Saturday, January 10, 2015

Blessed be God (Eph 1:3-14)

BLESSED BE GOD (Eph 1:3-14)
Dr. Paul Manuel—2004

When a young girl lost her dog, she decided to distribute flyers around town, hoping that someone would spot the wayward pooch and return him. The notice she prepared read...
Lost Dog: He has brown hair with several bald spots. His right front leg was once broken in an auto accident. He limps because he hurt his left hip. His right eye is missing, and he had his left ear bitten off in a dog fight. Please help me find him. He answers to the name...Lucky. (Adapted from Hodgin 1994:216)
However lucky or unlucky we may be, we are glad for whatever help people can give us as we travel life's path. When the one who helps us is God, the benefits we derive are without equal, and we should respond as Paul does in our message this morning, by exclaiming: Blessed Be God.

A few years ago, another pastor was studying what the Bible says about the will of God, and he asked me to look at Eph 1, where Paul mentions God's will. When I turned to the passage, which I had not read in quite some time, I could hardly make sense of it. Eph 1:3-14 is one long sentence in Greek, as if once Paul got started he did not know where to stop.1 The English translations help us by breaking it into smaller units, but my first reading made me agree with Peter, that Paul's "letters contain some things that are hard to understand" (2 Pet 3:16b).

As I reread the text, I began to notice the phrases Paul repeats.
  • Three times he refers to the "will" of God (vv. 5, 9, 11), indicating that history—our history—is not without purpose. God intends some particular things for us.
  • Three times he uses the phrase "to the praise of his glory" (vv. 6, 12, 14), because understanding what God has done and will do for us should make us break forth in worship.
  • Ten times he says "in Christ" or "in him" (vv. 3, 4, 6, 7, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 132) to emphasize that everything God does for us—our very relationship with God—comes as a result of what Jesus did and because of our relationship with him.
These repetitions tie together Paul's thoughts and help us to see what he considers most important. Keep them in mind as we read the passage. Please turn to Eph 1....

After opening the book in vv. 1-2 with his usual salutation...

I. Paul blesses God for the scope of His blessing to us.
Eph 1:3a [Blessed] be...the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ....
One congregant mentioned to me that she had never made a distinction between praising God and thanking Him, that she had simply assumed they were synonyms for the way we express our devotion. When she realized the terms were different, she asked me to define them. Because others may have the same question, here is the distinction.

The biblical writers use three main words to describe the ways you should declare your devotion.
  • Praise God to express your admiration for His wonderful character and great deeds. Think of praise as bragging about God.
  • Thank God to express your appreciation for who He is to you and what He does for you.
  • Bless God to express your affirmation that He is the source of all (power for) success, prosperity, longevity, etc.—everything that is good.2

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Changes

 THAT WAS THEN; THIS IS NOW
Dr. Paul Manuel—2015

From the January, 2015, Sabbath Recorder:

Much of life involves a series of changes, some of which are large, others of which are small. Many of those changes test our ability to respond with wise choices, consistent with our commitment to God. Dealing with changes, whether large or small, and making the choices they require, is often a matter of perspective, of viewing life (as much as possible) from God’s perspective and realizing the wonder of His grace along the way.

In some cases, it means recognizing a particular change is permanent, and there is no going back: That was then; this is now.

When first diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, I was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and knew nothing about the disease. A doctor at the hospital there recommended a series of steroid infusions he said might force it into remission. I followed his advice and thought no more about the matter, going on to finish my degree and continuing my involvement in the martial arts, an activity I had begun sometime earlier.

Eighteen years later, having been in pastoral ministry for quite a while, the MS returned—there is no (further) treatment for the kind I have—and I steadily lost the ability to move about without assistance. (After forty years, I taught my final martial arts class last year, from a walker.) Noting the obvious physical difficulty I was having, the deacons and elders at the church wisely recommended that I seek early retirement. The physical change is permanent, and there is no going back: That was then; this is now.

To be sure, “now” is certainly different from what I experienced before, but God has not changed. He still enables me to choose how I will respond to this change. While I miss being physically active and being more fully engaged in ministry, I also realize that the more I can align my perspective with His perspective, the more my response to this change will accord with His will and the more I realize the wonder of His grace along the way.

