April 9 “Evidence”

Evidence

In prison, it must be difficult to maintain one’s perspective.
When Jesus left Galilee heading south to preach in the cities of Israel, the news of His ministry spread before Him like waves of hope on a troubled sea. John, wasting away it seemed in Herod’s prison, heard through his disciples who came to visit him about the wonderful things Jesus was doing and saying.

We are not told why, but something about all of this troubled John, the once prominent forerunner of Messiah. Perhaps he expected a political revolution in addition to the spiritual one taking place. Somehow a shadow of doubt came into his mind about the One he had baptized in the Jordan, the One he had proclaimed to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He sent two of his disciples to investigate. They found Jesus and spoke for John,

“Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?”

We can sense the despair of the dungeon in this inquiry. Jesus understood John’s fears; it seems Messiah was a surprise even to His forerunner! His answer was one of evidence. Tell John,

“The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them.”

These ministries were the true evidence of the true Messiah: healing, deliverance, new life, and the sound of the Good News in the ears of the downtrodden. This was the promised revolution of Isaiah. Jesus continued with a blessing for John,

“And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.”

In other words, “Do not be offended, John! Your work is done. All is going according to the plan of the Father.”

No Greater Prophet
Jesus went on to testify to the multitude about John, asking the people what they went out to the wilderness to see—a show? A freak of nature? A man in funny clothes? A prophet? Yes, a prophet—a man in your time, speaking the words of God Himself! John was the Messenger going before Messiah calling for a time of preparation. There had been no greater prophet than John for his message was the final one before the time of Messiah.

John the Baptizer marked a turning point in history—the end of the Old Covenant and the beginning of the New. Prior to this, God’s blessings were passed through the nation of Israel, but the New Covenant would be one of opportunity for all. All who wished to violently cut personal ties to pagan religions will be able to seize the Kingdom of God. All who would claim Christ as King, even at the great cost of discipleship, must divorce themselves from the old ways and drink deeply of this New Wine. In this Kingdom, the least will be the greatest, even greater than John because the New Covenant will be one of power to the meek.

Back in the Cell
We are not told of the return of John’s two disciples and their report to their leader. I imagine the evidence they brought, relieved his mind. He had fulfilled his calling. The glory of the Lord spoken of by Isaiah was beginning to shine in the path of Jesus. The dark skies of history were beginning to glow with a new dawning of hope. Perhaps there was one little window with bars too far over John’s head to offer escape but close enough to allow a haft of hazy light to penetrate John’s confinement. As the sun moved across the sky and the shaft of light moved through the cell, when it illumined John’s face, it found there a deep smile.

Scriptures:
Matthew 11:1-42
Now it came to pass, when Jesus finished commanding His twelve disciples, that He departed from there to teach and to preach in their cities. And when John had heard in prison about the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples and said to Him, “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?” Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.” As they departed, Jesus began to say to the multitudes concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Indeed, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet. For this is he of whom it is written: “Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, Who will prepare Your way before You.'”Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!
Isaiah 61:1-3
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, Because the Lord has anointed Me To preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives, And the opening of the prison to those who are bound; To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, And the day of vengeance of our God; To comfort all who mourn, To console those who mourn in Zion, To give them beauty for ashes, The oil of joy for mourning, The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; That they may be called trees of righteousness, The planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.”

Prayer:
Lord Jesus, You are the Lord of those who are discouraged! You do not upbraid us or scold us when we lose hope for a while. You remember our frame, that we are only human. When these times come, help me pause to consider the evidence: You are faithful. You are good. You are merciful. You have called me. You empower me. You watch over me and protect me from evil. My hope is in Your strength, not mine. The story is not over! I have a job to do to please You and I can do it in Your name! Thank You, Lord! Amen.

Song:
We Declare the Kingdom of God Is Here
Words and Music: Graham Kendrick

We declare that the Kingdom of God is here.
We declare that the Kingdom of God is here.
Among you, Among you!

The blind see! The deaf hear!
The lame men are walking!
Sicknesses flee at His voice!
The dead live again And the poor hear
The good news. Jesus is King so rejoice.

We declare that the Kingdom of God is here.
We declare that the Kingdom of God is here.
Among you, Among you!

Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer

© 2018 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved

March 7 “Forerunner”

Forerunner

When the time came for Jesus to begin His earthly ministry, God sent a man ahead of Him to prepare the way.
His name was John. From other sources we learn that he was a cousin of Jesus. His father, Zacharius, was a member of the faithful remnant of priests in the Temple who were looking for Messiah. He was born to Zacharius and his mother Elizabeth in the later years of their lives—a miraculous birth. When Mary learned of her pregnancy, she visited Elizabeth and the Spirit of God filled the older woman when the child within her leapt at the sound of Mary’s voice. When both boys were grown into men, their lives would intersect in the waters of the Jordan River.

John the Forerunner
Jesus grew up in the north, in Galilee, separated from the apostasy and appeasement in the south in Jerusalem. John grew up in the south, an eyewitness to the sins of the nation and her leadership. He was filled with the Spirit from his mother’s womb. This equipped him with an awareness of the spiritual aspects of life. The sins of the nation and the wickedness of the entrenched leadership in the Temple propelled him to the desert. He abandoned the accepted norms of dress, preferring simple camel’s hair and a leather belt to cover his body. He fasted from a normal diet, preferring locusts and wild honey. The Spirit within him compelled him to speak, to cry out to an apostate nation to return to God. Repentance became his message, simple and direct with no ornamental soft pedaling. He waded into the Jordan River inviting those convicted by his message to join him there and plunge beneath the water as a public act of contrition. With no publicity, and no organization, people came and repented and were baptized.

His words spoken in the desert were repeated in the city to the discomfort of the political leaders. He was quoted in the Temple to the disturbance of the scribes and priests in their various sects and divisions. His call for repentance was heard by hungry souls and by angry men who saw him as a threat to their precious hold on power.

Repentance
John’s message began with repentance of sin but went well beyond that. His was a call to preparation for what God was about to do. He quoted the prophet Isaiah who predicted that the glory of the Lord would be revealed and they would see it. How this must have stirred the souls of the faithful remnant who were longing for Messiah and how it must have alarmed those whose hope was in the status quo. Something new was about to happen—get ready for it! Their God who was so active in their history was on the move in their day. Repentance meant more than being sorry for sins. It meant bringing down mountains of pride, building up valleys of apathy, straightening crooked roads of evil conduct, and smoothing out rough paths of carelessness. It meant changing the way you lived and thought. It meant opening up to the ways of God and putting away the ways of the flesh. It meant a new time was upon them, not one of God’s wrath, but one of God’s blessing and they could be a part of it if they chose to be.

Isaiah and John still speak today through the pages of Scripture. Repentance is still the start of a new life in God.

Scriptures:
Matthew 3:1-6
In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord ; Make His paths straight.'” Now John himself was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.
Isaiah 40:1-9
“Comfort, yes, comfort My people!” Says your God. “Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, That her warfare is ended, That her iniquity is pardoned; For she has received from the Lord ‘s hand Double for all her sins.” The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord; Make straight in the desert A highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted And every mountain and hill brought low; The crooked places shall be made straight And the rough places smooth; The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, And all flesh shall see it together; For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” The voice said, “Cry out!” And he said, “What shall I cry?” “All flesh is grass, And all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, Because the breath of the Lord blows upon it; Surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, But the word of our God stands forever.” O Zion, You who bring good tidings, Get up into the high mountain; O Jerusalem, You who bring good tidings, Lift up your voice with strength, Lift it up, be not afraid; Say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!”

Prayer:
Lord Jesus, the words of Isaiah and John the Baptist still sound in my heart. I must prepare for the days ahead. Help me bring down the mountains in my mind that exalt themselves against Your plan for my life. I want to build up the deep valleys of my ignorance of Your Word and Your ways. Lord, my ways are often rough; smooth them, Lord. Holy Spirit where the road I have taken causes me to veer off the path, straighten me up! Lord, I want to see Your glory revealed to all. Make my life Your highway through this desert! Amen and Amen.

Song:
Just As I Am
Words: Charlotte Elliot; Music: William B. Bradbury

1. Just as I am, without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me,
and that thou bidd’st me come to thee, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

2. Just as I am, and waiting not to rid my soul of one dark blot,
to thee, whose blood can cleanse each spot, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

3. Just as I am, though tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt,
fightings and fears within, without, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

4. Just as I am, thou wilt receive, wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
because thy promise I believe, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer

© 2018 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved

September 13, 2018 “Bridegroom”

Bridegroom

Ideally, there are many kinds of joy at a wedding.
There is the joy of the bride and groom, so much in love, yet having preserved the expression of that love for this moment. There is the tearful joy of the parents of the couple, counting the days and years backward to remember the little girl and the little boy. Childhood images are gone forever except in memory and will soon be reflected again in the faces of the children to come from this union.

“Friend of the Bridegroom”
There is also the joy of the friends of the happy couple. John the Baptist referred to himself as the “friend of the Bridegroom.” His was not the spotlight. His role was to stand in the shadow of the husband-to-be. As John joyfully fulfilled this introductory role his followers did not understand. As the focus of the nation shifted from John to Jesus, John’s disciples were afraid for him. If their leader lost face, it somehow felt like a loss for them as well.

A Place of Much Water
When two prophets are abroad in the wilderness preaching and baptizing converts, an unplanned meeting was inevitable. In a place ideal for their ministries both Jesus and John were doing their work; Jesus preaching and His disciples baptizing. Prior to this, the leaders from Jerusalem disputed with the disciples of John about some theological aspect of purification. We are not told what the issue was, but it is easy to imagine the priests would not be pleased that John offered forgiveness for sin without going through the established agents of forgiveness. In the process of reporting this, some of John’s men mentioned that Jesus was preaching nearby.

“Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified — behold,
He is baptizing, and all are coming to Him!”

John’s men were good men. They needed an understanding from John about how to deal with Jesus and His disciples. The natural assumption would be that He was a rival. Most likely, they were ready to fight for the honor due unto their leader.

Stepping Aside
John rushed to assure his men that He was not jealous of Jesus or His growing popularity. John had never claimed to be Messiah. He had made it clear that he was only the Forerunner. He tried to take the occasion to explain how the call of God worked in someone’s life.

“A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven.”

The Kingdom God is not a place for competition among leaders. Each of us must determine the calling God has given to us and get busy fulfilling that call. We work together in this Kingdom; we do not compete with each other. John reminded them of what he had always said,

“You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but,
‘I have been sent before Him.’”

His men were quiet, each man trying to tamp down his natural competitive instincts. Wasn’t life all about competition? Every man needs an edge… John interrupted their thoughts.

“He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice.”

Quiet ensued with only the sounds of the wilderness to accompany the diminishing lines of those waiting to be baptized by John.

“Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled.”

John smiled the smile of a man whose best friend was getting married.

Scriptures:
John 3:22-29

After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He remained with them and baptized. Now John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there. And they came and were baptized. For John had not yet been thrown into prison. Then there arose a dispute between some of John’s disciples and the Jews about purification. And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified — behold, He is baptizing, and all are coming to Him!” John answered and said, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent before Him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is fulfilled.

Prayer:
Lord Jesus, You have placed a call on my life; You have given me work to do. Help me to never be confused by what You have called others to do. I must take joy in their faithfulness even if they seem to outshine me. Your approval is my heart’s desire, not the applause of others. Help me to be so caught up in what You have called me to do that I can only rejoice in the success of others. I want to be a good team member, Lord, doing my part well and enjoying the fellowship of the team. Amen.

Song:
We Will Stand

Words and Music: Russ and Tori Taff

1. Sometimes it’s hard for me to understand
Why we pull away from each other so easily
Even though we’re all walking the same road
Yet we build dividing walls between our brothers and ourselves

2. But I, I don’t care what label you may wear
If you believe in Jesus you belong with me
The bond we share is all I care to see
And we can change this world forever
If you will join with me, join and sing

Refrain:
Oh you’re my brother, you’re my sister
So take me by the hand
Together we will work until He comes
There’s no foe that can defeat us
When we’re walking side by side
As long as there is love we will stand

3.The day will come when we will be as one
And with a mighty voice together
We will proclaim that Jesus, Jesus is King
And it will echo through the earth
It will shake the nations and the world will see, see that

Refrain

Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer

© 2018 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved

June 4, 2018 “John”

John

Friends and relatives of Elizabeth were concerned for her health.
As the time for her child to be born approached, Elizabeth’s wellbeing was the topic of much conversation and nearly as much prayer for her safety. In those days a young woman went terribly close to death’s door to give birth. No one knew how the ordeal would affect a woman of Elizabeth’s advanced years. Poor Zacharias was unable to speak for the whole term.

John Is Born.
When the time finally came, all the resources, including prayer, of a village full of priests and their families were brought to bear. God was merciful to Elizabeth and the child came with no more trouble than a normal birth at a normal age.

Eight days later when Zacharias and Elizabeth presented the child at the Temple for dedication, more than the usual crowd gathered to honor this miracle child. Someone suggested they name him after this father. Elizabeth corrected them: His name would be John. Since no one in the family was named John, protestors took the matter to the boy’s father. Crude sign language communicated the dilemma to the priest. He asked for a writing table and settled the question. His name would be John. Immediately the old man’s tongue was loosed and he began to praise God. Making up for lost time, it was as if a dam had burst as praise gushed from the lips of Zacharias.

The Holy Spirit
As these pent-up rivers of adoration flowed, Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit. This was the New Wine Jesus would preach about later. It was a foretaste of the new joy and freedom of a New Covenant. With the power of the Holy Spirit, the praise of Zacharias became prophesy. The people listened in amazement, wondering what kind of man this John might be. If they had listened to his father’s prophesy, they would have heard.

The Song of Zacharias
The old priest, perhaps with his 8-day old son in his arms, began to prophesy

  • of salvation to come to the House of David,
  • of the defeat of the enemies of the nation,
  • of a renewal of the Covenant, and
  • of holiness and righteousness restored to the land.

This child would be the prophet of the Highest going before the face of the Lord

  • to prepare His ways,
  • to give knowledge of salvation and the remission of sins, and
  • to announce the tender mercies of the Lord.

John would announce the coming of “The Dayspring from on High,” “the Bright and Morning Star” who would give light to those who sit in darkness. He would guide the feet of the faithful in the way of peace.

Preparing the Way
While Jesus was still being knit together in Mary’s womb, His prophet and forerunner had already brought revival to the Temple. His whole life would be given to this single, demanding mission: to quote Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” Build Him a highway in this wilderness that the glory of the Lord may be revealed. The plan was underway. Events were unfolding that had never happened before. The Morning Star was rising.

Scriptures:
Luke: 1:57-80
Now Elizabeth’s full time came for her to be delivered, and she brought forth a son. When her neighbors and relatives heard how the Lord had shown great mercy to her, they rejoiced with her. So it was, on the eighth day, that they came to circumcise the child; and they would have called him by the name of his father, Zacharias. His mother answered and said, “No; he shall be called John.” But they said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who is called by this name.” So they made signs to his father — what he would have him called. And he asked for a writing tablet, and wrote, saying, “His name is John.” So they all marveled. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, praising God. Then fear came on all who dwelt around them; and all these sayings were discussed throughout all the hill country of Judea. And all those who heard them kept them in their hearts, saying, “What kind of child will this be?” And the hand of the Lord was with him. Now his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying: “Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, For He has visited and redeemed His people, And has raised up a horn of salvation for us In the house of His servant David, As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets, Who have been since the world began, That we should be saved from our enemies And from the hand of all who hate us, To perform the mercy promised to our fathers And to remember His holy covenant, The oath which He swore to our father Abraham: To grant us that we, Being delivered from the hand of our enemies, Might serve Him without fear, In holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life. “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Highest; For you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways, To give knowledge of salvation to His people By the remission of their sins, Through the tender mercy of our God, With which the Dayspring from on high has visited us; To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, To guide our feet into the way of peace.” So the child grew and became strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his manifestation to Israel.

Prayer:
Lord Jesus, even though he has left the scene, the ministry of John the Baptist must continue. Help me lift up his cry, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” So much of following You is preparation. Help me be faithful to the ministry of preparation today. I want to fill in the deep, empty valleys and bring down the proud mountains that exalt themselves against You. I want to be straight when the world is crooked and smooth when the world rides rough. I want to see Your glory revealed! Amen and Amen.

Song:
Comfort Ye / Every Valley / And the Glory of the Lord

Words: Isaiah; Music: G. F. Handel from “Messiah”

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her,
that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. . . .

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness,
Prepare ye the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low,
the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.

And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together:
for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.

Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer

© 2018 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved