Message Preview: Are You Stuck in the Shallow End?

The progression of our growth can be traced by where we swim.  As a child, the kiddy pool’s shallow and safe form gives us all we can handle.  Getting bigger we move on to the shallow end, where we can experience the joy of swimming without considerable risk.  And then, if we allow, we move into the deep end marked by increased risk and requiring a deal more skill and effort to navigate.

But some adults prefer to stay in shallow water.

On Sunday I’m beginning a series of messages that seeks to understand what God wants from us, as declared in Micah 6:8.  This Scripture is simple, but in no way is it shallow.  Join us for a meal and worship each Sunday night if you live in the area (6:00pm at 2537 Lee Rd., Cleveland Heights), or follow us online.

What Is True Unity/Community?

As I get ready for yet another message in church on unity and community, I find myself struck with a question.  There are loads of people that practice unity across the social spectrum.  What’s so different about the church?  Or maybe another way to look at it: does unity/community just come about naturally as we’re being nice and inclusive, or is it a thing that we practice?

I once had an image in my mind as I was an eager fiance preparing for marriage.  Well, actually there were three images.  The first was a husband and wife back-to-back, facing outward.  This was a symbol of dysfunction, with each having little to no focus on one another.  The second image, seemingly the antidote to the dysfunction, was a couple facing one another…each having their focus obviously on the other.  This is all well and good, but my faith compelled me to visualize our marital relationship in a different way.  It was a couple, hand-in-hand, facing forward together.

I’m not so sure that Christian community is simply avoiding harm to one another or even to be kind.  If we are unified only for the sake of ourselves then we’ve missed it.  True community is that we join arms with a common focus on someone bigger than ourselves, a focus on Christ.

Sermon Snapshot: Rhythm of Life

Some people prefer to be a tumble weed, and seem quite content on wherever the wind ends up taking them.  I think, though, that most of us need a little more structure than that.

Spiritually, or more deliberately our relationship with God, needs a direction.  We need a set course and share methods by which we travel.  But in truth many of us, whether because of busyness or simply not knowing how to travel, chose to be tumble weeds.

What does it looks like to set an intentional pathway for your life?  How would that effect your time?  Your commitments?  Your relationships?

On Sunday night we’ll explore all of this, which will hopefully be a first step in setting a course that leads us closer to God.  Find out more at here.

Message Look-Back: “What’s in a Number?”

In the sermon series What’s in a Name? we’ve been looking at naming in the Bible and learning how God looks upon us as children of promise and hope.  Numbers also have some significant meaning in the Bible, and we couldn’t help but to look into it.

All of this numerology…it becomes a problem for us at times. Here’s why.  Once we open up to the idea that some numbers might not mean what we think they mean, we begin to wonder what else is symbolic…or not.  The Bible, once a foundation, becomes unstable and ambiguous and open-ended and mysterious.   

 

One of my mentors in seminary once told a story of how a person came up to him after a sermon and said, “You know, pastor, all that Greek and Hebrew is kinda interesting…but I just need to know how to live.”

 

I can sympathize with this. In most situations it’s not what I know that scares me; it’s what I don’t know.  I really don’t have time or emotions for ambiguity.

 

This also wouldn’t be terribly different from people in Jesus’ day. They were all about having a relationship with God, sure.  But they just weren’t sure how it all applied in certain circumstances of life.  So it was easier to look for more guidance on what it all meant for real life.  They wanted it spelled out for them. 

 

So Peter wants a little clarity. Jesus had just got done giving some clearer instructions on how to confront someone who is in the wrong.  So he says, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”  Peter knew Jesus at this point, so he left some room for God to work.  How mature of him.  7 times was being pretty generous, he thought. 

 

7, like 12, also represents completeness and perfection. God created the earth in 7 days.  Festivals lasted 7 days.  Every 7th year was a Sabbath year where they didn’t grow crops.

