“LEGITIMATE CHILDREN OF GOD”
Hebrews 12: 3-13
The Reverend Tasha Blackburn
August 14, 2016
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With Fort Smith’s Public Schools beginning tomorrow, and Oklahoma schools having begun on Thursday, it seems like a good time to talk about children being disciplined. I am certain sometime this summer you saw a child disobey and then you saw a mom or a dad discipline that child. Whether it was in the grocery store or at Chick-fil-A or even in your own home, you have seen this age-old interaction.
One of my favorite stories about child discipline was from friends of ours who had had enough of their daughter slamming her door. She had gotten into this bad habit of slamming it every time she didn’t get her way. Her parents weren’t sure how to handle this but then they came up with a plan. So one night the daughter got mad; in typical fashion, she slammed her bedroom door. And her father calmly came to the doorway of her room. But this time he had a screwdriver in his hand. He took the door off its hinges, and removed it completely—into the garage, no door left at all. When the daughter yelled and cried and asked why she lost her door the father said to her: “That door was getting you into trouble, so once it doesn’t get you into trouble any more you can have it back.”
Discipline: even when the child wonders why they have to be disciplined, no adult ever wonders! We discipline children because it is important. What seems like punishment to them is actually love for them and worry about them, and the belief that there is so much better in them than we have, thus far, seen. For all these reasons and so many more we discipline children. It is for their own good. Which means that, across the generations, even as so many other things have changed, very little has changed about that moment between parent and child and, the thing is, we never really outgrow it. Even when our mom and dad are no longer with us, even then we have not outgrown it; our need for discipline.
It reminds me of the old joke about a phone booth that had a note taped to the inside door. It said, “If you are ready to give up sinning read John 3:16” and right below it someone had scribbled, “If you aren’t ready to give up sinning call 555-1379.” More often than we would like to admit we call the number rather than read the scripture! And we wonder why we need to be disciplined but, as the writer of Hebrews points out, we need to be disciplined by God for all those same reasons that children need discipline: because God loves us and worries about us and believes that there is so much better in us than we have, thus far, shown.
A caveat is probably needed here: scripture is not telling us that all suffering is discipline from God. Not at all! We all know that some suffering is senseless and random and of no purpose and no one’s fault. It just is. That kind of suffering is not what this passage is concerned with. This passage is talking about the kind of suffering we do for our faith and for God; the kind of tests of life and faith we encounter because we are Christians and care about honor and integrity and caring for the outcast and stranger.
We often speak of being a child of God and that relationship definitely has its benefits. The fruits of the Spirit encapsulate so many of those benefits. As children we get access to love and patience, kindness and joy, faithfulness and peace. And we also get discipline that can feel like suffering. While this sounds like a drawback to the whole “child of God” relationship, let’s be honest, really honest. When you look back over your life, haven’t you learned more during the difficult times, more about life and hope and endurance and grace, than you have in the easy times? We may not enjoy admitting it but so often, if it is too easy, we lose. And if it is hard, we gain.
Here is a really minor but practical example that has been a part of my life. It sounds silly but I never learned to study. Elementary school, junior high: no studying. High school came and went and college, even seminary: no studying. All I learned to do was cram.
When I enrolled at the University of Edinburgh, all those chickens came home to roost. On the first day of class, one professor handed out a 6-page single-spaced reading list. I raised my hand and asked, “What books should I read and by when?” The answer was this: Read what you think you need to pass this class. Meaning: study. It was a disaster. I couldn’t do it. I didn’t know how. Because it had been easy for so many years, I’d never gained the skills I needed. Ease, in the end, had been a loss. Discipline in this area would have been a gift.
A trivial example, yes, but this is how life and faith are: they cannot be crammed. We need disciplining over time. God wants to push us and pull us and discipline us—and a lot of it doesn’t feel good—but it is so that we can grow our faith over time and it will be there when we need it. If we have not felt that push and pull for a while, then this moment is a challenge to all that ease. None of us enjoys being disciplined but easy will not gain us much and God is demanding more from us than a life of ease.
You know what this discipline can involve, right? We are talking about possibly turning down job promotions or not taking certain kinds of jobs altogether because they are dishonest or damaging. We are talking about losing a relationship in your life that may have become important but that only leads you to a place of meanness or apathy. We are talking about looking at the credit card bills and feeling convicted by the excess you’ve chosen to live with. We are talking about difficult and demanding discipline. But, just like a loving parent, God does not discipline us so that we will suffer but so that we will grow in faith and into all God knows we can be.
There may be times when you say to yourself: I don’t think my neighbors think about their pocketbook like I do. Or, I am weary of caring about people outside my immediate circle. Or, it would be so easy to just go with the flow I feel around me rather than stand against it. Discipline is not easy. But ease, in the end, is a loss and difficulty is a gain.
It is not a bad thing, this discipline, because, yes, it leads to growth. But, also, because it reminds us of one terribly important thing: we have a father whose child we are. As the writer of Hebrews puts it: when God disciplines us we know that we are legitimate children. We are legitimate!
We have a relationship in which God, the creator of all things, cares enough for us to bring the screwdriver. Cares enough for us to even take some of our most beloved habits away from us and put them in the garage. Even though we cry and even though we yell. This is love only a parent can give, this discipline.
So, when we feel the prod of discipline in our own faith, let’s be grateful because it means we are still in the family. Being a child of God comes with great benefits and with great discipline…which is also—in the end—a benefit for, God knows, it is for our own good. Amen.