Suffering – Rejection – Victory

The Reverend J. Howard Cepelak

Trinity Church

Waltham, Massachusetts

The Sacrament of Holy Communion
Lent II – 4 March 2012

Genesis 17:1-7, Psalm 22:23-31, Romans 4:13-25, Mark 8:31-38

From the Book of Genesis:
God spoke to Abram and said, I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. And Behold, my covenant is with you…

From St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans:
Speaking of Abraham’s righteousness as reckoned to him by faith, the apostle wrote, It will be reckoned to us who believe in him that raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification.

And From the Gospel according to St. Mark:
And Jesus began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise…

Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, our Strength and our Salvation,
Amen. †

When Jesus taught His disciples about what had to happen for the sake of mankind’s salvation – that the Son of man must suffer, be rejected by not only the power brokers of His time but also many whom He would have considered close friends, as well as the countless people whom He had healed and then be killed by the same, the disciples did not understand.

Their lack of understanding wasn’t because they were not very bright as some contemporary pseudo scholars postulate. Those in the now fading Jesus Seminar designate Jesus and His disciples as simple country folk – ignorant and of, at best, average intelligence – pleasant peasants as they call them. Not so. Not true.

Neither was their lack of understanding because they were not well educated. If you look at each disciple and what Scripture tells us about him, we find men who could both read and write – something that the majority of people could not do. They knew their scriptures, and although none of them could be called a Bible scholar, all of them knew the basics of their religion. Regarding their level of education, they were, probably, a cut above the average man.

Furthermore, some were most certainly, successful businessmen. Peter had his own fishing business, as did the brothers, James and John. They owned their own boats, lived in their own houses, and employed others to work for them. Regular, hard working men – smart for sure and better educated than most of their generation; and for Peter, James and John, more successful than the vast majority of people of their time. Although one could hardly call them rich men when compared with other more prestigious people, they were nonetheless better off than the most.

I maintain that the disciples did not get the full impact of Jesus’ teaching about suffering and rejection because they did not want to believe that their Lord and master, who had become their friend, would have to suffer and die. They admired and respected Him – they loved Him as the wisest, most insightful teacher, an amazing healer and miracle worker – a holy man for sure. And being a holy man, well that would mean good things, a dedicated but happy life – a life of health, relative wealth and much happiness.

As I just said, the disciples knew their scriptures. We can safely assume that they knew about Isaiah’s writings in which he prophesied, by virtue of divine revelation, that the Messiah would be despised and rejected by men, would suffer at the hands of sinners even though He had committed no offence, and be killed. But knowing the scriptures and applying them to oneself or to one’s most admired friends – well the application does not necessarily follow from the knowing.

Despite the prophetic proclamations, most people then – as now – believed that holiness brought blessings, the aforementioned health, wealth and happiness as well as the respect and admiration of men.

They wanted a victorious leader who would make their lives -and the lives of everyone else as well – better, richer, freer and generally happier. They wanted salvation in the here and now. Furthermore, if their leader would be rejected, suffer and die, what about them? Would they be rejected? Would they have to suffer? Would they have to die as well?

Perhaps another reason why the disciples just didn’t get it – at least at first – was the possibility that they, like most people today, were preoccupied with the problems of family and friends, of politics and business, illness and health, loves and hatreds. Thinking about the eternal dimensions of holiness did not command their attention as much as the demands of the present moment.

And surely, at that time in Jewish history the issues of the unjust Roman authority that oppressed the Hebrew people – well, that was always on their minds as well. We can identify with these hard working fishermen who had profitable businesses only to have the government come and take too much of the profits. Infuriating then as it is now. And common to almost every nation in almost every generation.

When Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God, He spoke of another realm of being as well as of the world of the here and now. It’s not one or the other – an either / or it’s a both and. His first concern in this life and in the life yet to come was holiness generally spoken of as righteousness. Although the eternal kingdom took priority, the temporal kingdom was also important.

The Kingdom of God as the eternal Kingdom of Heaven and as the kingdom of perfection in this world when the Messiah comes to reign as King of Kings – in both cases, holiness or righteousness – blamelessness -functioned as a requirement. The Kingdom, in both dimensions, was open only to the righteous. Anyone or anything unholy could neither inherit it nor get into it.

Blamelessness was the central aspect of the covenant that God established with the Father of the Nations, Abraham. Two thousand years before their time – and four thousand years before ours, God established a covenant with Abraham that as he walked with the Almighty God in blamelessness, the Lord would bless him with descendents as numerous as the stars – with good health, long life, and prosperity.

Yet two thousand years after God established this covenant – after God had kept His promise of countless descendents, with so many opportunities for health wealth and happiness, the people failed to keep their part of the bargain. When everything went well, the people forgot all about God, became self-centered and self-indulgent and shall we say, fat, lazy and happy.

When everything went wrong, they protested, What did we do to deserve this? Where’s our God? Why has He let this happen to us? Leaders would arise, call for repentance and direct the people back to God. The people would repent, everything began to get better and when it did get better, the people would once again turn away and, to quote Isaiah, go astray.

Righteousness or blamelessness, under the Covenant established with Abraham, involved keeping the law best summarized in the Ten Commandments. The first one, to love and honor God and exclusively worship Him – well they rarely kept that one for very long. They like the other gods and goddesses of the ancient world better. The other gods and goddesses allowed for licentiousness and self – indulgence. True then as it is now. Regarding the currently popular new paganism is not new at all – it’s as old as time.

And keeping the law regarding treating each other with respect, compassion and brotherly love well, they failed there as well. The truth became evident that only God Himself could save the people – His chosen people – and all the people of the whole world from themselves. God had to become man, teach them the Truth, demonstrate holiness and make the necessary sacrifice to deliver the people from their oppression – from their personal as well as from their political oppression.

It could not come by virtue of teaching. (Education, in and of itself, may have very little effect on blindly held faith – especially if that faith is self-serving.) It could not be accomplished through a twelve-step, self-help program (however effective such programs might be in other circumstances.)

Neither could their redemption come as a result of a revolution to defeat Rome. Pagan Rome would most certainly fall – but not through that kind of a revolution.

Only God Himself could make His people righteous. Only God Himself could cleanse mankind from sin. Only God himself could save in every dimension of salvation. And to do so, He had to come, manifest Himself, perform the miracles and call the world to devotion to God. And he people, being who they were, would despise Him for His goodness. They would reject Him, inflict upon Him brutal suffering and kill Him. They blame would fall upon them. Righteousness played no role. They would commit the ultimate sin.

But God would nonetheless save the people. He would die both because of their sins and for the sins. His death would prove God’s perfect love. And simply by virtue of sincerely believing in Him and what He had accomplished on the cross – through His rejection, suffering and death, the victory of eternal life would be won. To quote St. Paul, the Lord was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification.

