Proper 19 • Isaiah 50:4–10 • September 16, 2012

By Travis J. Scholl

Allow me a roundabout way to this text from Isaiah. Because I find today’s epistle lesson (James 3:1–12) to be a deeply incriminating word, especially to the preacher who, as Frederick Buechner so evocatively describes him,

pulls the little cord that turns on the lectern light and deals out his note cards like a riverboat gambler. The stakes have never been higher. Two minutes from now he may have lost his listeners completely to their own thoughts, but at this minute he has them in the palm of his hand. The silence in the shabby church is deafening because everybody is listening to it. Everybody is listening including himself.[1]

After and into that echoing silence, the preacher speaks. Yet, even before the first word, James warns us that “the tongue is a fire” (Jas 3:6). The word of James, a prophet as much as Isaiah is, incriminates me because if I think about all the fires my tongue may have ignited in between my last sermon and this one, the ruins may be too hard to bear.

Enter the third Servant Song of Isaiah: “The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher” (v. 4). And what does the tongue of a teacher do? “…that I may sustain the weary with a word.” Indeed, this is the hope of every preacher: to sustain the weary with a word. Or, as the old homiletical cliché would have it: to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.

But what if the preacher is the weary one? Then, one of the other homiletical clichés still applies: the sermon must preach to me before it preaches to anyone else. Indeed, if what I preach doesn’t strike me to the core of my own being, how can I expect it to do the same in anyone who hears it?

Of course, the beauty of it, especially for the weary preacher, is that this work is never ours anyway. The Spirit of God gives the gift, in both the speaking and the hearing. The Spirit is the one that “wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught” (v. 4). Always.

And despite however highly we might think of our own vocations, we are not Isaiah’s “teacher” either. The third Servant Song famously doesn’t mention the word “servant,” but we should know by now that we don’t need to see the title to know who it is. The rose still smells as sweet.

I can think of innumerable times in the Gospels when Jesus’s teaching word sustained the weary. One of my personal favorites is the sermon that began with the words “Do not worry about your life ……” (Mt 6:25–34; Lk 12:22–32). Its word about flowers and birds has sustained me through too much weariness from the time I was young when my mother first showed it to me.

It is the constant reminder to me that, as the late singer-songwriter Rich Mullins sang it, “He will watch over you and he will watch over me / So we can dress like flowers and eat like birds.”

The beauty of preaching this text from Isaiah is that, perhaps, it is an opening for you to share the word from Christ that has meant the most to you, either over the years or even just yesterday. Which words from “the tongue of [the] teacher” still strike you to the core of your being?

Of course, we get a good word from Isaiah’s “teacher” in today’s Gospel (Mk 9:14–29), especially apropos in light of how Christ’s word enters into conflict with the words of other fiery tongues (Mk 9:14–16; cf. Is 50:7–8).

I love the incredulity in Jesus’s voice in verse 23: “If you can?!” But then comes the sustaining word, rippling like cool, clean water: “All things are possible for one who believes.”

Perhaps it goes without saying, but I’ll say it away: this same Jesus Christ who heals and restores the young boy, who preaches about flowers and birds, who does not hide his face from spitting (Is 50:6), and, yes, who is lifted up and able to stand over the grave of his own death by his Lord God, is the same one who gives us the honor and the privilege to pull that little cord on the pulpit light and speak a word—his word—into the silence. And we speak it among the people he has called and who have given us the humble honor of a call to speak to the weariness we all feel. And this same Christ gives us both the tongue to speak and the ears to hear. By his Spirit. As a gift. Always.

In response, our first words should be the words we pray to this same Lord God before we can even begin: “I believe. Help my unbelief.”

Endnote
[1] Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), 23.

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