I’m one of those people who rarely has dreams. When I do, my memories of them are not very clear. I can’t usually tell you what the dream was about past a general feeling, like it was terrifying or comforting or something like that. However, late Friday night or early Saturday morning I had a dream that was crystal clear. I was up on a mountaintop above the timber line, where clouds were actually below me in elevation. The sun was blinding. I squinted my eyes as I scanned the horizon. Then it happened, I heard a voice. A voice that I am sure was from our Lord himself. A voice that filled me with warmth and confidence. A voice that sent me a word to share with you this day. I remember exactly what He said.
Now, at this point if you are not actively looking around wondering how best to make your exit from church this morning, then you’ve failed the test. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if I begin a sermon with how God spoke to me in a dream, that is your que to get up and leave because I am no longer interested in proclaiming the Truth to you. Now you can relax, I didn’t have such a dream. I wouldn’t preach it to you if I did. But our country is full of preachers who do just that. And these aren’t just outliers, these are major congregations that preach just about anything but the living Word of God. The Word is set aside for something else altogether. When St. Paul writes to Timothy and tells him, “The time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” Why, that time is not coming. It is here. It is now.
The one thing that stands in opposition to preachers’ own dreams and visions or for that matter social justice and political pandering is the Word of God. The Word stands outside of ourselves, outside of our own desires or reason, that Word is the correction to the myths of mankind. When Paul writes to Timothy giving him guidance and assurance to fulfill his calling as a pastor he calls for him to continue in what he had received, to remember he says, “how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” He doesn’t root Timothy in what he feels or what he desires but in the external Word of God. The same Word that he was taught as a child is the Word that he will now teach to others.
Listen to a story that Luther tells in his Table Talk: “On Good Friday last, I being in my chamber in fervent prayer, contemplating with myself, how Christ my Savior on the cross suffered and died for our sin, there suddenly appeared upon the wall a bright vision of our Savior Christ, with the five wounds, steadfastly looking upon me, as if it had been Christ himself corporally. At first sight, I thought it had been some celestial revelation, but I reflected that it must needs be an illusion and juggling of the devil, for Christ appeared to us in his Word, and in a meaner and more humble form; therefor I spake to the vision thus: Avoid thee, confounded devil: I know no other Christ that we who was crucified, and who in his Word is pictured and presented unto me. Whereupon the image vanished, clearly showing of whom it came.”
Our hope, our confidence, our assurance is not found in visions and dreams but in the pure and holy Word of God.
But the times are coming, and in fact are here, when people will not endure the sound teaching of the Word of God. Now when we hear St. Paul speak about people with itching ears gathering together teachers who will scratch those ears and support their own passions, we are tempted to think this is a sort of hedonism. That is, we take a good long look at the landscape of our culture and we think, why surely people just want to do whatever they want. They worship their own pleasure and just do whatever makes them happy. To be sure, there is a lot of that: abundant and obvious sin. But I think the way in which this is done in the church is extremely dangerous. For it’s one thing to engage in a teaching and practice that is obviously outside the main teachings of our Lord. It is another thing all together when those teachings are twisted and misshaped to fit our own desires. And here’s the thing, those desires aren’t usually about chasing passion but wielding the law.
You see the words that are generated outside of the Church, outside of Christ, are not words of freedom. It’s not like everyone is running around in pure bliss and freedom until the church comes along and binds them up with some sort of God-given restraint. Not at all. For freedom, true freedom is not found in the world apart from Christ. Freedom is the realm of the Gospel. It is the message of a baby crying in Bethlehem, a blood stained cross outside of Jerusalem, and an empty tomb on Easter morning. And so our constant itching ears seek to silence ever so slightly that freedom, to pull back from the free gift of the Gospel keep one another in line.
Sometimes these attempts to twist and silence the Gospel are obvious. If a church places conditions on the grace of God, if you are told that you must do this or that thing in your life to be saved, you probably know full well that it is no longer the Gospel you are listening to. This can be as crass as telling you that you must give a certain amount of your money to the church, or go on a pilgrimage, or say enough “Hail Mary’s.” Or it can be a subtle as saying you need to make a decision for Jesus and invite him into your heart. In this way the final assurance is placed on something you do. It’s not freedom. It is an imprisonment to yourself, to have control, to be your own god.
Lately I’ve noticed a far more subtle twisting of the Word to suit itching ears. Again it is just another form of bondage not freedom. It comes in a certain expectation of what a Christian ought to look like. It claims as its mantra, “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” and it has no room for suffering and trials. Tears, hardships, anger and disappointment are things that you must get through or get over. After all, doesn’t God want us all to be happy, to be blessed, to have joy and contentment in our lives? So there is no room for lament, no time for our anguish before God. Here the imprisonment is not so much the failures of our own deeds, rather it is to be chained up in a fake exterior. Our lives are to be like our Facebook posts and Instagram photos with all the smiles and joys associated with it. The perfect meals, the well-behaved kids, the romantic nights out: this is what itching ears long to have and that is what so many teachers tell us God will deliver to us.
But this is a false Christianity, a false faith, a horrible disfigurement of the true and lasting promises of our God. For those true promises are not creations of our hearts desires but are found in the inerrant Word of God. That Word as Paul says is the only source of our preaching and teaching, for it alone is “Breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Think of that, the breath of God! God’s breath turned a lump of dirt that He had formed into the first man and brought him to life. That breath of God entered into a mighty army that was once just a valley full of dry bones and brought them to life again. The breath of God is our life and salvation and it is given freely to each and every one of you.
When we open the pages of Holy Scripture, when we hear the faithful proclamation of that Word, we breath deep of the life-giving breath of God. There the bondage of our own desires, there the slavery of our own expectations and dreams meets the living God and they wither and fade away. There we are directed to our only hope and confidence: Christ our Lord who is the judge of the living and the dead. And He comes to you in your tears and in your joys, in your failures and in your victories. He comes to you, takes you by the hand, shakes you out of you own internal quest for glory and declares, “I forgive you. I have done it all for you. In me you die, in me you live. In my love you shall go beyond the grave to the very gates of paradise.” There is no need to pretend, no need to earn this gift. For it is already yours, declared to be so, by the very breath of God. Amen.