The only blameless one – the only righteous one would take the blame onto Himself and set the sinners free from condemnation. Because of His sacrifice, sinners would be reckoned as righteous even though they remained sinners. The kingdom of heaven would open to all who would simply believe. And the promise of the perfection of this world through eventual re-creation would become real.

Faith is the key. Believe and be saved. Disbelieve and be lost. But know this – Those who believe in this fallen world may very well have to suffer rejection. Over the centuries, many – indeed thousands – have suffered and died for the cause. But the blessing of eternal life can be received in no other way and from no other savior.

So we come to the Lord’s table – to the alter of His sacrifice to take Him into yourself that He may dwell in you and you in Him – until He comes again to establish the perfect kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Remember, it’s not one or the other -it’s both / and.

Alive in us and we alive in Him, we live forever in the perfection of righteousness, reckoned to us because the Son was rejected, suffered and died – and rose again – for us.

Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, grant to us the courage necessary to serve you in these troubled times. Bless us with the power of our faith to carry us through and inspire others to follow. Help, save, guide, guard and defend us by your grace, and bring us at last unto everlasting life,
in and through your Son, Jesus Christ,
the only Savior of all mankind,
Amen. †

I Know Who You Are

Rev. Deacon Allen Batchelder

Trinity Church
Waltham, Massachusetts
January 29, 2011, Epiphany IV

Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; I Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

From the Old Testament:
I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brethren; and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.

From the First Epistle to the Corinthians:
If any one imagines that he knows something, he does not know as he ought to know. But if one loves God, one is known by him.

And from the Gospel of St. Mark:
And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit; and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

Let us pray:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O God, our Strength and our Salvation.

The presidential election process is well underway. The Republicans are battling it out through debates, campaign ads and the primaries. We might be leaning towards a certain candidate today and then a new revelation or accusation is made and that perhaps changes our mind. We need to ask ourselves: Is the accusation true or false? If I hear it on the television or radio; or read it in the newspaper, does that make it true? Is it the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God? We need to do our homework if we are to really know the candidates.

Around the mid-term elections, I preached a sermon entitled “A Wise Servant.” And we determined that God was our Master and we were His Servant and our politicians were an extension of ourselves because we vote for them and they represent us in government. This is why it is very important for us to know our elected officials and hold them accountable, for WE may be held accountable by God for THEIR actions.

In our Gospel reading this morning, we have Jesus teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath. The people were astonished at His knowledge and authority. Then there was a man in the synagogue with an unclean spirit; a demon. The man cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

We wonder how many synagogue services that man had attended without revealing that he was demonized. It took the presence of the Son of God to expose the demon; and Jesus not only exposed him, but He also commanded him to keep quiet about His identity and to depart from the man. The Saviour did not want, nor did He need, the assistance of Satan and his army to tell people who He is.

The demon certainly knew exactly who Jesus was and that he had nothing in common with Him. The demon clearly identified Christ’s humanity by referring to Jesus as ‘Jesus of Nazareth,’ as well as His deity, when he called Jesus, ‘the Holy One of God.’ He also confessed great fear that Jesus might judge him and send him to the pit.

The demon tried one last convulsive attack, but then had to submit to the authority of God’s Servant and came out of the man. The people in the synagogue were amazed and afraid. They realized that something new had appeared on the scene – a new doctrine and a new power. Our Lord’s words and works must always go together (John 3:2). The people kept on talking about both, and the fame of Jesus began to spread. Our Lord did not encourage this kind of public excitement lest it create problems with both the Jews and the Romans. The Jews would want to follow Him only because of His power to heal them, and the Romans would think He was a Jewish insurrectionist trying to overthrow the government. People today may know the Holy Scriptures, but we need to live God’s word and follow Jesus’ teachings and examples, otherwise God’s Word means nothing.

The question we all need to ask is: do we know Jesus or do we know of Him? Do we have a personal relationship with Jesus or do we just know about the things he has done? Even the demon knew who Jesus was, do we? We all know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem; that He grew up and went around Galilee and Judea; teaching and healing the sick; rising people from the dead. Then He was crucified, dead and buried; the third day He rose from the dead and for those who believe will have eternal life. That’s the Readers Digest version. What does this mean to you? Is it just a story or does it have meaning? Is Jesus part of your heart and soul? When you think of Jesus, do you have tingling up your spine? When you realize the pain and agony that Jesus suffered for you on the cross, do you break down and cry? Do you know Jesus?

During Moses’ time, the people of Israel were greatly blessed. They had the Lord God for their King, a wonderful land for their home, and a holy law for their guide, yet they faced some of the same problems that society faces today. Sinful human nature being what it is, nations will always have to deal with “man’s inhumanity to man,” because the heart of every problem is still the problem of the heart. Laws are necessary to bring order to society, to restrain evil, and to help control behavior, but laws can never change the human heart. Only the grace of God can do that. God holds human life precious and wants us to treat people fairly, for they are made in the image of God (Gen. 9:1-7). God’s desire for all nations is “Let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24).

And His standard for us individually is found in the book of Micah 6:8: “He has shown you, O man, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Every system of justice depends on people knowing the truth and speaking the truth. To bear false witness is to break God’s commandment (Ex. 20:16) and to undermine the foundation of the legal system. The person who swears to tell the truth and then tells lies is committing perjury, which itself is a serious crime. The Jewish law required two or three witnesses to establish the guilt of an accused person (Deut. 17:6; Num. 35:30), and both Jesus (Matt. 18:16) and Paul (2 Cor. 13:1; 1 Tim. 5:19) applied this principle to local church discipline.

St. Paul had to respond to a controversial subject at the church in Corinth: Can Christians eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols? The immediate question does not interest believers today since we do not face that problem. But the wider issue of “Christian liberty” does apply to us, because we face questions that Paul never faced. Is it right for Christians to attend the theater? Should a believer have a television set in his home? To what extent can a Christian get involved in politics? You may think that these are ridiculous questions, but these situations have the potential of influencing us and turning us away from God.

Paul addressed himself primarily to the strong Christians in the church, believers who had spiritual knowledge and experience and who understood their authority and freedom in Christ. It is the strong who must care for the weak (Rom. 14-15).

There were two sources of meat in the ancient world: the regular market, where the prices were higher, and the local temples, where meat from the sacrifices was always available. The strong members of the church realized that idols could not contaminate food, so they saved money by purchasing the cheaper meat available from the temples.

All of this offended the weaker Christians. Many of them had been saved out of pagan idolatry and they could not understand why their fellow believers would want to have anything to do with meat sacrificed to idols. There was a potential division in the church over this subject, so the leaders asked Paul for advice.

