Pastor’s Blog: Why Every Christian Needs Bible Study

St. Paul writes: “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. 2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, 4 treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. 6 For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women [and the pastor adds ‘weak men’}, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, 7 always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. 8 Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith. 9 But they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men” 2 Timothy 3:1-9. The 2nd lesson for Friday of Epiphany 5 from the Daily Lectionary.

As we hear today’s reading, it could be a contemporary sermon on what’s wrong with America in the 21st century church. Watch a hour or two of cable news and follow what’s being written on Twitter, and this text comes alive just talking about all the influence those narcissists in Washington DC, New York, the Ivy League, and Hollywood have on 21st Christians. Let’s go deeper.

In Jewish tradition, Jannes and Jambres are the names of the two chief magicians in Pharaoh’s court who opposed Moses as written in the Book of Exodus. Having been trained as a Pharisaic rabbi by Gamaliel, Paul knew that tradition and included their names in his 2nd letter to Timothy to make a point about the opponents of Truth.

In the world outside the Bible, truth has come to be seen as relative. In other words, each person decides for him or herself what is true (or more often than not is indoctrinated by the arbiters of popular opinion that can be as insipid as late-night TV hosts and the gasbags on talk shows). Those who do more than play Bible roulette (flipping the pages until where it stops nobody knows) grasp from the biblical narrative that there is objective Truth and, then, there is falsehood.

If you are a Lutheran Christian, you begin with an understanding that the written Word of God is the norm against which all theology and ethics must be measured. It is inspired by the Holy Spirit and contains all that is necessary for salvation in Jesus Christ. We Lutherans use Law and Gospel, God’s two words spoken in Scripture, as the lens through which we read the Scriptures. By Law, we mean God’s immutable will for us and creation. The Law always accuses sinners like you and me. By Gospel, we mean the Good News that God became flesh in the Virgin Mary’s womb, lived the perfect life we cannot live, died the obedient death we cannot die to take away the sins of the world, rose from the dead on the third day, ascended to the seat of power at the Father’s right hand, will come again in glory to judge the living and dead, and is the only One who forgives sin, delivers from death and the devil, and gives everlasting life to baptized believers. When Lutherans read the Bible, we use the clearest Word to interpret the least accessible Word and always ask, “Does reading this text in this way, in any way, waste the death of God’s beloved Son Jesus?”

St. Paul admonishes young Timothy that Christ’s Church on earth, the Church militant, will be invaded by all manner of ungodly living and false teaching. It was true in the 1st century, and God knows it’s still true among us today.

This passage from 2nd Timothy 3 is Law. It tells us what God does not want and how we need to avoid the company of those who have embraced lifestyles and beliefs that do not conform to the good and gracious will of God. Since we cannot avoid the old sinner staring back at us from the mirror, we must admit that we cannot isolate ourselves in a hermetically-sealed environment. As people learn in Al-anon, wherever we go, there we are. We take our sin and brokenness with us wherever we go and especially to church. The Law shows us who we are apart from Christ and drives us to our knees to confess our sins, ask for the Father’s forgiveness for Jesus’ sake, and ask the Holy Spirit’s help to be shaped day-by-day into the likeness of the Servant Son of God, Jesus. God’s Law doesn’t make me nice. It condemns me to death and shows me that I am always measured by God’s objective Truth. I can learn from God’s Law what God wills and what I ought to will, too. I cannot save myself or make myself better on my own. I need a Savior.

The Gospel is not affirmation of my brokenness. It is grace (getting what we don’t deserve) and mercy (not getting what we do deserve). This passage from 2nd Timothy 3 drives me to the foot of the cross of Christ begging forgiveness and the means to amend my sinful life. This passage forces me to look at my life and with whom I hang out. If I avoid the services of God’s house because I feel guilty about how I am living, I already know the Truth about myself and those I love. If I avoid Bible study, because it doesn’t make me feel good or doesn’t reinforce what I presently think, then I already know the Truth about myself and those I love but I don’t want to have to do anything about it.

