? Conversely, why is it often so difficult to believe the truth?

On the first Easter, we have several accounts of the actions of the disciples of Jesus, both male and female. In Luke 24, we hear of the women's desire to honor Jesus by giving Him a proper burial, but when they bring back news of an empty tomb and angelic messengers proclaiming Jesus' resurrection, the disciples refuse to believe, perceiving these reports as nonsense (vs. 11). How could they have missed this point when Jesus expressly communicated to them that He would die and rise (Matthew 16:21)? It boggles the mind that none of them would have been drawn back to the truth that Jesus stated so clearly.

As the saying goes, "truth is often stranger than fiction," but sometimes the truth also feels almost too good to be true. But that's the absolutely remarkable, singular thing about Jesus' story. It. Is. True. Period. "Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!" This is our motto and banner as God's people, who die with Christ and rise with Him. It's a truth so big and beautiful that it can't be comprehended by the human mind, but it's only apprehended in the purest, fondest desires of the human heart. We desire life to the fullest, and while we may not understand what that is or be able to see what it looks like, God promises to provide the purest fulfillment of that exact desire to those who trust Him. This is the message of Easter and the truth upon which we stand.

Why then is it so difficult for us to believe the truth? It's part of our sinful human condition, and it reeks havoc in our lives. It happens in scripture and it happens in real life, and everything in between. The fateful words of Darth Vader to Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back, "I am your father," are quickly followed up with Luke's repudiation, "No, no, that's not true. That's impossible!" An accounting error on the part of our hospital's billing department is clear to us, so we're quick to say, "That can't be right...would you look into that for me?" Or Pilate, when confronted with Jesus' declaration that all who follow Him will be people of the truth, questions it himself: "What is truth?" (John 18:37-38). Even when it's so delightfully real, like the other disciples sharing the joyful news of their Savior's resurrection and appearance to Thomas, the truth is often hard to believe.

Likewise, lies can often be easy to believe. Paul summarizes this shift from truth to lies and idolatry that leads to depravity in Romans 1: "They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served what has been created instead of the Creator, who is praised forever. Amen" (vs.25). Our own experiences are often confirmed by the characters we see in the Bible struggling with lies they must confront, and how God firmly, lovingly brings them back to the truth and reality. Jonah believes that he can run away from God, and is confronted by the great fish. Moses believes that God couldn't possibly work through his feeble mouth, and yet God uses him powerfully to deliver the law and instructions for living to His people. David believes that he can get away with adultery and murder, and is confronted by the truth in the person of Nathan, who also delivers God's forgiveness when David repents. The woman at the well, who believes she will never have healthy relationships with the people in her town, is confronted by the gracious presence and friendship of Jesus.

The world is full of what is often called "fake news." None of us would want to be played for a fool, to believe outright lies. And yet, not all of the most devastating lies are writ large in our society. Some of them dwell in the hidden places of our hearts. Places we dare not go. Ideas we dare not address, lest they prove to be true. Lies that plague us, hurt us, confound us, and drag us down. What would happen if we allowed those dark lies to see the light of day? To be exposed to the Light of the World. As Jesus said to those who were starting to believe but were still held captive by their sin, “If you continue in my word, you really are my disciples. You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32, CSB).

Truth cuts both ways. It wounds and destroys those who deny it. But it also cuts the bonds of those enslaved by lies. I want to have conversations with people about the lies they've believed, because chances are, I've believed them, too, at some point in my life. It's not a comfortable thing to engage with these difficult issues, but I believe it is at the heart of what we are called to be and do as a community of God's people. I also believe that it will be a profound liberating experience to address the pernicious lies we've believed, and find freedom on the other side in Jesus' truth. It'll be a journey of the heart, but I hope we'll all find joy in the truth that...

Adventure is out there!
Pastor Aaron

A Story to Tell (Pt. 2)

"We all have a story to tell." "YOU have a story to tell." If you've been keeping up with our most recent sermon series, you've probably heard something akin to that sentiment expressed several times in the past few weeks. I believe it's absolutely true. God created us as storytelling beings. He relates His identity and intentions toward us through story. He invites us to live in the story He has created. He sends His Son into the story of this world to transform it and restore things that are sad and broken about the story. The best stories are ones with happy endings, and we celebrate occasions like Easter for that exact reason. Death doesn't have the final say. Jesus is alive! We have hope! A story that has that kind of ending is worth living.

If I asked you to think about the most impactful moments in your life, I'm guessing you would probably tell me a story that has a certain amount of nuance to it. Insights that have been gained over countless retellings. Moments when your life was transformed. Struggles that gave way to seasons of rapid growth. Whether the circumstances surrounding the story were delightful or gut-wrenchingly horrible, they all contribute to the person that you are today. Do you remember these moments and tell that story because God was at work, and you feel deeply that you can contribute to the growth of the Kingdom by telling it? This has certainly been my experience, and I'm guessing it might likely be yours as well.

While telling your story is important, every story also needs a hearer. Now, you've probably heard plenty of boring stories in your time. Maybe there are some stories that you have NOT heard simply because they were too boring to be focused upon, and you found yourself tuning out. This is much like the impression I get when my wife tells me, "I told you that a few days ago," and I have no recollection of what she's talking about. Then again, if there is someone important that you are meeting for the first time, or someone who has the potential to be important in your story going forward, they may tell the most mundane, boring story you've ever heard, and yet you will give them your rapt attention. People are fascinating, and so are their stories, when you allow for the time and relational space to give them a fair hearing.

It's clear to me that when Jesus told stories, people listened. I like to imagine Jesus sitting down, whether on a mountain or on a plain, and waiting for people to lean in and listen. I'd like to think they hung on His every word. Maybe they did. But maybe they were distracted. Maybe they weren't convinced yet that He was worthy of their attention. Maybe they were surprised by what they heard, or maybe they were able to tune it out. One way or another, some people were really listening carefully to what Jesus shared, the stories He told, the teachings He set before them, because they recorded His story. And now, centuries later, we still tell the stories because of God's faithful work in their lives, His leading to write the story with pen and paper, transmitting it throughout the ages.

Some of the most delightful conversations I've had recently have come out of subtle details people have dropped gently into a more public, open conversation. A thrill of excitement. A touch of pain or angst. Wistfulness about unaccomplished tasks or a celebration of a personal victory. A tiny part of the story was shared more publicly, but I've found that if I go back to the person privately later on, and say something like, "I heard you say…," there's usually SO much more to the story. Asking someone to share a part of their story, especially something that is personal and deeply felt can be a beautiful gift. That gift of attention and care was a life-changing blessing Jesus gave generously throughout His ministry.

Nicodemus pursued the story of Jesus even when it was not necessarily clear that it was in his best interest to do so. John 3 tells us that he came to Jesus by night, when prying eyes wouldn't be around to out him as a secret follower of this rebel rabbi from Nazareth. He opens up to Jesus and expresses his own wrestling with the regeneration and restoration Jesus is bringing to the world and to their shared culture. He doesn't have it all figured out when they part, but his gift and contribution to the story of the world is a conversation that includes the most concise, powerful expression of the gospel ever recorded and the most well-known Bible reference in the world: "For God loved the world in this way: He gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16, CSB). Apparently, the story of Jesus was so compelling that even after He was crucified, Nicodemus and his friend Joseph of Arimathea were willing to risk their reputations and even defile themselves during the Passover to bury the body of Jesus. Did they have the hope of the resurrection beating in their hearts? Scripture doesn't explicitly tell us, but I think their actions powerfully communicate a living hope in Jesus.

What about you? Do you have the same kind of hope? You have never met the risen Jesus in the flesh, and neither have I. We have the benefit of knowing the rest of the story, a benefit Nicodemus did not have, even though he had met Jesus face-to-face. We all operate on faith. We trust that Jesus died for us. We trust that Jesus was raised for us. We trust Jesus' promise to return and put all things right. This is the heartbeat of our story, the motivation that continues to move us forward. As we settle into the high holy days of Holy Week and Easter, my prayer for you is that the story of Jesus would continue to loom large in your imagination. I pray that His passion and deep love for you would motivate you to trust him in every area of your life. And I pray that you would both live a story worth telling, and find those who have the ears and hearts ready to hear how your story has been transformed by nail scarred hands and an empty grave. I'm confident that when you tell your story, you'll recognize personally the beauty and joy of the statement…

Adventure is out there!

Pastor Aaron

A Story to Tell (Pt. 1)

We all have a story to tell. It's in our nature. God created the world with His powerful Word, and He made us co-creators in a world full of raw materials that only He could create. And while great monuments have been erected to the adventures and exploits of humankind, they are simply markers for something deeper. They point to a story that must be told, and stand as a reminder that some stories should never be forgotten.

Our scriptures, the Bible, stands head and shoulders above all other historical documents and artifacts as a testament to God's work in our world. Just under 43% of the entire text is considered narrative, with the rest of the documents and genres supporting that narrative, fleshing it out, giving it life through rich detail. It is often referred to as the "Greatest Story Ever Told," and its central figure is the One we call Savior and Lord. St. Augustine, one of the forebears of and greatest influences on Dr. Martin Luther, once said, "The New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New." Every bit of the Bible story points toward Jesus, the Word made flesh. The One who makes every story come alive through redemption, through resurrection in the wake of a death.

God's word has a story to tell. So do you. Jesus loved to tell stories, and if we are going to follow in His footsteps, then telling stories should be something we embrace and aim to master. Now, I could imagine a simple objection that many of you may give to this crucial encouragement and even command from Jesus to tell the Good News story: "I'm not good at telling stories." I beg to differ. EVERYONE has a story to tell. Just ask them what they did throughout the day. For the past week. Ask them what their highlight was from the past year, or the biggest struggle they encountered.

Just about anyone who pays attention to their own life will be able to tell you a story. Like my favorite public intellectual Dr. Jordan Peterson likes to say, people are fascinating, and if you think they are boring, it reveals more about your lack of attention to them than it does about how fascinating they are. The stories you tell may not be as grand or deep as the biblical narrative, but they are stories nonetheless, and they have a place in the tapestry of history. Then again, I'll bet you could come up with 10 moments in the history of your life that would be worthwhile to craft well, share, and retell throughout the years as you gain the insight that a well-examined life often provides. Yes, YOU have a story to tell.

The apostle John starts his gospel out with Jesus' place in the beginning of all things. He calls Him the Word. Before the first chapter is done, he places that creative Word, the character of the Logos, embodied by Jesus Christ, into the warp and weft of human history. Now THAT is a story to tell. What does this Word Incarnate do? Apart from the miraculous healings and feedings, apart from the central episode in human history, when he died and rose, Jesus told stories. Stories. Most of them could be simply understood by a small child. The depth of insight below that surface level hearing, however, reaches straight down to the substructure and foundation of history, philosophy, theology, and every other aspect of human civilization.

So what part is Jesus calling you and I to play in this grand narrative? I don't know, but I'm excited to find out! Literature teachers will tell you that every protagonist is the hero of his or her own story, whether they end up in a place of comedy or tragedy. God has a story for you to live, to tell. He is working powerfully in your life even now, if you have the eyes to see it. By virtue of your baptism, as a child of the King of all things, YOU have a story to tell. So go tell it. And you know how these things go. One good story often leads to another, then to another, all the way to Kingdom come. I believe that one of the most beautiful and important things we can do in this lifetime is to live out and SHARE the truth and beauty of the following statement:

Adventure is out there!
Pastor Aaron