Divine Discipline [Jeremiah 30:1-11]
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When I was a kid, my parents were really strict. Dad was a pastor, my mom was a dentist - so there was no fun AND no candy. Like, it was bad enough that my mom was always worried about my teeth - but Pastor’s kids, they’re kind of held to a higher standard. I can’t tell you how many times I heard, “you have to set an example for all those other kids in the church.” Ugh, I don’t want to set an example - I want to put my feet up on the seat, and steal snacks out of the kitchen. My mom sat in the choir and she had fantastic mom eyes. Do you know what I mean? She didn’t have to say anything, she wouldn’t interrupt worship - but, boy you were going to hear about it after church. My parents were so strict when I was a kid. Well, that may have been the way it felt when I was little - but now, looking back, with the benefit of distance I can see that my parents were just trying to put up healthy boundaries. Trying to protect me, and actually - they were trying to show me that they loved me. But it was hard because I had friends who had so much more freedom than I did. With my parents, it was strict curfew - I always had to leave the party first, we’re going to know where you are all the time, you have to call and check in, you’re not going to ride in anybody’s car unless we know who they are - but I had a friend, let’s call him John. He had NO rules. He could hang out at someone’s house, and then decide to spend the night and he didn’t even need to check in. His parents let him do anything that he wanted - he could be gone for two, three days and they wouldn’t notice, and I remember I used to so jealous of him. I wished that my parents would let me do whatever I wanted. He was so lucky. Now my friend was a church kid, like I was. He had a lot of structure and guidance from the church. He was a good kid, and he turned out really well. But he had an older brother - and all that freedom wasn’t as good for his older brother, who got heavily involved in drug addiction, and that story ended in suicide. And I remember talking to my friend about it, and he basically said, “I actually wish my parents cared where I was all the time.” And I remember being so baffled. And I want to be clear, I’m criticizing my friend’s parents. I know they loved both of their sons, they were heartbroken by the suicide and I’m sure they thought freedom was the loving path for their kids. But what I realized from talking to my friend, who I had always been jealous of, what I realized is that HE was jealous of ME. My parents were strict, but my friends saw that as love. And I didn’t see it that way, at that time. But I do now.
Today we are going to spend some time with the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah is one of my favorite books in the Bible, it’s actually my name sake. JJ stands for Jeremiah John. So when I was growing up, I always paid special attention to the weeping, whiny prophet. If you don’t understand that reference, let me zoom out for just two seconds. The role of the prophet was to be the voice of God to the leaders and to the people. The phrase I have used a lot of times when we talk about this is that the prophet was the guy who came and smacked the king upside the head when he got off track. Now you might remember from last week, Israel had TERRIBLE kings. The prophets have been warning Israel all along, but the Kings have been ignoring the prophets. SO, God sends some empires to punish his people. First the Assyrians come in, they DESTROY the Northern Kingdom. Israel is gone, but Judah is still hanging out. Last week we talked about Josiah, who was between the destructions. But the book of Jeremiah goes all the way up to the Babylonians. The Assyrian empire falls, but then the Babylonian empire shows up - and eventually destroys Judah and the capital city of Jerusalem. So Jeremiah is a book about a prophet, screaming at the king who mostly ignores everything he says. AND Jeremiah is a bit of a drama queen. Most prophets are very dramatic, but Jeremiah loves to use props and imagery to get his point across. For example, there’s a moment where Jeremiah takes a vase and smashes it on the ground and says, “that’s what God’s going to do to Israel if you don’t knock it off.” (That’s chapter 19, if you’re keeping track). He likes to be the center of attention, he likes using visual aids, and he loves to be dramatic - I have no idea why my parents named me after him. So today we’re going to bounce around a little bit inside the book of Jeremiah, and we’re going to catch some really key insights about how discipline works when it comes from God.
So let’s jump in, chapter 30, verse 7 where it says, [read v.7-11]. So Jeremiah has this really unfortunate message, but there’s also hope. Punishment is coming, and it’s going to be terrible. “In all history there has never been such a time of terror..” BUT in the end they will be saved. This shows us something so important about God. God’s discipline is an act of LOVE. Punishment comes, and yet there is hope in God’s presence. I think that last verse really captures it, the last line says, [read it]. Punishment without justice is just abuse. It’s just revenge. I’m mad at you, so I’m going to hurt you. But this tells us that God DOES discipline, but with justice. Now you might ask, what’s the difference? Punishment is punishment - who care’s why. But here’s the difference - God’s discipline is aimed at a better future, it’s aimed at reconciliation, it’s forward focused. You will come out stronger on the other side. You did a bad thing, these consequences will help you to change your ways and live better after. Punishment alone is aimed at the mistakes, it’s backwards focused, like vengeance. You did a bad thing, and that’s all that matters - I don’t care about your growth or your good, I just care about the mistake you made yesterday. Discipline that is aimed at the mistakes you made is hopeless and terrifying, it’s backwards focused. But discipline that is aimed at who you will become is hopeFUL and helpful. God’s discipline is not JUST an act of vengeance. God’s discipline is an act of love. It’s a terrible time of trouble…yet they will be saved. I will discipline you…but with justice.
I think one of the greatest examples of this is parenting. I think back to my buddy John, and how my parents were so strict - but it’s because they loved me. They wanted to keep me safe, they wanted me to understand there are consequences of my actions, and they wanted me develop and grow into a fully fledged and responsible adult. Their discipline was an act of love. I think about my children. We have a place in Freeland, and we have a fenced in backyard, but the front yard has no fence. It’s a nice neighborhood, but sometimes people rip through the roads going way too fast. Now on our front porch, we’ve got two rocking chairs. And I love being able to sit in those rocking chairs and watch my children play. They’ll have their action figures or cars or sidewalk chalk, or ride their bike or whatever. Except for Asher. Ashers favorite game is GO RUN INTO THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD. He loves the road, he’s drawn to it like a moth to a flame. So I WANT to sit in my rocking chair, maybe read my book, enjoy a drink and watch over my children. But what it actually looks like is me saying my youngest child’s name a little bit louder over and over. “Asher, Asher, ASHER..” Until the last second when I have to leap out of the chair and sprint across the front yard to yank him back from the edge of the road. So then, later that day - everybody wants to go outside to play, but Dad gets to stay inside with Asher. And Asher, he’s one years old, he just stands at the screen door watching brothers have all the fun, and he’s banging on the window, he can’t talk yet but what I hear is, “let me out, I want to go play.” But NO. This discipline is for his own good. He has lost front yard privileges until he can grow a little, understand some boundaries. This discipline is not vengeance because I’m mad I had to get up off my rocking chair. It’s an act of love that is both helpful and hopeful.
Actually, that does bring up another point. God’s discipline in each of our lives, and my discipline of my youngest - it IS an act of love. It is hopeful, it is helpful, it is ultimately for his good. But he doesn’t always get that. He doesn’t see the path of growth that I’m putting him on. He just sees restrictions. He’s annoyed and angry and sad about the boundaries I’ve put in his life. He turns to me, with tears in his eyes, and snot running down his face and he says, “Father, how could you restrict my freedoms like this?” He’s one, he can’t talk - but that’s what I hear. He doesn’t see the discipline as love, even though it is. And isn’t it just the same for each of us in our lives? How many times does God do something in our lives, and we don’t get it, we don’t understand it - but ultimately, eventually we can get some new perspective and see how the discipline was hopeful and helpful. The guard rails that God gives us about how to live our lives - they ARE for our good, even if they are not what we want to do in the moment. Discipline is an act of Love.
Now we need to jump back to Jeremiah chapter 18. This is a very famous passage, a lot of people have heard this stuff - but maybe you didn’t know where it was. Jeremiah chapter 18 starts out, [read v.1-4]. So this is the famous potter and the clay passage - God sends Jeremiah to watch a potter work, because he has something to teach Jeremiah about his people. It keeps going, [read v.5-10]. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so you are in my hand. There’s a crack in the jar, and so the potter mushes it down and re-builds. Same in our lives, if there’s sin in our lives - God is going to mush us down and re-build. When we talk about repentance in the church, about turning away from sin and following Jesus - we use REALLY strong language, right? We say that we need to DIE to our sin. Our old self, our life without God needs to DIE, and be buried in the grave, and then we are raised with Jesus, who rose from the dead into a NEW life. It’s strong language, because it’s a real transformation in our lives. You think about baptism, you get submerged under the water, and then you rise up from it redeemed, washed clean. We die and we rise from the dead, the clay is mushed down and rebuilt. And what we see with that is that discipline is not just an act of love, but it is actually molding. Discipline helps you develop, it helps you GROW. In a lot of ways, suffering, challenges, obstacles - these things help you to grow.
Here’s my favorite example of this - maybe you’ve heard this before. When a caterpillar makes a cocoon, they turn into jelly in there before they develop wings. And when they are ready, they nibble a little hole and climb out of the cocoon. But here’s what’s crazy - at that moment, the wings are not finished developing, and the bodies are really fat and full of liquid. When they squeeze out of that hole, the liquid that’s in their chubby little worm bodies is squished up into the wings - it’s almost like it inflates their wings. The squeeze is an important part of their development. If they don’t do that, they will die. There are some folks who watch them struggle to get out of the little hole, and so they try to help - they cut the hole a little bigger. But if they are not squeezed, they end up with these fat, heavy bodies and deflated wings - and the help actually kills them. Butterflies need the squeeze, they need the challenge to finish developing, to finish growing into all that they can be. Actually, we see this in popular culture a lot too. I’m going to show a little bit of my nerdy, sci-fi side in a minute. I love fantasy - like Lord Of the Rings, anything that’s got dragons, all that good stuff. And there was a movie that came out called DUNE, that was really famous - based on a series of books. And in that story there are these people who live in the harshest desert in the universe. And part of the story is that the people who live in the harshest environment make the greatest warriors. They are stronger, faster, hardier than any other type of people - because they have to. They have been developed and shaped by their environment. You see the same thing in the fantasy series, Wheel of Time - that just came out on Amazon Prime recently - in that series of books there’s this incredible warrior class of people who live in the harshest conditions. And I tell you all this, not just to expose to you that I'm a huge dork - but also to highlight that there is a fundamental truth that discipline is molding. We are shaped by suffering, We are developed by obstacles.
But here’s the problem - our culture has made comfort and convenience the highest good. We don’t try to make strong people. We don’t try to develop men of God or women of God. We want to make comfortable people. And comfort as the highest good has destroyed our society. Like butterflies whose wings haven’t developed - we are trying to convince ourselves that we were not meant to fly. But here’s the truth - we should welcome challenges, we should encourage our children to do hard things. In our lives, we should go after the thing that will shape us best, not the thing that is easiest for us. Because discipline is molding. Challenges help us grow. The potter and the clay. You see this in the new testament as well. Romans, chapter 5, Paul is talking - and I’m sure you’ve heard something like this before, [read v.3-5]. Suffering helps you grow, and if you believe that God’s discipline is for your GOOD. That it is an act of love and it’s molding and shaping for your life - you can rejoice when you face problems, because you can know, you can trust that when you are being squeezed - it might just be that your wings are being made.
Alright, I have one more story from Jeremiah, this one is about moldy underwear. Hey, I told you Jeremiah was dramatic and liked visual aids. Chapter 13 goes like this, [read v.1-5]. Okay, super weird. Go buy this loincloth. (I should mention, some translations say it was a belt - but I think underwear is more fun, but the important part is that it’s something around the waist that clings) So he takes off his belt (or loincloth) and he sticks in the rocks down by the river. Weird, but okay. [read v.6-7]. So Jeremiah goes back to the river, and finds his underwear is moldy. Rotted loincloth, moldy underwear. I know it’s gross, but you are never going to forget this story of Jeremiah. Verse 11 gives us the message [read v.11]. I created my people to cling to me, but they have fallen apart like moldy underwear. This is the final piece I want you to realize about divine discipline. Discipline is relationship building.
And you know this!! You know this already, I’m just pointing out obvious things you already know. When you get in a fight with a friend, and you go through conflict and you find your way to resolution - that friendship is stronger. Yes? If you have a friend you have never had a conflict with, they are still on level 1 of friendship! They still think you’re a good person all the time. But when your friendship has a few fights under the belt - they’ve seen the ugly side, they’ve seen the real you - and they still love you? That’s deep love. When you are going through discipline with your kids, and they’re facing consequences - and they’re just full of fury, “I hate you. You’re a mean dad. You’re a terrible mom. I can’t believe you. I hate my life.” (You know just this past week I was talking with a friend and saying, “oh my kids say that stuff too” and they were shocked. Even your kids? They’re pastor’s kids, they’re little angels, they’re so wonderful - they wouldn’t ever say that stuff. But yes they do. My children don’t like discipline any more than the rest of us.) But afterwards, every conflict has a beginning, middle and end, and if you press through to the end of the conflict - you are closer to that person on the other side. You have been refined in the fire. For my children, when they understand the consequences - they come and they cling to me closer than ever before. When you have walked through the tunnel of conflict with a friend, your relationship is deeper AFTER the conflict.
Because here’s the thing - when children get punished, or they experience consequences for their actions, a lot of them are afraid they have lost our love. The child got the toy taken away because they just hit their brother with it and now he’s bleeding. And the question is, “do you still love me?” And we are the same way with God. God tells us that there are consequences for sin, there is justice, there is punishment and we wonder, “but do you still love us God?” The point of the moldy underwear story is that God designed us to cling to him - like a stretchy waistband on a pair of tighty-whiteys. We cling to God in the midst of discipline because we need the reminder - God still loves you. Discipline is an act of love. Discipline is molding, it shapes us, and discipline is relationship building.
The good news that I have for you this morning is that divine discipline is discipling discipline. Discipline from God is not a popular topic, I can completely understand why books like Jeremiah make a lot of people uncomfortable, but the truth is - it’s really a beautiful thing. It’s designed to teach you, guide you, help you grow into who you are meant to be. Take a look at these two words - let’s put them on the screen. Disciple and Discipline - look how similar those words are! Don’t worry, I looked it up - they both come from the same root word. Disciple and discipline both come from the Latin word discipulus - which means student. It is for our teaching, for our development, for our growth as a person, as a student, as a disciple. God’s discipline… for Israel, for the church, and for each and every one of us is for us to grow. Let me reassure you - receiving discipline means that God has not given up on you. Do you see how this changes everything? SO MANY people think that when things are going wrong it’s because God is mad - but maybe the struggles of today are the tiny hole in the cocoon that will help us become what God means for us to be. And if that’s GOd’s truth for us today - we should be people who WELCOME the struggle. God uses discipline to disciple you, because if there is discipline - that means there will be growth.
So my challenge for you this week - I want you to go for growth OVER comfort. In your personal relationship with God, in your church life, and in your relationships with other people - choose discipline, choose growth, instead of comfort. Comfort as the highest goal turns us all into couch potatoes. Chasing after comfort has not built a better society. It has made a more comfortable society. Children are safer and more comfortable than ever before in history - and yet they are also the most miserable. Because humans were not designed for comfort to be our highest goal. We were meant for more. If we in the church become a people who embrace challenge, embrace obstacles, embrace discipline - because we know that God uses it to help us grow - then we become disciples of God. If we welcome God’s guidance, even if it makes life MORE difficult - we will be stronger tomorrow.
I think about my buddy John. He had all the freedom in the world, no rules, no limits - and I envied him all throughout high school. Come to find out, all that time, he was the one who missed the guidance that guardrails could have given him. God’s discipline doesn’t make for light reading in the scriptures. Punishment is not fun to watch - but if you pay attention, you can see the character of God, the heart of God in the midst of the punishment. Divine discipline is an act of Love. Discipline is molding, and suffering helps us to grow. Discipline is relationship building, and if we push through the beginning, the middle and the end of the conflict - it can even draw us closer to God. Let’s pray.