My nephew has recently picked up a bad habit. Lying. Whether it’s just a phase he is going through or if developmentally he has just realized that he can make up stories and try to get away with things… it hasn’t been working. His parents see right through his lies. They catch him all the time. But they couldn’t figure out how to get him to stop doing it.
But they recently got some advice and figured out a new way to discipline him. Each time they catch him in a lie he has to pay them a dollar. Now, for a 7 year old, a dollar is a lot of money. And he has to go all the way up to his bedroom and get his piggy bank and pull out a dollar and come all the way back downstairs and pay up.
And since they have instituted this new form of punishment do you want to know how many times he has lied? Once – the first time – and it was so painful for him and it made such an impression on him that he hasn’t done it since.
As we come to the last chapters of the letter to the Hebrews this morning – we find that we have come full circle. We have gone from being accepted by Christ and called his brothers and sisters in chapter two – to being addressed as children of the Lord in chapter twelve. And like all children – like my nephew – we are going to learn a little bit about discipline.
All of that stuff that happens in between – all of those big words like Christology and atonement – they help us understand how we become children of God, but what really matters is that it happens. Because of what Jesus has done in his life, death, and resurrection life – we are restored and redeemed and we are now children of God.
We have been adopted into God’s household – but there are some changes that we are going to have to make in our lives – some new “house rules” if you will. Because what Christ did is set us on a new path – we have a new direction in this life and our job now is to run this race to the end.
We talked a little bit about that race last week – but today we are going to talk about what running this race is really like.
So first a question – How many of you here are runners? Not very many, I would imagine.
Running is very hard work. On and off for about 4 years I have tried to take up the habit of running. And I’ve learned that you have to start off slowly, step by step, little by little. If you tried to start off running 5 miles a day – you would cramp up and your heart would scream at you. But slowly, gradually, you can build yourself up to that point.
The reason why my attempts at running have been unsuccessful is very simple – I lacked the discipline it takes to become a runner.
I might start off good for a week – or maybe even two weeks. I would gradually increase my time running and my lungs would expand their capacity to take in air and my heart would become gradually stronger and my legs would slowly start to adapt to the work I was asking them to do…
…. but then I would get busy, or get tired, or get frustrated because I wasn’t seeing the instant results I wanted. And so I would skip a few days… and then those days would become two weeks, and then I had to start all over again. I couldn’t pick up where I had left off – because my body had already reverted to its pre-running stage.
What I really need is a running coach – someone to yank me out of bed in the morning. Someone to remind me of the basics and to teach me new skills. Someone to keep me on track. The kind of discipline that a running coach would encourage for their student… healthy eating, drinking plenty of fluids, warming up your body, and the part I dread: wind sprints, endurance running, and pushing yourself a little farther each day… is all designed to help create the best possible conditions for a running lifestyle. Each and every single thing is important to turn your body into a running body.
I don’t think its mere coincidence that our reading on discipline in Hebrews this morning comes right after the introduction of this race metaphor. Bill Long wrote that “discipline can not only ‘chisel’ or ‘sculpt’ the body…, but it can shape the soul.” And just like a runner, we are being asked to transform ourselves – mind, body, and soul – into something different. We are being asked to become different people – and that takes discipline.
What is true for my habit of running is often true for our spiritual race as well – the discipline we need often has to come from without.
The good news is that this race comes with its own coach. Hebrews 12:2 reminds us that we can look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfector of our faith who has tread this path before. When we look to him – who endured more than we could possibly imagine – we find the strength to keep going.
And then what we are asked to remember is that this race isn’t going to be easy. We are going to run through some rough terrain. We are going to bump elbows with people who are running different races and we might get pushed around in the process. There will be potholes and roadblocks and dead ends and hills and valleys along this race.
But in each of those struggles, in each of those trials, God is disciplining us – we are being shaped into children of God.
As verse 11 reminds us – discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Just like wind sprints strengthen and transform our hearts… although they make you feel like you are going to die in the process… so too does the discipline of God transform our lives.
Something that is rattling around in the back of my mind… and I want you to bear with me for just a minute, because I haven’t fully figured this bit out… is that discipline is not punishment.
Now – I know that in the version of the scriptures that you have printed there it actually uses the word punishment – but it is the only version that does so and I believe it’s a bad translation of the passage.. Almost every other version I have looked at uses the word “rebuke” instead of punishment…. God is expressing disapproval, God is correcting us. In the greek, the word is elegchomenos… literally, we are being exposed when we are on the wrong path or doing the wrong thing.
But the type of discipline that then is carried out is not some arbitrary punishment, God does not take pleasure in causing pain in our lives or seeing us struggle… but God’s discipline helps us to correct the mistakes in our lives… it is a training or teaching that will equip us for righteousness.
If I am running incorrectly and someone doesn’t point it out and correct my form, I could cause serious damage to my body. The initial correction might be tough, it might be painful and it might hurt my pride, but it will strengthen me for the long haul. So too, the discipline of the Lord puts us back on the right path and strengthens us for the tougher parts of the journey ahead. It will forge us into the type of people that God knows we can be.
What that also means is that God doesn’t send trials into our lives just for the sake of trials. God only disciplines us because we are loved and only disciplines us to correct missteps and to prepare us for the future.
I firmly believe that God doesn’t give us cancer to teach us something, or send hurricanes to shore to send us a message. Love is not the foundation of that kind of discipline.
But when tragedies befall us – when we face roadblocks – when we are rocked to the core by a death or a disaster… we can know that we have strength to endure because of what we have already been through and we can be assured that God will bring us through to the other side a stronger person than we were before.
The final thing that I want to say is that discipline not only happens between us and God, it also happens in a community.
John Wesley was really big on discipline. The very reason we are called Methodists today is because he and his friends had such a meticulous method to keep their minds and souls conditioned – to keep them running on the right path. Wesley often referred to an early church saying that “the soul and the body make a man; the spirit and discipline make a Christian.”
In the last chapters of Hebrews our joint responsibility for one another’s discipline is clear. “see to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God.” “make sure not root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble.” “ remember those who are in prison, as if you are in prison with them” “let mutual love continue” “remember your leaders… your earthly coaches… who are charged with watching over your souls…”
But we also remember that the same charge is given to us whenever we stand together and make our member ship vows. Each time we do so, I say to you:
“Members of the household of God,
I commend these persons to your love and care.
Do all in your power to increase their faith,
confirm their hope, and perfect them in love.”
Our job as Christians is more than to simply believe… we also must be in relationship with the living God… we must live our lives differently. And discipline is how we hold those two together. Discipline is how we make sure that our lives match our beliefs. It forms us into the kind of people God wants us to be. It is our training ground for the life to come. And the good news is – we are all in this together.