Monday, August 24, 2015

Know God - The Passionate Discipline

Preached on Sunday, August 23, 2015

Scripture readings: Deuteronomy 8:1-10; Hebrews 12:1-13

When I was a young kid, I remember sitting with other boys and talking about what our dad’s did to punish us when we were bad.
One of my best friends, Merle, was a good kid. He was a better kid than I was. But (when Merle misbehaved) he would get a belt across his bare bottom; and not just once or twice. We had heard of such things before but, honestly, it was scary to hear about it.
Assorted Pictures Taken in:
 Washtucna, WA; Northern CA; Desert Aire, WA 
But we all had another very strange reaction to hearing Merle tell us about this. It must have been the mark of kids belonging to an earlier time. I think we all thought very highly of him because of what he had to face. He had to face something we couldn’t imagine.
The discipline my dad used was to spank me on the behind with the slap of his hand. He knew how to slap hard, but it was always on top of my pants, which were mostly blue jeans.
I remember that my dad’s spankings were plenty for me. They hurt enough; until I was ten years old. One day, when I was ten, I did something wrong that probably wouldn’t have earned a spanking, but then I added to what I had done by making the mistake of talking back to my dad about it.
I sassed my dad. That was the worst thing I could do; so I got a spanking and, as he was paddling me I was shocked, because it didn’t hurt. I was so shocked at this that I almost laughed. That would have been the worst.
I think my dad realized that something had changed, and so he never spanked me again. He would just speak to me with anger in his voice, and he raised his voice just a bit: not much, but just a bit.
The voice became enough. I hated to have him mad at me. I hated it.
But my dad did one other very scary thing all along my young life. He actually was capable of this scary thing for as long as he lived. I don’t know how many people would be close enough to him to see this. And I am sure he never knew that he did this but, when my dad was really, really mad, he changed the color of his eyes.
My dad’s eyes were brown but, when he was very angry, I remember that his eyes turned green. I swear they turned green. It was horrible.
Now, I have told you these stories because the portions of the Bible we have read this morning contain the word “discipline”. Our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews even uses the word “punishment” and that word means giving a whipping.
This idea of discipline and punishment is at the center of a huge misunderstanding. Here is part of life where God’s people either blissfully ignore God’s word, or joyfully misapply God’s word. Discipline and punishment are an area where the world judges us as God’s people, but we often deserve to be judged by this world.
The unbelieving world thinks that our ideas about God’s discipline and punishment make us judgmental and unpleasant. They think that our ideas about discipline and punishment explain a lot about why people who claim to follow a God of love can be so unloving.
Even God’s people often don’t understand that God’s discipline (and even God’s punishment) is all about God’s passionate love: God’s parental love. The language is about the best way to raise a child. The overwhelming majority of the examples of God’s discipline (and even punishment) are directed toward his own people and not toward other people.
In the Bible, when other people got disciplined, it was usually because they treated God’s people as if they were unloved. It is always a mistake to treat other people as if they are unloved.
The mind and the heart of God are not on discipline and punishment, as we understand them. Think of how odd this sounds; the way the Lord thinks of discipline.
In the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, Moses reminded his people of God’s discipline. “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert, these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna…to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years. Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you.” (Deuteronomy 8:2-5)
There is that odd combination of God letting you be hungry and then feeding you miraculously. If we looked closely at this we would see that the hunger never seemed to hurt anyone, except that it made people complain. In the end, it was only their complaining about the hunger that never hurt them that turned out to be the worst thing that God’s people did. Then their hunger really did lead to punishment.
Yet the purpose (all along) was to teach God’s people to actually take more of their hungers seriously. They needed to know that God wanted to feed them in more ways than they thought they needed, and that they could trust him to do this. Their real sin was to not believe and trust how much they were loved.
During their forty years of wandering in the desert God’s people never needed new clothes. Their clothing never wore out. All that walking on sand and rock never did them a bit of harm. What kind of discipline and punishment was that prolonged journey with God?
