14 December 2014

Sermon – “Proclaim the Jubilee” (Isaiah 61:1-11)

Some months ago I mentioned in a sermon that legal experts estimate that there are something between 10,000 and 300,000 federal regulations. When you add to that all the state, county and municipal regulations across the country, I can only imagine that you come up with a staggering figure. It occurred to me that some of these regulations must end up being forgotten, overlooked or buried under tons of sheets of legal paper. That in turn set me thinking what some of these regulations might be. Here is what I discovered:
In Texas it is illegal to sell your eyeballs. In North Carolina it is against the law to sing off-key. In Rhode Island you are not permitted to sell toothpaste and a toothbrush to the same customer on a Sunday. In Indiana you may not attend a public event or use public transport within four hours of eating an onions or garlic. In Wyoming you need an official permit to take a picture of a rabbit between January and April. In Quitman, Georgia, chickens are not allowed to cross the road. In Washington you can be fined for harassing Bigfoot. And did you know that in Minneapolis it is forbidden to drive a red car down Lake Street?[1]  
Perhaps it should come as no surprise to us that the same kind of thing was true in the ancient world as well. (At least they had an excuse. After all, they did not have computers or even books. All information was stored on long scrolls of papyrus.) A case in point is the law found in Leviticus 25:
You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month—on the Day of Atonement—you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family. That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, or reap the aftergrowth, or harvest the unpruned vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you shall eat only what the field itself produces. In this year of jubilee you shall return, every one of you, to your property… The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants. Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land. (Leviticus 25:8-13,23-24)
When you look at it, it is quite a remarkable law: that every fifty years all property reverts to its original ownership. There had been times in the ancient world when kings had seen the land in their realms being gobbled up by wealthy landowners and ordered a general return of property. But Israel was unique in having it as a statute written into its code of law and having it recur on a regular, predictable basis. It was called the year of Jubilee because it was announced with the sounding of the trumpet, or shofar, which in Hebrew is yobel—and hence our word “jubilee”.
Sadly, however, like the driving of red cars on Lake Street and singing off-key in North Carolina, as far as anyone can tell the law of Jubilee was never enacted in all the long history of ancient Israel. It simply sat in the books, or scrolls as it were, unobserved.

The Assurance of Jubilee

Now, suddenly, hundreds of years after Moses, in the prophet Isaiah, as we are bidden to look ahead to the coming messianic kingdom, what do we hear about once again? The Jubilee.
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
I suppose we could say that the Year of Jubilee had been something of a utopian dream. It was to have been a universal act of practical recognition that God and God alone is the giver of our land, our freedom and our sustenance. It was putting wheels under those words that we say at the offertory Sunday by Sunday:
Yours, Lord, is the greatness, the power,
the glory, the victory and the majesty.
For everything in heaven and on earth is yours.
All things come from you, O Lord,
and of your own do we give you. (1 Chronicles 29:11,14)
The distant echo of the long-forgotten Law of Jubilee rings clearly through the words of Isaiah. The day was coming when God’s justice would not just be a principle that we read about in the ancient texts of Scripture. Nor was the promise that Isaiah foresaw merely some wispy existence in a heavenly world. It was solid. It was real—a present, all-encompassing reality, a feature of the transformation of all creation to reflect the glory, the holiness, the compassion and the perfect justice of God.
So it is that the whole principle of Jubilee arises out of the character of God himself. We see this in verse 8: “For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing;” and again in verse 11: “As the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.”
I don’t believe it is a coincidence, therefore, that in the ancient law in Leviticus the Year of Jubilee was to be announced on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. This was the single day in the year when the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies in the Temple. There he would call on the name of the Lord and offer a blood sacrifice on behalf of the people. It was on that holiest of days, after the passage of seven times seven years, that the Jubilee was to be proclaimed. The message was clear: Justice springs out of reconciliation with God—and conversely, reconciliation with God issues in justice.

The Bringer of Jubilee

We hear Isaiah’s foretelling of Jubilee once again in the New Testament, as a young man walks to the front of the synagogue in Nazareth, unrolls the scroll of Isaiah and scans down it until he comes to the point where it reads,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 3:18,19)
Clearly Jesus saw himself as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. Part of his messianic role is to be the herald of Jubilee, the bringer of God’s justice to the world. The disciples thought that this was going to happen at any minute as they strode through the streets of Jerusalem and people waved palm branches of victory and shouted choruses of “Hosanna!” “Save us!” Their hearts must have thumped even more loudly as he swept through the Temple, overturning the tables of the moneychangers, coins rolling across the stone floor, doves cooing and flapping their wings, sacrificial lambs scattering and bleating their plaintive baas.
Yet this was not how the Jubilee would be ushered in. Just as the Law had prescribed that it should begin with the Day of Atonement, so it would be as our Great High Priest offered his very self on the altar of the cross. There the Lamb of God took all the wrong and hurt, all the cruelty and brutality of this world upon himself. It is at Golgotha that we see the beginning of God’s justice being fulfilled on the earth.
Three days later, as the disciples talked with him in the garden, walked with him along the road, met with him in the upper room and ate with him at the seaside, they knew beyond any doubt that everything had changed: that even the final injustice, death itself, had been defeated on the cross of Jesus. And in the days and months following the resurrection we find people actually living the Jubilee. In the Acts of the Apostles Luke tells us,
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. (Acts 2:44-47)
We read of Barnabas selling his field and laying the money he received at the apostles’ feet. A century and a half later Tertullian could write of how the pagans would look at Christians and exclaim, “Look… how they love one another!”

The Challenge of Jubilee

So what does all of this say to us today? I am not convinced that the Bible is telling us to duplicate what happened in the early church. But I am convinced that God calls us, like them, to be a Jubilee community. The Jubilee was inaugurated at the cross. It will come in all its fullness when Jesus returns and God reveals the new heaven and the new earth. Yet between this time and that, what are we to do?
The Year of Jubilee taught that all property belonged to the Lord who had created it and given it to Israel in the first place. So being a Jubilee people begins with the recognition that all that we “have” is in fact a trust from God, that we are not owners but stewards and servants.
The Year of Jubilee required two years of allowing the land to rest and not tilling the soil. The people had to depend on what the land provided throughout that time. So for us the Jubilee is a call to learn to depend meaningfully on the Lord.
The Jubilee meant release from slavery and freedom for debtors. So living it out means sharing God’s heart for the poor, the oppressed and the downtrodden. It will be reflected in how we use our resources of money, time and influence, and not least in how we vote when we have the opportunity.
The Jubilee was a time of giving back. And so we are to be a generous people. We recognize that all that we have is God’s gracious gift to us—and we seek to reflect God’s generosity in our own daily living.
The Jubilee was a time of celebration. So too, underlying all the characteristics of a Jubilee people is joy—a profound gratitude for everything that God so bountifully bestows upon us in our creation and above all in our costly redemption through the cross.
I pray that the Jubilee may not be a forgotten piece of Scripture for us today. Rather, in our actions as much as in our words may we be a people bringing the good news of God’s Jubilee in Christ to the world.

[1]     http://justsomething.co/the-22-most-ridiculous-us-laws-still-in-effect-today-2/

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