The Corinthians were enriched in spiritual knowledge and were, in fact, rather proud of their achievements. They knew that an idol was nothing, merely the representation of a false god who existed only in the darkened minds of those who worshiped it. The presence of an idol in a temple was no solid proof that the god existed. Paul would later point out that idolatry was basically the worship of demons. So, the conclusion was logical: A nonexistent god could not contaminate food offered on his altar.

The problem was, you can’t solve every problem with logic. The little child who is afraid of the dark will not be assured, simply by saying “don’t be afraid,” especially if the adult or older brother adopts a superior attitude. Knowledge can be a weapon to fight with or a tool to build with, depending on how it is used. If it “puffs up” then it cannot “build up.”

A know-it-all attitude is only an evidence of ignorance. The person who really knows truth is only too conscious of how much he does not know. Furthermore, it is one thing to know doctrine and quite something else to know God.
It is possible to grow in Bible knowledge and yet not grow in grace or in one’s personal relationship with God. The test is love.

Love and knowledge must go together; “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). It has been said, “Truth without love is brutality, but love without truth is hypocrisy.” Knowledge is power and it must be used in love. But love must always be controlled by knowledge. The strong believers in the church had knowledge, but they were not using their knowledge in love. Instead of building up the weak saints, the strong Christians were only puffing up themselves.

Paul’s great hope was that the strong saints would help the weaker saints to grow and to stop being weak saints. Some people have the false notion that the strong Christians are the ones who live by rules and regulations and who get offended when others exercise their freedom in Christ; but such is not the case. It is the weak Christians who must have the security of law and who are afraid to use their freedom in Christ. It is the weak Christians who are prone to judge and criticize stronger believers and to stumble over what they do. This, of course, makes it difficult for the strong saints to minister to their weaker brothers and sisters. Think about how it is with a parent and child. As a parent, you establish certain rules and guidelines to protect your child. If you break a rule, your child will be very quick to point out that you are guilty.

It is here that love enters the picture, for “love builds up” and puts others first. When spiritual knowledge is used in love, the stronger Christian can take the hand of the weaker Christian and help him to stand and walk so as to enjoy his freedom in Christ. You cannot force-feed immature believers and transform them into giants. Knowledge must be mixed with love; otherwise, the saints will end up with “big heads” instead of enlarged hearts.

Knowledge and love are two important factors, for knowledge must be balanced by love if we are to use our Christian freedom in the right way.

A third factor is having a conscience. Conscience is that internal court where our actions are judged and are either approved or condemned (Rom. 2:14-15). Conscience is not the law; it bears witness to God’s moral law. But the important thing is this: conscience depends on knowledge. The more spiritual knowledge we know and act on, the stronger the conscience will become.

Some Christians have weak consciences because they have been saved only a short time and have not had an opportunity to grow. Like little babies in the home, they must be guarded carefully, nurtured and protected. Other saints have weak consciences because they will not grow; they choose not to grow. They ignore their Bibles and Christian fellowship and remain in a state of infancy (1 Cor. 3:1-4). But some believers remain weak because they are afraid of freedom. They are like a child old enough to go to school, but are afraid to leave home and must be taken to school each day.

The conscience of a weak Christian is easily defiled (1 Cor. 8:7), wounded (1 Cor. 8:12), and offended (1 Cor. 8:13). For this reason, the stronger saints must defer to the weaker saints and do nothing that would harm them. It might not harm the mature saint to share a feast in an idolatrous temple, but it might harm his weaker brother because he might decide to imitate his stronger brother and thus be led into sin.

As Christians, we do have freedom. This freedom was purchased for us by Jesus Christ, so it is very precious. Freedom comes from knowledge: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). One of Bill Bailey’s favorite quotes; the one that adorns our front doors.

The strong Christian not only has knowledge, but he also has experience. He can look back and see how the Lord has dealt with him through the years. But he must be careful, for experience must be balanced with caution. Take heed, lest you fall!

The strong Christian knows that he has this freedom, but he also knows that freedom involves responsibility. I have the freedom, for example, to drive my car on the highway; but I must drive it responsibly. I am not free to drive at any speed or ignore traffic signs.

The way we use our freedom and relate to others indicates whether we are mature in Christ. Strong and weak Christians need to work together in love to edify one another and glorify Jesus Christ. Together, we can grow in the knowledge and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Together, we can answer the question: Who is Jesus Christ? Satan knows who He is. The demons know who Jesus is. May we all be able to say, “I know who you are!”

He is our Lord and Saviour; the only begotten Son of God. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. May the knowledge and love of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ continue to grow in all our hearts, minds and souls.

Let us pray:

Most gracious and redeeming Heavenly Father. We thank you and praise you for giving us your Son, Jesus Christ. May our knowledge of you continue to grow and may we become ever closer to you. Help us to live a life that is pleasing to you; that we may walk in the light of your truth; Help us to be a witness to the unbeliever and to those who have recently come to know you. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.


Repent and Believe

The Reverend J. Howard Cepelak

Trinity Church

Waltham, Massachusetts
Epiphany III – 22 January 2012

Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:5-12, I Corinthians 7:29-31, Mark 1:14-20

From the Book of the Prophet, Jonah:
The word of the Lord came to Jonah…saying, Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness has come up before me…but Jonah rose to flee….

And From the Gospel According to St. Mark:
Now after John was arrested, Jesus said, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.

Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, our Strength and our Salvation,
Amen. †

From the earliest days of the church, true believers spoke of our Lord as Prophet, Priest and King – Prophet because He proclaimed the coming Kingdom of God; Priest because He was and is and will be forever the Great High Priest after the Order of Melchezidek and above the Order of Aaron; and King because He was born the King of the Jews, having descended from the house and royal lineage of the great King David – and He descended from Heaven where He reigned as the King of Heaven. Now, after His Ascension, the risen Christ continues to reign in that capacity as well as the King of Angels and Lord over all the spiritual principalities and powers of which St. Paul speaks but of which we know very little else. And when He returns at the end of time, He will reign on earth as the King of Kings. He is – and will be forever – the eternal King and of His Kingdom there will be no end.

In this morning’s Gospel lesson we see our Lord in His prophetic role. He is proclaiming the Kingdom of God – that God’s Kingdom is at hand and commands all who hear to repent and believe. In this case, this particular prophet, being the true seal of the prophets, issues the final call. In Him, all divine prophecy becomes fulfilled.
So He calls for belief in the Gospel.

Hence, Jesus the Prophet calls the people unto Himself. He does it again when He said, Believe in God – believe also in me. And Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. And also His simple command, Come. Follow me. These three most important words – the words that open up that eternal kingdom for all who obey – Come. Follow me. represent both His prophetic call – for to follow Him demands repentance and belief – and His call into eternal life. Obedience to his command bears witness to the One True Eternal Prophet, Priest and King.

Although Jesus’ prophetic call was unique – His being the incarnation of His Father – nonetheless He shared the vocation of all of the prophets who preceded Him. All of them called for repentance. From Moses, Samuel, Nathan, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Habakkuk – right up to St. John the Baptist, the last of the Old Testament prophets, all the prophets called for repentance and belief in the One True God.

The prophets called the people because God had called the prophets. Most of them neither wanted nor enjoyed their divinely appointed vocation. Isaiah felt completely inadequate because he was a man of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips. But the angel purged his lips with a burning coal from the alter of incense to remove his sin. Hardly a pleasant experience. I cannot believe that Isaiah enjoyed that experience however important he most certainly knew it was.

Jeremiah did not seek to be a prophet. He was born for it. God had called him even before he had been formed in the womb. Jeremiah, like Isaiah, felt totally unqualified to serve as spokesman for God. But God qualified him – that’s what God does. He does not necessarily call the qualified – He qualifies the called. Jeremiah answered the call and obeyed, however reluctantly, lamenting his vocation for his entire life. The other prophets have similar stories.

Surely one of he most interesting of those stories – and so very much loved because of the humanity of the individual called – is the story of Jonah. He not only did not want to be a prophet, he literally ran away from the assignment.

God called him to go to the great city of Nineveh, capital of the powerful Assyrian Empire, and call the people and their king to repent and believe in the One True God. The day of the Lord – the Day of Judgment – would fall upon that city for all of its wickedness. Jonah was to warn them, people and king alike, and if they repented, the judgment would be lifted. Calling such a powerful people – and such a fearsome King – to repentance from the wickedness of belief in false gods, well such a task demanded a courageous man.

Jonah was anything but courageous. He literally ran away. Nineveh was east. Jonah went west. He booked passage on a ship to sail away into the sunset hoping never to be called to any task again. But alas, the ship was about to sink in a storm and Jonah was thrown overboard. All believed the storm was because Jonah was bad luck. Jonah believed that as well. Of course, luck had nothing to do with it. I use it only as a figure of speech. But over the side he went.

Well, a great fish swallowed him up – saved his life – and then threw him up on the shore. Why? Because God had given him a job to do. He had refused. And this is what happens when you refuse to fulfill God’s purpose. He may preserve your life (or he may not – that’s His choice) but you just may find yourself fish vomit on some beach – or something similar but perhaps not quite so graphic.

Jonah finally did what God had commanded. Smart move. And to his great surprise the king and the people repented. God lifted his judgment. And then, Jonah being the foolish man that he was, lamented and sulked. When he had finally gotten up the courage to prophecy against Nineveh, when he decided to finally obey God, he really wanted Nineveh to disobey God and call down upon themselves God’s wrath. Jonah could then sit back and watch the fireworks. But they repented and Jonah was profoundly disappointed.

I think that most of us have a lot in common with Jonah. God calls. We get scared. We run away forgetting that we can run but we can never hide. He says Go east and we go west. And, failing to answer the divine call, we end up thrown up on the shores of life knowing that we failed to do what God had commanded.

Our lives do not parallel Jonah’s quite so exactly but I know that you know just what I mean. God calls us at various times and in various ways and we turn away. Sometime we’re unconscious to His call. So caught up with or own hopes and fears – our own personal goals and aspirations. But if we have any consciousness at all about the nature of our relationship with our Savior, then we know – deep down – that we have been called and we have not properly answered.

We can get very defensive as we seek to justify our disobedience, spending our time, energy and resources in self-justification – a vain pursuit – rather than in confession and repentance.

We also know that at other times, we have heard the call, and answered Yes! – We give unconditional consent to our Lord’s purpose. Unconditional consent is important.

We all speak of God’s unconditional love for us. But I have seen, over the forty years of my ministry, that those who most loudly proclaim God’s unconditional love for us place all kinds of conditions on their love for Him. They do not really love Him. They deceive themselves. God cannot be deceived. Judgment in some form will prevail if not now, most certainly later.

Holy Scripture bears witness to how God works in this world. Over and over again, on a daily basis, He sets before us the ways of life and death – the choice between blessing and curse. He instructs us, Choose life. And His promise is that our descendants will live. This promise is perfectly fulfilled in Jesus Christ in which we, and all who believe, will live forever.

Two weeks from today, this congregation will hold perhaps the most important annual meeting in its history. At that meeting we will be deciding our future as a church of Jesus Christ in this city – a church that God has called to faithfulness in a, at best, indifferent and at times actually hostile environment. Waltham, like Nineveh needs to repent. I am not telling anything that you do not know.

God calls us to faithfulness in this city. He’s calling this small congregation to accomplish a great work. Instant success will not come. Struggle will be a part of our future. But the most important thing that we can do as we face these major decisions is to obey the Lord, follow His commands and do His work.

I believe that He has set before us the ways of life and death – the life or death of this congregation. He is giving us an opportunity for new life. I do not believe – for a moment – that He wants this church to die. He wants us to continue to bear a faithful witness in this secular city – indifferent and hostile.

As I have thought and prayed about this for so very long, one the answer that I receive over and over again has been has been the same. Keep on keeping on. But recently another message has come. Keep on keeping on – and I will show you the way.

Now a few of you will remember that when I was called to this ministry twenty years ago, the initial conversation was to
close this church. This was to be a two year pastorate to properly close, sell the real estate, give the profits to the denomination and fade into the sunset.

I remember that first conversation so very clearly. We began at 7:30 in the evening. If my memory serves me well, we continued to midnight or beyond. It became evident to the committee that they did not want to close. On my part, I knew that God was calling me to return to the pastorate. Like Jonah, I had run away from my calling. And, like Jonah, I could not hide. This was the Lord’s recall.

After more conversations and then a period that I demanded of three days – I became convinced that I was to answer this call in the affirmative. But if any of you remember I said that I would not come to this church to close this church. We continued for twenty years – that’s eighteen more years than the two originally discussed. And during that time, we have experienced great successes!

Times have changed. The situation has become critical. The burden here is too great for so few people. Gloom and doom in many minds prevails.

But as far as I am concerned, God’s call to me has not changed. He said 20 years ago, You will not close this church. And he’s saying now, You will not close this church. I will set before you a way for life. I am not done with you yet. I am not done with that congregation yet. Some may want to be done with me. But I am not done with them.

So, in the prophetic tradition, I am saying, God is not done with us. Our job is to turn to Him and obey. Our job is to follow Him where He leads us and will be blessed with new life.

