Learning from Noah

Rev. Deacon Allen J. Batchelder

Trinity Church
Waltham, Massachusetts
February 26, 2012, Lent I

Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-10; I Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

From the Old Testament:
I will remember my covenant which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.

From the First Letter of Peter:
For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.

And from the Gospel of St. Mark:
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

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.

When I read the Old Testament and Epistle readings this morning referring to Noah, it brought back memories of a Bill Cosby comedy monologue he did in 1965, where he gave a humorous portrayal of the conversation that might have happened between God and Noah. It went something like this:

Noah was in his carpenter shop, sawing wood, when he heard a voice:
God: “Noah”
(Noah pauses, then continues to saw wood.)
God: “Noah”
Noah: “Who is this?”
God: “It’s the Lord!”
Noah: “Right. Where are you? What do you want? I’ve been good.”
God: “I want you to build an ark.”
Noah: “Right. What’s an ark?”
God: “Get some wood and I want it to be 300 cubic x 80 cubic x 40 cubic.”
Noah: “Right. What’s a cubic?”
God: “Go out and collect animals 2 by 2, male and female.”
Noah: “Who is this really? What’s going on here?”
God: “I am going to destroy the world!”
Noah: “Am I on candid camera?”

I see some of you still find this humorous.

God established a covenant with Noah, some Theologians refer to it as “The Noahic Covenant.” Though God spoke especially to Noah and his sons, this covenant includes all of Noah’s descendants and “all generations to come.” The covenant doesn’t stop there, however, for it also includes every living creature and “all living creatures of every kind.” Humans, birds, beasts, wild animals and especially ferrets are encompassed in this wonderful covenant.

In this covenant, God promised unconditionally that He would never send another flood to destroy all life on earth. As though to make it emphatic, three times He said “never again.” He didn’t lay down any conditions that men and women had to obey; He simply stated the fact that there would be no more universal floods. From that day on, Noah and his family could enjoy life and not worry every time the rain began to fall.

There were at least four times in the covenant, the Lord mentioned “every living creature.” He was speaking about the animals and birds that Noah had kept safe in the ark during the Flood. Once again, we’re reminded of God’s special concern for animal life.

In the Book of Revelation, when the Apostle John beheld the throne room of heaven, he saw four unusual “living creatures” worshiping before God’s throne, each one having a different face (Rev. 4:6-7). The first had a face like a lion, the second like a calf, the third like a man, and the fourth like an eagle. These four faces parallel the four kinds of creatures with whom God made this covenant: wild beasts, cattle, humans and birds. These creatures are represented perpetually before the throne of God, because the Lord is concerned about His creation. They remind us that all creation worships and praises the God who provides for His creatures and rejoices in their worship.

To help His people remember His covenants, God would give them a visible sign. His covenant with Abraham was sealed with the sign of circumcision (Gen. 17:11; Rom. 4:9-12), and the Mosaic Covenant at Sinai with the sign of the weekly Sabbath (Ex. 31:16-17). God’s covenant with Noah and the animal creation was sealed with the sign of the rainbow, they would remember God’s promise that no future storm would ever become a worldwide flood that would destroy humanity. The rainbow reminds us of God’s gracious covenant and the “many-colored” grace of God.

Rainbows are universal; you see them all over the world. God’s many-colored grace is sufficient for the whole world and needs to be announced to the whole world. After all, God loves the world, and Christ died for the sins of the world (1 John 4:10, 14).

But the rainbow isn’t only for us to see, for the Lord said, “I will look upon it” (Gen. 9:16). Certainly God doesn’t forget His covenants with His people, but this is just another way of assuring us that we don’t need to be afraid. When we look at the rainbow, we know that our Father is also looking at the rainbow; and therefore it becomes a bridge that brings us together.

God’s covenant with creation affects every living creature on earth. Without it, there would be no assured continuity of nature from day to day and from season to season. We would never know when the next storm was coming and whether it would be our last.

God wants us to enjoy the blessings He “gives us richly all things to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17). When you know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, the world of nature around you becomes much more wonderful, because the Creator has become your Father. The God of creation is the god of salvation. Trust Jesus Christ and you can then truly sing, “This is my Father’s world.”

The patriarch Noah was held in very high regard among Jewish people in Peter’s day, and also among Christians. He was linked with Daniel and Job, two great men found in the book of Ezekiel (14:19-20); and there are many references to the Flood in both the Psalms and the Prophets. Jesus referred to Noah in His prophetic sermon on the signs of the end: “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of man (Matt. 24:37-39).

What relationship did Peter see between his readers and the ministry of Noah? For one thing, Noah was a “preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5) during a very difficult time in history. In fact, he walked with God and preached God’s truth for 120 years (Gen. 6:3), and during that time he was certainly laughed at and opposed. The early Christians knew that Jesus had promised that, before His return, the world would become like the “days of Noah;” and they were expecting Him soon (2 Peter 3:1-3). As they saw society decay around them, and the persecution begin, they would think of our Lord’s words. Are we once again in the “days of Noah?”

