March 16, 2017

 

Testimonies

A testimony is a story—a true story.
In court we have to swear that the testimony we are about to give is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. To tell a lie after such an oath is a crime called perjury.

A testimony is also a witness—a faithful witness.
The same oaths and principles apply to the words of witness as to the details of the narrative.

The Psalmists say things like this:

  • “Blessed are those who keep His testimonies, who seek Him with the whole heart! (Ps 119:2 NKJV) and,
  • “Your testimonies are very sure; Holiness adorns Your house, O Lord, forever.” (Ps 93:5 NKJV)

In this season of the year we tell and tell again the story of a death that gives life—the Jesus Story.

All year we celebrate the thrilling parts of the story:

  • the trio of songs from angels, shepherds, and wise men as they praised Jesus as a child,
  • the new wine at the wedding that moments before was just water,
  • the healings and deliverances,
  • the debates with the Pharisees when they never had a chance against Jesus,
  • the incredible personal moments He shared with individuals—Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, the adulterous woman, Mary of Bethany,
  • the crowds that followed Him, hungering for every word of life and getting a miraculous lunch in the bargain,
  • the amazing impenetrable words falling to the foot of the mountain about a new way of living, a way peace and love that deals with turning cheeks, burdens carried the extra mile, and love and prayers for our enemies,
  • the transfiguring moment on another mountain when the veil of flesh that hid His glory fell for a few minutes as He spoke with Moses and Elijah,
  • His resurrection power at the tomb of Lazarus, and on and on the testimonies from the witnesses go.

These days it is time to speak of other scenes in the story:

  • His last meal with friends before His passion,
  • the passion with all its pain and promise,
  • the cross, the cruel crown, the nails, the spear, the storm, the shaking earth, and the silence,
  • the weeping women, and the faithful men, and
  • the borrowed tomb.

We will never know such rejection, such pain, but we seek in these weeks to identify with Jesus.

How can we do this?

We tell the story again and again because it is true. It is our sworn testimony. Even all these centuries later we, too, are faithful witnesses to its truth.

Scripture:
Psalm 119:121-144 NKJV
I have done justice and righteousness; Do not leave me to my oppressors. Be surety for Your servant for good; Do not let the proud oppress me. My eyes fail from seeking Your salvation And Your righteous word. Deal with Your servant according to Your mercy, And teach me Your statutes. I am Your servant; Give me understanding, That I may know Your testimonies. It is time for You to act, O Lord, For they have regarded Your law as void. Therefore I love Your commandments More than gold, yes, than fine gold! Therefore all Your precepts concerning all things I consider to be right; I hate every false way. Your testimonies are wonderful; Therefore my soul keeps them. The entrance of Your words gives light; It gives understanding to the simple. I opened my mouth and panted For I longed for Your commandments. Look upon me and be merciful to me ,As Your custom is toward those who love Your name. Direct my steps by Your word, And let no iniquity have dominion over me. Redeem me from the oppression of man, That I may keep Your precepts. Make Your face shine upon Your servant, And teach me Your statutes. Rivers of water run down from my eyes, Because men do not keep Your law. Righteous are You, O Lord, And upright are Your judgments. Your testimonies, which You have commanded, Are righteous and very faithful. My zeal has consumed me, Because my enemies have forgotten Your words. Your word is very pure; Therefore Your servant loves it. I am small and despised, Yet I do not forget Your precepts. Your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, And Your law is truth. Trouble and anguish have overtaken me, Yet Your commandments are my delights. The righteousness of Your testimonies is everlasting; Give me understanding, and I shall live

Prayer of Confession:
The Apostles’ Creed
The Book of Common Prayer
I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy universal Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

Song:
I Love to Tell the Story
Words: Kate Hankey; Music: William G. Fischer

1. I love to tell the story of unseen things above,
of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love.
I love to tell the story, because I know ’tis true;
it satisfies my longings as nothing else could do.

Refrain:
I love to tell the story; ’twill be my theme in glory
to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.

2. I love to tell the story; ’tis pleasant to repeat
what seems, each time I tell it, more wonderfully sweet.
I love to tell the story, for some have never heard
the message of salvation from God’s own holy Word.

