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. †

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