The new life has already begun. The conception has happened. We are pregnant!!! This may or may not be an easy pregnancy. But the promise for a new and even more faithful future has been offered. And as far as I am concerned this pregnancy will NOT be aborted.

Like Jonah, we may be tempted to run away from the challenge set before us. Now is NOT the time to run. It’s NOT the time to pull in – to constrict -to tighten our hold on what life we have and to hold on so tightly as to suffocate that life.

No! Now is NOT the time to surrender to the unholy spirits in this city indifferent or hostile to the Gospel. And most certainly, now is NOT the time to secularize this sacred space, to profane this holy ground or to loot the Lord’s house.

Now is the time to open our minds and our hearts – to offer generosity – to rise above discouragement – to repent – to turn away from the gloom and doom and believe in the promises of God – to embrace the possibility of a new future and to choose the way of new life that God has set before us.

We have prayed for years that God will send to us new people to carry out His purposes. I believe He has. The faithful members of the New Light congregation already have been a rich blessing to us. And we have been a rich blessing to them. Since we are a mutual blessing already, we know that this is God’s hand at work.

Much has to be decided. We have a lot of work to do. But if we trust in the Lord and obey His command when He says, Come. Follow me. we will be doing the right thing.

God spoke through His prophet, Jeremiah, and said, I know the plans I have for you…plans for wellbeing and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope… and His servant, St. Paul the apostle, so many generations later, proclaimed that great hope to the church at Corinth, No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.

Jesus said, Repent and believe.
That’s our job. Let’s do it!

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, deliver us from discouragement, selfishness, sloth and indifference. Dispel any darkness and bless us with the light of your truth. Grant to us generous and faithful hearts as well as open arms to embrace the future you have planned for us. And grant that in all that we say – in all that we do – and in all that we are, we may be your people, serving your Holy will in the very joy of our salvation
given in and only in your Son,
Jesus Christ, our Propjet, Priest and King,
the only Savior of all mankind,
Amen. †

Law – Prophecy – Grace

The Reverend J. Howard Cepelak

Trinity Church

Waltham, Massachusetts
Epiphany II – 15 January 2012

I Samuel 3:1-10, Psalm 139:1-6, I Corinthians 6:12-20, John 1:43-51

From the Book of the Prophet, Samuel:
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. And the word of the LORD was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.

From St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians:
The apostle wrote, All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful.

And From the Gospel According to St. John:
Philip found Nathaniel and said to him, We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote….

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, our Strength and our Salvation.
Amen. †

Last Wednesday evening, the Bible Study Class enjoyed an absolutely delicious dinner at Doris Rhode’s house – a true feast of New England comfort food. A beautifully set table surrounded by good people enjoying a superb dinner – well, it just doesn’t get much better than that.

Now combine all of this with great conversation and you’ve got a truly memorable event. And the conversation was indeed excellent.

We covered a wide range of topics all of them relating to our Chrsitian faith and religion. One issue that came up was the possibility that religion – or at least the practice of religion -is pretty much a man made affair – a phenomenon of human creation.

We know, for instance, that Jesus reprimanded the Pharisees for their man-made rules and regulations creating a legalistic religion that actually interfered with God’s revelation. So even our Savior acknowledged that at least some of the religion practiced by His people in His generation was of human origin and not from the mind of – or the heart of – or the will of – or the revelation of God.

But given that obviously true reality, does it also stand that all religious practice is of human creation and therefore somehow morally and spiritually equivalent – that all styles of worship are equally valid and authentic and that it really does not matter how one worships, what kind of music is used if any at all – or when or where the worship happens?

Also, although Jesus criticized the Pharisees for their many man-made laws, that does not mean that we do not have the Law of God, the Law from God that allows us to both honor God as we live the most holy lives possible – made possible by the keeping of that Law. Our Lord also said, If you love me you will keep my commandments. Very important, especially since Jesus was – and is – and will be forever – the one of whom Moses wrote and of whom the prophets spoke as the fulfillment of both the law, revealed to Moses and the prophetic proclamations.

But pushing it a bit further, is most of religion – or even all of religion be it Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam or Hinduism – or any other major faith – of human creation and thus equally true or equally false?

This is currently a popular notion among secularists and those whom I will call semi-Christians who want a customized faith and practice that meets their needs or serves their purposes. If it’s all coming from us, then every thing is equally valid, true and worthy. Therefore anyone can say that I can do what I want, believe what I want and live the way I want on my own terms and claim that it’s all good and right and true -even if it’s not.

I believe that man made customized religion is not only bogus but also dangerous. Personal religions of one’s own making are now and always have been destructive. Most of them, however benevolent they may appear on the surface are most decidedly malevolent at their core.

God – the One True God – has revealed His heart, mind and will – and even Himself – pure Spirit – in human flesh – in the body of Jesus Christ – and He has instructed us how to worship and how to live, provided the marching orders for both and also told us that He would be with us as we carried out what He has commanded. Simply stated, He has told us what to do and how to do it.

He has been with us in His presence as the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit has been working in and through His church – working in, on, over, under, around and through the faith of the committed throughout the centuries.

The basic elements for fully authentic worship have been reveled to us from the beginnings of worship in our Judea-Christian history. These essential elements are the same now as they were in the time of Eli the priest (and long before him) and Samuel the prophet. For us, of course, they are fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

A quick summary of those elements. Authentic worship always requires the invoking of God’s presence, the confession of our sins, the assurance of God mercy and grace, the reading of the totality of His Holy Word revealed in scripture, the instruction on the content of our faith and lives in the sermon which should always call for greater commitment, the singing of His praises and the offering of our sacrifice of gratitude for the sacrifice of Christ for the sake of our salvation. It must always be sacramental and sacrificial even if the Sacrament is not celebrated.

Now did we just make this up? You can believe that if you believe that God does not interact with His creation. You can believe that if you believe that God was and is an impersonal force unknown and unknowable. If so, you will find very little in Scripture that will help you, comfort you, inspire you, encourage you, relieve you of your anxiety and fear, set you free from conviction under the law that you reject, and open up the possibilities of joy. In other words, God’s grace has no chance to fill your heart or to save your soul.

St. Paul is the expert on the relationship between God’s Law and God’s grace. Having been converted from the Law to the fulfillment of that Law in Jesus Christ and thus being a beneficiary of the fullness of God’s grace, he said, All things are lawful for me but not all things are helpful. St. Paul does not make a case for licentiousness but rather he makes the case for saving grace and obedience because of that grace. He always calls for a spiritual self-discipline, total reliance upon the Holy Spirit and living for God and not for oneself.

Now, we know that some churches are more faithful and some less – that some have strayed so far from the divine revelation as to have become heretical – and that many are mere institutions of like minded persons who seek a society and group that meets their needs and desires. Worship for them is a combination of entertainment, self-absorption and mutual self-congratulation; a celebration of personal humanism.

As their worship informs their lives, they fall out of God’s saving grace and fall into hopelessness and despair. In many cases they search for salvation in all the wrong places only to increase their disappointment and bitterness. They become enslaved by either their failure to see the truth or to receive it because it is inconvenient for them. Anger at life and at God – and bitterness is all that’s left.

We must remember that worship is not first of all for us to met our needs, fulfill our desires or to satisfy our emotions. Neither is worship intended to be an expression of our unique spiritualities.

Just the opposite. True Christian worship is our freely chosen response to God in gratitude for His great gift of salvation. God in human flesh was crucified for our sins. In the process, He defeated sin’s power and conquered death. He rose from the dead to show the world what He had done.

That’s what He did for us. What can we do for Him? Worship. True worship is the only thing that we have to give to Him for the salvation that He has given to us. Worship is not for us to get something from God but rather to give something – in fact, to give everything to God – our devotion, adoration, praise, obedience, and gratitude. And we give it with all our heart, all our minds, all our strength and with all our souls. Why? Because He has died to us to save us from the powers of this sin-sick world.

Well, none of what I just said is new. Most of it has been true from the beginning of time.

If we go back in time to 1100 years before the nativity of our Lord, in the time of the prophet Samuel, we know that in that generation the word of the LORD was rare and that there was no frequent vision.

These words apply to us right here and right now. In this place at this time – just like 2,100 years ago in Shiloh were Eli served, the word of the Lord is rare and we have no frequent vision.

We live in a city very much like the New Testament city of Laodicea in which the faith of the people was neither cold nor hot – but lukewarm – so much so as to be nauseating. Laodicea was tepid to the Word and did not share in the Lord’s vision of salvation. Hence, in our city of nearly 70,000 people, only a tiny percentage actively worship or participate in church life of any denomination. Most would call themselves Christians, but they are of the most casual sort. Lukewarm at best. And God’s Word is clear – lukewarm doesn’t work.

Back to Shiloh 3,100 year ago. God sent the boy Samuel to the priest Eli because the word was rare and the vision infrequent. God had already revealed His law to His people. But they were faithful only when convenient and otherwise did as they chose. God had spoken through the Law but the people did not listen.

God took the next step in our salvation history. He called up His prophets, one of the most important being Samuel who, as a boy, studied under Eli.

Now we must remember that Samuel, to be a prophet, first served under a priest. Priests lead worship. Prophets proclaim the word of and the will of God. Prophets always call for faithful worship – worship from the heart and from the mind – worship from the soul. God, in His Law, instructed the priests and the people how to worship. One did not make it up as one went along. Thus, the worship that Samuel learned from Eli and to which he eventually called the kings and the people to return was not of human creation.

That is the consistent prophetic message. Return to God in heart in mind, in body and in soul. Return to God.

Since the sending of His prophets bore limited results God took His last and definitive step to save His people. He came into this world in Jesus Christ, in the fullness of human being to live and die and live again so that we who live – and, will most certainly die, can live forever.

Now some may say that we made this all up. Those who thus believe, for them, life will be empty and / or meaningless – an endless pursuit of pleasure to take the edge off the pain of the despair. Eventually, this comes to nothingness.

But for those who believe, life’s essential and eternal meaning unfolds – suffering finds sanctification, hope dispels despair, kindness replaces anger, love finds fulfillment and death has no power. And all of this comes from God Himself as He came to us to bring us back to Him – forever.

Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, we pray that your Holy Spirit will move in and through this world, this nation and this city. Deliver us from the deceptions of the powerful and from the devices of those who seek to deceive. Grant an astounding return to you and bless us and all mankind with the fulfillment of joy in the saving grace of your Son,
Jesus Christ,
who lived and died and lives again
so that we can do the same,
Amen. †

Holy Water – Holy Life

The Reverend J. Howard Cepelak

Trinity Church

Waltham, Massachusetts

Epiphany I – 8 January 2012

Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

From the Book of Genesis:
The darkness was on the face of the deep: and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.

From the Book of the Acts of the Disciples:
St. Paul asked of some disciples in Ephesus, Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed? And they said, No, we have never even heard of the Holy Spirit.

From the Gospel According to St. Mark:
In those days Jesus … was baptized by John. And when he came up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened and the Sprit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.

Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable I thy sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, our Strength and our Salvation,

Although I entitled this morning’s sermon, Holy Water – Holy Life, a better title most certainly would have been, Holy Spirit – Holy Water – Holy Life – because, at the end of the day, it’s all about the Holy Spirit.

Now when I say it’s all about the Holy Spirit I mean just that – everything – literally everything in this life that lives – everything that’s good and right and true – all love that’s true love, all thought and speech that enlightens, all knowledge that stands the test of time – all efforts or enterprises that come to good results for the benefit of mankind, all success in terms of righteousness, faithfulness in times of adversity, health, healing, comfort, encouragement, godly happiness and everything that anyone who knows the difference between good and evil – and can actually tell the difference – well, those people know this one astounding and wonderful and miraculous truth – that nothing good happens without the Holy Spirit.

And that’s true for those who believe in the Holy Spirit and for those who do not. For anything good in the lives of non-believers comes only from the very Spirit of God Himself in whom they do not believe but nonetheless benefit from His gracious mercy. They benefit because God is good – not because they are.

The Holy Spirit gives life. As God’s Spirit moved over the face of the waters at creation, He did so to bring forth life. Without the Spirit – capital S – there is no life. The very fact that non-believers live bears witness to God’s gracious goodness. Yet the spirit of life causing them to live remains unknown to them as the working of God’s Holy Spirit. (I say this to help equip you to defend the faith when non-believers proselytize against us.)

Even believers may not be fully aware of the power of and the presence of the Holy Spirit. When St. Paul traveled to Ephesus, he met up with some disciples. He asked them if they had received the Holy Spirit when they came to faith. But they told him that they had never even heard of the Holy Spirit let alone received Him.

They had received John’s baptism – not Jesus’ baptism. And there’s a big difference.

John baptized with water for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus baptized with the Holy Spirit for the newness of life. Now, Jesus never baptized anyone in the same manner as did John. Jesus simply gave His Holy Spirit to all who received Him as their Lord and Savior. And when He gave the Holy Spirit to His church on the first Pentecost, He gave the church the power to impart the Spirit of living holiness into those who truly receive Him.
The Sacrament of Baptism thus became a vehicle for this imparting.

You see, just the forgiveness of sins – John’s baptism – is not the totality of salvation. It’s the first step – an important and essential step – but not the end result. Belief in – faith in – Jesus Christ is yet required. By faith, His Holy Spirit indwells and works salvation from the inside out. Alive in us we become alive in Him. And salvation is all about new and more holy life. That’s the purpose – holiness.

Jesus gave us two sacraments – Baptism and Holy Communion. Baptism is generally referenced as the Sacrament of Initiation or Entrance into the Church. Holy Communion is called the Sacrament of Christian Nurture. Holy Communion nurtures the grace imparted at baptism, renewing the believer and empowering him to keep the faith. Holy Communion is a kind of weapon in the ongoing battle between good and evil.

We might well say that Jesus, who had no sin, and thus no need for forgiveness, sanctified the water in His baptism so the water can sanctify us. Baptism enlists us into God’s army. Holy Communion strengthens us in battle as we fight as soldiers of Christ.

Baptism with water and in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is essential for the sacrament to be properly administered. Baptism with just water is not holy without the name of the One True God.

And should a baptism ceremony invoke any other name – including the popular in some circles designation of Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, the sacrament is not a sacrament but an act of willful disobedience. Jesus gave us His instruction and said If you love me you will keep my commandments. Surely, the sacrament of baptism as a part of the holy love of God should manifest our love for Him in obedience to His instruction.

Christianity is not first of all about us – it’s all about Him. It’s not about expressing ourselves. It’s about His self expressed through us. That’s called holiness. And the purpose of the Christian life is holiness – being alive in Christ as He lives in us. Hence, the Holy Spirit who through the Holy water employed in His holy name opens up the gates to a holy life.

But there’s more; the holy water of authentic baptism shares in the salvation power of the wine of Holy Communion. Remember in the account of the Crucifixion, the Roman centurion pierced our Lord’s side, water and blood poured forth. Both carry the power of salvation.
In some liturgical practice, water is mixed with the wine in a more authentic recapitulation of our Lord’s sacrifice.

As He commanded His disciples – and through them, He commanded us – to keep His sacrament, He instructed them to take the cup of wine and drink from it for the cup of wine was the cup of the new covenant in His blood that had been shed for the remission of sins. Water baptism for forgiveness of sins and communion for the remission of sins; the shared power of the sacraments.

Holy water – holy blood – holy life – in and through and by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Again, the purpose is a new life of holiness – in fact; eternal holiness for nothing unholy can enter into heaven. Simple as that.

Now I know that many of you may very well be thinking that many people you know do not know the Holy Spirit. Baptized properly and, in many cases, active church people, the Holy Spirit seems to play no role in their lives. They exhibit nothing in the way they live that indicates that holiness is for them any kind of a priority whatsoever. And we may question the sacrament that is supposed to impart the Holy Spirit when we see no evidence of that.

We need to remember that God gives us these sacraments for our sake. The grace given may not be received. And in some cases, the grace may be received but later ignored or even rejected. Or another possibility; the grace is received, then ignored and then embraced at the right time – at a time of God’s choosing to manifest its power.

Furthermore, the Holy Spirit moves, acts and works on His terms – not on ours. He’s perfectly free in His holiness and cannot be bound by our demands, perceptions or expectations.

Having said that, let me give you an example of the mysterious and marvelous ways the Holy Spirit can work. I speak frequently with a man in his early thirties in whom I have seen the workings of he Holy Spirit. He grew up in a totally dysfunctional family – both parents being serious and abusive alcoholics. I will spare you the details but his childhood was anything but fun. Yet, he had been baptized in the Roman Catholic Church and had some Christian education.

He was always getting into trouble – fist fights, petty theft – expelled from school many times – always in trouble with minor violations of the law. Amazingly, he never went to jail although, by his own words, he should have. As he got older, total promiscuity dominated his life. Mixed with heavy and ever increasing drug usage and dealing, well he’s lucky he’s alive. He got into serious trouble not with the police but with the big time drug dealers. That’s a story in and of itself.

But luck had nothing to do with it. Although no one would have discerned the working of the Holy Spirit in this young man as a teenager and young adult, the Holy Spirit was in fact working. Six years ago, he truly and completely turned his life around – pardon the cliché. Repentance literally means to turn around. So the cliché works.

He goes to church regularly. He studies the Bible, has taken courses in Christian doctrine at his church, and has just been confirmed. Confirmation means the confirmation of one’s baptism – giving consent to the gift of grace already given – the grace already at work – the saving grace that alone can save.

He has met a great young lady. They will be married next year.

Now, what turned this man’s life around? What was the pivot point? As he tells the story, the only person about whom he really cared was his nephew. The little boy lived in a tumultuous unhealthy and abusive home. Our friend was determined not to let the boy get hurt by this environment.

One morning, passed out on the floor after several nights of total indulgence, his nephew – four and a half years old – found him and started to cry uncontrollably. He thought his uncle was dead. His uncle was his refuge, protector, and best friend. The one upon whom he could count. He functioned as the boy’s dad.

Seeing the broken hearted boy broke his heart and he stopped. He stopped drinking, dealing, shall we say tom catting, and cleaned up his act because of he wanted the love and respect of that child. He had a purpose in life greater than self-indulgence. He had been given a holy vocation – the protection of that child. And he became determined to do the best he could to fulfill that vocation.

But we have to go deeper. Where did that motivation to change come from? Remember, nothing that’s truly good and right and true can happen without the Holy Spirit. And that’s from where – or better expressed, from whom – this motivation – this power to cleanup his act came from. Sustained by the same spiritual power moving towards a life of greater holiness, his life has become a blessing to another life – in fact, to many other lives. And that is, once again, the whole point – a new and holy life.

We cannot judge how the Holy Spirit works. Our job is to walk by faith knowing that even the faith is a gift. So we trust in God as He gives us holiness in and through holy water – in and through holy blood – and in and trough His Holy Spirit in whom and through whom we live, both now and forever.

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, we pray for the powerful movement of your Holy Spirit in this world – in individual lives and in the life of this nation – and of all nations. Bless us with a full consciousness of your saving grace in the manifestation of your Truth. Grant to us your redeeming mercy. And bring us to ever increasing holiness in and through your Holy Spirit. We ask this in and through your Son,
our only Savior,
Jesus Christ the Lord,

Smart as Well as Wise

The Reverend J. Howard Cepelak

Trinity Church

Waltham, Massachusetts

Epiphany Sunday – Christmas I – New Year’s Day – 1 January 2012
The Sacrament of Holy Communion

Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12

From the Book of the Prophet, Isaiah:
Arise, shine; for your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you…. And all nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.

From St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians:
To me, though I am the very least of the all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ….

And From the Gospel According to St. Matthew:
The three wise men, often called the Three Kings, followed the star and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, our Strength and our Salvation,
Amen †

For some Christians, one of our Lord’s most problematic teachings is His instruction that we should be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Contrary to the sweet Jesus images popular in the contemporary church in which Jesus is always presented as meek and mild, we know from Scripture itself that He was street-smart – smart in the ways of this world as well as wise with the perfection of divine wisdom.

He knew human nature. He should; after all, He created it. He saw it fall. He knew sin and the essential corruption of the free soul as those created in His own image choose to disobey the source of their life to become obedient to death. That’s why He came to us.

He came to us as God made man, the divine veiled in the human so that we could see Him and know Him – and in knowing Him, love Him – and in loving Him, serve Him.

He came to us so that, given a second chance; we would choose Him over the Prince of Darkness. His light broke the darkness imposed on this world. And He sought us out – and continues to seek us out – so that we will seek His light and get out of the darkness. Arise! Shine, Your light has come! But make no mistake. Jesus Christ, the light of the world – this man was smart in the ways of the world.

The full teaching goes as follows. I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Good advice in those days; equally good advice today. We’ll get back to this in a minute.

The Gospel lesson set for Epiphany gives us the account of the Wise Men’s visitation to Jesus some twelve to eighteen months after His birth. Being astronomers as well as astrologers, they studied the stars and the constellations reading them to determine divine revelation. That was their job as magi, the magi being priests, diviners, seers, prophets, magicians and fortune tellers, as they served as intermediaries between God and man; or better expressed, between the gods and man.

The three Wise Men are designated as such because they were in fact very wise men – well educated not only in the just mentioned astrology and astronomy but also in religion, history, philosophy, and politics. Legend tells us that they were of royal lineage, wealthy, powerful, prestigious and impressive men in every way.

Being well educated in and of itself, does not necessarily make one wise. Wisdom is a quality of insight, perception, intelligence and talent that functions with or with out education, education being the accumulation of knowledge – important for sure but not the most essential aspect of wisdom.

Wisdom involves the gift of discernment – that is the ability to see the truth in a world of falsehoods disguised as truth and to know the liars from the truth tellers. The truly wise always know truth from falsehood – darkness from light. The three wise men were both well educated and wise. And also street smart. They could not only discern but could also apply what they had perceived.

Although gentiles and thus not among God’s originally chosen people, God nonetheless chose to reveal Himself to them in and through their religion to come to His. (His religion was and is the person of Jesus Christ.) They studied the stars. So He set for them a star.

Being smart as well as wise, they also were smart enough to follow worldly protocol as well as divine guidance. Being some kind of heads of state, they called upon the head of the Jewish state, King Herod. It was the polite thing to do – to call on the present King of the Jews as one sought the newborn and future King of the Jews. In so doing, they discerned that the present king feigned enthusiasm regarding the newborn King of the Jews failing to convincingly veil his fear. Later, in a dream, the Lord confirmed their perception and they were smart enough to leave the country without consulting with Herod. Smart move. Wise decision.

Not everyone can accurately perceive light from darkness, truth from falsehood and good from evil. In fact, we can be easily deceived. Thus, the image of us as sheep applies. Sheep are not very intelligent. The baby lambs are cute, warm and fuzzy. But the adult sheep will not be able to recognize evil. Easy prey for the wolves, the sheep become victims of their own stupidity.

That’s why sheep have shepherds; to lead them and guide them and protect them and save them. Hence, Christ the Good Shepherd. Without Him, all we like sheep have gone astray. And, having gone astray, we’re then led to slaughter. Being both wise and smart, the prophet, Isaiah, said precisely that having properly perceived that most people are neither wise nor smart but so easily deceived and preyed upon.

The Wise Men knew Isaiah’s prophecy. They knew that one day the One True God would send a Savior to His people – a King to rule in the perfection of wisdom, goodness and truth – a King who would be the light of the world whose light would defeat the present and future darkness – a King of Kings – a divine King whose righteousness and truth would save His people; but not only His people but also all people – for all people would become His chosen people. Hence, He chose these foreign kings to seek out and know – and love – the newborn King of the Jews who would be their King as well. And they would love Him for they would perceive that He was no threat to them but rather their fulfillment of their highest hopes and deepest desires.

They followed the star. They found the child and offered Him gold because in their wisdom they knew that everything even the wealth of this world belonged to Him. They presented frankincense – the necessary fragrance of worship because they could see that this little baby boy was also God made man. And they also presented myrrh, the ointment for embalming; for they knew that the baby would become the man who would somehow conquer even the power of death. Wise men. Divinely chosen. And smart to choose the One who had chosen them.

Being smart and wise, I wonder if they ever wondered why God has chosen them rather than any other wise men or kings. He sent that star to them. In all of their glory, wealth, wisdom, education, power and prestige, perhaps they, like St. Paul, felt unworthy of their new chosen status. I suspect that they did. After all, unlike the arrogant Herod, these kings wisely knelt before this One True King – humble in wisdom.

St. Paul considered himself to be the least of the saints – saints here referencing anyone who had acknowledged Jesus Christ as the Lord and savior all mankind. In the presence of the holy, one should feel unworthy. Yet the unseerachable riches of God’s saving work had been entrusted to him to proclaim salvation to the gentiles. God had commissioned Paul to carry out the mission that He had begun when He set a star for the gentile kings to follow so as to find their salvation.

And we, in our generation, being sheep in need of the One True Good Shepherd, being foolish even as we believe ourselves to be wise, and making stupid decisions against ourselves as we all too easily give ourselves over to deceivers – God has chosen us as well to receive Him into our hearts, bodies minds and souls – unworthy sheep but however unworthy, sheep of His fold.

Each of us has been commissioned to proclaim Christ’s light in the darkness that can so often overcome us.

As we live in an evil world, He tells us to be wise as serpent and innocent as doves – to perceive the truth and hold fast to it. To love with holy love and to be wise men and wise women.

He gave the Wise men the star. He gives us this most holy sacrament. The wise men followed the star and came to the Christ. We come to His table and find Him as well. By His grace He has disclosed to us the mystery hidden for ages but now revealed. And in Him – and through Him – we can live forever. So come to this sacred table, not because you must but because you may. Choose the One who has chosen you to live forever; a wise choice – a smart move.

Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, bless us with the grace to wisely perceive good from evil and make us smart enough to choose the good and defeat the evil. Let your light shine in our darkness and make of us a holy people, devoted in heart, in mind, in body and in soul to your Son,
Jesus Christ, the King of Kings
and the only Savior of the whole world,
Amen. †