The change has not affected everything. While no longer teaching martial arts, there are still opportunities to minister. I do not get out much, but people come to see me, which I enjoy (although why they do so is often a mystery to me). I am also able to post studies and sermons to my blog that would otherwise remain in notebooks. (My wife says that I now have time to read for pleasure, which I have not done since college and grad school.) While the future is unknown, it need not be unproductive, and I trust that my continuing walk with God will yet yield fruit, because that was then; this is now.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Witnessing for Jesus (Mark 16:1-20)

MEASURES OF THE MESSIAH FROM MARK:
The Witness for Jesus (Mark 16:1-20)
Dr. Paul Manuel—2014

Some people have difficulty adjusting to new things, be it the controls on a new appliance, or the demands of a new diet, or the addition of a new family member.
When Sarah came home from the hospital with her second baby, she hired Myrna, a live-in-nurse, to help for the first few weeks. Having read about sibling rivalry, Sarah watched her eighteen-month-old daughter Chelsey for signs of jealousy or insecurity with the new addition, but Chelsey adored her little brother. She loved to help Myrna feed and bathe him. He was so cute. She even offered to share her toys. Several weeks passed and Sarah, convinced that Chelsey was suffering no ill effects, decided she could manage without a nurse. As she watched Myrna walk to her car that last day, she heard an unmistakable cry of distress. "Myrna!" yelled Chelsey, running after her... "You forgot your baby!"
Some people have difficulty adjusting to new things, especially if they are uncertain about them. People were uncertain about the ending of Mark's gospel. At least one copyist thought it was too abrupt, that it was missing vital information and needed to be revised accordingly.

The four gospels each tell the story of Jesus, from the start of his ministry (sometimes a little earlier) to his death and resurrection (sometimes a little later). Mark's account, however, has a different ending. Look at chapter 16, where you may have a note at the end of verse 8 indicating that the earliest and most reliable Greek manuscripts stop here, with the report that Jesus' body is missing from the tomb. Mark leaves his readers to ponder the meaning of that disappearance.

A later Christian editor, evidently thinking the story needed a fuller and more satisfying conclusion, appended additional details other gospel writers include, as well as some original material that only appears here. While I do not advocate preaching from dubious passages, it is instructive to note what is part of holy writ and what is not.1 Chapter 16 opens with a discovery of the empty tomb, and...

I. The Prospect Is Exciting (Mark 16:1-8).2
Mark 16:1 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus' body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb, 3 and they asked each other, "Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?" 4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. 6 "Don't be alarmed," he said. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There You will see him, just as he told you." 8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Walking with Jesus (Mark 13:9-13)

MEASURES OF THE MESSIAH FROM MARK:
The Walk with Jesus (Mark 13:9-13)
Dr. Paul Manuel—2014

There are consequences for certain actions. There are legal consequences if you exceed the speed limit (and get caught). There are medical consequences if you abuse drugs or alcohol. There are employment consequences if you fail to meet your boss's expectations.
Jeff was a meticulous but mild-mannered engineer. He and his wife Amy were looking forward to being in their new house in the new year. As it was being built, Jeff left notes for the workmen, politely calling their attention to mistakes or oversights. Two weeks before Jeff and Amy were to move in, the floors still were not finished, the bathrooms not tiled, nor were necessary fixtures installed. Amy was sure the work would never be completed in time. On moving day, though, the house was ready to receive them. Curious as to how this feat had been accomplished, Amy went and checked where Jeff always left his notes for the workmen. Posted prominently on the living room wall was his last note: "After January 15...all work will be supervised by our five children."
There are consequences for certain actions, some more terrifying than others. In one of the Measures of the Messiah in Mark, Jesus tried to impress upon the disciples the consequences of their commitment to him, what their association with this rabbi might cost them.

When Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time before his crucifixion, the disciples are 'pumped,' ready to accomplish great things. They have not yet grasped the seriousness, the inevitability of Jesus' impending death. For them, this visit holds the prospect of advancing both the kingdom and their own place in it. They are ready to do great things for God. What they are about to get, however, is a reality check, an explanation of what "The Walk with Jesus" will entail for them. Please turn to Mark 13.

When they come to the Mount of Olives, Jesus answers some of the disciples' questions about the future kingdom of heaven. He explains that the end of this world order will not come about for quite some time and that they must be prepared for some difficult experiences. As his disciples, they can and should expect to be persecuted. Their faith will undergo severe testing, so he warns them in v. 9: "You must be on your guard." Jesus explains that people will not always respond positively upon discovering they are his followers. He issues two warnings—neither of which offers any incentive for them to identify with him. If anything, they are a disincentive to discipleship. In vv. 9-11...

I. Jesus warns about legal consequences for disciples (Mark 13:9-11).
Mark 13:9 You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them. 10 And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. 11 Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.
As I said, Jesus' words are a disincentive to discipleship. Who would knowingly and willingly—even eagerly—join a movement that raises the ire of religious and government officials alike? Describing the fate of his followers, Jesus says...1
A. They will forfeit their liberty.
Adding insult to injury, he explains that...
  • Their own countrymen will betray them!2
The very ones who should be supportive will, in fact, be subversive. That is precisely what happens to many of those who follow this itinerant rabbi.3 Looking for examples in the book of Acts, I was surprised at how many people suffer for their faith.
  • Peter and John are arrested and imprisoned, Peter more than once.
  • Other apostles are arrested, imprisoned, and flogged.
  • Other disciples are arrested and imprisoned.
  • Paul and Barnabas are thrown out of Pisidian Antioch.
  • Paul and Silas are stripped, beaten, flogged, and imprisoned.
"Sign me up for that group."

Despite the unpleasantness of what Jesus says his followers may face, it does not mean that God has abandoned them. Quite the contrary, in their greatest hour of need...
B. They will receive immediate help—the Spirit's inspiration.4
Therefore, Jesus says...
  • They should not grow worried.
Again, the book of Acts offers several examples of disciples who were uncharacteristically outspoken under pressure,5 evincing the power of God at work through them.

Most Christians in the U.S. have an idyllic view of discipleship, because being a follower of Jesus costs them very little.6 They suffer no persecution. Their faith does not prevent them from getting a loan or applying to college or going on vacation. In fact, around this area, people generally view a commitment to God quite favorably. Does that mean you will never face what Jesus warns about here?

While many Christians do, indeed, go through life without ever encountering the kind of opposition Jesus describes, the prediction he includes in v. 10 indicates that his admonition applies to more than those in the first century. Matthew preserves a fuller transcription of Jesus' prediction.
Matt 24:14 ...this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.7
Jesus' warning is something disciples in every age will have to take seriously.

However unlikely you are to be on trial for your faith, you still have a responsibility to be a testimony for your faith. Even in rural Pennsylvania, that may not be easy. This area is heavily churched, but it is not entirely Christian. Moreover, some of you venture beyond this area, where fewer of those you meet have a commitment to God. No matter where you are, though, you can still count on the help of the Holy Spirit when you testify about your faith.

It is bad enough that Jesus' followers will be persecuted for their faith, but some will also be executed for their faith. In addition to legal consequences...

II. Jesus warns about lethal consequences for disciples (Mark 13:12-13).
Mark 13:12 Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. 13 All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.
This is where most people would probably draw the line. It is bad enough when others ridicule an individual's beliefs; it is beyond the pale when they kill him because he holds those beliefs, yet that is precisely what Jesus says will happen. Here, too, the book of Acts illustrates his point.8
  • Stephen was stoned to death.
  • Other disciples were executed.
  • Paul was stoned almost to death.
  • James was beheaded.
All this accords with Jesus' warning to his disciples that...
A. They will forfeit their lives.
To make matters worse, if they can be any worse...
  • Their own families will slay them.
The very people who should be compassionate will, in fact, be complicit in their death. (For those of you who have loving families, it is probably beyond belief that people could possibly behave this way.) Despite the vehemence Jesus says his followers will experience, it does not mean that God has abandoned them. Quite the contrary, in what appears to be their greatest defeat...
B. They will receive ultimate help—their soul's salvation.9
Therefore, Jesus says...
  • They should not grow weary.
Persecution against Christians is foreign to us but not to those living in some other countries, especially where Islam dominates. You may recall the case of Meriam Ibrahim, a pregnant, 27-year old Sudanese doctor, who was imprisoned earlier this year and sentenced to hanging for apostasy, after she received 100 lashes for adultery. The authorities claimed she was a Muslim who converted to Christianity,10 an offense she compounded when she married a Christian (a Sudanese who is a US citizen). Meriam denied the charges, saying that Christianity was the only faith she ever knew, having been raised by an Orthodox Christian mother, but that did not matter to the Sudanese government. Her absentee Ethiopian father was a Muslim, making her, by default, a Muslim.

The conditions of Meriam's incarceration were harsh, forcing her to give birth to her child while chained. She could have spared herself, as others had before, by renouncing her faith,11 but she refused, even knowing that her two young children could be taken from her and raised as Muslims. In response to pressure from various Christian groups in the West and, belatedly, from the US State Department, Meriam was released and reunited with her husband. The family has since relocated to New Hampshire, where there is a Sudanese community.12

You will probably never have to endure this kind of persecution for your faith, but there will be other challenges, and how you meet them is a testimony to the seriousness of your discipleship as well as a necessary step in your spiritual growth. As James writes, perhaps echoing some of what Jesus says here...
James 1:2b ...whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 ...know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4 Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
It is not how much you endure but how well you endure that counts.

While the disciples are excited about the coming Kingdom of God, Jesus tempers their enthusiasm with a reality check of the legal and lethal consequences their identification with him will have. To accomplish great things, they will have to endure great things. Are they up to the task? Is devotion to Jesus worth persecution for Jesus? ...On another occasion he said, "whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven" (Matt 10:33).

When life is not going well, you may wonder if persevering in your faith is worth your effort. Are you up to the task? ...The answer lies in the promise of empowerment now, as God's Spirit speaks through you, and in the prospect of fulfillment later, when God's salvation finally arrives for you. This is what "The Walk with Jesus" entails. Does it describe your walk?

For the Bibliography and Endnotes, see the pdf here.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Who is this man? (Mark 4:35-41)

MEASURES OF THE MESSIAH FROM MARK:
The Wonder over Jesus (Mark 4:35-41)
Dr. Paul Manuel—2014

Despite the popularity of Facebook, the networking site cannot replace personal, human contact, and some people's self-worth will always be defined by the number of real "friends" they have.
With typical teenage angst, Mary was complaining about having a tough day at school. She had stretched herself out on the couch to do a bit of what she thought was well-deserved self-pitying. She moaned to her mother and brother, "No one loves me.... The whole world hates me!" Her brother, busily playing a video game, hardly looked up at her but passed along his encouragement: "That's not true, Mary.... Some people don't even know you."
The only time Jesus experienced angst was in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest. Until then, it is others who are troubled, including by the uncertainty of his identity. Who is this miracle-worker?

Today we are considering a passage in the first part of Mark's gospel and the question: "Who is Jesus?" Answering this question also lays the groundwork for the study of faith, a study that is essential for the perseverance of both Jesus' disciples and Mark's readers, as well as of us. The passage is the calming of the sea in Mark 4. Before looking at this, it is helpful to review the tension over Jesus' identity that Mark has already recorded, especially among members of the supernatural community:
  • In chapter 1, a demon identifies Jesus as "the Holy One of God" (v. 24), and the people, unbiased at this point, are "amazed" at his authority (v. 27).
  • Later in that same chapter, Jesus exorcises several demons from those possessed, "but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was" (v. 34)1
  • In chapter 3, whenever the demons see him, they fall down before him and cry out, "You are the Son of God" (v. 11).
  • Later in the same chapter, some religious leaders assert that he is driving out demons by the prince of demons, in fact, that "he is possessed" by a demon (v. 22).
At this point, the sides are drawn up: either Jesus is of God or of Satan. Those who are not already disposed against him—some of the people, the disciples, perhaps some of Mark's readers—have yet to decide. Does the next incident, the calming of the sea, help any of them to make their determination? Please turn to...

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Mark on Jesus (Mark 1:1-15)

MEASURES OF THE MESSIAH FROM MARK:
The Word about Jesus (Mark 1:1-15)
Dr. Paul Manuel—2014

Sometimes it takes a while before we have all the information we need to render a proper judgment.
A drunken cowboy lay sprawled across three entire seats in the posh Amarillo Theater. When the usher came by and noticed this, he whispered to the cowboy, "Sorry, sir, but you're only allowed one seat." The cowboy groaned but didn't budge. The usher became more impatient: "Sir, if you don't get up from there I'm going to have to call the manager." Once again, the cowboy just groaned. The usher marched briskly back up the aisle and, in a moment, he returned with the manager. Together the two of them tried repeatedly to move the cowboy, but with no success. Finally, they summoned the police. The Texas Ranger surveyed the situation briefly then asked, "All right buddy, what's your name?" "Sam," the cowboy moaned. "Where you from, Sam?" asked the Ranger. With pain in his voice Sam replied, " The balcony..."
It is easy to jump to conclusions about why a situation is the way it is. So it is best if we are able to gather enough information to see the big picture before we render a judgment. This is what Mark attempts to provide for his readers in the introduction to his gospel, enough of an overview so they can understand and respond to what they will read in the rest of the book.

Over the next four sessions, we will examine portions of Mark's gospel that confront everyone who would confess Jesus as the messiah.
  • Today, The Word about Jesus in the introduction to the book;
  • Next, The Wonder over Jesus in an important passage from the first part of the book (the calming of the sea);
  • Then, The Walk with Jesus in an important passage from the second part of the book (Jesus' warning about coming tensions); and
  • Finally, The Witness for Jesus in the conclusion of the book.
Mark's gospel is the shortest of the four, because he omits material that would be superfluous to his purpose:
  • He leaves out the birth of John the Baptist and ignores the genealogies and infancy stories, material that fills two chapters for both Matthew and Luke.
  • He condenses the baptism of Jesus and the temptation narrative so that his account is one-third the size of Matthew's and one-fifth the size of Luke's.
This same penchant for economy is evident in his introduction, where Mark offers four concise units anticipating issues that arise later in the book and that continue to concern believers today.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

When the Lord reacts (Amos 5b-9)

