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Itching ears: a sermon against sensationalism

October 22nd, 2007 by isaac · 2 Comments

Here’s my sermon from this past Sunday. I changed the name of the person at the end because I didn’t get permission to mention him. I hope he doesn’t mind.
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Title: Itching ears
Date: 10.21.07
Texts: Ps 119:97-104; Jer 31:27-34; II Tim 3:14-4:5; Lk 18:1-8

Myths and Itching ears. The section we heard tonight from Paul’s letter from prison to Timothy warns of dangerous myths and itching ears. “For the time is coming when people,…having itching ears, will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths” (II Tim. 4:3-4).

Itching ears. What a great image. We have an itch, an incessant itch. No matter what you do, no matter how many times you scratch it, it always comes back. Another attack, another itch. You’ll do anything to make it go away. We’ll try anything to satisfy that itch. Soothing creams; a good washing with soap and water; maybe a Q-tip to the ear—even though the doctor says it’s bad for you.

It seems to me, that Paul’s image is right on. We are people who like soothing messages, satisfying sensations, ears that tingle with warmth rather than itch. And Paul notices how the people have started, as he says, to “accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires.”

I have to admit, every time I have to get up hear and preach, I think a lot about our itching ears—not only yours, but mine too. I want to tell you something that satisfies your desires, that gives you what you’re looking for, that sooths our itching ears.

But I don’t want to lie. I don’t want to be one of those teachers that you gather together just to please you. I take it as my job to tell the truth, at least the best I can make of it. As one of my professors says, Always tell the truth, even to your enemies. And you all are my friends, so it should be easier.

But our ears itch, and I want to stand up hear and sooth them, give you want you want. And Paul names the trouble, in verse 4: the people “will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.”

Myths. Wandering towards myths. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a good story. This isn’t about the evils of Harry Potter, or folk literature, or anything like that. This is about how we love new fads, and even old worn-out fads that become new fads—something we call retro. It’s about the way we run around from one sensational event to another, trying to satisfy those itching ears. It’s about our obsession with the spectacular.

It’s about going to the State Fair.

Yesterday was my first experience at the North Carolina State Fair. The crowds of people were amazing—Katie and I had to hold on for dear life as we were drawn into a mass of people that flowed into the food area, then down to the goats, then to the folk festival, then towards the rides. When something interesting grabbed our attention, we broke with our crowd only to join another on their way to the same attraction.

And once the thrill of watching cows circle around died out, we’d look for the next spectacle—which, by the way, was absolutely incredible. It was the winner of the largest pumpkin award—a 1,170 lb pumpkin. Now that was spectacular—we just stood there, shaking our heads, along with the rest of the huge crowd gathered around this enormous pumpkin.

Here’s the point. At the fair, we moved from one spectacular event to another, staying for as long as our curiosity or interest was satisfied. As soon as something got boring, we moved on to one of the many other promises of fun. Whatever pleased our senses, whatever gave us what we needed for the moment, whatever stole our attention—that’s where we went.

This is the sort of thing Paul is getting at. We itch for the new; we look for the spectacle. We want quick and easy sensations to cure us from our boredom, or loneliness, or our desperate wandering, from one center stage act to another. We are, as one cultural critic put it, a “society of the spectacle.”

We have become addicts—always looking for another fix, another spectacle, another image or product to consume, with the hope that it will finally satisfy our seemingly insatiable appetite. And so we are at the mercy people with soothing tongues—they promise to relieve our itching ears. But it doesn’t last, and so we move on to the new…something bigger, and better, and more shinny and smilely.

Always searching, always wandering.

But the truth, the good news, of Jeremiah is something radically different. Everything is turned upside down. It’s not about our quest for God. It’s not about 7 steps to living your full potential with God. It’s not about finding your best life now. And it’s not about becoming a better you. It’s not about those cheap tricks that make our ears tingle. Those are the myths.

Instead, Jeremiah tells us about a God who is always searching for you. God is trying to find us. God constantly opens new possibilities for us to accept the intimate embrace of his love.

Israel proved incapable of keeping the first covenant. They were unfaithful. Their itching ears lead them away from the true Word—the life-giving and life-sustaining Law. And now they found themselves in exile, conquered and under the dominion of the Babylonians. But even there, God finds them. Even there, God searches them out. Even there, God’s love will not end.

When the people couldn’t keep the old covenant, God made a new one. Jeremiah 31: “I will make a new covenant with the house of Judah and the house of Israel… It will not be like the covenant they broke… I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people… I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

This covenant is more intimate than the first. Instead of writing out the Law on two stone tablets—remember Moses and the ten commandments—this time God’s hand reaches into the very heart, the interior, the hidden places, the depths, and writes the law, the mark of his love, and commitment.

And instead of forgiveness coming through temple sacrifices and the mediation of priests, it is now immediate, direct, intimate. God says, “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” Period. That’s it. No other requirements. Just the offer of forgiveness, of reunion, embrace, a love that penetrates into the depths.

And the good news is that you already have been found. The good news is that God has already found us, even while we wander around looking for another spectacle, another promise, another myth, another sensational experience. Nothing shall separate us from the love of God, not even our wandering

(pause)

I think the question for us is how we resist this society of the spectacle, the sensationalism, the grand displays and attractive promises, the new myths about God. How do we learn to resist faddism when it comes to what it means to receive God’s love?

