Isaiah 50: 4-9
The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens--
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backwards.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
It is the Lord God who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
All of them will wear out like a garment;
the moth will eat them up.
The Challenge of Teaching
Here at Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, we follow a set of scripture readings called the Revised Common Lectionary. At this point in our church year, we have been asked to spend some time with the Gospel of Mark. One important theme of Mark is the question of Jesus' identity. Throughout this Gospel, Jesus is addressed with many titles. Had we had three scripture readings for the day instead of our usual two, we would have also read a portion of Mark 8, where Jesus asked his followers, "Who do you say that I am?" They replied in a variety of ways. Some said, prophet. Some said that they had even heard people say that he was Elijah or John the Baptist. Even those these titles seem important, there are two titles that seem even more important, both in this chapter, and in all of Mark. These are "Messiah" and "Son of God." And yet, even as I know that Messiah and Son of God are vitally important ways to understand Jesus' life and ministry, given that today is the first Sunday of our program year, it seems important to talk about yet one more term that is used to describe Jesus. Now, this term isn't used in Mark 8, but it is used 14 other times in the rest of the book. That tells me that it's pretty important. This term is "teacher." Since today is the day that we begin our program year and the kids head back to Sunday School, it seems important to talk about the work of the teacher... and the challenge of teaching.
As we read about Jesus' life in ministry through the book of Mark, we see him most often doing two things, teaching and doing miracles that provide people with health or safety. In many cases, these two activities are specifically related. In four of the places where he is addressed as teacher, he is also shown to be healing the sick, raising the dead, calming storms in the ocean, or explaining to his disciples how to offer healing themselves. Jesus' teaching is also directly connected to his willingness to stand up to authorities and elites in his community. It is his through his role as a teacher that he is able to challenge the rich young man to examine his own life to see if his attachment to his material belongings is preventing him from following God. It is his role as a teacher that allows him rebut religious scholars who value the letter of the law over love of God and neighbor. It is his role as a teacher that allows him to speak of the living God, who radically disrupts any way of life that we know and helps us to create a more just and loving way to live in this world. I think that it is telling that just before his trial and execution, when he sent his disciples ahead to prepare the meal for them, he tells the disciples to explain what they need this way, "The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?" That's right. In the hours before his death, with his role as Messiah and Son of God in clear sight, he chose to describe himself as Teacher so that their host would recognize his disciples. So, when he asked his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?," I'm a little puzzled that no one answered teacher. His ministry was so obviously deeply infused with teaching. How could teacher not be one of the titles that they responded with?
I wonder if part of the answer can be found in today's reading from the book of Isaiah. When early Christians looked to Jewish tradition to understand the life and ministry of Jesus, they often looked to the book of Isaiah. It would be helpful for us to look there, too. Here's a little background on this book. The book that we call Isaiah is really a collection of writing that were recorded and collected over about a 600 year period. During that time, there was much upheaval. First Israel and, then, Judah fell to the hands of the Assyrian empire. Then, they all were defeated by the Babylonian empire. When the Babylonian empire took control of Judah, they destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and forced much of the population of the city, which would have included most of the ruling, educated, and priestly classes, to live in exile in Babylon. Many of the people left in Judah would have lived in abject poverty amidst the ruins of their country. It is important to remember that most of the book of Isaiah is prophetic poetry intended to help the Jewish people navigate the reality of war and exile, and also to articulate the hope required to rebuild their nation.
Key to our conversation today is the a figure in Isaiah called the Servant. In some cases, this servant can appear to be one person who will come and lead the people. At other times, the Servant seems to be a personified Israel, with all the people acting collectively to do God's will... that is, to return from exile and rebuild Jerusalem. Many people would come to understand Jesus in terms of this servant, as one sent by God to do God's will. It is likely that Jesus, and his followers, as devout Jews, would have been familiar with the ways that the book of Isaiah understood prophetic leadership and service. And, in the Servant, the book of Isaiah draws a clear link between prophecy and teaching. You don't seem to have one without the other.