ADMONITIONS FROM AMOS:
When the Lord Reacts (Amos 5b-9)
Dr. Paul Manuel—2000

People who live in close contact are often aware of others' vulnerabilities. Kids, for example, know how to tease their siblings. They know just what button to push to get a reaction. My brother was particularly adept at this with our younger sister. At the dinner table, he had only to glance in her direction, and she would invariably whine: "Mom, he's lookin' at me. Tell him to stop." This ability to get a rise out of others is not confined to families but is also possible with total strangers.
While Bill and Tom were drinking coffee in an all-night café, they got into a discussion about the difference between irritation, aggravation, and frustration. At about one a.m., Bill said to Tom, "I'll show you an example of irritation." He went to the pay phone, put in a coin, and dialed a number at random. It rang several times. Finally, a sleepy voice answered, and Bill said, "I'd like to speak to Jones." "There's no one here named Jones," the disgruntled man replied and hung up the phone. "That," Bill said to Tom, "is a man who is irritated." An hour later, at two a.m., Bill dialed the same number and let it ring. Eventually, the same sleepy voice answered. "May I please speak with Jones?" Bill asked. "There's no one here named Jones!" the man replied angrily and a bit louder as he hung up. "That," Bill said to Tom, "is a man who is aggravated." An hour later, at three a.m., Bill said, "Now I'll show you an example of frustration." He dialed the same number again and let it ring. When the sleepy man answered, Bill said, "Hi, this is Jones.... Have there been any calls for me?" (Adapted from Wright 1985:27)
To some extent, the prophets use a similar strategy to get a rise out of their audience, to make them pay attention to the message, as Amos does in describing When the Lord Reacts.

The prophets' books are generally compressed accounts of their work, with little indication of how often they actually spoke or of how long they ministered.1 Amos opens with a call for Israel to repent, warning of dire consequences if the people exceed the limit of God's patience. Does the first half of Amos represent a day, a week, or a month of prophetic activity? How many people did his message reach? Amos probably did not present the material in a single session but spread it out over several days in order to reach as large an audience as possible. This gave his listeners opportunities to ask questions and to discuss his warnings. It also gave opponents the chance to argue against him.

At some point, however, the time for repentance runs out and, in the second half of the book, Amos relates a change in God's attitude as the people continue to reject God's appeal, so that...

I. When the LORD reacts, it means the people have sinned.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

When the Lord roars (Amos 1-5a)

ADMONITIONS FROM AMOS:
When the Lord Roars (Amos 1-5a)
Dr. Paul Manuel—2000

Among the increasing number of educational toys on the market today are several that make use of the latest technology. As with any such gadget, though, they are only as good as their programming.
Matthew's mother was watching her five-year-old work on his Speak-and-Spell computer. He was concentrating intensely, typing words for the computer to say back to him. When Matthew keyed the word God, to his surprise, the computer said, "Word not found." He tried again and received the same reply. With great disgust, he stared at the computer and told it in no uncertain terms, "God is not going to like this!" (Adapted from Rowell 1996:79)
The computer did not have God in its vocabulary. It is worse, however, for a nation not have God in its society, for then there is little restraint on behavior, and people think they can act as they please not matter what the consequence for others. That is a situation God likes even less. It is also what Amos faces as he travels north to relay the divine evaluation When the LORD Roars.

The tension that followed the division of Solomon's kingdom into north and south eventually dissipated as the rulers of Israel and Judah learned it was better not to be at each other's throats all the time. The peace they established allowed each country to concentrate on its own domestic interests and to establish a measure of economic prosperity. As one commentator notes, however, the prosperity of the Northern Kingdom did not extend to all its citizens.
Affluence, exploitation and the profit motive were the most notable features of the society which Amos observed and in which he worked. The rich were affluent enough to have several houses apiece (3:15), to go in for rather ostentatiously expensive furniture (6:4) and not to deny themselves any bodily satisfaction (3:12; 4:1; 6:6). On the other hand the poor were really poor and were shamelessly exploited: they suffered from property rackets (2:6, 7), legal rackets (5:10, 12) and business rackets (8:5) and the defenceless man with no influence came off worst every time. When the poor could not contribute to the rich they were simply ignored and left to be broken (6:6). Moneymaking and personal covetousness ruled all: the men lived for their offices (8:5), the women lived for excitement (4:1), the rulers lived for frivolity (6:1-6) (Motyer 1975:15).
This was the Northern Kingdom in the first half of the eighth century B.C. Both Israel under King Jeroboam II and Judah under King Uzziah experienced a period of growth while their common enemy, Assyria, turned elsewhere. Control over the trade routes and economic expansion provided a new wealth that overshadowed the values of a traditionally agricultural society. With affluence came a self-sufficiency that lessened the need to seek the direction of the LORD. This did not mean that religion was declining. On the contrary, people thronged the temples at Dan and Bethel.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas (Heb 2:17)

CHRISTMAS:
From the Crib to the Cross (Heb 2:17)
Dr. Paul Manuel—2005

Gratitude is not always a natural response to generosity, especially among children, who often receive things without giving any thought to their value.
One Christmas, the mother of three children decided that she was no longer going to remind them of their thank-you note duties. As a result, their grandmother never received acknowledgments of the generous checks she had given. Things were different, however, the following year. "The children came over in person to thank me," the grandmother told a friend triumphantly. "How wonderful!" her friend exclaimed. "They must be getting more mature." "I don't think that was the reason." the grandmother replied. "Then what caused the change in their behavior?" "This year...I didn't sign the checks."
Thankfully, when Jesus made atonement for our sin, he did not wait for us to express our appreciation but signed the check immediately, and with his very life.

