Pentecost 19 – Series C/Proper 24 (October 20, 2019)
“Salve for Itching Ears” (2 Timothy 3:14-4:5)
What makes your ears itch? Could be an infection. Could be a build up of wax. Maybe a bug flew in there. You might want to talk to a pharmacist. They might have some salve that you could use to help your condition.
When Paul talks about “itching ears” he means something entirely different. He writes, “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.” In other words, they have ears that are eager to hear only pleasant things, only those things that they want to hear, teachings that don’t necessarily make any demands upon them, teachings that keep them from being held accountable. And so, the teachers they like to listen to will never talk about things like sin or judgment or condemnation for sinful behavior. The teachers they choose to listen to will emphasize a certain nebulous “spirituality.” They will encourage you to be “spiritual, but not religious.” That usually means one of two things. One, you don’t need to go to church because the Church is just another oppressive, bigoted institution. Or two, you can pick and choose whatever you want to believe, like going to the Golden Corral and having all sorts of choices in front of you. You don’t like asparagus? Then move on to the mashed potatoes and gravy and put that on your plate. You don’t like having to believe in Jesus as God in the Flesh? Then move on to the idea that everyone is a little god and that your words are powerful to create your own reality.
But that would be one of many foolish myths that Paul warns about, those superstitious beliefs that do not lead to salvation. He mentioned this in his previous letter to Timothy. In 1 Timothy 1:4 Paul tells Timothy to charge his hearers not to devote themselves “to myths and endless genealogies.” Apparently, there were teachers who were inventing fanciful stories based on the lists of names in the Old Testament. In our day, I can remember some friends who got themselves tangled up with a group who had their own problem with genealogies. In the living room of their home, they had these huge charts that – so they claimed – proved Queen Elizabeth was directly descended from King David, and therefore all the promises given to the people of Israel now apply to England and also America because of our original connection to England. And that’s all they talked about. It was weird stuff.
Later, in 1 Timothy 4, Paul writes, “the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons,” for example, forbidding marriage and requiring abstinence from certain foods. The truth is, though, your marital status has nothing to do with your status before God. What you put in your mouth has nothing to do with your salvation, only what goes into your soul via your ears and what you ultimately believe.
What do you suppose are the prominent myths that people’s ears are itching to hear today? One is most certainly the way many have rejected the God-ordained order in creation, the attempt to separate the body from the soul, the idea that what you do with your body does not matter. A loud segment of society would have us believe that the order of male and female no longer matter, that you can be whatever you want to be or identify as. This is a clear rejection of God’s good creation … although we know that this creation is certainly fallen. That’s why we also should recognize the need to love people and be merciful and compassionate when they are struggling with these matters of gender and identity. At the same time, we dare not succumb to the myth and the demonic deceit that makes us say “Well, at least my sin is not as bad as all those other people!” And we excuse ourselves and try to justify the things we do that separate us from God. Any and all sin finally is a rejection of God’s order and God’s intention for his redeemed creatures.
We must recognize our own fallen condition. We must recognize our own need to repent of our sins. And then, instead of having our itching ears satisfied, we fill our ears with the God-breathed sacred writings that Paul says “are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” They are able to do this, they are powerful, because they are indeed God-breathed. They are God’s own Words to us. They have the power of the Holy Spirit working in them and through them, as St. Peter writes, “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). The preached Word of Law goes into our ears and into our hearts so that we recognize our sinful condition that deserves everlasting condemnation. Then, the preached Word of the Gospel – the saving message of Christ crucified and risen for the sins of the world – goes into our ears and into our hearts so that we can by faith receive the gifts of God … forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation.
Moreover, this faith is something that God gives even to the littlest among us, and we need to expose them to the Word of God at the earliest moments of their lives. I bring this up not just because of all the babies we’ve been blessed with lately here at Messiah. I mention it because of something Paul says in our text. When Paul says to Timothy that “from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings,” the word there for “child” is brephos in Greek which literally means “infant.” Paul says that Timothy was acquainted with God’s Word from the time he was a little baby. And that’s something we should do, too. So expose your babies, your brephoi, to the inspired Word of God. Let them hear it in the womb. Remember how St. John jumped for joy in his mother’s womb when Mary, with Jesus in her womb, came to visit. Bring your babies to baptism, the Word and promises of God connected to the water. Make the Word of God a part of your life at home. Bring your babies and children to Sunday School and later to confirmation instruction and youth group Bible studies. Bring them first and foremost to the Divine Service, even while they are in the womb, because this is the place where they will be formed and shaped by the texts that we hear in the liturgy and the lectionary. This is the shape of our life as adult children of God, too … constantly being formed and shaped by the sacred writings that are able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. We need to support all these families with these little brephoi. And when we see these little ones, totally dependent on their mothers and fathers, it teaches us about faith. It teaches us that we are all children, totally dependent upon our heavenly Father for everything, including and especially the gift of salvation by grace through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
The message of the cross of Christ is not going to satisfy any itching ears, that’s for sure. It involves sin and death. It’s uncomfortable. It means I’m guilty. It means I’m accountable to someone bigger than me. But that should not stop us from doing as Paul says to Pastor Timothy and to all pastors and congregations: “Preach the Word; be ready in season and out of season, reprove, rebuke, exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” We should never stop preaching the message of the cross of Christ, because that’s the very message that our ears and our hearts need to hear. Yes, it involves sin and death. But it ends in forgiveness and resurrection. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but Jesus comforts us with mercy and compassion. Yes, we are guilty, but the blood of Jesus declares us not guilty. Yes, I’m accountable to someone bigger than me. But that bigger someone is our loving Father who “did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).
That might not be the salve you want for your itching ears. But it’s the only one that’s going to do the job of bringing you to and keeping you in the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.