It's a bit of a nutty week - a few urgent pastoral things to do and a sermon to research and hopefully get written by midday tomorrow, all before heading east for Baptist Assembly. It's under control, just about, but if as a result I post nothing today people will get withdrawal symptons and/or worry about me!
Anyway, the thing that popped into my head and rattled around is part of the 'charge to Timothy' in which I locate my own call to ordained ministry, and to which I periodicially return to be reminded what I'm about. It's this bit:
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.
2 Tim 4:3 - 4 NRSV
'Itching ears' or, in what is evidently a more accurate translation of the Greek, things that 'tickle their ears'. As we read these verses, we all think we know what they mean, and all think that the 'wandering away from truth' is x, y or z that differs from our understanding of truth. So what we want to hear - what tickles our ears - is what we think is sound doctrine; and what does not accord with what we already think can be dismissed as other people accumulating teachers to suit their own desires. How easy it is to point the finger at others whose theology differs from what makes us feel comfortable, and say 'aha, false teaching' and fail to notice how comfortable and complacent we have become ourselves.
Over the 15 or so years I've been preaching, it has often struck me that often people will tell me a sermon is 'good' when what I have said accords with that they already think (and, to be fair, I have been guilty of this too) - that somehow we take into church our subconscious soundness checklists against which we measure the sermon, rather than being truly open to the possibility that God will surprise us. A nice 'ear tickler' will earn high praise; something that disturbs possibly won't.
Over the years I have learned to value sermons that I really struggle with theologically, the ones that far from tickling my ears, cause my hackles to rise or make me squirm in my seat. To be clear, I don't mean those that are badly prepared or carelessly delivered - they are plain bad. I mean the ones that challenge what I understand, or force me to reconsider long-held and cherished perspectives. I have learned that to be told "that made me think" is actually a great compliment to a preacher. Likewise that 'can I just ask you about point x' need not (always) be a cause for defensiveness but actually is sometimes an opportunity to explore something further.
So, I am going to do my bestest to keep this in mind as I head off to Assembly, and listen to things that will tickle my ears and things that will give me cause for concern... and trust, that with the help of God's Spirit, I can get some inkling just what is the thing God is saying in this place, at this time.
It will be intriguing to see what folk say after this Sunday's effort!!