Refrain

3. I love to tell the story, for those who know it best
seem hungering and thirsting to hear it, like the rest.
And when, in scenes of glory, I sing the new, new song,
’twill be the old, old story that I have loved so long.

Refrain

Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer

© 2017 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved

March 15, 2017

Rejected

A Pervasive Fear
How many great novels lie hidden on hard drives, never submitted to a publisher? How many fine actors find something else to do when auditions for a great play with a part just right for them is announced? How many wonderful songs are packed away in guitar cases under beds somewhere? Who can tell the number of really good singers with great hearts for God who sit in the congregation instead of joining the choir or worship team because to do so would require the risk of an audition or interview?

The cause of all these wasted treasures is the fear of rejection.

Nothing hurts the sensitive person quite like being rejected. When the rejection seems unfair or unkind the hurt goes even deeper. I knew of a worship team of excellent singers and players who were taken off the church platform to make room for professionals. They went to a different ministry in the same church and called themselves, “The Rejects.”

It takes courage to put yourself out there for some expert to judge. At the very best is unpleasant for both the one auditioning and ones doing the judging. At the worst it can be a sickening ordeal for everyone involved. Talent must be found. Competent artists must have a pathway into a system that will need their abilities. The risk of being rejected is real and unavoidable.

Not for artists only
The fear of rejection is not limited to the arts; each one of us must take the risk of being rejected as we walk through life. Elementary schools try to manage the pain of the students who are not selected by giving everyone a trophy. OK. But the kids who did poorly know they did poorly. The teams that scored the fewest points somehow know they lost the game. Rejection, being listed among the losers, is a fact of life for just about everyone at some time.

The risk of not being chosen extends beyond school years to all of life:

  • Finding someone to date,
  • Applying for Jobs,
  • Interviewing for jobs,
  • Seeking promotion on the job,
  • Getting credit for a major purchase,
  • Sitting first chair in the community band, and so on.

The fearful among us will shrink to the background to avoid any risk of rejection that isn’t absolutely necessary.

“He was rejected.”
The pre-incarnate Jesus knew that when He laid aside His heavenly crown and came to live among us, He was entering the painful realm of inevitable rejection.

  • As a carpenter, I am sure some patrons rejected His shop for the one down the street.
  • As a family member Jesus was rejected by His brothers and sisters until after the resurrection. After the death of Joseph only His mother was true to Him.
  • He traveled among the people with healing in His touch, authority in His words, and the creative power in His prayer to feed a multitude a good lunch. The next day, most of them rejected Him.
  • He walked into the Temple of the Father and found rejection from the leaders—rejection—hostility—slander—and finally a death plot.
  • In the Garden of prayer His sleepy disciples were unable to watch with Him for even an hour and when the soldiers came Peter and the rest of them ran away.
  • No one spoke to His defense in the trials that night.
  • On the cross, when laden with the sin of all mankind, even the Father could not look upon Him.
  • He was totally alone.

The reality is that for all of us there will be

  • parts we actors don’t get,
  • ensembles we musicians cannot join,
  • jobs and the raises that we do not qualify for, and
  • a multitude of little rejections that make us tremble and hide from the potential pain.

Nothing we experience will ever come close the rejection Jesus knew.

Why? Because He loves us and because He came to share our pain so that, when we believe in Him, He can share with us His victory. We will be accepted by Him.

Scriptures:
Isaiah 53:3-5 NIV
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.

Prayer:
from The Book of Common Prayer
Lord Jesus Christ, You stretched out Your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of Your saving embrace: So clothe us in Your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know You to the knowledge and love of You; for the honor of your Name. Amen.

Song:
Hallelujah, What a Savior!
Words and Music: P.P. Bliss

1. Man of sorrows what a name for the Son of God, who came
ruined sinners to reclaim: Hallelujah, what a Savior!

2. Bearing shame and scoffing rude, in my place condemned he stood,
sealed my pardon with his blood: Hallelujah, what a Savior!

