Thursday, September 06, 2007

Sermon on Hebrews 12:1-13, “The Lord Disciplines Those Whom He Loves”

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is Hebrews 12, the Epistle reading. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Discipline. It’s a word that no longer strikes fear in the hearts of many children. It’s really an area where parents must admit that they have often failed their children. Perhaps it’s a word that more often strikes fear in the hearts of parents and those in authority! Discipline is such an unpopular idea, after all. As little as we enjoy receiving discipline, often we enjoy giving it even less. In my own stumbling way I am learning this lesson myself as a teacher. My own reluctance or hesitation to give out discipline at times, has opened the door for misbehaviors to persist. Under pressure from society and from our own changing attitudes about what it means to really “love” our children, discipline has become less practiced and seemingly less effective these days. Neglecting to discipline our children has its cost: they become more unruly and disrespectful of authority, they are delayed into maturing as adults, and often times we may be leaving them exposed to damaging behaviors and experiences that they didn’t know to avoid.

Last school year we had an excellent session with Dr. Mendez, one of Zach’s college profs, and he talked to our parents and school families about discipline. While I’m not going to repeat his presentation for you, nor is this the time for that, I want to recall four of the points he made about the characteristics of discipline. Drawing directly from the Scripture, he reminded us that 1) discipline is a necessary component of love, 2) discipline seems painful at the time, but the result is progress toward righteousness, 3) discipline takes courage, and 4) discipline leads to peace, happiness, and hope. Perhaps one of the hardest things for us as sinful humans to accept is the truth that discipline is a necessary component of love. The tempting and easier alternative to discipline, is for us to think that by not drawing boundary lines around our children we are loving them. We think that by allowing them the freedom to do and choose as they please, we are giving them the freedom we wish we had as children. Or that because we are more permissive with their behavior and choices, perhaps they will love us more. In some cases it almost seems like the roles of parent and child have been reversed, so that the child is the one making decisions, rather than abiding by what their parents say. Honor your father and mother has been turned on its head.

You are all familiar with the phrase, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” Although most people think that comes right from the Bible, it must be a popular paraphrase of Proverbs 13:24, because none of the English translations I found said it that way. The actual verse reads much more strongly, “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” So we are told that lack of discipline doesn’t simply spoil a child, it shows that we hate our children. Or as Hebrews says, we are treating them as illegitimate children and not true sons (and daughters). This is a tough pill to swallow, but its true. On the contrary, those who responsibly discipline their child, show that they in fact love them. Of course we will protest, “I don’t hate my child, the reason I don’t discipline them is because I love them. Maybe we have had bad experiences with discipline as a child. Either the parents were too harsh, or we were too naughty. So we overreact by neglecting to discipline. The Bible does warn about being excessively harsh and exasperating our children. “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Eph. 6:4) A difficult task for parents to learn is to figure out the constantly changing level of expectations and responsibilities for a growing child. A 3 year old cannot be disciplined for the same kind of behavior that a 7 year old would be, nor is the punishment going to be the same. (two lines illustration?)

But the important lesson from this Proverb is the same as from our reading today from Hebrews: Discipline is a necessary component of love. The Lord disciplines those whom He loves. Neither does the Proverb necessarily require that punishment for the purpose of discipline automatically be corporal. That question came up at Dr. Mendez’s presentation. It certainly permits corporal punishment, (spanking for example) as an acceptable form of discipline. Yet it does not say that is the only form of discipline. The Proverb states that discipline is what is necessary, not that the rod is necessary. Otherwise the verse would read, “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to use the rod.” I know I am thankful for the discipline I received, and feel that I am much better off for it. If I hadn’t been disciplined as a youngster, I might have turned out to be twice the “pest” I already am! And it also enabled me to mature faster than otherwise. (Though you may find witnesses to dispute that). But by failing to discipline our children, we often extend adolescence into adulthood.

So far parents and teachers have the brunt of it. But as we are all children of God here, this applies equally to all of us. Even those who have no children, or whose children are grown. The reason this passage from Hebrews touches on all of us is that we are all running the race that is marked out for us as Christians. The Greek word for “race” is agona—from which we get our word agony. There is a real struggle we are all engaged in, and that is the sometimes agonizing battle against sin. And this is precisely why we need discipline, which is spiritual and physical training for our bodies and souls. We need it because it’s so easy to become entangled, encircled by sin. After all, sin can be rather enticing, rather pleasant at times. Much easier to let the spider spin its web around us, than to struggle against it. That soft cocoon of sin can become quite cozy, no need to resist…but watch out! We are Satan’s prey, and he spins that entangling web of sin for our destruction!

So throw off the sin and hindrances, the obstacles in our race! How? Christ has cut the bonds of our sin that had us firmly wrapped, and each time our sins are forgiven a new strand has been cut again. We are running a race that has already been completed and won for us by Jesus, and we are to always look to Him as we complete this race. He is the author of our faith—the origin and one who wrote our names in the Book of Life and wrote our salvation. Not only has He written our story, but He is also the perfector, the finisher of it. He has finished the race, won the prize of our salvation and forgiveness. Our race is not about “placing” (Jesus already won), but rather it is about struggling to finish the race in faith.

In that struggle we need discipline. What another Proverb (22:15) says of children is also true for us: Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.” Foolish thinking is part of our nature, but discipline will drive it away. Sometimes our own foolishness is to think that in our struggle against sin, that we have resisted all the way to the breaking point, and that we had no other choice but to give in. That the temptation was simply too great, and there was no way out. But the rebuke of God’s Word ought to drive that foolishness away. This verse from Hebrews hit me powerfully not that long ago, “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” What humbling words! In Hebrews chapter 11, right before our text for today, we read about how some of the Old Testament saints were

tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— 38 of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.[1]

There were some people who really did resist to the point of shedding their blood. But this is not here merely to “put us in our place” and make us feel lousy about our failures to resist temptation. Rather it is a reminder to us that even our greatest struggles against sin are together with the saints of all ages, an echo of the greatest struggle and agony that was ever waged against sin. That is none other than the passion, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ! Our sufferings and struggles are but an echo of His pain endured on the cross for our justification. But in our struggles we are taking up our cross with Jesus, being supported and strenghthened by His strong arms, so that we will not grow weary and lose heart.

Christ has marked out and completed the race for us, and in His agony in the garden and the shame of the cross, He struggled on in our place. He has won the race for us vicariously—that means that He has won it as our substitute. In all the failings of our struggle against sin, He has taken our place and succeeded. He resisted the opposition of sinful men and the shame of the cross to the point of shedding His own blood. He resisted all sin and temptation, even the temptation of turning away from that most difficult death—He resisted it all to the point of shedding His own blood. But not in a futile struggle, only to be defeated! Driven ahead by the glorious joy that lay before Him, He endured the cross and by the very shedding of His innocent blood, He struck down the power that sin, death and the devil held over us. What joy was it that lay before Him, that drove Jesus so resolutely to go through such a death? It was the joy of accomplishing the reunion of God to man through His saving death—the joy of restoring all creation from sin and “making all things new.” It was for this joy, the joy of having mankind brought back together with God, for us to become His eternal possession and heirs of all His gracious promises. No whips or nails or thorns or cross was too great to turn Him aside from the path to that joy.

It is by fixing our eyes on this Jesus, and borne up by His unshakeable determination to have us restored to Him, that we can run onward for our race. With our faith and our attention always drawn to Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, we can endure all hardships and sufferings as discipline. Discipline that will not break us down or cause us to lose heart, but godly discipline that we respectfully submit to, knowing that God is treating us as true sons. The Lord disciplines those whom He loves. Through faith in Jesus, we can view our sufferings as a “slight momentary affliction…preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” (2 Cor. 4:17) We endure this present discipline, knowing that God is doing it for our good, to produce His holiness in us, and that this is all preparation for the eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. That sounds like the joy that was set before Jesus. And it is the joy that is set before us. The reunion of God with man through the work of the completer, the finisher, the perfecter of our faith: Jesus Christ. Discipline may be unpleasant and painful now, but it will be a forgettable momentary affliction for us when we have reached the end of our race, and share in all the victory celebration and rejoicing for the prize of eternal life, won for us by Jesus, our Finisher. Amen.

Now the peace which passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting, Amen

[1]The Holy Bible : English Standard Version. (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Heb 11:35-38.

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