Noah was a man of faith who kept doing the will of God even when he seemed to be a failure. This should certainly be an encouragement to Christians. If we measured faithfulness by results or numbers, then Noah would get a very low grade. Yet God ranked him very high!

But there is another connection: Peter saw in the Flood a picture or type of a Christian’s experience of baptism. No matter what mode of baptism you may accept or practice, it is certain that the early church practiced immersion. It is a picture of our Lord’s death, burial, and resurrection.
Many people today do not take baptism seriously, but it was a serious matter in the early church. Baptism meant a clean break with the past, and this could include separation from a convert’s family, friends, and job. Candidates for baptism were interrogated carefully, for their submission in baptism was a step of consecration, and not just an “initiation rite to join the church.”

The Flood pictures death, burial, and resurrection. The waters buried the earth in judgment, but they also lifted Noah and his family up to safety. The early church saw in the ark a picture of salvation. Noah and his family were saved by faith because they believed God and entered into the ark of safety. So sinners are saved by faith when they trust Christ and become one with Him.

When Peter wrote that Noah and his family were “saved by water,” he was careful to explain that this illustration does not imply salvation by baptism. Baptism is a “figure” of that which does save us, namely, “the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21). Water on the body, or the body placed in water, cannot remove the stains of sin. Only the blood of Jesus Christ can do that (1 John 1:7-2:2). However, baptism does save us from one thing: a bad conscience. Peter states that a good conscience was important to a successful witness, and a part of that “good conscience” is being faithful to our commitment to Christ as expressed in baptism.

It may be worth noting that the chronology of the Flood is closely related to our Lord’s day of resurrection. (Listen closely) Noah’s ark rested on Mt. Ararat on the seventeenth day of the seventh month (Gen. 8:4). The Jewish civil year started with October; the religious year started with the Passover in April (Ex. 12:1-2), but that was not instituted until Moses’ time. The seventh month from October is April. Our Lord was crucified on the fourteenth day, Passover (Ex. 12:6), and resurrected after three days. This takes us to the seventeenth day of the month, the date on which the ark rested on Mt. Ararat. So, the illustration of Noah relates closely to Peter’s emphasis on the resurrection of the Saviour.

Peter gave us several lessons that are relevant for today:

First of all, Christians must expect opposition. As it gets closer to Christ’s return, our good acts will incite the anger and attacks from godless people. Jesus lived a perfect life on earth, and yet He was crucified like a common criminal. If the just One who did no sin was treated cruelly, how can we expect to escape suffering? But the suffering should be for righteousness’ sake, and not because we have disobeyed.

A second lesson is that Christians must serve God by faith and not trust in results. Noah served God and kept only seven people from the Flood; yet God honored him. From those seven people, we take courage! For some people, Jesus appeared to be a failure when He died on the cross, yet His death was a supreme victory! When we look around this country, especially in New England, it may seem like Christianity is failing, but God will accomplish His purposes in this world. The harvest is not the end of a meeting; it is the end of the age.

The third lesson is that we can be encouraged because we are identified with Christ’s victory. This is pictured in baptism, and the doctrine is explained in Romans 6. It is the baptism of the Spirit that identifies a believer with Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-13), and this is pictured in water baptism.

When Jesus was baptized, the Spirit came on Him as a dove, and the Father spoke from heaven and identified His beloved Son. The people who were there did not hear the voice or see the dove, but Jesus and John did.

It is through the Spirit’s power that we live for Christ and witness for Him (Acts 1:8). The opposition is energized by Satan, and Christ has already defeated these principalities and powers. He has “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:18). And therefore we can go forth with confidence and victory.

Noah preached repentance. John the Baptist preached repentance. Jesus preached repentance. Repentance alone is not enough to save us, even though God expects believers to turn from their sins. We must also put positive faith in Jesus Christ and believe His promise of salvation. Repentance without faith could become remorse, and remorse can destroy people who carry a burden of guilt.

Another practical lesson is that our baptism is important! It identifies us with Christ and gives witness that we have broken with the old life and will, by His help, live a new life. The act of baptism is a pledge to God that we shall obey Him. To treat baptism lightly is to sin against God.

The important thing is that each Christian avows devotion to Christ and makes it a definite act of commitment. It is in taking up our cross daily that we prove we are true followers of Jesus Christ. Noah may have felt the task ahead was monumental, but his faith, righteousness and witness prepared the way for our baptism in Christ. Jesus Christ is the only Saviour, and the lost world needs to hear His Gospel.

Let us pray:

Most gracious and redeeming Lord. Flood our hearts, minds and souls with your redeeming grace. Give us a faith and endurance to accomplish the tasks you set before us. Baptize us with your Holy Spirit; cleanse us from all unrighteousness, that we may be witnesses to the lost. 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.


Reality Check – Ash Wednesday 2012

Trinity Church
The Reverend J. Howard Cepelak

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 Stength and our Salvation,
Amen. †

Here we are again. Another year has passed. Another Ash Wednesday has arrived offering us another opportunity for the ultimate reality check. That’s what Ash Wednesday is all about – a reality check that sets the transcendent reality of the saving power of The One True God over and against the tragic reality of an otherwise unredeemed world.

We have gone through another yearly cycle of the great occasions of holy worship in which we have celebrated God’s Incarnation at Christmas, our Lord’s victory over sin and death on Good Friday, and His Resurrection on Easter Sunday. We live each year – each day – indeed, each moment – alive in Him as He lives in us and lives with us in the power of and through the presence of His Holy Spirit. Without Him there is no life.

He has given to us His great gift of salvation. Without that, we truly have nothing. Without that we are nothing. Without Him there is nothing – nothing but vanity for without Him all that was and is comes to ashes and dust.

Furthermore, all that will be has already been – for there is nothing new under the sun – and that too comes to nothing – even the sun itself will either implode or explode. It’s just a matter of time. Hence, we say tonight, Remember O man, dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return. For that’s the only reality that can be – without Jesus Christ. Reality check.

Ash Wednesday proclaims this ultimate Truth – that in Jesus Christ, everything comes to perfection; all that’s good and right and true finally prevails as He and He alone defeats all that’s bad and wrong and false. In Him, life lives. In Him, death dies. And although tradition tells us that we should not say Alleluia during the Lenten season, yet it’s the only word we can say when we proclaim Christ’s victory – so we dare to say Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! even on Ash Wednesday.

His saving sacrifice gives us faith and allows us to hope. In Him we can love – really love – love in holy love and in that perfect, self-sacrificing holy love – perfectly manifested on the cross – we can live forever in the eternal love that cannot die.

Yes. This whole thing is one great big gigantic and most glorious love story – not a love story of worldly love but of transcendent love that redeems and saves – even redeems the vanity of all our other loves. The ultimate reality check. God’s perfect love saves us because He loves us. Simple as that.

God has revealed the quality of life lived without Jesus Christ. It comes to us in Holy Scripture in the Book of Ecclesiastes. In that short book of only ten pages, the preacher courageously declares the harsh and hopeless reality that without Jesus Christ all is vanity. That’s one of the preacher’s favorite words – vanity. The one word that both denotes and connotes hopelessness, emptiness, meaninglessness and despair. One might say that the Book of Ecclesiastes is the Ash Wednesday message.

In that despair, one can seek relief through sensual indulgence – but that blossoms and flourishes and then withers and fades. If one gives himself to unbridled sensual indulgence – sensuality created good but defiled by disease and deception – one can only indulge despair.

Another attempt that the unredeemed man makes in an effort to ease the pain is to take as much worldly wealth and power as he can unto himself in order to defend himself from victimization by holding the wealth and power to victimize. Hence, politics in any form – politics in every form – without redemption – brings an ever-increasing corruption. For all the talk of freedom and rights, without the Redeemer, we only have bondage and oppression.

Witness all of world history. Witness current history. Witness the present situation in which Christ-less people have placed their faith in a false political savior who lies and cheats and steals and yet calls all who do not know Jesus Christ unto himself. They believe his lies. They cheat in the name of justice. They steal as entitlement. He who currently lies and cheats and steals will eventually kill. Yet the Christ-less man and the Christ-less woman love him, defend him, live for him and will die because of him.

Scripture identifies him as the anti-Christ. To the best of our knowledge, the ultimate anti-Christ has yet to come – but he has many disciples preceding him, paving a highway for him. The Christ-less currently give themselves to the devil’s various disciples – many of whom invoke our Savior’s name. Some Christians will be deceived – and in the deception, they become Christ-less.

Another way to escape the despair is to seek the perfection of nothingness. In this vain pursuit, salvation comes as only the release from the unbearable pain of the Christ-less life. Total nothingness is better than overwhelming pain – its own kind of mercy. But nothingness – even perfect nothingness – is a void. The void will be filled with the very thing it seeks to a-void – eternal pain, perfect in its devastation – the perfect place for the anti-Christ to dwell without resistance – the cup of the void filled to overflowing with misery.

The preacher of Ecclesiastes concludes with these words in which reside only the faintest whisper of hope – but hope nonetheless – a hope in his time yet to be fulfilled. He instructs us saying,
Fear God, and keep his commandments;
for this is the whole duty of man.
For God will bring every deed into judgment…
whether good or evil.

Fear God. For the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom. And wisdom tells us that dust we are and unto dust we shall return.

But we also know that perfect love casteth out fear. And perfect love – the perfect holy love of The One True God perfectly revealed on the Cross of Jesus Christ, the self-sacrificing Savior who alone saves our sin sick souls.

His cross stands as the ultimate reality check.

Dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.

But also, (paraphrase)
I know that my redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.
After my awakening, he will raise me up;
And in my body I shall see God.
I myself shall see,
and my eyes behold him…and not another.
For he is to me a friend and not a stranger.

Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, as we acknowledge our mortality in your presence, so we also trust in your redeeming love and in your saving sacrifice. Bless us with the humility necessary to receive our redemption and bless us even more with the joy of our salvation
given in, on and through the cross of your Son
our only Savior,
Jesus Christ the Lord,
Amen. †

Up on the Mountain – Up on the Cross

The Reverend J. Howard Cepelak

Trinity Church

Waltham, Massachusetts

Epiphany VII – Transfiguration Sunday – 19 February 2012

II Kings 2:1-12, Psalm50:1-6, II Corinthians 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-9

From the Second Book of Kings:
As Elijah and Elisha were walking and talking, behold, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two…and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.

From St. Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians:
If our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case, the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light….

And From the Gospel According to St. Mark:
Jesus took with him Peter, James and John, and led them up to a high mountain apart by themselves; and he was transfigured before them…and there appeared to them Elijah with Moses….

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

Epiphany, the liturgical season that emphasizes God’s self-revelation to the world in His Son, Jesus Christ, always ends with the account of our Lord’s Transfiguration in a vision given to Peter, James and John. This, being the last Sunday in the season, we celebrate this great event. That’s how the season ends.

Now Epiphany always begins with another revelation again given to three men – this time the Three Wise Men – in which God revealed to these gentile royal dignitaries that the infant King of the Jews whom they came to see was also their King as well. God had revealed to them, having summoned them by a brilliantly shinning star, that He, the One True God, had taken on human flesh for the sake of the salvation of the whole world – the Jewish world and the Gentile world alike.

For the Three Wise Men, their visit to that house in Bethlehem, some twelve to eighteen months after our Lord’s birth in a stable, was a pivotal event. Scripture tells us that the divine revelation changed their lives. So much so that they presented to the little child their gifts of gold, representing worldly wealth, frankincense used exclusively for divine worship and myrrh, the ointment used for anointing the dead. Gifts from the royal wise men to the royal infant king – but not only royal but also divine. God offered His revelation. The Three Wise Men received it. It changed their lives.

Although Scripture only tells us that they returned to their home country, we have to rely upon legend to tell us what happened after they got home. One account claims that all three came from Persia. When they got home, they told everyone what they had seen and thus laid the foundation for the eventual Christianization of that country.

Another legend claims that each Wise Man or King came from a different country; one from Persia, another from Asia Minor, present day Turkey, and the third from Africa. When each returned to his own country, he laid the foundations there for the eventual reception of Christianity.

In just the same manner, the Transfiguration of our Lord high up on that mountaintop in a stunning vision given to Jesus’ three closest friends and trusted disciples, represented a pivotal event in their lives as well. God had revealed to Peter, James and John, all faithful Jews, that their master, teacher, healer and friend, Jesus, was the true Messiah – the One who fulfilled both the Law and the prophets of the Jewish religion.

In the vision, Peter, James and John saw Jesus radiating a brilliant light standing with Moses the Lawgiver and Elijah, the most important of all the Hebrew prophets. So important was Elijah that he alone among all of the prophets was assumed into heaven in a whirlwind. Elijah and Moses stood together with Jesus in a cloud from which they heard a voice from heaven say, This is my beloved Son; listen to him.

There was a reason – a very practical reason – for this retreat to the mountaintop. Jesus had taken Peter, James and John up on a mountaintop where they could be away from the crowds. Crowds had been following Jesus wherever He went in those days. He had healed many people from all sorts of afflictions. He had cast out many demons. His reputation had spread. Multitudes of people came to Him seeking healing either for them or for a loved one.

Jesus needed a break. He needed a rest. All of this work took energy. Remember when the woman with the hemorrhage touched the hem of his cloak? Jesus felt the power go out from Him. We can assume that this was the case whenever He healed or cast out a demon. The energy would go out from Him. Now he needed a little rest and relaxation. He healed by virtue of His divine nature. He rested because of His human nature. So, He and His three closest friends went up to the mountaintop.

High up on the mountain, God changed the lives of these three disciples. From that moment on they knew that Jesus was the Savior. Everything had changed. They had been blessed with this great revelation. But there was more to come. God’s full manifestation remained incomplete.

They did not know what would have to happen to complete the epiphany. As they stood up on that mountain, Jesus had yet to hang up on the cross. He had yet to die and rise from the dead. He had yet to ascend up into heaven. But that would come. And again, Peter James and John would never be the same again. Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection is the ultimate pivot point in anyone’s life. Everything turns on the cross.

Peter, James and John spent the rest of their lives proclaiming the saving power of God in Christ to the ancient world. And the world was never the same again. Human history had turned on the pivot point of the cross.

That’s what happens when you come in contact with the One True God – when you come to know Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, the crucified and risen Savior of the whole world who fulfilled the Hebrew Law and prophecy but also all pagan philosophy and religion as well. Knowing Jesus as the Christ – as the crucified and risen Savior – is the pivot point. When the revelation comes, one can never be the same again.

The unique quality of our Lord’s perfect revelation changes everything that anyone has or can ever believe. Law of some sort makes up the content of most religions. Our Ten Commandments have parallels – not necessarily exact parallels – but similar teachings in every religion. But law in any form cannot save. It serves as a standard for judgment but not for salvation. It is, as St. Paul points out, the agent for the recognition of sin. But it does not defeat death. It cannot offer resurrection. In fact, faith in the Law rather than in the Savior is a veil to the light of the Gospel as well.

