Be persistent. That’s a good reminder for this faith journey, for the path of discipleship. Again, not in order to earn our place; that’s not what this is about. You can’t overstate that truth. Too many of us feel as if we are still working our way in. Too many are still not grasping the fundamental outpouring of grace, that all our activity is in response to what has already been done. So, preacher, be persistent in telling that story, revealing that truth. Whether people are ready to listen or not, whether the time is favorable or unfavorable. Keep proclaiming, keep offering, keep pointing. Be persistent.
Easier said than done, to be sure. Who wouldn’t be willing to speak when everyone wants to listen? Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to teach willing listeners and eager followers ready to leap at the slightest suggestion of a new direction? But how often is that the case, preacher? How often are even the faithful congregants leaning forward to lap up the water of life that pours from the pulpit week after week? Not often enough, most likely.
The mentor talks about “itchy ears.” This has to come from experience, from looking in the eyes of the hearers and wondering whether anyone is home in there. It comes from fielding the calls to study this author or that preacher, to follow this trend or jump on that bandwagon, to grab hold of the fad for the day. It comes from what could become cynicism if you let it.
It's interesting what gets him there, to the itchy ears comment. He starts—and our text begins—with an ode to Bible reading. Do you remember falling in love with the Bible? Finding in this compilation of very human stories and fleeting divine presence to be as necessary to your life as the air that you breathe or the bread that you eat? The mentor remembers that and hopes that Timothy has fallen under the same allure. Reading the Bible isn’t a solitary activity, we’re told here. It is a matter of passing on, of sharing wisdom and experience. When we study the Bible, we ask what the church has made of these words before. That’s what tradition means in our quadrilateral formula: the traditional teaching and understanding of the doctrines and texts of our faith.
The mentor says to hold on to what you were taught, not just the content but also the spirit, the mentorship, the passing on of wisdom and call to living. He says to embrace the totality of the scriptures, even the parts you wrestle with, the parts that confuse you. Don’t just hold on to that which agrees with your current preference and inclination. Keep reading, be challenged, be stretched, be troubled by this word. And keep asking this question: how does this text help me know Jesus better? How is the Word made flesh revealed in this written word? Because the more you know this Jesus, the more you can preach this gospel.
But this text isn’t just for preachers. It is for all of us, any of us. All of us are charged with sharing our most precious relationship. All of us are called to reveal that which defines us, the one who shapes us. All of us are called to tell our story in ways that issue invitations and gather up those who have been left out. And the mentor tells us that it isn’t always going to work. There aren’t always going to be responses that let us know we’re on the right track.
Jesus told us this; it isn’t new. Remember the sower who went out to sow? And some of the seed and some of the seed and some of the seed? (Matthew 13, if you need a reminder.) In that story, three times out of four, it seems like a wasted effort. Stat that! On second thought, don’t stat that. Instead, keep casting the seed. Keep proclaiming the word. It is needed. Ears are itching.
That’s good news, the itching ears thing. It doesn’t seem like it, that’s true. It seems like an explanation for failure. Because of those itching ears, the mentor seems to be saying, folks will buy into the wildest stuff. Conspiracy theories abound because of inner ear restlessness. Idols are made by those trying to scratch deep in the auditory canal. So, it sounds like bad news.
Underneath, however, it is good news. It means that there is a great need for and a desire for a new story. A better story. A transformative story. A story like the story of Jesus Christ, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom. (2 Timothy 4:1).
This is the opportunity before the preacher today and before the congregation every day: to tell a better story. Tell a story that works, a story that gives shape to a life of joy and hope, even in the midst of heartache and suffering. Ears are itching to hear and believe that story. So, how shall we tell it?