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“Our Father in heaven…” The last time I preached the sermon focus was Luke’s account of Jesus teaching his disciples how to pray. Remember the Lord’s Prayer? I spent a lot of my sermon time talking about the grace of a perfect God who adopts sinners like us into his family. Knowing God as “Our Father” brings us comfort and peace and hope. It’s a blessing to know the power of the God of heaven, and to know he uses that power to bless us rather than curse us. God is love, and our loving Father pours out his love on his people.
Today, for my second sermon at Salem, we find in Hebrews 12 more words that speak about God as a loving Father. Only this time the love isn’t all warm and fuzzy. Sometimes love has to be tough. Firm. And that includes the love that our Father in heaven has for us. Sometimes he allows hardships to come. Sometimes life isn’t everything we want and sometimes we don’t get to have things our way, right away. Verse seven is the main point of this text. “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children.” Today I get to find out who in our congregation is a fan of 70s & 80s power ballads. Because as much as I should avoid it, the phrase kept coming back to me, so why not use it. Love hurts.
Now before you go drifting off into the epic guitar and tragic hair of the band Nazareth, look in your bulletin at how our text starts. In this part of the inspired letter to the Hebrews, the author is picturing our Christian lives like a race. In the first verse he warns believers to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.” Now, I’m no runner, but I’m married to one. But this Scripture isn’t about leg cramps and shin splinters and shoelaces. Those things all hinder and entangle a runner, but what we’re really talking about is something I’m far more familiar with. The sin that entangles and hinders us in our race toward heaven.
I think we often think about sin as something we fall into or get trapped by. And those are certainly biblical pictures for sin. We walk by a billboard with a beautiful person and before we can think, a sinful thought creeps in. Somebody shoots down our idea at work or at home and boom, a sinful negative thought. Sins are like that. But sin is more than an “every once in while” kind of thing. Sin hinders. It entangles. It trips us up even when we want to do the right thing. Have you ever run a three-legged race? Where one of your legs is tied to somebody else’s leg? Guess what? By nature, we’re all tied to sin in the same way. And that original sin is what causes us to fall into those actual sins. Sin causes us to stumble along our journey. To stray from the path toward heaven. Sometimes to fall right down into a heap of brokenness. And that’s just the earthly consequences of sin.
The picture Scripture paints of the eternal consequence of sin is far worse. That sin that separates us from the life we want, the people we want to be, the God we want to glorify – far worse, that sin separates us from those things for eternity in hell. Where the worm never stops eating at the dead. Where the fire burns but never consumes. Where the darkness reigns without hope of light. That’s the eternal consequence of sin. The author of this letter to the Hebrews knows that’s what they were facing in sin.
If he knew us, he would know that’s what we’re facing because of our own sin.
It’s that same sinful nature that causes us to look around at the troubles we face in life and wonder what’s going on. “I’m a Christian! I go to church. I spend less on myself so I can give more to the Lord. But my kids still get sick and I have to take time off work. And I still can’t buy a car to replace this old piece of junk in my driveway. And my parents still can’t get along. Really God? Really?” Admit it. You’ve been there. We’ve all been there. Those times when the earthly problems we face seem like punishment. Those dark days when we ask ourselves whether all this is really the way it’s supposed to be.
To that sinner, to us, God says this morning, “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children.” Now, I would love to tell you that being a father means showering love on your children and making them happy all the time. But every parent in the room would roll their eyes and laugh. Parents, is that what it’s like? Can you give your kids everything they want and expect it to turn out well? Of course not! Children need discipline from their parents. As our text says, “No discipline is pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”
When I was a kid on the farm, I flat out hated growing up on a farm. I hated the chores, and the milking, and the endless days driving a tractor back and forth and back and forth. I hated the baling and the sunburns and the allergies. Okay, you get it. But my parents made me do it because it was important. And you know what? Somewhere in my twenties I realized I was a better person for all of it. And somewhere in my thirties I came to wish I had a few farm chores for my own kids to suffer through. Eventually in our lives, verse nine becomes true for us. “[they] disciplined us and we respected them for it.”
The author here makes the point that everything that is true about earthly discipline is more true for the discipline that our heavenly Father gives us. Verse nine again tells us, “They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.” Parents out there, we’ve got what? 18 years to train and discipline our kids? God has a lifetime to teach and mold us. None of us are perfect parents. We do what we think is right, but sometimes we make mistakes. God doesn’t. Ever.
So that time our kid is sick and we have to miss work? Perhaps God is reminding us that work is supposed to serve the family, not the other way around. And that old piece of junk in the driveway that we want to replace is maybe God’s way of pruning off the tendrils of sinful greed that entangle our hearts. And the relationships that are strained and broken? Well, just maybe God is teaching us to put our trust in him first, and others second. As you heard the other readings, we learned that God’s Word doesn’t always bring people together. We don’t live in a world of peace, and faithful Christians sharing the truth don’t always find a warm welcome. Sometimes even in our own families. But that discipline strengthens us in faith. Like a runner getting better through painful practice, God builds us up as he brings us through the pain. It isn’t pleasant at the time, but it produces righteousness and peace.
One of the benefits of moving to a new congregation is that I now get to talk about specific individuals and you don’t know who I’m talking about. One of my favorite Christians was a man in my last church who knew God’s discipline well. He battled drug addiction and mental health challenges. He had a learning disability. Health issues. He couldn’t hold down a job and often needed help from members just to buy food for himself. And he died suddenly at just 49 years old. God’s love for Kent hurt. In nearly every way a person can hurt. But for everything he suffered through, Kent’s faith was stronger and purer than maybe anyone I’ve known. God burned away the things that so often hinder and entangle us, and left him with eyes fixed on Jesus. I can’t wait to see him in heaven someday standing with Jesus, free of the burdens of this life. His example is a blessing to me, and maybe now to you.
In fact, that gets us back to the beginning of our text’s encouragement to run our race. How can we possibly throw off sin? How can we look past our suffering and see our goal of heaven? First, remember the “great cloud of witnesses” God surrounds us with. In the chapter before this we see the examples of faithful people like Noah and Abraham and Sarah and Rahab the prostitute. People who trusted God through the suffering and found peace in the end. It’s as if they’re in the stands and we’re coming to the finish line. They cheer us on. They remind us how this all ends. But right there with them are the “heroes of faith” God gives each of us personally. Faithful parents perhaps. Faithful children. Pastors. Teachers. Friends. Hear their cheers. Follow their example. And run your race.
Hear their cheers, but keep your eyes fixed on someone even more important. Jesus is described here as the author and perfecter of our faith. He is where faith begins and ends. He completed the work of salvation for us. It’s his life, not our own, that we hold up to God as our ticket to heaven. His perfect life is our hope. His innocent death is our peace. You see, as much as we might face the tough love of God sometimes in our lives, it was Jesus who shows us suffering. For the joy of seeing us in heavenly glory with him he endured the cross. As much as our sermon theme talks about the discipline we face in life from God, it more fully belongs to Jesus. The cross wasn’t fun
or honorable. It wasn’t easy or light. But Jesus loves us. And he was willing to hurt for it.
So keep your eyes fixed on him. Because he is your heaven. He is your hope. He is your Savior. And when God’s love for you hurts sometimes, remember that it hurt him first. We are children of a loving Father. Now and always. Amen.