At the Christ on Campus conference here in June, campus pastors and vicars from a dozen states discussed the struggles of and threats against university students today. One conclusion of the participants and the speakers was that there is a pressing need for studying the theology of the cross, for understanding the foundational place of suffering in the life of a Christian on a college campus.
TEXT: Hebrew 12: 4-29

Preached by Rev. Kenneth W. Wieting

In many and various ways God spoke to His people of old by the prophets, but now in these last days, He has spoken to us by His Son (Heb. 1:1, 2). Dear Hearers of the Word made flesh;

At the Christ on Campus conference here in June, campus pastors and vicars from a dozen states discussed the struggles of and threats against university students today. One conclusion of the participants and the speakers was that there is a pressing need for studying the theology of the cross, for understanding the foundational place of suffering in the life of a Christian on a college campus.

Christian psychologist Dr. Beverly Yanke shared statistics concerning the high rate of depression on modern college campuses. Universities see it as a crisis and are scrambling to deal with its effects. Contributing factors that were voiced included the moral decay of our culture and its deadening effect on young hearts and minds and the hostility it carries to confessing Christ, unrealistic expectations caused by society’s fixation on high self-esteem, idealistic student imaginings concerning relationships, uncertainty about one’s major and the future it will provide, concern over college loans and debt loads, some lack of rigorous discipline in American life, and the pressures of academic pursuit in a new and large environment. Vicar Askins’ first study with the students this fall will therefore be on suffering, on the theology of the cross on the college campus.

Whether we are on a college campus or in the workplace or a homemaker or retired, we are easily confused about suffering. No one gets a free pass from the deathward drift of life in this cursed world. Certainly, some suffering we bring upon ourselves with wrong choices and harmful actions. But the possibilities in a sinful world expand in so many ways. Affliction comes in loneliness, disappointment, never ending demands, intense questions and doubts about self and about God, physical sickness, unfulfilled longings, career reversals, hostility from others, fears for loved ones, grief over losses, and finally the approach and arrival of death. You are guaranteed the presence of suffering in this quickly passing world. You will suffer. You will hurt. There may be hours of painful stress, days of stressful pressure, and years of weakness and struggle. No one is exempt from suffering.

Yet, we constantly think it strange. We also pray for its removal. For those unemployed, we pray for work. For those ill we pray for healing. For those persecuted and tormented we pray for relief. And we should so pray!

Yet God would also have us know that the presence of painful trials and ongoing struggles does not mean He has abandoned us. Quite the opposite in fact! “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons.

Satan tempts us to doubt God’s care and compassion in suffering. He would use times of distress and trial to turn us away from God. He would use suffering to sow despair and bitterness. And bitterness can be contagious. One poisoned heart, one ungrateful attitude, one bitter person, can tragically infect many others. “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled…”

A key to rooting out bitterness and living in contentment is to rightly view suffering in our life. In suffering Satan whispers – “you are imprisoned and alone”, “you are in solitary confinement”. In suffering the world shouts, “you are missing out; you are a fool not to go the broad easy way.” In suffering our sinful nature whines and whimpers in self-pity, “no one cares - no one loves me”. But God says, “… the Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son whom he receives.” He (the Father of spirits) disciplines us for our good that we may share in his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

The truth is, we are either being trained by God’s painful discipline in our life or we are turning bitter because of it. The discipline noted here includes sharp verbal rebuke of sin (V.5). It also includes blows of a physical nature (scourges, whips) (V. 6). Whom the Lord loves and receives, he disciplines and whips.

This is crucial in God’s love for us because we sinners want to be theologians of glory. We want to be in control of the outcome of the things that relate to us. We have hopes and plans that easily confuse our personal kingdoms with the kingdom of God even in spiritual matters. To travel through this passing world and not be charmed and seduced by it is possible only with God’s loving discipline. Everyone whom the Lord loves and receives He disciplines. Everyone! Imagine how insufferable you or I would be if everything always went our way all through the years!

The Hebrew Christians had forgotten God’s purposes in disciplining His own. Their property had been plundered and confiscated. They faced public ridicule and abuse for confessing Christ. Some of them had been imprisoned (Heb. 10:32, 43). But the greatest tragedy was their false reading of the situation.

They thought that hardship and affliction meant God had deserted them. They had weak knees and drooping hands. They were showing signs of quitting, of giving up. To this severe circumstance of trial the Holy Spirit caused to be written the amazing words of faith that we heard in previous weeks. Faith is the assurance (the title-deed) of the things we hope for, the evidence of things not seen. He also caused to be written the amazing words about discipline and suffering in this text. Far from being an indication that God has deserted His own, discipline is evidence that He has not deserted them. Their suffering for the Gospel showed that God was treating them as sons. Of course it seemed painful and not pleasant. Of course they prayed for it to be removed. But its presence was because God loved them. Everything that God brings to the baptized, everything, He works for their eternal good.
Dear Christians, the period of discipline isn’t over yet. It is rather the length of your entire earthly journey. In love, God doesn’t spare the rod (Prov. 13:24). Discipline is not reason to despair but a basis for encouragement and perseverance. Growing fainthearted in suffering is a lie from the father of lies; it is not the answer.

The answer is Jesus! The answer to our suffering is the suffering of our LORD who did shed His blood in the struggle against sin. Just before our text is the exhortation, “let us fix our eyes on Jesus the author and perfecter of the faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” The joy set before Him was you, sinners turned to Him in repentance and faith. He is the narrow door to heaven. There is no other way! But that door is flung wide open to all us sinners! The consuming fire of God’s wrath roared over Him on Mount Calvary for our rebellion against Mount Sinai to bring us to Mount Zion.

For you He came down. For you He laid down His life in sacrificial death. For you His body was taken down and laid in the garden tomb. And for you He rose up making His cross the gateway to eternal joy! From the right hand of the throne of God He comes into your midst today with all the blessings spoken of in these verses.

The book of Hebrews was written in part to encourage Christians in their suffering not to forsake gathering together in weekly worship (Heb. 10:24, 25). In our text worship is described as coming to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. Each week in worship, you come into God’s city. You can’t reach heaven in some strenuous, mystical, nature worshipping, star-gazing way, but God brings heaven to you in His word and Sacrament. On Mount Sinai, sinners were told to stay away or be destroyed. Here at Mount Zion, the place of God’s promised presence, repentant sinners are invited to draw near to the throne of grace, to receive mercy to help them in their time of need. We are to call upon Him in the day of trouble (Ps 50:15).

“You have come to Mount Zion…and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”

Beloved when it comes to God’s service to us here, what we have heard in earlier weeks from Hebrews holds true, “… faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”(11:1). You can’t go by what you see in worship. However you can live and die and live forever by what God tells you in and concerning worship.

As you gather here, there are thousands upon thousands of angels who worship with you. They worship the Lord day and night in joyful assembly. When the LORD is in your midst, they have not ceased their joyful assembly in worship nor have they departed from Him. Even with all of your earthly struggles, the angels are here with you. As you gather here you have also come to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven. That is, you have come to the whole body of all believers in Jesus Christ everywhere. With all our differences, with unique joys and sorrows, with diverse families and fortunes and affairs, what we have in common goes far beyond our differences. We share a common birth in Holy Baptism, a common meal of forgiveness in the Lord’s Supper, a common future home in heaven. As we run the race with all of its painful discipline and correction, there is solace here for one another and from one another. We do encourage one another. As you gather here you have also come to God, the judge of all. The word of the law from Mount Sinai says you’re guilty, as guilty as Esau who sold his birthright for a belly full of food. But this is Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem. Here the sprinkled blood of Jesus is present and through that blood Jesus mediates to you a new covenant – a covenant of forgiveness, life and salvation. Here His blood speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. It cries out for your forgiveness. As you gather in worship each week the judge of all says to you “not guilty.” My Son was made your sin and damned in your place. I now give you His birthright, go in peace.

As you gather here you have also come to the sprits of righteous men made perfect. That is, you are in the company of those who have died trusting in Jesus and not in themselves. It can be good to go to a graveside and remember a loved one. It can be good to hold special a photograph or keepsake from a parent or spouse or other loved one no longer on this earth. But, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, there is no closer place to those who have died in the faith, then right here in the liturgy each week. The communion preface constantly trumpets this truth. With angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven you praise the risen Christ together with them. Where Christ is, there His saints are. When Christ comes to teach you and to feed you, you are in the company of those whose suffering is ended, whose discipline is done, who have received what we yet hope for.

Until that fulfillment of all our hopes, let us offer God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe and with thanksgiving and joy for His undeserved love for us. Until then, “let us not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” In the name of Jesus, Amen.

Luther Memorial Chapel & University Student Center | 3833 N Maryland Ave | Shorewood, WI  53211
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