Date: August 25, 2019 (Proper 16, 11th Sunday after Pentecost)
Text: Hebrews 12:4-29
Preaching Occasion: St. Paul Lutheran Church, Union, MO
Exegetical Statement: In this epistle to the Hebrew Christians, the author reminds them of their high status as God’s children. Because they are God’s children, they receive His discipline, which belongs to the nature of a father. If they did not receive His discipline, they would be illegitimate children. Even though they have not yet suffered martyrdom, their discipline appears to be quite painful for them, yet the author reminds them that this discipline during suffering produces their righteousness (or holiness) in Christ. For they do not approach the God who appeared in terrifying might on Mt. Sinai, but the God—who is the same God—on Mt. Zion, where they meet their Mediator, Jesus Christ, whose blood provides atonement for their sins, which is more innocent than the innocent blood of Abel.
Focus Statement: God the Father loves you by disciplining you as His dearly beloved children in order to be trained in His holiness.
Function Statement: That my hearers may delight in their Christian discipline through their participation in life and the Divine Service.
Sermon Hymn: #594 God’s Own Child, I Gladly Say It
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
“For the Lord disciplines the one He loves and chastises every son whom He receives,” says our Hebrews text.
Discipline and rebuke. We like neither of these things. Discipline requires hard work and training, as well as vigilance to retain the training. Believe me, I know how hard this can be not just as a veteran, but also as a Vicar. Now, rebuke? Or chastisement? This means you’ve done something wrong, and the one who disciplines you needs to tell you you’ve done something wrong and you need to do better and be better. You know they’re right, but in your self-righteousness you attempt to justify yourself. Even when you’re wrong, you try to prove you’re right.
Just look at the state of politics right now. Democrats and Republicans. They are seemingly polar opposites of each other. Neither one is perfect; neither one can save you. Neither one is willing to admit when they are wrong. Instead, they justify themselves and their strongly held philosophies. Why? Because, quite frankly, they lack discipline, particularly they lack the discipline of the Lord.
And when they’re rebuked? Insults are thrown! The Left say, “You’re a bigot, a racist! You’re deplorable!” The Right say, “You’re evil! You’re godless! You are the party of Satan!” Neither listen; neither desire constructive criticism. In the words of Simon & Garfunkel in their famous song, The Sound of Silence, they are, “People talking without speaking. People hearing without listening.”
If I put you on edge, good. These self-righteous acts of self-justification are not unique to politics. This is the natural human condition. When a brother or sister in Christ, a friend, or a parent tells us we’ve sinned, what do we do? We usually try to justify ourselves. We get offended and defensive. And attempting to pull the log out of our brother’s eye before we recognise the log in our own eye, we retort, “No! You’re wrong! Here’s what’s wrong with you!” Like our first parents in the Garden of Eden, we push the blame off ourselves and place it on someone else, attempting to hide in their shame rather than standing stark naked in our own and owning up to it.
Why do our brothers and sisters in Christ, our friends, and our parents discipline and rebuke us? Is it because they hate us? No! Assuming they’re coming to us in a peaceful manner, they do so because they love us, even if they do it out of anger, because where they are coming from (hopefully) is the Word of God, for it is God’s Word that tells us when we’re wrong. It is God, then, who is disciplining and rebuking us. This is nothing new. This has always been the case for God’s people since antiquity, such as the original recipients of this Hebrews text.
Discipline & Rebuke
Who are the original readers, or hearers, of this text? The name of the book gives it away: Hebrews—that is, Hebrew Christians; and an even further clarification: Jews who had converted to Christianity. Apparently, these people are struggling against sin. In what way are they struggling, or suffering? Because these people are Jewish converts to Christianity, considering the historical context, they were very likely facing persecution from Jews who did not believe their Messiah had come in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. This persecution was common for Christians in these times, whether you were a Jewish convert or a Gentile convert. Paul himself persecuted and murdered such Christians before he himself faced Jesus’ rebuke and discipline, which was quite severe since he was temporarily blinded.
The author’s aim here is to comfort these persecuted Christians by reminding them of their high status as God’s children. He begins, in verse 5, by telling them not to undervalue the Lord’s instruction and not to lose interest when God rebukes them. Why? Because, verse 6, the Lord disciplines those He loves and rebukes His children. After all, he says, what earthly father relents from disciplining his children?
In ancient times, if children were not disciplined, this meant they were illegitimate children. So, the fact that the Lord disciplines you should be a comfort, since His disciplining you means He highly regards you as one of His children. If God did not discipline you, he says, you would be an illegitimate child—or in Paul’s words in Ephesians [2:3], a child of wrath. Therefore, delight in the Lord’s discipline; do not grow weary of it.
Our earthly fathers discipline us as children and as we grow into young adults. Sure, sometimes they err in their method and purpose, yet we still respect them, especially as Lutherans who take seriously the 4th Commandment: honour thy father and mother. Of course, we, too, err in honouring and respecting our parents. So, why shouldn’t we accept the discipline of God our Father? Just as our earthly fathers discipline us for our own good, so God the Father disciplines us for our own good.
I began learning discipline at an early age. Not only did my father—and my mother—set limits on my curfew and play time, but I also began learning more discipline in high school marching band. My high school marching band was no ordinary marching band. We played at football games a few times, but we also competed in States, Regional, and National competitions through Bands of America.
The national level of marching band requires a lot of discipline. Not just musical discipline, but also physical and mental discipline: always developing your musical ability, standing at attention without moving or scratching, staying hydrated, and being in a focused, mature frame of mind before and during a competition (as well as practice, even our 12-hour practices on Saturdays). So, I grew in discipline through the instruction of my section leaders until I was a section leader myself, as well as our drill instructors, my saxophone and woodwind instructors, and the band director himself.
My discipline didn’t end there. As many of you know, right after I graduated high school, I enlisted in the Army, particularly in the Army Bands as a professional saxophonist. Fortunately, my discipline in marching band prepared me for discipline in the Army, which was at least tenfold the discipline of high school marching band. Through the instruction of my Drill Sergeants and the NCOs and officers I served with and aimed to emulate, I grew in discipline.
The discipline I learnt in the Army prepared me for college. Both during and before high school, I didn’t really know how to study, mainly because of my learning disability. Yet through the discipline I learnt in the Army, I was able to develop a study habit that worked—that works—for me. This prepared me for college, and for the first time, I was nearly a straight-A student and graduated magna cum laude.
This, of course, prepared me for my studies at seminary, which the graduate work there is much more intensive than my undergraduate work; and growing in discipline there has prepared me for vicarage, which my disciplines here are preparing me for the Pastoral Office through my professors, Pastor Mat, the elders, all of you, and even my home pastor and other mentors. And when I’m a pastor in 2 years—Lord willing—still my discipline will not cease because God the Father will continue to discipline me in His Word.
Why do I tell you all this? I don’t tell you all this to boast because it was always the work of God and my mentors in me. I tell you this because you and I will always be children of God in need of His discipline, which He does out of love for us. I don’t care how old you are—6, 15, 18, 25, 50, 60, 80, 90, 100—you are always a dearly beloved child of God. And because you are always God’s dear child, you are always in need of the Father’s discipline, and this is for your own good—that is, for your own growing in God’s own holiness.
For what does the Hebrews author say the reason is for our discipline in the Lord? In verse 10: “that we may share His holiness,” which often comes in the form of suffering. St. Paul, in Philippians [3:10] says we share in the sufferings of Jesus until we attain the resurrection from the dead. St. Peter, in his first epistle [4:13], likewise says we ought to rejoice because we share in Christ’s suffering.
As Christians, we are a people who follow Jesus. We can learn a lot, then, from the children’s games “Follow the Leader” and “Simon Says.” [Note to reader: in the children’s message, I played Simon Says with the kids as an object lesson of following Jesus.] To follow Jesus is to walk where He walks and to do as He does and to say as He says, which is also to walk in the way of suffering because Jesus suffered for us.
In our walking with Jesus, where do we end up? The Hebrews author says, “you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest” [v. 18]. What is he talking about? As Jewish-Christian converts, the recipients of this letter would’ve known exactly what he was talking about because they knew the Old Testament very well. The author is talking about Mt. Sinai. There, upon the mountain, God was displayed in terrifying power—a consuming fire.
This makes me think of Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest. In this story, a storm strikes Prospero, Alonso, Miranda, and the rest of the crew on the ship. There’s a massive storm wind, darkness, and lightning that hits the ship that sets fire to the mast and the ship sinks. Yet this tempest is only the beginning. Prospero and the others get marooned on an island, where a storm of events take place. To keep it short, Prospero uses magic to disorient and psychologically torment the others who are with him, whom he views to be his enemies due to betrayals 12 years prior. And, as it turns out, it was Prospero’s magical agent, Ariel, whom he commanded to orchestrate the whole Tempest event! His enemies suffered the torment of the Tempest and the torment of Prospero, who orchestrated the Tempest and the suffering that took place.
A life of following Jesus can seem like one giant Tempest at times, or one tempest after another—one suffering after another. But the Hebrews author says this Tempest is not the kind of God we approach. Upon Mt. Sinai was a blazing fire so mighty that merely touching it would utterly annihilate you. Yet in the midst of this consuming fire, which gives off light, is a paradoxical darkness, gloom, and tempest, because God hid Himself from view in order to reveal Himself verbally.
God hid Himself so He could safely interact with His people on earth through His Word. When Moses approached God, he entered the paradox of darkness and light—light that merely looking upon God’s face would destroy him, and darkness that God hid His face from view so Moses would not perish. Moses could not fully see God, but he did hear the Word of God. And God’s Word was not fully seen until He came in Jesus, who is the Word made flesh, which today we see and receive in the bread and wine of Jesus’ body and blood therein.
We do not approach God on Mt. Sinai—the Tempest of God’s Holiness and Might. Instead, we approach God on Mt. Zion where we see the face of God in Jesus. He has a face of peace and grace—and it is a human face—upon a mountain not of blazing fire, darkness, gloom, and tempest, but of blood pouring down and over your sins and suffering.
And we follow Jesus to this mountaintop, upon which is the paradox of suffering and grace. On our suffering journey to this mountain, God at the same time disciplines us, for we are His children, for only those whom He gives strength to endure this suffering shall stand atop the hill, as the psalmist says [24:3-4]. This discipline takes place in daily life and the Divine Service. Our Fatherly discipline actually begins here—in the Divine Service.
For how do we begin? We begin with the invocation of the Triune God, confessing our sins, which the pastor by the stead and command of Christ forgives you all your sins. We sing songs of praise and we hear God’s Word through the pastor—and vicar—in the conviction of His Law and the comfort of His Gospel. We receive Jesus’ body and blood to forgive our sins, and we go out into the world with the Benediction—the blessing—to continue this discipline we’ve received to share with our neighbour, both Christian and non-Christian.
Mount Zion is here—at the Divine Service. Upon this mountain, we place our suffering and receive God’s grace. Upon this mountain, we receive the discipline of God’s holy Law and we receive the forgiveness, comfort, and release of God’s holy Gospel in Word and Sacrament. Remember, this discipline does not end here; it merely begins here, which we bring with us into our homes and our community.
Here, right now, we participate in God’s holiness, which He makes us a part of in the discipline of His Word through Law and Gospel; then we bring this into the world in which we live, suffering along the way with Jesus beside us, and come right back here to be refreshed and renewed as promised in our Baptism.
Also, remember: Jesus does not leave you to persevere through suffering all by yourself, whether due to your own sin or the sin of the world. Rather, Jesus is right there with you in Spirit, your neighbour, your pastor, your vicar, Word, and Sacrament, and it all begins here at the Divine Service, where God comes down to us in the face of Jesus in suffering and grace, where all suffering comes to an end.
The Tempest of God is far and gone from you, for Christ suffered it on your behalf in His death on the cross. From now on, we are near the Son in the waters of Baptism, Word, and blood in His resurrection He shares with us.
May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.