Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Hebrews 12:4-24 (25-29)
It is for discipline that you endure. God deals with you as with children, for what son is there whom his father doesn’t discipline?
The Olympics have captured the attention of the world. We are watching the competitions on television, following the results online. We are cheering for our team and for those who have overcome obstacles to make it into elite of their sport. We have heard their stories; we have cried with them in victory and defeat. We’ve loved the loveable and screamed about those moments that don’t seem fair. We have celebrated the winners.
Unfortunately, we’ve nearly forgotten the thousands of athletes who have failed to win anything in their sport. There are more than 11,000 athletes competing for approximately 2,500 medals. We can’t say that the non-winners are losers because they have accomplished so much. They are the best of the best from their countries. They have trained for years, sometimes since they were very young children. They have worked hard to represent their nations. Some of them were even among the favorites, but it takes only a small mistake to change the outcome of any race. God medals are a great way to finish years of hard work, but those who do not win have so much about which to be proud.
There is always a story or two about the Olympic spirit that touches our hearts, like the one featuring Abbey D’Agostino of Team USA and Nikki Hamblin of Team New Zealand. Nikki fell and Abbey tripped during the first round of the women’s 5000-meter race and they both tumbled to the ground in the collision. They both lost, having been left behind by the other racers on the ground, but the key to perseverance isn’t winning, it is finishing. Abbey convinced Nikki to get up and keep going but quickly discovered that she was injured. She didn’t think she could make it to the finish line, but the Nikki wouldn’t let her quit. Together they made it, hugged and then Nikki helped Abbey into a wheelchair.
There is no easy path to victory. Every one of those 11,000 athletes worked very hard to get to Rio. They had many people helping them along the way. They had parents who paid for lessons when they were kids and coaches who trained them to do their skills well. They had national committees that held competitions to choose the best of the best and supporters who donated to make it happen. They faced other athletes who also worked hard, but not quite hard enough, to make it to the team. They all have fans in their home nations and towns that are rooting for them. It takes a lot of work by a lot of people to win a gold medal.
Some think that there is an easy path. They try techniques that are supposed to make them faster, stronger and better. They buy shoes or equipment that will give them an edge. They use trendy methods for healing and recovery. Some even try using drugs to take their bodies farther than the other athletes. No matter what they try, the best athletes are those who work hard and practice. They have coaches that train them, using discipline to get them to be the best.
We struggle with the word “discipline” because we think that it means negative reinforcement. Discipline is a ruler wrapped on the knuckles or a spanking. It is punishing and thus it must be harmful. But good discipline techniques might actually seem punishing, but in the end the athletes realize that the coach is not causing harm, but is training their bodies. A gymnast must do a skill a thousand times before they do it right and then a thousand more times to make it perfect. Doing the same thing over and over and over again is punishing, but in the end it becomes so natural that it seems like they could do it all along. That’s the hard way to get to your goals, but it is the only way. New shoes and supplements won’t make you run faster or jump higher, but hard work will and in the end we discover that the hard work -- the narrow door -- is actually the best way.
Faith is the narrow door. The athlete that trusts his or her coach is the one that will grow and succeed. They are the ones that will understand discipline is necessary for training and will obey even when the training doesn’t make sense. Why struggle through a narrow door when there’s a big wide open space that is easy to clear? Why spend nine hours a day doing the same simple skill over and over again when the more difficult ones are more impressive and fun? The coach knows that to do the more difficult skills an athlete must train their muscles with practice and in the end the harder task will be easier to learn.
God knows what He is doing. We have a tendency of seeing a better way, however. The Hebrews were anxious when Moses did not come off the mountain and they turned to a religion that made more sense to them. It was easier to worship a golden calf that they could see than to worship the God that they could not see.
Exodus chapter 19 describes God as coming to the Hebrews at the foot of Mt. Sinai like a dark cloud, with lightning and thunder and a great trumpet blast. The mountain was engulfed in fire. Everyone in the camp trembled in fear. The writer of the book of Hebrews tells us that they could not bear to even listen to the Word of God because they were afraid. It was much the same for the people in Jesus’ day. They trembled, but not at the foot of the mountain. They trembled at the foot of the Law, out of fear that they would do something against God. They listened to the council of the leaders who burdened them with long lists of rules and taught that God’s grace depended on their obedience. They did not trust in God’s grace.
The writer of Hebrews gives us two visions of life under the rule of God. In the first there is fear. The people stood at the base of Mount Sinai, receiving the Law as given to Moses. That mountain was fearsome -- not even an animal could set foot on it. Anyone who touched it would be stoned. The people were so frightened by the sound of God’s voice that they begged Moses to be an intercessor. Even Moses was terrified and trembling with fear.
But there is another way to live in God’s Kingdom: by faith. This means trusting God. God disciplined His people when they turned from Him at the foot of that mountain. It was punishing, but full of grace because He did not reject or abandon them. Instead He called them to repentance and drew Him into Himself. He remained faithful to His promises. They learned to trust in Him. It didn’t happen overnight. As a matter of fact, He had to teach them that lesson over and over again. The story of God’s people has always followed the same pattern since the beginning: faith, wander, discipline, repentance and faith. We hear this throughout the history of Israel and throughout the history of the Christian church. We wander because we want to go through the big door, to follow the wide path. We want to do things our own way.
What happens when an athlete goes his or her own way? They might learn how to do things, but they do so with greater risk. They are more likely to get hurt. They are likely to get caught if they are using drugs to enhance their performance. In the end, they are likely to end in failure because they have ignored the one who can lead them on a good and right path.
Moses delivered a covenant from God to His people. This covenant was a promise that God would always be with them wherever they would go. The people would see the awesome power of God as they moved into the Promised Land, defeating their enemies and settling into the life of blessing promised to their forefathers. The LORD asked only that the people obey His commands; to keep themselves separate from those who worship other gods. This command was for their own protection, since union with the pagans would lead to their own worship of those gods.
We have seen that happen throughout history, and even in our time. Though we talk about Jesus and live as a part of the Church, we get lost in the culture of our world and forget, at times, that God has warned us to be careful that we do not follow the ways of the world. We forget that the door is narrow, and we open the big doors to let everything in. This leads us to worshipping the wrong things, for chasing after the wrong Gospel, for doing what seems right but is not according to God’s will and purpose for our lives.
The reading from Isaiah is a message of judgment and hope. God says, “For I know their works and their thoughts.” God knows our hearts; He knows what we do and don’t do. He says, “The time comes that I will gather all nations and languages, and they will come, and will see my glory.” He promises to set a sign for all to see His glory, and by that sign to know that He is God. That sign is Jesus. We see in Jesus the love, mercy and grace of the Father, as well as His glory. He is the door. He is the light. He is the way. He is the only path. Those who believe will survive the judgment; those who reject Jesus will not.
It is hard for us to follow Jesus in our world today. It has never been easy of course, but we have only this time and place in which to live, so we know the difficulties we face. Our struggles are different. How do you live faithfully in a world that won’t let you say the name “Jesus?” How do you act as a witness to others when they don’t want to hear? How do we bring the nations to see His glory when they think that any path will do?
Isaiah writes, “‘For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me,’ says Yahweh, ‘so your offspring and your name shall remain. It shall happen that from one new moon to another, and from one Sabbath to another, all flesh will come to worship before me,’ says Yahweh.”
We are saved from the wrath of God for a purpose: to take God’s glory into the world. Isaiah talks of bringing others to Jerusalem, as an offering to God. This is an interesting image, and one we should seriously consider if we are to be Church in today’s world. We often think it is enough to give God our money, time and our talents, but what God really wants is for us to bring more people to Him. He owns everything! As the psalmist writes, He is not looking for our sacrifices. He doesn’t need our bulls because they are already His.
But He wants us to be missionaries, to share His Word with the world whether across the sea or in our own backyards. He wants us to invite more people into His presence. He wants us to lead them through the narrow door, to help them see that any other path leads to nothing. God is calling us to bring them into the Church so that they too might join in the eternal banquet.
Faith is not easy because it means giving ourselves over to the training and discipline of God. It might, at times, seem punishing to follow His path because there’s always a way that seems better. Only those who walk through the narrow door, who believe in the sign which is Jesus, will be left to dwell in His presence for eternity. This is particularly hard to proclaim in a world where everything is good and acceptable. The narrow door is too limiting, the narrow path is too restraining. Yet, it is there we’ll find the grace that saves. It is in the relationship with God, who loves His children enough to discipline them in the right way, that we will have the victory.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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