Living a Life of Discipline
Text: Heb. 12:1-13 13
Proper 15, C
While it can seem like there isn’t a whole lot of discipline anymore, most people still understand the concept. What does it mean for a Christian to live a life of discipline? I suppose it would only be reasonable to assume that this means at times training ourselves to do (or not do) certain things; disciplining others who are in the wrong; and maybe even occasionally, being disciplined ourselves. Again, this idea seems reasonable, but many churches don’t seem any better at being disciplined than the rest of the world around us. There are still fights, and hard feelings, affairs and divorces, gossip and politicking, there are scandals and back-biting. So, if not all this, what should a disciplined Christian life look like? How do we know if we are living one?
The author of Hebrews gives us a very interesting picture of what a Christian life of discipline looks like. "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us ..." At first the picture of a foot race may seem a little strange, but it does actually make a lot of sense. Think of an Olympic track event. As the runners enter the field look into their eyes and you will see a model of intense discipline. Each one of those men or women have devoted their lives to running that one race. Nothing else matters to them. Each one has made great sacrifices to be where they are. Each one has trained for hours and hours each and every day, whether they felt like it or not. That is the mark of discipline.
In verse 1, God calls us to run this race of life with perseverance. Why? Because this race is not just a short sprint, or a series of short sprints. It's a marathon so long, that it encompasses our whole time on this earth. And just to make it a little more interesting, it is a marathon race filled with regular hurdles to be overcome. Sickness, death, material hardships, money problems, relationships, doubts, worries, fears ... they are all strewn in our path. They are hurdles that you can’t always see coming. Sometimes you will hit them head-on at full speed.
But the picture is still not complete; now add to the mixture our sin and the burden of guilt that we all bear. These act like a dead weight always sitting upon our backs dragging us down. Now the race is ready to be run. This is the picture of the Christian life that this text sets before us. is it any wonder, then, that running in such a demanding race involves a whole lot of discipline and intensive training? ls it any wonder that this text also talks about the Christian as suffering from drooping hands and weak knees?
I suppose that this picture of the Christian life could be a very noble one, if we were all to devote ourselves to the task of training, and if we were disciplined enough. And if we struggled hard, and if we won through at the end, claiming the prize of eternal life at the finish line. Such a monumental undertaking is the stuff of legends. Yes, if we could win through because of our discipline, our sacrifice, our pluck and courage and gumption, then we could take our place in the ranks of saints, our names revered forever.
Well many Christians actually approach their lives from this kind of attitude. At one time or another you may have too. Like the training sequence in any good Rocky movie, they doggedly dig in their heels and work hard at being very disciplined. They read the scriptures every day, they pray fervently, they contribute to missions and charity. They work extra hard at living that good Christian life, so that they can claim the prize of eternal life at the other end. They view their lives as an Olympic marathon, in which determined contestants, struggle proudly against the overwhelming opponents of sin death and the devil. While this imagery is appealing to our sense of self-importance, it is not very accurate.
Unfortunately, because of our sinful nature, our lives very rarely resemble anything so proud or noble. If we were to be honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that as we run the race that God has put before us, it is never really done with the kind of discipline that God expects. The sad reality is that as God’s called people we are more often than not, anything but proud and able contestants, fit in body, mind and purpose, striving nobly to reach the finish. At best, and usually despite our intentions, we end up looking like a sorry bunch of weak and scrawny beggars, trying to drag heavy weights around in endless circles.
Envision again, the race track of life. Only this time take a close look at the runners. Many of the racers haven't even gotten out of the starting blocks yet. They are waiting for something, but none of them seems to know what it is. Many of the racers are running the wrong way. What finish line they are headed for is anybody’s guess. Some of the racers have stopped because something more interesting has caught their eye. They are moving off the field in every direction to explore this or that, the race long forgotten. Others have stalled out, because they are too busy spending time with each other. They just stand there talking across the lanes. Still others have made it further along but are now hopelessly blocked by one of the hurdles. Some try their best to get around them but are not successful. Others just keep senselessly running into it again and again, like a brick wall. None of the racers even seems to see the finish line or know how to get there.
That is the effect of sin in our lives. It robs us of our discipline. It keeps us from beginning the Lord’s work. It leads us down false paths of salvation. It distracts us with lesser interests. It tells us to put off what can be done tomorrow. It tries to convince us there is a better way of doing all of this. It tells us we can run the race on our own, and not only run it but win it too. Those who are sincere and well intentioned later find out that there are some hurdles that you just can’t get past on your own, no matter how hard you try. The sin and guilt, cling too close and weigh too much. Left to run the race of life by ourselves even the best intentioned and most disciplined of us would never be able to make it across the finish line, because the kind of discipline it requires is not something we will ever have on our own.
Fortunately, it is not left just to us. While the world might be content to sit back with a wicked chuckle and watch us fail, God was not. That is why He sent another runner into the race. This runner was the epitome of self-control and discipline. He had been training for this race since the very first time the event was held and a runner by the name of Adam fell. This runner was none other than Jesus Christ, God‘s Son. He came to earth as a human, so that He could follow every rule of the contest. He trained and disciplined Himself until He was focused on only the race at hand. He was relentless in His study of the Word, in daily prayer, in visiting the lonely and sinful, in healing the sick and the dead.
He had no burden of sin and guilt to bear, so He took it from others. He took all of the sin and all of the guilt that every runner carried, leaving them free of it. And then He ran. He ran straight for the finish line. He never once faltered or stumbled. As He faced every fear, every doubt, and every temptation He cleared them easily, leaping over them like they weren’t even there. And where He ran He left a clear and straight path behind Him. The hurdles were smashed in His passing. He even cleared the very last hurdle – death itself. For a moment it looked like He wouldn’t make it. Death was a solid wall, impossibly high. He smashed it like all the others, and took His place at the finish line.
Because He had run the race with all of the sin and guilt of every runner on His back He won not just a trophy for Himself, but a trophy for everyone whose burden He had carried as well. He waits now at the finish line to give them out to all who cross, no matter how late they might come.
And having run the same race He calls us to run. Jesus sends us the Holy Spirit to be our coach, and trainer. It is the Spirit who instills in us the faith we need to focus on the end of the race. It is the Spirit who puts us through a strict regimen of training to discipline us for the task at hand. Over and over again He makes us work through the big and little things so that we will become stronger and faster, and better. He carefully gauges where we are in our training and sets up our schedule accordingly. And He constantly calls over our shoulder: "Make no mistake, there will still be pain and frustration, there will be times when you don't think that you can possibly make it to the end, but you will. I’ll help you every step of the way. Together we'll follow the path that Jesus blazed. And we will have the prize that He won for you."
That dear friends, is the Christian life of discipline. It is a life lived in the example of Christ. But it is not lived so that we might claim the prize of eternal life, but because that prize is already ours. In big and small ways, the life of the Christian means refocusing ourselves Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. It means, following the example of Christ in all that we do, and then relying on His sure victory in those times when we fail to get out of the blocks, or run the wrong way, or don’t train hard enough, or whatever.
The Christian life of discipline means that sometimes we will be disciplined by our God, but not because He feels like it. God disciplines us for our own good, to make us stronger, to make us better able to understand and care for others, to make us more reliant upon Him and Him alone. This congregation has seen some of that tough love in the past. You will see it again in your lives. But that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love you! Quite the opposite in fact. "My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose courage when you are punished by Him. For the Lord disciplines him whom He loves, and chastises every son whom He receives."
May God continue to treat us like his sons and daughters, so that together, and with His guidance and training we might run the race set before us, live a life of true discipline, and take our place with Christ at the finish line of heaven.