Today's reading from Isaiah begins with this lovely phrase, "The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word." Even here, nearly 600 years before Jesus was born, we have a connection between teaching, healing, and compassion. In Isaiah, we learn of a teacher, a prophet, who has been given a gift from God to be used to sustain the weary. Doesn't that remind you of the way that Jesus acted as a teacher during his ministry? The teacher/prophet/servant in Isaiah doesn't just teach, though. The teacher is ready to learn. This teacher speaks of a great calling from God to teach. God opened the teacher's ear and the teacher did not turn away. Each morning, this teacher learns anew from God and then goes about sharing this new learning. This sounds a little like Jesus, too, who was willing to learn from the Syro-Phoenecian woman and then completely re-orient his mission to the Gentiles based on their interaction.
But, the work of the teacher is not easy. This servant/teacher in Isaiah is prepared to be attacked for the lessons that he brought. He would be beaten. People would attempt to shame him. But, he would not hide. This teacher/servant is confident that God is there, right in the middle of all of the derision and violence. The teacher says, "The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; the one who vindicates me is near." What strength is in these few verses. Imagine a people having been wracked by war and needing to hear some good news, hearing these lines. The Lord God helps me. I have set my face like flint. I will not be shamed. Whether they understood this to be a description of the confidence of their leader or as aspirations for themselves as a unified nation, the words must have inspired hope. They were assured that God would inspire them and that they would be able to teach the lessons they learned to more people. They were assured that even as they faced adversaries, God would not leave them. And, they would be able to rebuild and renew their community. This prophet, the servant/teacher nation, would hear guidance from God, and would use this guidance to reconstruct the reign of God.
Now, when I hear Jesus described as Messiah and prophet, this servant/teacher is on my mind and I wonder if it was on his, too. Because Jesus was have likely been raised to understand that prophets were teachers, too, and that the truth-telling and justice-seeking role of the prophet was deeply intertwined with the compassionate and healing role of the teacher. If his own self-understanding was as informed by the Servant images in Isaiah as our current understanding of Messiah is, I don't think he would have understood one without the other. We have evidence of this in his life. He regularly lived a life of a teacher who comforted the weary. He did not shy away from the hard work of teaching, even when teaching the truth put him in danger. I hope he had Isaiah on his mind when he taught. I hope that these words gave him strength and comfort.
Being a teacher is not easy. As the book of James notes, teachers can be judged pretty harshly and often have an added level of scrutiny because of the importance of their job. But, Christ never told us to avoid hard things. He just promised that he'd be there alongside us while we do them together. In that teaching spirit, I'm going to invite you to do participate in our own version of a teacher/servant nation. I hope that you'll do two things with me. First, I invite you to start seeing yourself as a teacher... to start seeing all of your actions as ways to teach people about your understanding of God and about this church. Sure, this seems like a lot of pressure. But, God is with you. And, you already work to live out your faith everyday. Let's just try to be more intentional about it. Inspired by the book of Isaiah, I hope that when people ask why you do what you do, that you won't be afraid to say that your actions are rooted in your faith. And, here's my second challenge: I'm going to invite you to volunteer to help teach our kids, either by working with me on a children's moment or by teaching one Sunday school class to help give our three Sunday school teachers a break. I know. Kids can be scary and do unexpected things. It's going to be ok though. We know that we are in this together and that Christ is accompanying us. So, be a teacher. You might just get to bring comfort to the weary and maybe even challenge some authority. Don't worry, though. Jesus is right there with you. He was a teacher, too.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon
Patricia Tull's Commentary on Isaiah 50:4-9:
Anathea Portier-Young's Commentary on Isaiah 50: 4-9:
Frank M. Yamada's Commentary on Isaiah 50:4-9:
Patricia Tull's Commentary on Isaiah 35: 4-7a:
The introduction to Isaiah in the New Oxford Annotated Bible
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.