Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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As we enter into this third week of our sermon series about who Jesus is and why he matters, I admit I am feeling a bit of relief. Our first two weeks—considering Jesus as the Son of God and as the savior of the world—those are heavy and hard concepts. They are also concepts that many would refute. Today, we are granted a bit of a reprieve, as we look at Jesus’ identity as a teacher.

Even the biggest religious skeptics out there agree upon the existence of a historical figure named Jesus, and that this Jesus was an influential teacher. We confess him to be more than that, of course, but teaching was a significant part of his ministry. I wonder if, sometimes, that gets overlooked—it’s not as fancy or flashy as healing people or exorcising demons, or walking on water, or facing down the devil in the wilderness, which is what happens right before our Gospel lesson picks up today. Teaching may not be as fancy or flashy, but I bet every one of you can remember a teacher who changed your life, a teacher whose voice still echoes around in your mind sometimes.

For me, there was Miss O’Brien in the sixth grade. One day she asked to talk to me after school.

 “Jenny,” she said, “you are a very kind girl. So, I need you to do me a favor. I need you to reach out and be kind to Kelly.” Kelly was new to our school that year and was having a hard time. She was left to sit by herself at lunch and keep to herself at recess.

 Now, Miss O’Brien—I’m sure she taught me things about history and religion and math, but what she really taught me is that kindness, true kindness, is proactive, that kindness intentionally seeks out its recipients, and that, in the long run, in a world where we can be and accomplish and achieve almost anything, kindness is a very good place to start.

There was also Carson Brisson. He taught me Hebrew, but more than that, he taught me to delight in the nuance of language. He rarely made it through a class without catching himself on the verge of tears, such was his love for the old stories of scripture he translated with us. From him, I learned what it looks like to chase after holiness with everything you have.

And, because I am lucky, there was also Tom Are. Many of you got to meet him when he came for my Installation service. Tom taught me everything good I know about being a pastor and a preacher. It’s from him that I learned how to tell a good story and interpret a budget and moderate a Session meeting. But more than anything, he taught me what it looks like to love Jesus, really love him, and not only to love him but also to love his Church, day in and day out, imperfectly but faithfully, gracefully and earnestly.

The very best teachers…they stay with us.

Frederick Buechner, who learned from many, including our own George Buttrick, wrote, “In the last analysis, I have always believed it is not so much their subjects that the great teachers teach as it is themselves. In some box in the attic, or up in the garage, I must still have notes on the lectures I heard given by Niebuhr, Tillich, and the rest of them. It would be possible to exhume them and summarize some of what struck me most. But though much of what these teachers said remains with me still and has become so much a part of my own way of thinking and speaking, that often I sound like them without realizing it, it is they themselves who left the deeper mark. [1]

            The very best teachers…they stay wit us, and they change us for the better, long after the fact.

So, Luke makes sure we understand what a good teacher Jesus is.

Jesus begins his public ministry by quoting the prophet Isaiah. This moment is universally considered to be Jesus’ mission statement. It’s like his syllabus. It’s what sets the course for everything that is to follow. It comes from Isaiah because Jesus is a good Jew, and he knows his scripture. The words he quotes were written during the Babylonian exile, about 500 years before he walked into that synagogue to read them. But, those old words call to him, because he has studied them. He has lived them and breathed them and he has found himself within them.

            If you want to be a good teacher, you have to know what you’re teaching.

“Bring good news to the poor. Proclaim release to the captives. Recover the sight of the blind. Let the oppressed go free. Proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” These teachings, straight from Isaiah, show up throughout Jesus’ entire ministry, old instruction worthy of being carried into a new day.

But, just for the record: that will not be limited to Isaiah. Jesus will instruct us to love the Lord, our God, with all our heart and soul and strength—and those words will come straight from Deuteronomy. He will teach us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked—and those words will come from Ezekiel. He will remind us to care for the widow and the orphan and welcome the stranger and the alien—and those words will come from Exodus and Isaiah and Deuteronomy and Zechariah and Ruth and Jeremiah, just to name a few. He will invite us to give second chances and third chances and actually infinite chances—and those words will echo the words found in Genesis and Micah and Jonah and more.

Jesus teaches what he has learned—learned from being a devout Jew and a student of scripture and learned from being the very Word of God himself. Now, you’ve probably already noticed this, but I’m going to point it out anyway, because sometimes the most obvious things still need to be said: All of Jesus’ most central teachings are rooted in the scripture he studied—what we know as the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament. Jesus comes to help us understand God differently, not to point toward a different God.

More times that I can count, I’ve heard some variation on this theme: I like the God of the New Testament, because that’s the God of love, but I can’t get on board with the God of the Old Testament, because that’s the God of wrath.

            I will tell you what: that is nothing less than heretical. First, because God certainly gets mad in the New Testament, but even more so because from its very first word, the Old Testament overflows with love, too. Jesus comes to teach us about God—one God, who reigns forever and ever, world without end. The God Jesus teaches us about is the very same God who spoke light into being and breathed air into our lungs and hasn’t let us out of his sight ever since.

Two days ago, The New York Times ran a column by Julia Scheeres, (Sheer-eez) the mother of two girls, titled “Raising Children Without the Concept of Sin.” She tells the story of her oldest daughter making it to nine years old before she ever encountered the word sin. There was good reason for this. Julia was raised in fear, punished for the smallest of infractions and ultimately sent away to a reform school where children were beaten in the name of God. She lost her faith, she said, and it is absolutely no wonder. It is right and responsible to point out that Jesus as a teacher was holy and good, but some who teach in his name seek to hurt and harm.

Julia then goes on to say, “After years of living a secular life, I realized my notion of sin has evolved. I am no longer motivated by fear of an unproven hell, but by real-world concerns about injustice and inequality. To me, the greatest sin of all is failing to be engaged with the world, so the lessons I teach my children are about being open to others rather than closed off.”

I am not sure if Ms. Scheeres would consider it good news or bad news if she were to discover that those are some of the lessons Jesus teaches, too.

Because here’s the thing—every element of Isaiah’s scroll, and almost every other central teaching Jesus will offer, tells us what to do. Relatively few actually tell us what to avoid, or what to stop. If I understand this, it is because Jesus is about expanding life, not limiting it. Or to use Julia’s own words, Jesus is about being open, not closed off.

It is only after Jesus quotes those holy, ancient, life-giving words from Isaiah that he speaks his first, public word of his own. And this is what he says: “today.” He says, “Today this scripture is fulfilled.”

That part is brand new. The truth is, everyone in the synagogue probably assumed scripture would be fulfilled. They were just like us, a few probably there more out of family obligation or more for the cookies served afterward, but most of them were there because they believed it would one day all be true.

But, Jesus says, Not one day. Not someday. Today.

Last week, we talked about salvation being just as much about the present as it is about the future, and in this, Jesus is incredibly consistent. Today. Today, everything is fulfilled, he says. The kingdom of God is breaking in here and now. Redemption is drawing near.

Last weekend, we remembered Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But, the very best teachers stay with us, remember? For far more than a few days. Early on in his work, Dr. King asked people to support him. More than a few people said they wanted to, but could not, because the time was not right. He was acting too soon, they said. This prompted King to write, “‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.’ We must come to see that justice too long delayed is justice denied.” The way Dr. King understood it, the time for justice is today. Always today. In this, as in so many other ways, our teacher Dr. King echoed the teachings of Jesus. For, over and over again, Jesus, too, insists: today. Today scripture is fulfilled.

The very best teachers leave something of themselves with us. We have Dr. King’s words and the legacy of his work. Carson, my Hebrew teacher? More than a few of his words have made their way into the benediction I offer each week. And Tom Are’s practice of prayerfully acknowledging our belief and our unbelief at the end of each sermon is one I’ve adopted as my own.

It’s true: the very best teachers always give something of themselves to us. And, Jesus is the most remarkable teacher of them all. He is more than that, of course, but he is a teacher, and he gives everything to us. Buechner said the best teachers leave a deep mark upon us.

In this case, we are marked as Christ’s own forever, but Jesus Christ himself carries a deep mark, too, on his hands and his feet that were nailed to the cross. In that, he teaches us the most important lesson of all: love. Love that stops at nothing. Love that lays down its own life. Love that is strong enough to be raised up again.

That is the greatest lesson from the greatest teacher. It is a lesson that is within you, today—and it will never leave you.


[1] Frederick Buechner, Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation.