You have not approached that which could be touched and a blazing fire and gloomy darkness
and storm and a trumpet blast and a voice speaking words such that those who heard
begged that no message be further addressed to them. Indeed, so fearful was the spectacle that Moses said, "I am terrified and trembling."
I once watched as a father disciplined his son. The toddler's mischief had clearly crossed several boundaries and he needed direction back to acceptable territory. The man swatted the child's behind with a single stroke, which was greeted with predictable outrage. And then the father picked up his screaming son and comforted him.
"Wow!" I thought. 'The world has changed."
I remembered "blazing fire and gloomy darkness... and a voice speaking words...." I remembered "terrified and trembling." I grew up under a regime of fear and violence that offered little comfort. Emotional storms broke furiously and inevitably passed. They might be followed by pleasant calm, but amid the storms there were neither "heavenly Jerusalem," nor "angels in festal gathering." Nor was my experience radically different from that of my classmates in the Catholic school. We knew poverty and violence and looked forward to the day when we might avenge our upbringing on our offspring.
The New Testament invites us to God's household where discipline is received with gratitude and complete confidence. Discipline, of course, describes precisely the relationship between the master and the disciple. We who hope to be known as disciples of Christ welcome his discipline. Under his authority we enjoy both the freedom of acting by the guidance of his Holy Spirit, and the constraint of setting our own preferences, desires and opinions on the back burner. We realize that acting without his guidance is both foolish and futile. As the Psalmist (127) says,
Unless the LORD build the house,
they labor in vain who build.
Unless the LORD guard the city,
in vain does the guard keep watch.
The scriptures show a fascinating ambivalence about discipline. Echoing Deuteronomy, our Hebrew author reminds his people,
"...discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
That may be the same ambivalence we feel about work. Is it a privilege or a curse? Adam and Eve worked in the Garden of Eden, imitating the Worker who created the Universe; but they would meet frustration and disappointment as they labored by the sweat of their brow to reap thorns and thistles.
Lent and Holy Week are still a few weeks off. Do we look forward to the contemplation of his passion with hope and joy, or dread? Do we study his suffering with remorse for our sins, or gratitude for his willingness? Finding him in the Garden of Gethsemane, do we urge him to flee while there is time, or stay and suffer for our sins?
The Holy Spirit, our master and disciplinarian, teaches us wisdom and the fear of the Lord. We learn to live with ambivalence, both loving and fearing knowledge; desiring and dreading an intimate love of God.
The ultimate irony of discipline is that which Jesus endured, "Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered." On the cross a man learned what it means to be the Son of God. In the shadow of the cross we learn what it means to be human.