“Sound Doctrine or Itching Ears?” (2 Timothy 3:14 – 4:5)

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 20, 2019

“Sound Doctrine or Itching Ears?” (2 Timothy 3:14 – 4:5)

Our text this morning is the Epistle reading from 2 Timothy. In his two letters to his young assistant Timothy, St. Paul emphasizes, over and over again, the importance of teaching in accord with sound doctrine. For instance, Paul instructs Timothy to “follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me” and to “guard the good deposit entrusted to you.” Likewise, today he says to “continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed.”

Paul puts a high priority on sound doctrine. It is in that vein, then, that he gives Timothy this solemn charge: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For 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, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”

“Preach the word.” Well, that raises a question, doesn’t it? Which word is Timothy supposed to preach? We’ll get to that in a little bit. But in any case, he is to preach it and proclaim it with full confidence and without fear. “Be ready in season and out of season,” Paul says. In other words, be prepared to preach the word whether it’s popular or not. There will be times when your preaching is “in season,” that is, when people are ready to hear it and receive it. But there will be other times when your preaching is “out of season,” when it’s unfashionable and out of step with the times. At those times folks won’t want to listen to what you’re saying. It doesn’t matter, Timothy. God has called you to preach his word. So be ready to go ahead and preach it, come what may.

In fact, to be a faithful preacher, you’re going to have to say some things that people will not want to hear. “Reprove, rebuke, and exhort,” Paul says. Those are not always pleasant things to do. People may not like you when you do it. But that’s what pastors are called to do. “Reprove, rebuke, and exhort.” Reprove those who are erring and going astray. Rebuke their sins and errors. This reproving and rebuking can range from mild to strong, depending on the sin or the error and on the level of resistance of those being reproved or rebuked. At the same time, and more positively, exhort and encourage the flock in the right direction, in the way of the truth. All these things–reproving, rebuking, and exhorting–take a lot of patience and teaching. People–yes, even Christians–are battling sin and error their whole lives long. Do you find that’s the case for you? You and I will not “arrive” until we depart this vale of tears and temptation. Right now, the devil, the world, and our old sinful flesh give us grief and try to mislead us all the time. And so we resist being reproved, rebuked, or exhorted, even when it’s for our own good. Paul wants Timothy to realize that being a faithful preacher is not easy.

The faithful preaching of God’s word is not always popular with people. Paul tells Timothy this: “For 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, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”

“Itching ears”: That’s a powerful image, isn’t it? You get the picture of people who are not satisfied. They’re not content with the sound teaching. They’re always looking for something else, something new: “Yeah, yeah, that old gospel-of-Christ stuff. We’ve heard it before, many times, and frankly, we’re tired of it! Bor-ing! Give us something new, something different, something exciting! Our ears are itching. And we want you to scratch our itch!”

That’s the pressure that people put on preachers. If the preachers won’t give the people what they want, then those folks will move on and find a church and a pastor that will tell them what they want to hear. They have itching ears.

Sad to say, there are plenty of preachers who will scratch their itch. They will offer people something other than the word that God wants to be preached, which is the gospel of his Son, Jesus Christ. Instead, they will put something else in its place as “the main thing.” That’s the danger. It was the danger back then, when Paul wrote to Timothy, and it is still the danger today: Churches and preachers that “switch out” the gospel of Christ as the main thing and substitute in something else, in order to satisfy itching ears.

Let’s look at a couple of examples. First example: A social-political agenda as the main thing. This can come from either the left or the right. Liberal churches, like the ELCA, switch out the gospel of Christ, and in its place they preach a message that resembles a policy platform from the Democratic National Committee: big government programs, political correctness, and social justice, as they envision it. But the same problem can be found on the other side as well, from a conservative perspective. Many preachers spend all their time decrying the moral decline in our country–abortion, homosexuality, etc. They make the big thing to call our nation back to traditional moral values. Now I generally agree with those social conservatives on those important issues. But the problem is when that becomes your “gospel,” when that becomes “the main thing.” Because it’s not. There are many things that may be right and true and in line with God’s law, but they are not yet the gospel. You can try to transform society and work through the political process–and we should do that, as good citizens. But that is not the distinctive thing that the Christian church has to offer.

What the church does have to offer, and only the church has to offer–what people need the most and cannot find anywhere else–is this: It is the life-giving, life-saving gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. That is the main thing. That’s the big thing that needs to be preached.

Another example, though, of when something else becomes the main thing: When preachers switch out the gospel of Christ and substitute in a self-help message of personal improvement. That is what you find at many of the big-box non-denom churches. No crucifix. Not much mention of Jesus Christ as the Savior who died for your sins and wins your forgiveness. If Jesus is mentioned, it’s more like he’s your life coach. The emphasis is on how you can live a happier life. “Live your best life now!” kind of a thing.

Well, sorry, our best life is not now. In fact, our life now in this world may be full of sickness and sadness and sorrow. But that does not mean we’re not being faithful Christians. It’s means we’re living in a fallen world. And sometimes God’s love for us is hidden behind the cross. So what I need is the new life that only Jesus Christ can give. And Jesus has a habit of giving it to a whole bunch of lousy people who have trouble getting their act together. This is the message that I need to hear, not some glitzy self-help pep talk,

So this is the message that I as your pastor am called to bring to you right here, once again this morning. It is the beautiful gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! This is the only thing that will give you true comfort and real hope in all circumstances, no matter what. And you will only hear it here in church. I preach this gospel to you, because you need to hear it. We need to hear this message, because we like to put other things at the center as the main thing. Our ears get itchy. We want to hear something else. But then we discover that that other thing is empty and a dead end. We need the gospel, something that comes from outside of us. The gospel comes from God, and it is the good news of our Savior Jesus Christ. This is what your ears really long to hear, dear Christian! The Holy Spirit resonates this message in your spirit. Your sins are forgiven! You have everlasting life in Christ Jesus, our Lord! You have a sure hope for eternity! God will carry you through all the cares and difficulties of this life. You are his baptized child; he will not let you go. Brothers and sisters, what sweet good news this is! It’s music to our ears!

This is what you have learned. This is what you firmly believe. This is what the Scriptures declare and deliver. “The sacred writings . . . are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Salvation through faith in Christ Jesus–this is the main thing! Not what we do. What God does. The main thing is what God has done by sending his only Son from heaven, down into our world of sin and misery and death. Christ came to rescue us from the mess we were in and could not get out of. He did this by going to the cross, where he suffered and died for you and for the sins of the whole world. The holy precious blood of the innocent Son of God–this was so powerful and sufficient that it conquered death and damnation and hell itself! This is how thoroughly Christ has saved you! Now when Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead, he will welcome you into your heavenly home. Whatever comes to you now in this life, it cannot touch your salvation. Not your adversities. Not your failures. You belong to God. He put his name on you in Holy Baptism. He puts forgiveness and life and salvation into your mouth, with the body and blood of Christ, in Holy Communion.

What God does in the gospel is a sure thing. And it is the main thing! Not those other things that itching ears want to hear. But the gospel of Jesus Christ–this is sweet music to your ears, to ears that hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

Published in: on October 19, 2019 at 11:33 pm  Leave a Comment  
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