This is the sermon I preached at St. Timothy Lutheran Church last Sunday, 11/20/19. The text was 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5.
Everything about our lives in Christ revolves around relationship: relationship with God, relationship with each other and relationship with our community. At the center of all of this we find scripture, holding it all together. We find two critical themes in 2 Timothy concerning scripture as 1. gift of God and 2. for the practical life of God’s people.
As the gift of God, scripture was intended to be part of a lively dialogue, a life-giving and dynamic interpretation, with commentaries emerging to respond to changing times, rather than as an unchanging and infallible document. God-breathed scriptures are inspiring, not imprisoning. They guide our paths, but don’t determine exactly each and every step we take. Scripture energizes and motivates instead of imprisoning and suffocating us.
The sacred writings of Timothy’s childhood were the Hebrew Scriptures, which early Christians understood as leading believers to Christ. By the time of the writing of 2 Timothy, gospels may have been circulating as well. Jewish parents were to begin the education of their children in Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) at age five. This is what Timothy was directed to remember and follow. It is these writings, learned at the feet of his mother and grandmother “that [were] able to instruct [him] for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (v. 15). Imparted, lived, experiential knowledge of God’s salvation had brought Timothy to where he was, and it was enough to complete the job.
First of all, scripture has the “power to make [us] wise and lead [us] to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (V. 15). Scripture is inspired by God, God-breathed. Not only does it speak of God, but God speaks through it. God’s word speaks to us uniquely of God—as the collected oracles of the community of faith in whom God has acted and through whom God has spoken.
Secondly, scripture bears witness to this divine-human dialogue. It’s ultimate origin is God and may be said to come from God. We are told that scripture is inspired by God. This does not mean that scripture is God-spoken, but that it is God-inspired. God did not open a hole in the writers’ head and just pour all the words of scripture into it verbatim. Rather, it has the stamp of God’s presence in its being. There is the human element in the writing of scripture, while noting the divine inspiration that informs the process of writing scripture. Like all good storytelling, most of the biblical accounts are rooted in truth with some artistic license for emphasis. The focus isn’t so much on how scripture was composed, but on the use to which it may be put. The passage isn’t trying to define the nature of inspiration but to show the usefulness of scripture.
I can’t help but think back to the creation account in Genesis. “God…breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being: (Genesis 2:7). Then in John’s gospel we hear these words, “When Jesus had said this, he breathed into them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:22). These are but two examples of the way God breathes in the Bible and how that breath is creative, life- and faith-giving.
For the practical life of God’s people, scripture is useful in four aspects: teaching-as a source for positive instruction, reproof-as a source for refuting error, correction-as a source for guiding people’s lives and training in righteousness-as a source to provide discipline in right living. Although aimed at Timothy and others in ministry, scripture is suited for “everyone who belongs to God” (v. 17).
Today’s reading from 2 Timothy contrasts the inspired scripture and its proper interpretation by church leaders with self-serving, dissident teachers who attract “itching ears.” In other words, those with itching ears are looking for that which sounds good to them, piquing their interest.
Authority in matters of truth and doctrine does not come from charismatic speakers who may charm an audience, or from propositions that may make one’s life easier. Real authority comes from the experiences and insights of those who have lived their faith and shared it with the church. It is their instruction, model of fidelity and insight (such as the Apostle Paul), to which Timothy is urged to turn.
Timothy is to counter false teaching by being consistent and persistent in proclaiming the gospel. This does not mean he was to stand on a street corner, demanding that people must follow the truth, as only he understood it. Rather Timothy was to patiently teach people. In this way, the body of Christ would be built up and its members would be able to manifest their various gifts.
The final charge to Timothy was, “always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully” (v. 5). Timothy could do and be all these things because of the Word of God being at the very center of his life and being. Everything he did would emanate from that.
What was true for Timothy is true for us as well. Reading, studying and reflecting upon the Holy Scriptures leads us toward a more grace-filled and holy life. The means for following God’s ways are revealed in the living Word. Through God’s word, we begin to understand the call of the Lord, the power of the Holy Spirit and the works of God we are asked to do. Just as Timothy was, so we too are equipped as God’s servants.
Today we encounter many with “itching ears.” People seek perpetual novelty and continuous entertainment that “suits their own desires.” When God’s people do not witness about the faith, a vacuum is formed into which come dazzling, glitzy sounding messages. When we place our faith in the latest book on Oprah’s list, we will always be waiting for the next “new” message to come along and save us. Although we may seek the new and novel, it is only God’s grace that satisfies our longings. This is the sound doctrine referred to in Timothy.
Our relationship with scripture is often faltering because most people in today’s church have little more than a childhood, Sunday school knowledge of the Bible. They believe the Bible is God’s word, but not many read it, let alone study and heed it. The state of biblical illiteracy is such that even several of my professors in seminary were shocked at how little new seminarians knew of God’s word. After all, the Bible is one of the key tools in the ministry. It is also one of the key tools in the call to the Christian life to which God has called each of us in our baptism.
When we read the Bible, the Bible reads us. But reading it is not an end in itself. We are to engage with scripture to heighten our awareness of ourselves in relation to God. Thus our relationship with God is enhanced.
Are you depressed? You’ll find something in the word for you especially in the Psalms. Are you excited and rejoicing. Again, you’ll find what you’re looking for in scripture. If you feel far from God, go to scripture and let God’s love surround you. If you haven’t perused the pages of scripture recently, the Psalms are a good place to begin. You’ll find lyrical poetry to match all moods.
Read scripture not only in seclusion, but in community. Get together with other people of faith and listen and discern together God’s message.
We may feel like we are not good enough Christians. We try and keep failing. That’s ok. Scripture is full of stories of wandering and returning. We can see our lives reflected in these biblical characters of: David who had the husband of a woman he desired killed, the prodigal son, Zaccheus, a greedy tax collector recognized by Jesus for his latent generosity as well as the disciples who denied Jesus as he faced the cross. The list goes on and on. All of these wandered, but returned.
God is relational and so is God’s book, holy scripture. Imagine a bicycle wheel, with scripture at the center, as the hub. Various spokes emanate from that center. When a spoke becomes disconnected from the hub, it breaks. The only way the wheel will continue to work well is if all the spokes are fully connected.
Our lives are the wheel. With God’s word at the center, we are able to function well with each of the spokes or activities of our lives connected to the center.
Let us pray. Holy God, you have revealed your will for us in your Holy Word. Open our hearts and spirits that we may be equipped to do your good works this day. Amen.
Bruce Epperly, The Adventurous Lectionary, patheos.com
Beverly R. Gaventa, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV
Carl R. Holladay, Preaching Through the Christian Year C
Karl Jacobson, Matt Skinner
Joseph L. Price, Olive Elaine Hinnant, Lewis R. Donelson, J. Peter Holmes, Feasting On the Word: Year C,
Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2
Gail Ramshaw, sundaysandseasons.com
David Westphal, Pentecost Devotions III