The Reverend J. Howard Cepelak
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.
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,
who lived and died and lives again
so that we can do the same,