God could have arranged for Jesus to appear on earth as an adult for the short period it would have taken to die, rise from the dead, then return to heaven. Instead, He had Jesus appear on earth as an infant, grow to manhood, and minister publicly for three years. That span of time From the Crib to the Cross gave us a greater appreciation of the sacrifice he made,1 as the author of Hebrews explains.
Heb 2:17 For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.
The author of Hebrews says that...

I. Jesus became a mortal like us.

...not by accident but by design. It was for a reason....
  • He was purposeful.
Jesus does not wander onto the scene of human history only to wander off again. He was a man on a mission, and it was not just to provide us with a good example, as some have suggested. The mission was clear from the very beginning.
  • When the angel informed Joseph about Mary's pregnancy, he explained what the boy would accomplish
Matt 1:21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."
  • When the disciples were arguing among themselves about which of them was greater, Jesus explained to them how their attitude was out of step with the purpose of his ministry.2
Mark 10:45 [= Matt 20:28] For...the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
This is highly unusual. How many people know the reason for their existence?

Monday, December 22, 2014

Christmas 2014


Dr. and Mrs. Paul Manuel
Christmas 20014

Dear Family and Friends,

All major appliances wear out. You hope the dishwasher or clothes dryer will last several years, and you may even purchase a service agreement to protect against costly repairs. There is a limit, though, to what such a contract will cover, and repeated use will eventually wear out any machine. Usually some clue will alert you when an appliance has reached the limit of its useful lifespan. The dishes are not getting very clean or the clothes are taking forever (it seems) to dry. At that point, you may need to retire the machine and replace it with a new one.

The hunt for a replacement often involves considering several factors: cost, features, and reviews by others who purchased the same unit. Eventually, you decide on the model to get, and you make the purchase, perhaps wondering how long it will last before you need to repeat the process yet again. (As you may guess, the process is what Linda and I went through this year, not just once but three times with three major appliances.)

As we approach the celebration of Christmas, it is with an appreciation that the message of the holiday, no matter how often we repeat it, never wears out. The proclamation of the angel to the shepherds, no matter how often we hear it, remains good news today.

I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you;
he is Christ the Lord.

Although we celebrate this commemoration of his birth every year, the author of Hebrews called what the incarnation accomplished a singular event.

He entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood,
having obtained eternal redemption.

In other words, we celebrate many times what only happened one time. That, of course, is the nature of birthdays: They mark repeatedly a unique occurrence—a particular person's entry into this world. The difference in Jesus' case, however, is that, unlike other birthdays, his birthday also marks a unique accomplishment—the salvation of that same world. Moreover, this singular accomplishment has had repercussions for people throughout history, even before his advent (as "the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world" Rev 13:8). No one else has ever had such a pervasive and permanent affect.

Unlike major appliances, all of which wear out at some point, Jesus' atonement, which his birthday portends, never wears out. Moreover, "he always lives to intercede for [us]" (Heb 7:25), an additional benefit we can experience all year. May the joy of his advent and the abiding effect of his atonement enhance your appreciation of the season. As the heavenly host declared that evening, "Glory to God in the highest."

Pastor and Linda

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving (Ps 116:12)

THANKSGIVING:
 Rendering Thanks (Ps 116:12)
Dr. Paul Manuel—2000

As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving this week, I thought it appropriate to look at one of the Thanksgiving Psalms, Ps 116, written not for our holiday but for use in the temple whenever someone wanted to express gratitude to God. We will consider just one verse.
Ps 116:12 What shall I render unto the LORD for all His benefits toward me? (KJV)
Reviewing God's benefits toward us is a good exercise, especially at Thanksgiving. A particularly appropriate hymn for this occasion is Count Your Blessings, because even when life is not the best, there are still many things for which we can be grateful, if we but take the time to look for them. Think for a few moments of the one thing God has done for you recently for which you are most thankful.... Now hold that thought.

In church, we have a time of praise and petition when, in addition to prayer requests, people can tell about how God has blessed them that week. The overwhelming majority of those sessions, though, is long on petitions and short on praise. Sometimes, we have no items of praise from the congregation. That must be when God is on vacation.

The psalmist is thankful that God delivered him from danger. He writes in v. 8: "You have rescued my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling." This is apparently just the latest in a series of good things because here, in v. 12, he speaks about "all [God's] benefits."1 What is unusual is that the psalmist does not simply relate his experience. He considers his response by asking, "What shall I render unto the LORD for all His benefits toward me?"2

Our normal response when He blesses us is simply to say, "Thank You, God." The psalmist realizes that is not enough. He must do more and, in the next two verses, mentions two things he will do, both of which will be a testimony to others of what God has done for him.
  • The first thing he will do is make a public declaration: "I shall lift up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the LORD" (v. 13).3
He is probably referring to the statement he will make as he pours a cup of wine on the altar to accompany his (votive or freewill) offering.4 He will tell the congregation about God's goodness to him. He will make a public declaration.
  • The second thing he will do is make a public demonstration: "I shall pay my vows to the LORD... in the presence of all His people" (v. 14).5
You hear stories about people in tough situations who say, "God, if you get me out of this jam, I'll...go to church faithfully every week." Perhaps you have even made such a promise. The problem with that kind of vow is that it is made in private (just between you and God) and—after the danger has passed—is rarely mentioned, let alone fulfilled, in public. The psalmist states that he will make good on his vow by showing others what he has promised as a way of proving the sincerity of his gratitude to God. He will make a public demonstration.
In a Peanuts cartoon strip, Lucy asks Charlie Brown for help with her homework. "I'll be eternally grateful," she promises. "Fair enough," replies Charlie. "I've never had anyone be eternally grateful before. Just subtract four from ten to get how many apples the farmer had left." "That's it!" Lucy exclaimed. "I have to be eternally grateful for that? I was robbed! I can't be eternally grateful for that. It was too easy." Deadpan, Charlie replies, "Well, whatever you think is fair." "How about if I just say, 'Thanks Bro?" Lucy offered. As Charlie goes outside, he meets Linus. "Where've you been Charlie Brown?" "Helping Lucy with her homework." "Did she appreciate it?" Linus asks. "Yes," Charlie Brown answered, "but at a greatly reduced price." (Adapted from Hodgin 1998:152)
I am not suggesting that you should make a sacrifice or a vow. But when God has done something for you, perhaps like that one thing you recalled for which you are most thankful, it may be appropriate to ask this question: "What shall I render unto the LORD for all His benefits toward me?"— something more than the reduced price of "Thank You, God."

For the Bibliography and Endnotes, see the pdf here.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving (Ps 67)

THANKSGIVING:
A Reason for the Request (Ps 67)
Dr. Paul Manuel—2003

We all have reasons why we do things a certain way, and we should be prepared to explain our rationale.
Jack and Mary visited their newly married daughter, who was preparing her first Thanksgiving dinner. Mary noticed the turkey thawing in the kitchen sink with a dish drainer inverted over the bird. When she asked why a drainer was covering the turkey, her daughter said, "Mom, you always did it that way." "Yes," Mary replied, "but you don't have a cat!"
We all have reasons why we do things a certain way, and we should be prepared to explain our rationale. That may apply to preparing a dinner for guests, and it certainly applies to submitting a petition before God. We must be ready to give Him A Reason for the Request.

The bulletin insert includes a translation of Ps 67, our text for the message.1 In each stanza of the poem, the psalmist makes a request, gives his reason for asking, then indicates what God's response should be.2 Ps 67 was probably a hymn used in congregational worship (see the frequent references to "us" and the repeated refrain). Except for one line, this could be a song for any occasion, but the first part of v. 6 distinguishes it as a hymn celebrating the harvest,3 and includes a request for future harvests as well.4

The poet leads up to that request indirectly, though, first by considering God's grace and God's government. That puzzled me. What do they have in common with the harvest? After some reflection, I realized that all three are aspects of God's providential care, ways in which He acts behind the scenes to work out His purposes and to benefit His people, not just once but on a regular basis:
  • Divine grace—in the constant outpouring of His favor,
  • Divine government—in the ongoing administration of His sovereignty, and
  • Divine goodness—here, in the annual provision of His bounty.
As Israel celebrates its thanksgiving, the author of this psalm has the congregation make three requests. His example can show us how we should pray when we celebrate our Thanksgiving, as well as at other times.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Thanksgiving (Ps 65)

THANKSGIVING:
Inspiration for Thanksgiving (Ps 65)
Dr. Paul Manuel—1999

It is good to see you all here this evening. Despite the busyness of tomorrow, you have chosen to begin the holiday by giving thanks together in God's presence. Not everyone, of course, shares your obvious priorities.
A mother was trying to convince her two children that attending the Thanksgiving Eve service was a time-honored tradition. They were simply excited about having the next day off from school and did not at all see the necessity or desirability of spending any of that time in church. To bolster her argument, she picked up a Thanksgiving card they had received. On the front was a pilgrim family in typical pilgrim garb walking toward a small wooden church. "See," she said, "even back in their day, children enjoyed going with their parents to church." The older of her two peered intently at the picture and replied, "Oh, yeah, then why is the dad carrying that rifle?" (Adapted from Samra 1997:183; 1998:73)
I have heard of a "shotgun wedding." This must be "shotgun worship." I trust you did not come under such coercion.

As we look for appropriate ways to express our adoration of God, including gratitude for His manifold blessing, one source of inspiration is the Psalms. In these Hebrew poems, written millennia ago, we find expressions of life's experiences that are often close to our own, and we might wish we knew their authors better. What were the trials and triumphs that motivated them to pen these words? The language is often so general that it could apply to many situations, which is, of course, why it appeals to us, because it could apply to our situation as well and offer us Inspiration for Thanksgiving.

In the early part of this century, two German scholars revolutionized the study of Psalms by bringing us closer to understanding their original setting.1 They proposed that most of these compositions fall into just a few categories and that these categories reflect the circumstances at the time the biblical authors were writing. These scholars also proposed that the writers intended their poems to be expressions of their own experience or that they wrote them for use by the community in the public assembly. One of the categories is called Psalms of Thanksgiving because in them the authors are conveying their gratitude for God's great goodness. It is not that the LORD has delivered them from an enemy or protected them from some natural calamity, but they recognize His blessing to them in the ordinary course of life.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Thanksgiving (1 Chr 16:41)

THANKSGIVING:
The Tradition of Giving Thanks (1 Chr 16:41)
Dr. Paul Manuel—2005

The holidays are often times for families to get together. When children grow up and move away, such times become more precious but also more precarious, as the busyness of life can cause us to neglect those important occasions.
A father in Florida calls his son in New York and says to him, "I hate to tell you, but we've got some troubles here in the house. Your mother and I can't stand each other anymore, and I've had it! I want to live out the rest of my years in peace. I'm telling you now, so you and your sisters won't go into shock later when I move out." He hangs up, and the son immediately calls his sisters in Illinois to tell them the news. The oldest says, "I'll handle this." She calls Florida and says to her father, "Don't do anything till we all get there! We'll be there Wednesday night." The father agrees, hangs up the phone, and turns to his wife, "Okay, they're coming for Thanksgiving.... Now, what are we going to tell them for Christmas?"
We must not lose sight of what God has given us, through family, friends, or in other ways, and we must express and demonstrate to Him our gratitude.

The apostle Paul, by example and by exhortation, repeatedly stresses in his letters the importance of thanksgiving. He is full of gratitude for the many blessings God has given to him and to his readers.1
Rom 6:17 [T]hanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed [sound] teaching....
I Cor 1:4 I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus.
2 Thess 2:13 [We] thank God for you...because from the beginning God chose you to be saved....
He also calls upon the churches to express their own gratitude for God's manifold goodness.2
Eph 5:19b Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, 20 always giving thanks to God the Father for everything....
Phil 4:6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
1 Thess 5:18 [G]ive thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you....

Love that sends (John 3:16-17)

GREAT EXPRESSIONS OF GOD'S LOVE:
In the Gospels—Love that Sends (John 3:16-17)1
Dr. Paul Manuel—2005

To avoid unnecessary strife in a marriage, it is best to reach an agreement when it comes to making expensive purchases, even when it involves a gift from one partner to the other.
A woman was especially attracted to a new outfit she had seen in the mall but knew that her husband would not agree to her purchasing it. Still, she could not get it out of her mind. Whether she was driving in the car or doing laundry, she thought about that outfit. After having dreamt about it one night, she decided to approach her husband. "I had a wonderful dream last night," she said. "In it, you gave me $200 to buy a new outfit. I was thrilled. Because you love me, I know you wouldn't want to do anything to spoil a perfect dream like that?" "Of course not," her husband replied... "Keep the $200." (Adapted from Hodgin 1998:145)
Far more significant than a new outfit is what God gave in the person of His son. It is one of the Great Expressions of God's Love, recounted In the Gospels—Love that Sends.

One of the most familiar exchanges in the gospels is the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus in John 3. It is also one of the most puzzling, at least for Nicodemus. He comes to Jesus on behalf of others who are interested in what this rabbi has to say, recognizing that he represents God.
John 3:2c For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.
In response, Jesus wastes no time on polite conversation but gets right to point he
wishes to make.
John 3:3 ...Jesus declared, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."
Whatever Nicodemus hoped to learn, he probably did not expect it to include the suggestion that his entry to God's kingdom was in question, that he might need something more than what he already had.

In the first century, there were several erroneous views in circulation about how a person secured salvation.
  • According to one view, the right genes (not jeans) get you into heaven. If you come from good parentage, specifically Jewish stock, your salvation is guaranteed. But...
Matt 3:7a ...when [John the Baptist] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them... 8 "Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 ...do not.., say ...'We have Abraham as our father.' I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham."
The right genes do not get you into heaven.