3. Guilty, helpless, lost were we; blameless Lamb of God was he,
sacrificed to set us free: Hallelujah, what a Savior!

4. He was lifted up to die; “It is finished” was his cry;
now in heaven exalted high: Hallelujah, what a Savior!

5. When he comes, our glorious King, all his ransomed home to bring,
then anew this song we’ll sing: Hallelujah, what a Savior!

Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer

© 2017 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved

March 8, 2017

Innocence

Innocence can be shocking.
The preponderance of guilt in the world has conditioned us to expect hidden sin in everyone, to watch our backs in even the most polite company, and to suspect that what is going on is not what is really going on.

Then suddenly innocence appears before us:

  • A child with wide eyes and a wider smile, looking at us is if we might be innocent,
  • A pure-hearted person who without effort invites our trust,
  • A strong man who can weep without condescension for those who are weak,
  • A wounded healer whose scars can only be seen in kindness and strength.

The earth has seen such a shocking display of innocence before.

Jesus, the Innocent
Innocence came to the Temple as a 12 year old boy asking questions of the elders and giving answers to their questions. Innocence came to John in the Jordan, demanding to be baptized in repentance for sins he had not committed. John complied only when he understood that it was a baptism to fulfill all righteousness. Innocence was driven into the wilderness by the Spirit of God for more than a month of the most severe testing. Face to face with evil, Innocence spoke His Father’s words and a guilty devil had to slink away, defeated.

Innocence walked the earth in power and gentleness. Children came to Him instinctively, sensing without hesitation the warmth of His presence and the safety of His arms. The guilty shrank from Him, but not far. What remained in them of the Creator’s likeness drew them to proximity to the innocence they had long ago lost. Sinners found Him kind. Hypocrites found Him angry  with a whip or with stinging words, but His anger bore no malice toward them—only a commanding desire that the evil in them be stayed.

The brilliant found Innocence to be more so. The impaired somehow shared His strength. The lonely sensed He was a friend and companion. The abandoned felt as if they had been found. The blind could see truth in His voice. The deaf could hear life in His eyes. The sick found the strength to press through the crowd for a simple, healing touch. Soldiers could see the authority of Innocence. Politicians could see that Innocence was not fooled by the show.

Yet innocence could not restrain Judas in his scheme. The Temple guards muscled Him in the Garden and the guilty men who loved Him ran away. Innocence did not soften the bite of the nails in the Roman whips as they tore into the flesh on His back. Nor did it cushion the crush of the thorny crown they jammed onto His Head. The fists of His tormentors broke through His innocence and found their mark time and again. The insults of the crowd fell like cruel stones against His innocent heart as nails pierced hands that had never shed blood and feet that had never strayed.

And, most amazing of all, Innocence died.

It was not the end of the story, for Innocence would live again and Jesus the Christ would share His innocence with us.

Scriptures:
Psalm 26:1-8 NIV
Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have led a blameless life; I have trusted in the Lord without wavering. Test me, O Lord, and try me, examine my heart and my mind; for your love is ever before me, and I walk continually in your truth. I do not sit with deceitful men, nor do I consort with hypocrites; I abhor the assembly of evildoers and refuse to sit with the wicked. I wash my hands in innocence, and go about your altar, O Lord, proclaiming aloud your praise and telling of all your wonderful deeds. I love the house where you live, O Lord, the place where your glory dwells.
Psalm 19:12-14 NIV
Who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me. Then will I be blameless, innocent of great transgression. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.
Hebrews 4:14-16 NKJV
Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
John 19:16 NIV
Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.

Prayer:
(from the Book of Common Prayer)
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.

Song:
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
Words: Isaac Watts; Music: Traditional

1. When I survey the wondrous cross,
On which the Prince of glory died.
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

2. Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ, my God.
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

3. See, from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown.

4. Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer

© 2017 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved

March 4, 2017

Forsaken

Turning Points
They are not easily forgotten though at the moment they occur their significance might not be clearly seen. After an initial season of acceptance when crowds came to marvel at His words and deeds such a turning point in the earthly ministry of Jesus happened out it the wilderness of Galilee. The day after He famously fed the multitude Jesus attempted to make spiritual sense of this material miracle. The disappointed crowds turned away from Him and the downward spiral of forsaking began its inevitable plunge toward Calvary. The crowd broke up and wandered away, still hungry but contemptuous of His message: “I am the Bread of Heaven!” They did not know they needed Him more than another fish dinner.

