The Monty Python film "Life of Brian" follows the trials and tribulations of the poor boy born in the stable next to Jesus: Brian. One scene shows a large crowd gathered outside Brian’s home. They think he’s the Messiah and want to benefit from his miraculous powers.
When Brian sees the crowd, he yells at them to go home. He tells them that he’s not the Messiah. He begs them to think for themselves because they’re all individuals. The whole crowd agrees, “Yes! We’re all individuals!” Except for one man who says, “I’m not.”
Monty Python pokes fun at the mob mentality. We follow along with the crowd so quickly, so easily. Yet, at the heart of that following stands our own ego. A mob gathers together a group of selfish individuals each seeking their own benefit and welfare, their own selfish ends. Ironic, no?
The apostle Paul combines those two elements in 2 Timothy 4. He says, on the one hand, that a time will come when people won’t listen to false doctrine, but instead they will seek to “suit their own desires.” They’ll do this in an interesting way: “they will gather around them a great number of teachers.” In other words, in order to satisfy a personal, individual longing, they will try to establish it by majority opinion. Yet, as Paul says, in the end, it’s just simple selfishness. They want this great number of teachers to “say what their itching ears want to hear.”
We know this well. A vote goes against you? Bring it up for another vote. You vote and vote and vote until you get your result. A study paper came to a conclusion opposite what you wanted? Form a new committee. Commission a new study.
The goal is to inflict a minority opinion on the majority. 5-10% of the world are atheists, yet their billboards and lawsuits make you think their numbers are greater. Likewise, scientific studies suggest that far less than 10% of people are actually homosexual, yet when asked, most Americans say that 1 out of 4 people are homosexual. Why is this? Paul tells us why in Romans: “Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.” In other words, “Misery loves company.” “If I’m going to go to hell, I’m going to make sure I’m not the only one going.” Or, to put it more positively, we want to be among a group doing a thing.
We see this in our congregations too, don’t we? A sin is a sin, until it’s your sin. You name the sin and it’s sinful for everyone else, but not for you or your child. You always seek to suit your own desires. You’ll justify any and every behavior, and find someone to support your position. There’s a reason people don’t consult their pastor and pastors don’t consult other pastors until after something’s pretty much over and done. The French call it: fait accompli. It means “accomplished fact.” You presume it to be irreversible, because you don’t really want to change anyways. That’s not the itch you want scratched. At best you’re willing to admit, grudgingly that maybe it wasn’t wise, but the milk’s spilt, the can’s open, worms are already everywhere, you can’t get the toothpaste back in the tube.
Don’t you see how selfish that is? That’s considering no one but yourself. That’s setting up your will over and above God’s. Instead of consulting God’s Word and seeking out His will on matters, you’ve decided to do whatever you’d like, and then tell God, “Align your will with my will, because I’m doing it anyways.”
No wonder Paul used a bunch of imperatives here in 2 Timothy. Imperatives are, you’ll remember, commands. An expert in the Greek language says that imperatives are “the mood furthest removed from certainty.” That is, you can make a command, but you can’t really do anything about its fulfillment.
Paul has a realistic view of the future. He says the time will come when people will eat nothing but Twinkies and Doritos and will avoid the healthy, sound food of God’s Word. The time will come when people will follow only their own desires and will make sure to surround themselves with teachers equipped only to scratch their particular itches. This sounds pessimistic. What a way to boost up a young pastor or a congregation. Yet it’s realistic.
Only Pollyanna thinks that things will get better. Only the blindest pastor expects 100% acceptance of the things the Bible says, to be followed by 100% church and Bible class attendance. Even worse, only a naïve fool believes that all the people in the pews on Sunday, all the members of your church, and all the members of our Synod believe 100% of the Bible. As Walther once wrote, we can only really expect a fundamental agreement in doctrine, even among our own fellowship, because of sin.
Yet Paul uses imperatives. He issues commands. “Preach the Word.” “Be prepared.” “Correct, rebuke, and encourage.” “Keep your head.” “Endure hardship.” “Do the work of an evangelist.” “Discharge all the duties of your ministry.” Those are the same orders issued to every pastor on the day of his ordination. They sound quite similar to the promises every Lutheran makes on the day of his confirmation, too.
It’s about the Word. Not my word or their word, but God’s Word. In the presence of God. In view of Jesus ever-closer return to judge the living and the dead. We preach the Word. We’re bound to it. Not just by ordination or confirmation oaths, but by faith in Jesus Christ. “If you hold to my teachings you are really my disciples, then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Jesus is the truth. On judgment day only faith in the blood of Christ will mean anything. Only faith in the blood of Jesus scratches the itch. It’s Jesus who when He comes overthrows the Antichrist by the breath of His mouth. It’s Jesus who passes out the never-fading crowns of glory. It’s Jesus who speaks words that are healthy and sound, nutritious and good for you, eternally good for you. It’s Jesus who doesn’t speak of myths and legends, but speaks the truth: “You can come to the Father through me.”
This sobers us up. So often we’re drunk on our own desires, but Jesus ends that hangover with wine that is not intoxicating, but liberating, for it’s His blood, poured out for you. Bread that doesn’t cause stomach aches or bloat us with empty calories, but satisfies a soul-craving for forgiveness, His body given for you. Water that doesn’t drown, except to kill sin. Words that put an end to sinful scratching. Pastors promise to do this faithfully, to be God’s instruments preaching what Jesus commands, to set apart people by God’s truth – His Word is truth. Amen.