 

Multiples of seven were also important. After forty-nine years came a Jubilee year, when all Jewish bond-servants were released and land that had been sold reverted to its former owner (Lev. 25:8-55). The OT speaks of seventy elders (Exod. 24:1, 9). Also, Jesus sent out the seventy (Luke 10:1-17). Seventy years was to be the length of the Exile (Jer. 25:12; 29:10; Dan. 9:2). A period of seventy weeks of years was to culminate in the coming of the messianic kingdom (Dan. 9:24).[1]

A major Hebrew word for making an oath or swearing, shaba, was closely related to the word “seven,” sheba. The original meaning of “swear an oath” may have been “to declare seven times” or “to bind oneself by seven things.”[2]

 

But Jesus answers, “Not 7 times.” Huh?  Looks like Jesus failed numerology class in Talmud school.  “Not 7 times, but 77 times.”  Ok Jesus…whatya doin here? 

 

To answer that, lets reverse to Genesis chapter 4: “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” [3]

 

The declaration of vengeance for Lamech is in essence reversed in Jesus’ proclamation of forgiveness.

 

The number isn’t really the issue anyway. In both cases it is cracking open the concept of completion and making it on-going, never-ending, eternal.

 

The point is this:  If you’re counting you’ve missed the point of forgiveness.

[1] Achtemeier, P. J., Harper & Row and Society of Biblical Literature. (1985). In Harper’s Bible dictionary. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

[2] Drinkard, J. F., Jr. (2003). Number Systems and Number Symbolism. In (C. Brand, C. Draper, A. England, S. Bond, E. R. Clendenen, & T. C. Butler, Eds.)Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.

[3] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Ge 4:23–24). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Message in Review: “Name Change”

“Name Change”
Gen. 32:22-32

We begin with a birth story.  The mother, Rebekah, is pregnant with twins and it’s time to deliver.  The story gives us the indication that the twin boys were competitive with one another from the very beginning, as they fought to come into the world first, which I’m sure was an awesome experience for Rebekah.  Esau won, but Jacob wasn’t far behind…coming out the womb while grasping his brother’s heel.

It’s from this experience that Jacob gets his name, ya aqueb, which means “grasp the heel.”  This sounds strangely similar to ya aquab, which means “he deceives.”  Jacob was a deceiver.  He tricked his brother into giving him his birthright, for one.  But his life was marked by weaseling his way through.  In chapter 32 of Genesis Jacob is alone and vulnerable.  And in what probably wins the “most random text” award in the Bible, we find that Jacob starts wrestling with a man.  You know, because that sometimes just happens.

Abaq is the Hebrew word for “wrestle,” which if I had the perfect accent would sound notably similar to aqueb and aquab.  Hmmmmm….

Growing up I played a lot of ping pong, mostly with my brother.  He’s 5 years younger than me.  I would win a lot…well, all the time really.  Eventually he decided that it wasn’t worth it to him so he stopped playing.  So my strategy shifted a little to give him the impression that he could win.  I’d let the score get close and pretend to be nervous.  I know, this is bad…but trust me I’ve had worse moments as the big brother.  Then, I would deliver the blow.  After the game was over I’d say something like, “Wow that was a good one…want to play again?”  It worked for a while at least.

This “man,” who Jacob and us the readers will soon realize isn’t actually a man, seems to toy around with Jacob.  He keeps it close; and as soon as he realizes that Jacob isn’t going to say “uncle,” he strikes Jacob’s hip, taking it out of joint. Except Jacob doesn’t say uncle…he doesn’t let go.  He holds on for dear life until he gets a blessing from what appears to be God.  About this…the man asks Jacob to let him go, “for it is daybreak.”  In Exodus 33:20 a provision from God states, “No one shall see me and live.”  The implication here is that if this WWE session drags on into the light of day, Jacob will see God…and Jacob will die.  But, desperate for this blessing from God, Jacob holds on and risks his life.

What’s this blessing and why is it this important?  For the Hebrews, blessings were not what we kind of make them today as well-wishes.  These blessings had real-life, substantial shifts in life’s momentum.  A blessing in the Bible is a relational act.  It’s a divine experience to say that two are in harmony with one another.  A patriarchal blessing, for example, is where the father bestows a definition of relationship to a son or heir…to declare that they’re aligned.
The same is true of a blessing from God.

What Jacob wants is to no longer be the second, or the last, but to be the first.  He doesn’t want to be a deceiver, he wants to be favored.  He’s tired.  He’s tired of his relationship with God being so much work.  He just wants to be aligned with God.

So the man asks Jacob his name.  OK, this is God…he knows is name.  Asking for Jacob’s name is setting the framework for the blessing.  Naming in the Bible is power.  The one who names in the Bible gains power over the one being named.  This is simple enough to understand with a parent naming a child.  It’s a declaration of the relationship.
o   Jacob tells him his name, but God in that place renames him Israel, which means “God fights.”  The understanding is that Jacob will no longer fight through everything, but because he fought with God and survived, God will fight for him.
The power of the moment is lost on Jacob at first, because the Deceiver in him came out when he then turns around and asks for God’s name.  The response?  “Why would you do that?”  Or in the modern context: “Really, Jacob…really?”  Despite the lapse in judgment, God blesses him.

Exercise: [If you had a change to change your first name, what would you change it to?  Talk to the person next to you.]

Throughout Scripture, we find that because of circumstances or momentous events or extreme encounters with God people end up changing their name.  Saul was a terrorist that led a group of terrorists to kill and injure Christians.  Why he was such an angry person, I have no idea.  But on his way to a town called Damascus a fierce light blinded him and his gang.  Saul heard Jesus’ voice that said, “Why do you persecute me?”  After the third day a Christian came and healed his sight, and he was forever changed, marking the transformation with a name change to Paul.

Not everyone changed their names, but make no mistake, transformation has a huge role to play in faith.  To be in relationship with God is to transform.  Jesus talked to a guy named Nicodemus once in secret because Nicodemus was afraid of being seen with him.  Jesus tells him there they in order to be with God he has to be born again.  He took Jesus literally…which is gross by the way.  What he was referring to was what we call conversion, which literally means to turn.  There’s a distinction between a life in Jesus Christ and a life not in Jesus Christ.

I’ve told you all many times that while I’ve experience a lot of mini transformations in my life, there was a big conversion that took place when I finally allowed my life to be taken over by Jesus in High School.  There was definitely a turning that took place.

But, a key truth we get from the story of Jacob is this: You can’t have transformation without struggle.  The saying is true: “no pain; no gain.”  In 2001 I was struggling big time.  I was confused, disillusioned, full of doubt…in fact I wasn’t sure if I believed in God anymore.  I almost left the church, left the faith, and left my career path which was heading towards ministry.  Instead I chose to duke it out with God.  I began asking the tough questions that I had.  Some people felt threatened by that and wondered if I was being a bad influence.  Honestly, this is why I wound up back in the United Methodist Church.  It was the only church I could think of at the time that would allow me to ask questions and wrestle with my faith.  At that time I decided to start a blog called It’s the Question that Drives us.

There is blessedness in your struggle.  In your doubt.  In your relationship issues.  In your physical limitations.  In your self-esteem issues.  There is blessedness in that.  “Inside of every problem lies an opportunity.” -Robert Kiyosaki
Some guy named Jesus once put it this way: “In this world you will have trouble; but take heart!  I have overcome the world.”  Let’s not assume that when God shows up to the party all of a sudden our troubles will pass.  Some of the most valuable lessons of life and faith have been learned in the midst of struggle.  And yeah, some of it left me with a limp afterwards, but I’m better because of it.

Don’t fear the limp!  The limp for Jacob was a sign of victory, not failure.  There is blessedness in your struggle for you to learn and to grow and to be blessed by God.  Don’t deprive yourself from that.  The worst thing that could happen to us and our relationship with God is if God gave us everything we wanted.


Sunday Snapshot: Why Parables?

At Catalyst I’ll be starting a series called “Stories Jesus Told,” which will put some parables in the Bible under the microscope.  I’m going to start with a parable in Matthew 13…one that caused the disciples to ask “Why parables?”

Jesus’ response is a little troubling.  It was as if the truth of his message was supposed to be vague, mysterious, and difficult to interpret.  Why?  Doesn’t God love all of us and want us to understand what he was trying to say?  Why would he run the risk of people misunderstanding if his words were indeed the most important stuff people would ever hear?

6:30 on Sunday, 2537 Lee Rd. in Cleveland Heights.

Sermon Snapshot: The Image of God

I am a husband.

I am a father.

These are two givens.  Now whether I actually live into those things is really a different matter.  The same is true for claiming the name “Christian,” but I’m not talking about your behavior or being a “good person.”  A relationship with Jesus Christ transforms a person, enabling a process in which God brings us full circle –back to the creation the God form “in his own image.”

Come hear more at Catalyst at 6:30 on Sunday, 2537 Lee Rd. in Cleveland Heights.