II Timothy suggests a completely boring solution. Paul says that it’s Scripture, God’s Word, this book that we hear from every Sunday, that guides our path, in resistance to the myths. It’s our gathering around Scripture, and listening to it, patiently, and thinking about it, and talking about what it means—that’s the stuff that helps us resist the leading of our itching of our ears, always looking for something exotic when it comes to experiencing God.

But there’s something more we need, or at least something more that I need. It’s hard for me to imagine what it might look like for Scripture to help us resist sensationalism, to resist the push and pull of spectacular myths. I need to see it to believe it—call me a doubting Thomas. I need flesh and blood, something living, a body, to prove to me that it’s possible to resist, and still find joy.

And I saw it this morning. My friend James. I worked with James at an institutional chapel a couple years ago. The institution is a state facility where nearly 600 people live, all with developmental disabilities and mental handicaps. The Chapel is nothing special… Well, that’s not exactly true. It’s special in ways that we would never recognize, or call special.

It’s got a special neon rainbow over the stage—but it’s really cheesy looking, the worst of the eighties. And the pews are special, in ways we wouldn’t recognize. They’ve got long, narrow holes that run the length of the pew, so when residents have trouble controlling their bladder, and have an accident, the urine passes right on through, drops to the floor, instead of making a pool. Then James can mop it up.

That’s James’s church. It’s not spectacular. There’s nothing flashy about it. It’s actually a lot of hard work, and I’m sure it has been lonely for him. But he’s been there for decades. And he hasn’t written a book to tell the world about his ministry. He’s got nothing to show for himself, other than a file cabinet full of funeral sermons, and the joy of knowing the name of any of the 600 individuals who might happen to show up on any given Sunday. He knows them all by name, and greets them by name, and prays for them by name.

That’s the best image I’ve seen of what it means to resist the leading of our itching ears, of looking for something better, something more worth while, something more spectacular. James is quite ordinary. But he’s also gentle, patient, and loves without boundaries.

Here’s the trouble. If I keep on telling you about James, about his faithfulness, then I make him out to be extraordinary, spectacular, something worth seeing. But he is just so normal, so ordinary, that you wouldn’t notice anything special about him if you saw him. His faithfulness is covert, mundane, uninteresting, something you’d pass by at the fair on your way to more extravagant exhibits. But that also means he can be any of you, or any of you could be like him.

You don’t have to have much, just a body and stubborn persistence.

At the end of the story in Luke about the persistent and faithful widow, Jesus asks a question: “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faithfulness on earth?”

As long as James is around, I think the answer is Yes.

And like the widow and James, you don’t have to have much, just a body and stubborn persistence.

Tags: sermons

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 forrest curo // Oct 22, 2007 at 8:02 pm

    Maybe it’s more like gathering around scripture, and talking about what God means… rather than what “it” means (After all, we may only be seeing one of many meanings—nor would our first understanding necessarily be what God wants us to eventually learn from a passage!).

    A piece of scripture, itself, might have obvious human fingerprints on it, while it could still be good to ask things like: “Why does He have that in there?” and “Do I see life differently, now, from reading this?”

    Maybe our ears should itch occasionally, for the sake of possibly seeing something about God that Paul didn’t?

    Your James sounds like goodfolks; and by my guess, he’s a lucky man. But we can’t all have his Assignment, nor should we. (I can imagine a line of wistful applicants forming outside the chapel office… while whatever other lives need to be lived went vacant…)

    God isn’t in the past, that we should be able to cram Him into a book.

    Neither should we ignore the many writings God has provided for our spiritual education. But we need to look for God, not for some predictable, already known thing we might more safely worship…

    When I had a used bookstore, I kept the (tiny) newage section in the small shelf I used as a counter. When people would ask, I would point to it, but this meant I’d be pointing directly at them. And every time, no matter what I’d say, they would turn away and look behind.

    God’s chief message to us, I believe, would not be all that difficult for us to understand, if we didn’t think we already understood it.

  • 2 Anonymous // Apr 6, 2012 at 4:52 pm

    Personally I think one should always return to scripture. It’s great to read the other spiritual literature that is out there as it may seem more relevant to our lives today, but we need to be really critical about what we believe. If you can’t find passages to support what you’re reading then it’s probably a whole lot of bollocks. Scripture is there as a sounding board to guide us towards truth. If you want to know God’s opinion, well… He already told you what He thinks. Maybe you’re not searching for His answers. Sometimes people want smooth things… feel good things (Isaiah 30:9-10). But these aren’t always the things we need to hear. Often times they keep us going down the paths that we are already hell-bent (pardon the pun) on going down. It depends on what your aim is. It’s important to remember that God loves us with agape love… a Greek word that means He loves us with our ‘best interests’ in mind. And He sees the whole picture… not just what we see or what we want to see.

    You claim that it’s not possible for us to cram God into a book, but I think you are entirely missing the point. Scripture is the only book that God ever inspired. He’s a God of few words. If you think about the hundreds of years worth of history that this ancient text covers, and the thousands of people, all diverse and unique that grace it’s pages, God isn’t overly verbose. He Himself tells us over and over throughout the book that it is important to read His Word (too many scriptures to name!). The bible doesn’t just stay the same every time you read it. Sure it’s written so that it’s relevant to the culture and the people to which it was originally written and we need to take things in the context of when it was written. But at different seasons in your life you will get different lessons… sometimes for the same passages. This is no ordinary book. You do yourself a disservice to claim that it is, and you are going against God’s own word to down play it like some boring, dusty old book that has outlived it’s usefulness.