Heart-broken, Jesus turned to the twelve to ask what must have been a painful question: “Will you also go away?”

Peter swallowed hard as he and the other chosen ones exchanged desperate glances. He said what needed to be said. “Lord to whom would we turn? You have the words of life. You are the Christ!”

Only a Few
So a multitude forsook Him and twelve men chose to follow on with Him. This was the beginning of His forsakenness. Even his own family, except of course for His mother, turned away from Him, refusing to believe. They asked Him to leave Galilee and head south to Judea, out of their hair and no longer a family embarrassment.

How it must have hurt to work miracles that ended the pain of the possessed, the poisoned, the paralyzed, the fearful and the frail with no relief for the pain in His heart. His smiles at these joyful deliverances hid the pain inside Him at the rejection of the religious leaders.

In the Season of Lent We Seek to Share His Pain.
This season of the Christian Year invites us to read the Psalms that describe the pain of being forsaken. This is a deep sort of rejection because it comes along after one has encountered Christ—professing interest and perhaps even love. But unexpected events or unpleasant lessons rub us the wrong way and we decide to abandon Him.

The crowds, His half-brothers and half-sisters, His former patrons in the carpenter’s shop, and the leaders of His faith, all forsook Him. Some even made the unbelievable journey from follower to detractor to enemy.

In Gethsemane’s garden even His Disciples could not watch with Him, letting sleep, perhaps with their bellies full from the Last Supper, overcome them.

He was alone: forsaken.

And thus He would be until He bowed His head to give up the ghost on the Cross.

In this He fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah Jesus must have memorized as a boy in the Synagogue at Nazareth. “We hid our faces from Him.”

We must not repeat this injustice today. We must turn our faces toward Him.

Scriptures:
Isaiah 53:1-6 NKJ
Who has believed our report?…He is despised and rejected by men, A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him… All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way; And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
John 6:61-7:5 NIV
When Jesus knew in Himself that His disciples complained about this, He said to them, …The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who would betray Him. … From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more. Then Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you also want to go away?” But Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the twelve, and one of you is a devil?” He spoke of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, for it was he who would betray Him, being one of the twelve. After these things Jesus walked in Galilee; for He did not want to walk in Judea, because the Jews sought to kill Him. Now the Jews’ Feast of Tabernacles was at hand. His brothers therefore said to Him, “Depart from here and go into Judea… For even His brothers did not believe in Him.
Hebrews 12:22-24 NIV
…you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant,

Prayer:
Lord Jesus, You are no longer forsaken; You occupy the Throne of Heaven. Thousands of angels in joyful assembly sing and play the music of Your praise. In an immense gallery witnesses, some who bear my family name, join the song of the angels. It seems I can hear them now: sweet voices from earth who overcame by the Blood of the Lamb and the Word of Their testimony harmonizing with the hosts of eternity. Help me always turn toward You in prayer. Help me to follow You and never again forsake You. Amen.

Song:
O for a Thousand Tongues
Words: Charles Wesley; Music: Carl Glazer

1. O for a thousand tongues to sing My Great Redeemer’s praise,
The glories of my God and King, The triumphs of His grace.

2. Jesus! The Name that charms our fears, That bids our sorrows cease,
‘Tis music in the sinner’s ears, ‘This life and health and peace.

3. He breaks the power of canceled sin, He sets the prisoner free;
His blood can make the foulest clean; His blood availed for me.

4. Hear Him, ye deaf; His praise, ye dumb, Your loosened tongues employ;
Ye blind, behold your Savior come; And leap, ye lame, for joy.

5. My gracious Master and my God, Assist me to proclaim,
To spread through all the earth abroad, The honors of Thy name.

Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer

© 2017 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved

March 2, 2017

Broken

“I am as useless as a broken pot.”
So said the Psalmist in a moment of weakness.

But “useless” and “broken” are not invariably linked. A broken piece of pottery may be utterly useless but a broken heart before the Lord can be a mighty weapon in His hand.

When we think of Jesus, we think often of a Garden,

  • not the beautiful, useful Garden of Delights called Eden, the place of our beginning, and
  • not the wonderful New Heaven and New Earth where we will walk with God once again in the cool of the day.
  • The Garden we must consider is the Garden of Brokenness—Gethsemane.

Here the seeds of our redemption—our usefulness—were planted in the good soil of a Savior’s broken heart and watered there by sweat tinged with blood.

He was absolutely alone.
Abandoned by his sleeping disciples, Jesus was alone in this Garden, alone to bear on His sinless shoulders the sins of mankind. He alone could seize in his healing hands the violence done at the hands of men. His innocent heart was the only heart qualified to take in the corruption of the human heart from Eve’s first taste of forbidden fruit to the terrible taste for blood that marks a fallen humanity. Only the lips that brought to us the life-giving Word of God could now embrace the bitter cup of deception and drain it dry.

So, the strongest man who would ever live was broken, “crushed” was the prophesy of Isaiah and the report of Jesus’ words to His followers in some translations.

Crushed, broken, grieved, exceedingly sorrowful, yes. But, useless? Never.

The Drama of Redemption
For centuries ignorant animals had gone under the knives of the priests on the altars of Jehovah. In their frightened eyes there was not a glimpse of understanding of what their substitutionary death would provide the men with sharp knives wearing colorful robes, glittering with jewels. These unknowing animals filled a role in the on-going drama of redemption. Thousands of them played the part of the One Final Lamb who would come and make the Final and complete sacrifice of brokenness.

If we could have looked into His eyes…
If we could have looked into the eyes of Jesus in this garden, we would have seen no such ignorance, no empty role playing. Jesus knew what it meant.

  • He had to hold back his goodness to take on our wickedness.
  • He had to restrain the strength of His flawless character to submit to the corruption of a deadly mix of religion and politics.
  • He allowed his humanity to be broken.
  • With the kiss of a friend, the soldiers took Him away, no doubt, in chains that He could have broken.

Don’t forget the angel.
Between the prayers of Jesus and the approach of the Temple Guards, another friend touched Jesus there in the Garden—an Angel of the Lord. In spiritual ways that we cannot understand, the Angel imparted strength to Jesus for the ordeal just beginning.

Why? So that even in His broken condition, Jesus would still be powerful in spirit, useful to all of us by not only bearing our sins far away, but be winning our redemption.

In this time of voluntary brokenness, may the Lord make us useful to His purposes.

Scriptures:
Psalm 31:12-13 NIV
I am forgotten by them as though I were dead; I have become like broken pottery.For I hear the slander of many; there is terror on every side; they conspire against me and plot to take my life.
Matthew 21:42-44 NIV
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: “‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.”
Luke 22:39-44; Matthew 26:36-38 NIV
Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.
Psalm 51:17 NIV
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Prayer:
Lord Jesus, life can be a crushing thing. Sometimes the pressure is so great and the violence is so relentless that it seems I will be broken. Much of my trouble has been my own doing. It helps me somehow to know that You allowed life to crush You and it was not the end of the story. You took the pressure and the violence, none of it your own doing, and let life do its worst. In three days, You rose again, conqueror of death and master of life. In these days of thoughtful prayer, help me feel things more deeply, both the crushing and the rising again! Thank You, Lord! Amen.

Song:
Broken and Spilled Out
Words and Music: Bill and Gloria Gaither

Lord You were God’s precious treasure His loved and His own perfect Son
Sent here to show me The love of the Father Just for love it was done
And though You were perfect and holy You gave up Yourself willingly
You spared no expense for my pardon You were used up and wasted for me

Broken and spilled out Just for love of me Jesus
God’s most precious treasure Lavished on me
You were broken and spilled out And poured at my feet
In sweet abandon Lord You were spilled out and used up for Me
In sweet abandon, let me be spilled out And used up for Thee.

Semper Reformanda!
Stephen Phifer

© 2017 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved