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


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)

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)

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.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

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

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)

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)

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.