The same applies to prophecy. Prophecy comes and goes. Right now, as in the first century, prophecies of the end of the world abound. Some claim the end is coming because the sun will either implode or explode. Some say the end is coming because mankind has fallen to new lows of human moral depravity. Others claim that God is so thoroughly disgusted with us that He can no longer tolerate the disgrace. And still other say that the end is coming because of the human affliction of the planet causing either global warming or global cooling – environmental sins against Mother Nature. We will either roast to death or freeze to death. But prophecies of all sorts currently abound.

Prophecy of this sort again cannot offer deliverance from sin and death no matter how one defines sin or explains death. Only God has the power for ultimate deliverance with the perfection of life.

Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. Salvation simply is not available in any other religion, philosophy or belief system of any sort. Truly, if you push any other religion – any other faith – to its end, to its outer limits, you can only come to Christ. The best of any human aspiration can only find fulfillment in the only Savior of all mankind.

The three Wise Men and the three disciples received the revelation to which God had called them. Anyone who comes to God in Christ comes because he has been called.

But called still requires reception. St. Paul wrote about how the god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light. True then as it is now. Pagan religions abound as people today make up their own faith systems of bits and pieces of whatever appeals to them at any point in time. Nature religion, perhaps the oldest form of paganism currently enjoys a tremendous popularity in he form of environmentalism.

Humanism, the pagan deception of human self-salvation also holds great appeal to many. People believe that a governmental system of human creation – following an economic structure of forced compliance – with human life being perfected through the exercise of human intelligence – well, nothing can ever be more destructive. Human beings cannot perfect themselves or their society. Tried over and over again in human history and failing every time it’s tried, nonetheless people will still place their faith in these deceptions.

God has given us His perfect revelation. He has called us unto Himself. But He still leaves us with the choice. Receive Him or reject Him – one or the other.

Our job, as God has called us into His eternal saving Truth, is to proclaim it, as did the wise men and the disciples. We cannot force acceptance. We can only offer it. And that’s all we can do until He comes again.

With this in mind, let us pray.
Heavenly Father, grant us the wisdom of the wisest men and the conviction of the greatest disciples. Give us we pray the courage to proclaim your saving Word in all conditions of life, and to live our lives as manifestations of deep faith, high hope and holy love, that we may worship and serve you in all that we say, in all that we do and in all that we are,
to the honor and glory of your Son,
our only Savior,
Jesus Christ the Lord,
Amen †

Spiritual Fitness

The Reverend J. Howard Cepelak
Trinity Church

Waltham, Massachusetts

Epiphany VI – 12 February 2012

II Kings 5:1-14, Psalm 30, I Corinthians 9:24-27, Mark 1:40-45

From the 2nd Book of Kings:
Elisha the prophet said to Na’aman, commander of the Syrian army and a leper, Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.

From St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians:
Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.

From the Gospel According to St. Mark:
And a leper came to him beseeching him, and kneeling said to him, If you will, you can make me clean…. Jesus …touched him and said, I will; be clean.

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 Sunday, the 5th Sunday after Epiphany, is much better known across the country and to a much larger number of people as Super Bowl Sunday. The whole nation watched with great interest and enthusiasm as the New England Patriots battled it out with the New York Giants for victory. Sadly for us, the Giants won.

But those who played in that game have become part of both American cultural history as well as American sports history. Names like quarterbacks Eli Manning and Tom Brady and coaches Bill Bellichich and Tom Coughlin will be remembered for generations to come. They are sports heroes – admired, respected and in some cases, the objects of hero-worship. Little boys will look up to them, model their lives after them and want to grow up to be just like them.

Young athletes learn very quickly that to become a great athlete means years of hard training. That involves hours, days, months and years of practice, exercise, careful diet and long workout schedules. It means a life of self-control and self-denial if one wants to win the trophy – to win the prize. All the hard work and sacrifice becomes worth it when you win the prize.

Keep this in mind as we talk about St. Paul – a man who knew about self-discipline, self-control and the importance of winning the prize.

One of the things that made St. Paul such an effective evangelist was his ability to understand and relate to the complex cultural and religious environment in which he lived. Having grown up a Pharisee, he was well educated in the Jewish religion. As he zealously defended his faith in the face of the threat of the newly emerging Christian church, he came to know Christianity as well. We know the account of his conversion and how he became one of history’s most important evangelists. But, on top of that, he was equally well versed in all the gentile philosophies and pagan religions popular in the first century Roman Empire.

The cultural atmosphere in those days had become heavily Romanized in all parts of the empire. Greek and Roman culture, lifestyle, social values, morals and ethics had saturated Palestine, strongly influenced the Jewish people and had changed Hebrew culture. This had become so profound that the most popular text of the Hebrew Scriptures was written in Greek – not in Hebrew. Many faithful Jews knew and studied Hebrew, but the majority of people spoke Greek or Aramaic – perhaps even Latin. Hebrew had become a minority language.

The Greek and Roman influence determined what most people thought, believed and how they lived. One of the most popular aspects of that pagan culture was the enthusiastic participation in sports.

Athletic competition played no role in traditional Jewish life. The glorification of the body, and exposure in the games violated every aspect of the inherent modesty practiced in ancient Jewish culture and religion. Devoted Jews avoided any kind of carnal display.

But casual Jews – and that probably meant most of the people – participated in sporting events in some way. Sports were then as they are now, fun. Although some participated literally for the fun of it, others took sport very seriously, keeping a rigorous discipline of practice, exercise and diet so as to become good enough in the games to win the prize. The love of sport was as strong then as it is now – the desire to win as well.

St. Paul often spoke of the athlete’s rigorous discipline in living as a model for living the Christian life. The sportsmen kept such a discipline to win a perishable prize – a laurel wreath. But the Christian who practiced self-control as a means to live a holy life would win an imperishable prize – the prize of eternal life in God’s heavenly kingdom. Hence the apostle encouraged the members of the early churches to be as self-controlled in their Christian spiritual life as the great athletes were in quest for worldly honor and glory. The athlete has to be physically fit – the faithful Christian, spiritually fit.

Spiritual fitness most certainly means adhering to a healthy spiritual diet, avoiding spiritual junk food. Spiritual junk food means all those things that make us feel good regardless of whether or not they’re true. Examples abound.

Let me list just a few. The idea that everyone goes to heaven when he dies or that being a good person is equivalent to being a good Christian – or that being nice is the same as being good – or I can be a good Christian without going to church or if I am faithful, God will bless me with health, wealth and happiness – on my terms or all you need is love or it doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you’re sincere or that all religions are basically the same and all lead to God or that God is just too big to be contained in just one religion – (as if religion’s purpose were to contain God) – all of this and so much more represents spiritual junk food to be avoided by anyone who seeks spiritually health and fitness.

It takes a significant degree of self-control in order to avoid feeding on this tempting array of corrupting notions. It requires – yes, requires – a discipline of prayer, Bible study, meditation, contemplation, reflection, self-sacrifice and most importantly, participation in a true church that offers authentic worship. Authentic worship in a true church is most important because it includes all of the above within the context of joyful praise and heartfelt gratitude.

Spiritual junk food weakens the soul; it will make you sick. Spiritual fitness strengthens the soul; it will make you healthy. Authentic worship strengthens the soul more than anything else.

Think of the spiritually strong people of which the Bible speaks. Men like Elisha the prophet. Spiritually strong and fit, he lived a life that honored and glorified God in everything that he said and did.

He had become so well know as a man of God that even foreigners came to him for healing – people who did not believe in the One True God but who believed that this holy man could restore to them health. Hence, we have the account of the foreign Commander of the Syrian army, Na’aman. He suffered with leprosy.

As much as he would have liked to believe that he could be healed in his own country by washing the rivers of his homeland – those waters had not cleansed him – it was only by washing in the waters of the Jordan was he cleansed. And not just by washing – but by washing in obedience to the command of a strong and powerful holy man – Elisha the prophet. Truly, the water was not the primary cleansing agent. Obedience to holiness was the force that cured him.

That healing, as well as all healing, comes from God and from Him alone – no matter how, where, by what means or through whom or to whom the healing comes – all healing comes from God. Healing for non-believers – even healing for notorious sinners -testifies not to our goodness or deserving, but to God’s great mercy and amazing grace.

This morning’s Gospel account of our Lord’s healing of the leper reveals an important lesson for all of us. He said to Jesus, and I paraphrase, If you want this to happen, I can be healed. If your will is that I be healed, it will happen. And Jesus responded to him saying, I will your health – and the man was healed. Hence, we see that the will of God manifested and revealed in His Son, Jesus Christ, was and is and will be forever that all will be healed.

So then, why do sickness, suffering and disease continue to dominate the human condition? Why do people – even faithful people who keep a rigorous practice of self-control, self-denial and pious devotion – why do they suffer?

We have no one answer in Scripture. We have several. Sometimes we suffer as a consequence of unrepeanted sin, living a reckless life that literally makes us sick. Sometimes we can attribute our sickness to belief in spiritual junk, that is, placing our faith in falsehood. This always results in some kind of mental illness – always!

Sometimes we suffer not so much because of sin but rather as a means to manifest faithfulness in adversity, as did our Lord Himself on the cross of our salvation. Suffering comes at times as a test of faith or as a means to cause us to turn to God. Sometimes we suffer to strengthen our spiritual devotion through exercising it in difficult times. But we know that God will finally heal us.

Healing is God’s will. It may or may not come in this life. It will most certainly come in the life of the world yet to come – in life in the Kingdom of God – in the Kingdom of Heaven. It comes spiritually as our souls, upon death to this world, fly to the gates of heaven – and physically when, at the end of time, our Lord opens the graves and raises us up in our bodies. He rose from the grave and we shall, too.

As we are spiritually purified, as Elisha the prophet so often purified water, so our bodies will be purified from every form or manifestation of disease or affliction. We will be raised perfected in the image that God had originally intended for each of us – uniquely reflecting some aspect of His perfect will.

Keeping spiritually fit in this life means that we win the prize – not a perishable wreath of fleeting honor or glory – but the eternal prize of the full perfection of life lived to the honor and glory of God – the prize of ever increasing and unimaginable joy. We exercise self-control, self-denial and self-discipline not so much as to win – because salvation comes as a gift – but so as to be able to receive that gift as He gives it.

But most importantly, we need to keep a rigorous discipline of prayer, study, meditation, doing good works and faithfully worshipping the One True God perfectly revealed in His Son, our only Savior, Jesus Christ the Lord. Feeding on His Word enlightens our minds and strengthens our hearts.

And feeding on Him in His great Sacrament of Eternal Life nourishes our souls. He said, Take. Eat. THIS IS MY BODY, broken for you. The ancient liturgy states, Take this in remembrance that Christ died for thee. Feed on Him in thy hearts by faith with thanksgiving. We are what we eat. That keeps us spiritually fit in this life as we await the prize of eternal life, given in and through our crucified and risen Savior, Jesus Christ the Lord.

And one last word. We need to be spiritually fit to fight as soldiers in God’s army – not just as athletes in a game. This world, having fallen, continually wages war against The One True God. Faithfulness to Him practiced in a life of self-denial and self-control is our greatest weapon as we seek to defeat the corruption, lies, deceptions and evils of the current generation. The spiritual battle rages with grotesque physical manifestations. God calls us to fight the good fight and win under the sign of the cross of our salvation.

Let us pray.
Heavenly Father fed us with the bread of life. Deliver us from spiritual deception. Keep us healthy, strong and fit so that we can fight as soldiers armed with your saving truth. And bless us we pray with the victory that you have won for us in and through your Son,
Jesus Christ,
the only Savior of the whole world.
Amen. †

In Search of Healing

The Reverend J. Howard Cepelak
Trinity Church

Waltham, Massachusetts

Epiphany V – 5 February 2012
The Sacrament of Holy Communion

Annual Meeting

Isaiah 40:21-31, Psalm 147:1-11, I Corinthians 9:16-23, Mark 1:29-39

From the Book of the Prophet, Isaiah:
The LORD… gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might, he increases strength… they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

From St. Paul’s 1st Epistle to the Church at Corinth:
The apostle wrote, Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel.

From the Gospel According to St. Mark:
After healing Simon – Peter’s mother-in-law, the whole city was gathered about the door. And he healed many of them who were sick with many diseases and cast out many demons, and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

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. †

As I look back over 40 years of ordained ministry in the Church of Jesus Christ, I am convinced that most Christians – most church people – neither know nor understand how important they are to God. I know that most people come to the Lord in search of something -in search of some kind of healing, be it for a specific illness or disease or for something less clearly identifiable – something more akin to the malaise and low-level and ongoing depression that comes with living life without Jesus Christ alive in that life. They come seeking a cure for the crippling existential anxiety that dominates their living because they’re not yet alive in Christ.

In this morning’s gospel lesson St. Mark tells us that the whole city gathered around the door of Simon-Peter’s mother-in-law’s house because they had heard that Jesus had healed her. So they came seeking healing for themselves or for a loved one. They came in droves; and He healed many- but not all. St. Mark gives us no explanation as to why Jesus healed many but not all. I can give no explanation – neither can any scholar or theologian that I have ever read. We simply have to trust that in sickness and in health, God continues to work out His purpose. And we also know that His purpose is always salvation.

Jesus also cast out demons – a kind of healing – in fact, the kind of healing that most of us need more than any other kind and yet few of us will ever even admit to even having the affliction. Being possessed by demons sounds much too medieval, superstitious, un-enlightened or ignorant. Yet demons do take possession and those upon whom they have the greatest hold are probably the ones least likely to admit it. Remember, the serpent is subtle. Evil always comes disguised – always!

Maybe we’re reluctant to acknowledge the existence of demons because we have a cartoon like image of them – as little devils with pitchforks that fly around making life miserable for as many as they can afflict. The fact is that demons are spiritual forces, powers, influences, attitudes, falsehoods, deceptions, and all those things that work on behalf of misery, despair, cruelty, violence, evil and death that can take hold of a person and destroy his life. They’re personal because they work in and through persons as well as have lives of their own.

To name a few – hatred, malice, pride, prejudice, greed, lust, envy, covetousness, inordinate anger, anxiety, fear, vengeance – well, complete your own list. The spiritual powers behind all of the above are the demons.

For further understanding, let me contrast demons with their opposites, angels. If you have ever become overcome with rage, you’ve been possessed – for a short time – by demonic anger. But on the other hand, if you have been filled with righteous indignation at some great injustice, then an angel has touched you in an effort to motivate you to correct what’s wrong. You can see the difference. (Both angels and demons motivate behavior.)

As Jesus cast out demons, we read that he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. We know that at this point in His ministry, Jesus did not want to be known as the Messiah or even as a great healer. His time had not yet come. He went about teaching, calling for repentance for the sake of the Kingdom of God, and doing good things healing many, but He wanted to keep his identity quiet until the right time.

Hence, He did not permit the demons to speak -because they knew Him. He did not want to be identified as the Savoir – not yet.

I always find it fascinating that so many good people have so many doubts, questions and concerns about the true nature of Jesus Christ and His Messiah ship. Doubt and fear, the enemies of faith -and only defeated by the power of faith – come from those spiritual forces who oppose the Christ. Being overwhelmed by doubt and fear is a sign of demonic activity and in the extreme, actual possession.

Even for those who deeply believe, demonic attack can and does happen. In fact, because of one’s faith and the quality of one’s Christian life, well that can serve as almost a magnet for the demons – they cannot stand to see a good soul who lives – and laughs – and loves – and works – and prays – and experiences the joy of life. Such a person can become a target. Faith prevents the attack from becoming a possession. Faith empowers the soul and defeats the enemy.

We also need to remember that whenever any of us is about to do something that’s good and right and true – to do anything that is holy – the demons will appear. It always happens.

Jesus Christ, the only Savior of all mankind – is demon enemy #1.

Just as I know that most Christians do not realize how important they are to God and to His work in this world, so I am also convinced that most church people seek to avoid that part of discipleship that involves being soldiers of Christ. Preferring the peace of God that passes understanding to spiritual warfare -forgetting that both of these realities are equally valid, important and part of life until He comes again – well, we all too often fail to report for duty when the battle ensues. Even when called, many go AWOL.

The unholy war against Christianity continues today as it has throughout the ages because the bad guys have no doubt about the enemy – they know him and seek to destroy Him so as to take possession of His followers.

Right now, all over the world and even here at home, the war against Christianity and against Christians is escalating. Last week, the American Roman Catholic bishops issued a letter to be read in every parish church exposing the effort to force Catholic hospitals, schools and other related institutions to provide birth control. Roman Catholic hospitals will be forced to administer abortions. If they refuse – and by the grace of God WILL REFUSE – the government will fine them – huge amounts – which the institutions cannot pay. The government will put them out of business and, as has happened before in corrupt human history, confiscate the property.

Never before in our history has anything like this happened. It’s all part of the ongoing spiritual war. Being forced by corrupt law to violate The One True Faith is in and of itself demonic – as well as unconstitutional in the United States of America.

All of this is happening as another religion, living under another law, a demonic law, glorifies killing those who oppose their religion. As the powers that be demand that we tolerate all religions and spiritualities, no one demands that the religion that seeks to destroy us be tolerant of us. They call this unholy war a holy war. But that’s the way the bad guy works. Deception is his favorite weapons.

St. Paul faced the same issues that we face today. He knew the importance of every believer to faithfully bear witness to the Christ. It was so important that he said to the church at Corinth – a place in which the spiritual war was raging in the ancient world – he said, Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel. Not all of us are called to be preachers, but all of are called to tell the story. For better or for worse, God has decided do His work in this world in and through us. If we fail, Woe to all of us!

This is one of the reasons why this church should not close – not so long as the Lord has provided us with an opportunity to carry on. Another church closing in Waltham causes rejoicing in the hearts and minds of those who favor demons over angels – in those deceived and working consciously or unconsciously for the wrong side and for those who, for whatever reason, hate all that’s good and right and true.

We can feel overwhelmed. We can feel as if we’re too weak to fight the good fight. But, if we take the Lord’s side, He will show us the way. He will sustain us in this and in every battle. He has always sustained His people when they faithfully served Him. Hence, His prophet, Isaiah could proclaim,
He gives power to the faint
and to him who has no might,
he increases strength…
those who wait upon the Lord
shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary
they shall walk and not faint.
This can happen here.

Many of us are tired. Many of us are weary. But all of us can be empowered to work for God’s kingdom and serve is His army if we simply follow Him. He will cast out our demons of discouragement and despair. He will lift us up with wings like eagles. He will nurture and sustain us. He will grant to us the strength, the power and the allies necessary to bear a faithful witness to Him in this city.

Always remember – we’re so important to God that He took on our human nature to transform it. Jesus Christ, lifted up on the cross to fight the demonic forces of sin and death lifts us up. He fought. He won. We win through Him.

He gave Himself for us so that we can give ourselves to Him – and win. In this Sacrament of Christian Nurture, He strengthens us for the battle. If we feed on Him He will give us the victory. So feed on Him in thy hearts, by faith and with thanksgiving – and win.

Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, deliver us from the temptation to give up to the forces that work against you and that seek to destroy us. Empower us to fight the good fight and, by faith, come to your victory won on the cross for the sake of our salvation in this world and in the world yet to come. Keep us faithful, good Lord, surround us with your angles and bring us at last to your heavenly kingdom,
in and through your Son
our only Savior,
Jesus Christ the Lord.
Amen. †