In Holy Baptism, we are joined to the saving death and glorious resurrection of God’s beloved Son Jesus. If we physically died at the moment of our Baptism, we wouldn’t have to live our Baptism by daily dying to our selfish selves. But the truth about us is we continue to wrestle with the old sinner inside, with a world of old sinners all glommed up, and with a devil whispering in our ear that he loves us just the way we are and so we don’t have to change to try to please him. The baptized must not avoid the services of God’s house or the difficult study of God’s Word, especially those parts that don’t feel good when they tell us we must die.

In this age of identity politics where young adults not far removed from wearing braces and fighting zits are suddenly the saviors of this world, we Christians recognize the narcissism, the naivete, and indeed the nonsense being spouted. If it steals, kills, and destroys God’s creation as in the case of abortion, drug and alcohol addiction, and socialism, then we Christians know that these “truths” are from the pit of the hell and from its leader, the father of lies. Why? The “fruit” of those “truths” is deadly and rotten!

Holy Baptism is the only identity that matters in Christ’s Church and the only identity that will survive physical death. If you have desires for the opposite sex, you know that your desires are rightly ordered to procreate and raise godly children, but those rightly ordered desires can be utterly sinful if you act on every desire you have to have sex with whomever you want. Your body, however rightly ordered your desires, will nevertheless die, because the wages of sin is still death. If you have desires for the same sex, then, your desires are not rightly ordered in that homosexual acts will never result in procreating. That is settled natural Law, the way God created us. Desires that are not rightly ordered don’t remove us from God’s love in Christ, but it is a lie to pretend that such desires are good and godly. From the beginning, God made us male and female in order that we might leave our parents, become one flesh, and produce children to be raised to fear and love God. That some same sex couples are more faithful than some of the opposite sex does not negate God’s good and gracious will as expressed from the beginning in Genesis 2 and clearly affirmed by God’s Son Jesus.

St. Paul is building to a crescendo in 2 Timothy 4, where he warns the young pastor: “For 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” (4:3-4).

In this age of identity politics, we are certainly there. And you can find a different message from church to church, from channel to channel, and from school to school. The only way to be drawn from falsehood to God’s Truth is to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Word of God by reading it through the lens of Law and Gospel in a way that comforts troubled consciences and builds up the new person created in Holy Baptism. In other words, God loves us where we are, but He doesn’t leave us where we are. He kills the old sinner in us and makes alive the new child of God in us through the Word and Sacraments.

As we hear the Word of God in 2 Timothy 3 today, the old sinner in us ought to squirm as the Holy Spirit calls us to Holy Baptism where that old sinner is drowned, day by day. We are to hear clearly that Baptism does not gives us carte blanche to keep doing what we want over and against the expressed will of God. Grace is not psychological affirmation or being set free to sin in whatever way our desires take us. Yes, sin is fun. It often feels really good, yes, even amazing at the time. And it allows me to shout no to God and my neighbor. But sin left unrestrained, allowed to grow and consume us, will make us immune to God’s Word and will make us to become like Pharaoh’s magicians staunch in our opposition to the good and gracious will of the Father who loves us and knows us better than ourselves or anyone.

Dear ones, show up for Bible study this weekend and/or during the week. If it doesn’t feel good to your old Adam or Eve, you are definitely where you ought to be. After all, you and I don’t know it all. And we won’t in this life ever.

St Matthew's Pastor Sam Zumwalt

szumwalt

The Rev. Dr. Samuel Zumwalt has worked in churches for 42 years and in May 2018 celebrated the 37th anniversary of his ordination to the holy ministry. He is a member of the Society of the Holy Trinity (www.societyholytrinity.org). In 2004, Pr. Zumwalt moved with his family to Wilmington from Texas, where he served for 23 years as pastor of small, midsize, and large congregations.