Grace Presbyterian Church

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Sermon: Itching Ears

Grace Presbyterian Church

October 16, 2022, Pentecost 19C

2 Timothy 3:14-4:8

Itching Ears

For two seemingly slight letters tucked away near the end of the New Testament, 1 and 2 Timothy have a fair number of individual verses that have loomed large in the church’s collective imagination or memory. This week’s reading, the final one in this brief trip through the two letters, has another one that has been stuck in my head since childhood. I don’t think it has ever been turned into a hymn with great circulation, and I can’t be sure it ever came up in Bible drill, but it was definitely a Sunday school verse. As it was rendered in the King James Version of my childhood, 2 Timothy 3:16 went like this:

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness…

Aside from not entirely being sure what “reproof” meant, I could follow this one well enough, even acknowledging that what “scripture” meant in this verse was different than what I knew as scripture if only because this verse itself was now part of “scripture” as it presumably was not when its first readers were hearing it.

Unlike in the previous reading with its phrase “word of truth,” this verse really does refer to a set body of writings as scripture. The question then becomes: what is this body of writing? What constituted “scripture” to the writer and readers of this letter? 

A large part of that answer was certainly that body of Hebrew scripture that came to be labeled the Old Testament in the Christian tradition. The previous verse’s description of “sacred writings” that the reader has known from childhood strongly echoes the disciplined instruction in the Law, Prophets, and Writings that any child of Jewish upbringing (such as Jesus himself) would have received. 

There might have been other writings that were counted in that number. Books that today are known as part of the Apocrypha might have been included in that upbringing. Given that this letter was most likely written around the end of the first century, it’s at least somewhat possible that some of Paul’s earliest letters were being preserved as “sacred writings,” and that at least the gospel of Mark, the earliest of the gospels to be written, might have achieved such circulation as well. Matthew and Luke (as well as Luke’s partner book Acts), having been written somewhat later, might have achieved some circulation, while the last gospel written, John, might not have achieved so much reputation by this time. 

Whatever that body of writing was, our author impresses upon his readers that it was “inspired by God” – the word carrying the weight of something “God-breathed,” or even breathed upon by God – and that they have very specific uses. They are good for teaching, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness, so that we followers of Christ can be properly equipped to do Christ’s work in God’s word. They are not objects of worship themselves – language about “inspired by God” notwithstanding; they are tools, not idols.

While that might be the “star verse” from today’s reading, there’s another verse that I submit needs to be taken to heart in the times in which we live. As the instruction to the reader continues and moves into the work of proclamation, we get this nugget of warning in verse 3 and 4 of chapter 4:

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.

Sound familiar?

In a nation where a large swath of the church has allied itself so thoroughly with a political party and its aims that it might as well be a subsidiary, this is a warning that is way overdue to consider. 

Kristin Kobes du Mez writes in the awfully important book Jesus and John Wayne of how exactly this process has taken place in American evangelicalism, particularly in white churches, over the course of much of the twentieth century and come to a head in the twenty-first century. Motivated by a mix of motivations (including an unhealthy dose of racial animosity and hypermasculine desire for power), both men in the church and a number of pastors and authors and other leaders so promulgated alternate models of “manhood” (including the titular John Wayne) through numerous books and events that, by the time this century had rolled around: 

little separated Jesus from John Wayne. Jesus had become a Warrior Leader, an ultimate fighter, a knight in shining armor, a William Wallace [ed. note: they guy Mel Gibson played in Braveheart], a General Patton, a never-say-die kind of guy, a rural laborer with calluses on his hands and muscles on his frame, the sort you’d find hanging out at the NRA convention. Jesus was a bad— [the rest of the word has three letters, and the last two are “s”; figure it out].

Kind of hard to find anything about Jesus in the gospels that would match such a description. The closest one might find is in Jesus’s disrupting of the Temple, an event ironically targeted at the very kind of religious leaders who were propagating this revisionist version of Jesus.

Du Mez continues:

This Jesus was over a half century in the making. Inspired by images of heroic white manhood, evangelicals had fashioned a savior who would lead them into the battles of their own choosing [emphasis mine]. This new, rugged Christ transformed Christian manhood, and Christianity itself.

Itching ears” at their itchiest, one might say.

That’s the biggest challenge: it isn’t the false leaders who jump in to satisfy those biases and bigotries and hatreds, it is the people with “itching ears” who only listen to what they want to hear. It’s the thousands or hundreds of thousands or millions of people who want only leaders who will tell them what they want to hear and who will make a show of hating the people they hate; if you want to understand division in society or church, you have to look there.

It is in the face of this “turning away to myths” that the continuously repeated instruction of this letter is most vital. Keep proclaiming the message – the “word of truth” from last week’s reading. Be persistent in favorable or unfavorable conditions. Be patient. Be sober-minded. Endure the suffering that will come. Do the work. 

The last three verses we read today return to the image of the imprisoned Paul writing his last testament. In fact there is one more famous biblical image found here, in verse 7: “I have fought the good fight, I have run the race, I have kept the faith.” What is here translated as “fought the good fight” does not come from a word for military action, but of athletic competition. 

One might think of the ancient version of the Olympic games, which had been going on for about eight hundred years by the time of this letter, which included both wrestling (“fight the good fight“) and running as competitive events. Notice that this verse doesn’t even say anything about winning the fight or the race; our call is simply to do what is set before us. Persevere. Do the work. 

These two letters to Timothy, whoever wrote them or read them, can frankly be difficult reads with the constant references to suffering, either the author’s or the reader’s. It’s not easy to wade through it all, and sometimes it can probably come off as self-pitying. But the encouragement still stands: endure, persevere, be persistent, keep doing the work. While the letter is structured as teaching to a young man in the work of leading the church, it holds for everybody. And in a time of “itching ears” that won’t listen to anything but what they want to hear, that persistence, that endurance, that perseverance has never been more important.

For the call to keep doing the work, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #289, Lead On, O King Eternal; #104, O Lord, How Shall I Meet You; #846, Fight the Good Fight

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