Of course I’m leaving out a lot. But what I am saying is true. The Book of Deuteronomy is a typical Old Testament book. It’s full of discipline, but it is also full of God’s faithfulness, from beginning to end. Sometimes Deuteronomy is called “The Gospel of Love” of the Old Testament. Of course that love is tough love.
The writer to the Hebrew Christians told them (and us) to run a great race. The whole creation is like a great combination of a marathon and a relay race. It takes discipline.
This race is everything. It’s what the whole creation is about. The race is about faith, and fellowship, and community, and love.
In a race you aren’t supposed to be looking around you but, in this race, you are told to look back at those who went before you, and you are told to look at Jesus who started the race and who is also finishing the race. Jesus is “the author and perfecter of our faith”. This is odd, old-fashioned language. It means that Jesus started the race and that he is the one who will finish and complete the race. He’s not done until we are done, and he will see each one of us across. And he is the one who is like that coach in high school who ran along side me trying to get me to run right.
That coach wasn’t successful, but Jesus died to live in my heart and to run the race in me, and through me. Jesus is a better kind of coach. The Bible shows us that God knows what we need. Even parents can’t always give us what we need. Those of you who are parents know what I mean.
The writer to the Hebrews knows what he says. “Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.” (Hebrews 12:10)
Holiness doesn’t mean being perfect, and it doesn’t mean being better than others. Holiness is passion for a purpose. There is a difference between having passion and not having passion. On that level, holiness, as passion, is better than anything else. And holiness without passion is not holiness at all.
The Hebrews guy writes: “How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live!” This living is not about survival. It’s about living life with passion and purpose. When this passion and purpose seem to set us apart from others, then nothing gives us more joy than to find that we can belong to others who also live in passion and purpose.
Passion and purpose are the best way to make us a team. They are the best way to make a happy family.
I’m not a runner at heart. I’m not a skilled runner at all. If I want to, I am still able to run, just a little bit. Sometimes a strange thrill will go through me and make me want to run, just a little bit.
My cousin Don (who is a much better Christian than I am) has learned (in his early sixties) to become a runner, and a happy runner at that. He runs with his grown kids and with the kids of his kids. That is passion, and purpose, and belonging, and joy. That’s what the race of Jesus is like.
Don gets aches and pains, and those hurt. Those are the punishment of his running. I mean they come from his running and they get in the way of his running. They hurt. The aches and pains, that are so punishing, have to be healed, and overcome, and proper running has to be practiced and retrained again.
When this happens, God isn’t punishing my cousin Don. Don could conceivably feel whipped, but God helps my cousin respond as if something coming from God required his attention. If the aches and pains are God’s discipline (I’m guessing) then they are also God’s challenge to return to a life of passion and purpose. God’s discipline works for love.
The Hebrews guy says that this leads to “a harvest of righteousness and peace.” Righteousness is the pattern of life where things are flowing together so right that it looks beautiful. Peace is the pattern of life where everything contributes to everything thriving.
The Hebrews guy goes on to tell us that we can get hurt in the race in a way that whips us. But it is not God whipping us. Bitterness whips us. It puckers life. It makes life dark, and angry. Bitterness makes life into a weeping and a complaining thing. Bitterness isolates us from love.
Sexual immorality is where people use other people instead of being faithful to them. This cripples them (and us) more than we know.
Esau selling his birthright was called godless because Esau didn’t enjoy his place in life as if it were a gift. He didn’t value his life as a gift from God. He didn’t receive his blessing because he had no concept of blessing, which is a gift.
These are the aches and pains of the race that disable us. These are how we let the race whip us.
Looking to Jesus, who begins and completes the race in you: that is healing. Jesus begins and completes the race by running his own race for you and me: by dying on the cross and by rising from the dead. “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
God’s discipline is designed to make us like Jesus. That is also why we focus on Jesus. Then we will love to run with Jesus. That race will be what our life is about, no matter what our earthly legs and feet are fit for.
I need to tell you about a boy named Blain and the discipline of love.
I met Blain around early 1993, when he was about ten or eleven. He had broken one of our church windows with a rock. He and some other boys were really just trying to hit the wall of the church with rocks. It must have been, for him, like it was for me, when I was four years old and I wanted to see how close I could get the coat hanger to the electric outlet without actually sticking it in.
Blain had been seen, and exposed, and caught. His dad brought Blain to me and the elders and explained that Blain would pay for the window. The family was a farm family and there was always work for Blain to do. This was part of his discipline in life.
Blain was a good kid; a kid who loved Jesus. He loved the farm. He grew up to love to work. He loved sports. He loved youth group. This was his discipline in life.
He grew in his love for his country. He enlisted in the Army before he graduated from high school. He married the sister of a best army buddy. This was his discipline in life.
He loved the Army. Blain was a joyful warrior. It was his life’s discipline. Blain went to Iraq around 2003. There he was killed by a sniper, in Bagdad, in 2004.
 One of the obituaries told it like this:
“Weeks after arriving in Iraq…Specialist Blain asked people in his hometown to send clothes and shoes for Iraqi children.”
Blain’s small town “responded with box after box of clothing, candy and other goods.”
Blain’s father, Mike, looked back on Blain’s love for the Iraqis and said, “He spent every moment over there worrying about those people. In his eyes, love and the future of Iraq were going to come through the Iraqi children.”
Blain was injured a month before his death, when a car bomb exploded near his tank but, after a couple of weeks of desk work, while nursing a bruised eardrum and a sore back, Blain asked “to be sent back out there”; back on combat duty.
So, at the age of twenty-two, back in his tank, at a roadblock in Bagdad, “Blain popped his head out of his tank’s command hatch and a sniper got him. It was instant death with one shot.”
I did what they call “officiate” at Blain’s funeral. It was in the school gymnasium and the room was filled with more than twice the number of the people in the town. It included a lot of military officers and ceremony as well.
In my eulogy for Blain, I said this:
So who is God, as we meet him in Jesus? God is a God who loves us passionately, and who does not want to be on the sidelines when the people he created and loves are in trouble. God is a God who is capable of meeting danger and risk, and capable of being killed if he wants (as he was on the cross), but he is willing to meet that danger to protect, and save, and encourage those he loves.
This is the kind of life that makes sense to the maker of the universe, our maker and savior. This is God’s love. This is the love poured out for us by Jesus on the cross.
And so human love, in its highest form, is also love like that. This is what it means to be truly, fully alive.
And so Blain was not dying when he exposed himself to danger and became a sniper’s target. Blain was living his life to the fullest. He was living for his fellow soldiers, for the people of Iraq, for his own people, for his own family and home, and for a community that he knew was proud of him.
 For us, God’s discipline is for a great adventure. It’s a race. It’s a family that draws all life together in love, in heaven and earth.
God’s discipline is for passion and purpose. God’s discipline is for belonging, faithfulness, and love.
When God’s discipline makes us his children, we are not afraid of anything. We are not afraid of shedding of our own blood for love. We are not afraid to share our beautiful God with others. We are not afraid to share God’s story in our lives with others.
The punishment we take in the pains of the race (the punishment we take in discipline) always comes from the training of God our father. We often feel whipped by the discipline, but not whipped by God. God is exactly what we find in Jesus, and his discipline makes us the brothers and sisters of Jesus.
We are not afraid of aches and pains. We are not afraid of injury to ourselves. We are not afraid to be the people who live like Jesus, and for Jesus, in this world.
The Hebrews guy says that “Our God is a consuming fire”. By faith, we know that this means nothing but good for us. The consuming fire is God’s discipline living in us. Consuming fire is our hope. The fire is our life. This happens when we go through the discipline of Jesus.
(Note: Excerpts from an Associated Press obituary for Army Specialist Blain Ebert; killed November 22, 2004: Operation Iraqi Freedom, 4th Battalion, 5th Air Defense Artillery Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, Fort Hood, Texas. )


  1. The Lord has promised good to me...I thought of those words from a well known hymn when I was going through a tough time when my husband was in the hospitall and I am reminded of them when I read this sermon.
    A joyful warrior, Blain Ebert. It is good that you have his name and the story of his life here. Well done, good and faithful servant.

  2. How interesting your father's eyes, and now I wonder if I have seen eyes change like this before. It does seem he was a loving and wise father, which was a wonderful gift to you in seeing God as a loving father. My father was not perfect, but I always knew he loved me and wanted what was best for me. It's hard for those to accept and trust God's love when an earthly father has been harsh and cruel.