2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 NRSV
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.
Look, I am going to trust all of you this morning, and let you in on a weakness of mine. I am allergic to poison ivy and poison oak. Now, I can imagine you might not think that’s too big of a deal, after all, many of us get a patchy rash after touching those forbidden leaves of three. I don’t get a rash, I wish that were all I got, instead, it’s large blisters, swelling, and two weeks of pure hell. Our passage about itching ears got me thinking about this allergy of mine because when I have it, I get an itch so deep that it takes everything I have not to scratch and itch and rub those afflicted areas. You see that’s the thing, I want to itch so bad, but I cannot do it because that is not what I need. It will bring me temporary relief but ultimately only worsen my allergic reaction… Our verses from 2 Timothy this week about itchy ears and scripture have Paul encouraging his mentee Timothy who wants to flee from his role as leader and pastor because he cannot seem to get the truth, this story of grace, across to people. Instead, his audience,with their deep-seated itches, finds relief in other dubious places. Paul and Timothy know what they and we need: it is that better story of Jesus, one filled with grace and forgiveness and love for all people. However, it is one story lost in the ever-increasing cacophony of other stories and voices, so how can we hear and tell this better story to meet that deep itch at its source and answer it completely?
Imagine if you will that you had an important truth to tell. You told your family, your friends, and your neighbors. You took every opportunity to get the word out, and you told people every chance you got. There is one caveat though, you were the only one telling this truth. Every other person, piece of news, broadcast, TV show, and voice told something different. Their message was easier to hear, more comforting, and less challenging. What would that do to you? Would you be able to persevere? Would you get too tired and perhaps too frustrated to continue? If you can imagine this, you can imagine putting yourself in Timothy’s shoes. As a preacher and pastor, one of the greatest challenges is the difficult reality of often knowing what a congregation wants to hear versus trying to tell them what they need to hear. Timothy has been trying to tell people what they need to hear, but often what we need to hear is not easily received and is often rejected.
If you need proof of this, look no further than the words of Jesus. Who remembers the Parable of the Sower from Matthew 13? In it, Jesus outlines Timothy’s situation, as, like Timothy, this sower goes out to sow seeds one day, and some fell on the path, some on the rocky ground, some among the thorns, and only a quarter of the seeds in the parable fell on the good ground to eventually grow a bountiful harvest. Now, Jesus speaks of the bountiful harvest, but all Timothy can think of is the success rate. 25% of folks accepting and understanding the truth does not sound like much, and so Timothy’s a bit disheartened! You can see Paul attempting to reassure Timothy in our reading today. Our mentee is struggling to hold onto his call and continue pastoring others, so his mentor encourages him to “continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you have learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Timothy’s mentor calls upon his mentee to remember not only his foundations but those who have mentored and walked alongside him in his journey up to this point. Through these words, Paul confirms what many of us already know: our Christian faith journey is not a solitary one.
Even when Paul speaks of itching ears, it feels as though this has come from direct experience. This mentor has spoken to audiences, looked into their eyes, and wondered if anyone was listening and if anyone was even home. I think most pastors can relate in wondering whether their words have struck a chord, stuck with a person, and maybe just maybe will even be one of those seeds landing in good soil. One of those seed moments happened to me a few years back when I was leading a Bible study class one Sunday morning. I had prepared my lesson plan and led the class, engaging in dialogue, questions, and discussions about our scripture that morning. At the end of it, I largely received feedback in the form of a few polite “Good job, Paul” statements, but I did not think much of it for the rest of the week until the next Sunday when folks were gathering for the class. One of the guys who had been present at the previous class walked into the room, came around the table and stood in front of me. He looked down at me and said very simply, “I hate you, Paul.” No “Good morning” or “Nice to see you!”, just this matter-of-fact statement! It took me back a bit, and before I could say anything he continued, “I have not been able to get what you said last week out of my mind.” To this day, it is one of the finest compliments I have received in response to one of my lessons and sermons.
Think back, have you ever had a moment where you were terrified that you had gotten something important, perhaps a key belief, wrong? I know I have. What did you do in response? I know what I did, as when it happened, it did not matter the time or day, I would immediately start searching for something to satisfy that itch. I would look up things in books, and online, and talk to people close to me to see if I could relieve that itch and reassure myself that I was not wrong. It is easy to do this if we keep lots of complimentary voices around us. If we have everyone and everything echoing the same thing, we never need to think about that itch that asks, “What if I am wrong? What if there is something I missed?”
It reminds me of the story of King Ahab of Israel and King Jehoshaphat of Judah consulting prophets to see if they should do a battle against the nation of Aram at Ramoth-gilead. They consulted 400 prophets who all told them what they wanted to hear, that God would give them victory. Ahab’s itch was satisfied, but Jehoshaphat’s was not. He asked if there was another prophet, and Ahab admitted there was, saying: “‘There is still one other by whom we may inquire of the Lord, Micaiah son of Imlah, but I hate him, for he never prophesies anything favorable about me but only disaster’” (1 Kings 22:8 NRSV). Well, Micaiah is summoned and he gives the kings the truth, the one that they do not want to hear but need to hear. If they go to battle at Ramoth-gilead, their nations will be utterly defeated. 400 to 1, who would you listen to? Well, they did not listen, and Micaiah's words came true with the defeat at Ramoth-gilead taking Ahab’s life while Jehoshaphat barely escapes with his.
When the seeds hit the fertile ground, they make the itch worse rather than better. It may even cause you to wake up in the dead of night wondering if you are wrong. People will “accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires,” in other words, people like false prophets who do not challenge our preferences but only confirm for us that what we want is more than mere opinion but the absolute truth. However, for some, the words of truth will hit the fertile ground, and the itch will no longer be able to be satisfied by sweet platitudes. You might end up hating the one who did this to you, for now, but in the end, only God will suffice. The grace, truth, justice, and love of the divine will be what ultimately satisfies, and it is only through these things that the seed will in turn grow until it becomes that bountiful harvest of God’s kingdom and our eternal home.
Paul gives important words to pastors and congregations today. Paul says to leaders like Timothy stay strong, be encouraged, and find encouragement in those who walk this road with you. Do not try to do it all by yourself, but at the same time, stay true to your call to give people what they need to hear. To congregations, Paul gives these words, “[Every scripture inspired by God (alt. trans.)] is also useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that the person of God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” For scripture to teach, reproof, correct, and train, we must be teachable, reprovable, correctable, and trainable. We must be open to having that itch deepen until we can no longer stand the same old story of the crowd. Now, only a deeper story will answer that itch, one that disciples us and makes us ready and able to do every good work.
Where do you itch? Where are you currently satisfying yourself with the popular opinion of those around you? Where are you in need of a better story, one that comes from God through our Lord, Christ Jesus? This is a story that will challenge us, and through that discomfort, transform us. Why are you here today? Why are you a Christian? I hope it is for the reason that you too believe that scripture contains “all things necessary to salvation” (BOD ❡104). Namely, through scripture, we experience God’s word: Jesus Christ. We start to see God even in the most uncomfortable and difficult parts of the Bible. These all have what we need, not what we want. Salvation is more than eternal life, it is about making us part of the only story that matters: God’s story. In this story we find all itches cease, all evils are abolished, and all creation is transformed into the kind of place where truth, justice, mercy, grace, and love reign. In the end, to be not ashamed means we are willing to listen when needed and to change where needed. Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman