Sermon, January 24, 2016 – Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.
In today’s Gospel reading, we hear a snippet of a sermon that Jesus preached in a synagogue in Nazareth. Jesus read Isaiah chapter 61 and declares that he is fulfilling this chapter. We read part of the Isaiah passage quoted in Luke, but it is helpful to have a fuller understanding in order to fully understand what Jesus is claiming.
In this chapter Isaiah was referring to the Year of Jubilee, which God had laid out for the nation of Israel to celebrate every 50 years. The Year of Jubilee was part of the same system as the Sabbath day and sabbatical year. In Scriptural times, every Saturday was the Sabbath day, a day of rest. The early church transferred the Sabbath to Sunday, the day of the week that the Lord’s resurrection was celebrated. But the Sabbath day was meant by God to be a day of rest and recharging. Many of you have heard of a sabbatical. In ancient Israel, sabbaticals happened every seven years, and were meant to be a time of renewal and recharging. The sabbatical year was meant to be what the Sabbath day was.
The Year of Jubilee took place every fiftieth year, or in other words, after seven sabbatical years. In ancient Israel, the number seven was a number of completeness and was often associated with God. The world was created in seven days, every seventh day is the Sabbath day, every seventh year is the sabbatical year, and after every seven sabbatical years came the Year of Jubilee.
During the Year of Jubilee, the whole nation of Israel would be reset. The Year of Jubilee dealt largely with land, property, and property rights. According to Leviticus, where the Year of Jubilee was described, slaves and prisoners would be freed, debts would be forgiven, and the mercies of God would be particularly manifest. This Year of Jubilee is the framework for what Isaiah was writing.
But there was a lot more to Isaiah’s Year of Jubilee than just property rights and economic justice. Isaiah was a prophet during the time when the nations of Israel and Judah were being conquered by the Assyrians and Babylonians after long periods of wandering from obedience to God. When you read the Old Testament prophets like Isaiah, you notice that the prophets spend part of their time warning the nation of Israel that their disobedience will lead to defeat and great destruction at the hands of their enemies. But then, after writing about the many dire consequences that will befall the people for their disobedience, the prophets write that the Lord will come to save His people from their desolation.
Isaiah chapter 61 is just such a passage. Verse 4 says “They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.” Isaiah is talking about a restoration here of the entire nation of Israel, not just property rights within Israel. Isaiah here is using the imagery of the Year of Jubilee to declare that the Israelites as a people will be restored, just as the slaves and prisoners were freed, debts forgiven and the mercies of God made manifest during the Year of Jubilee.
For the Jews then, Isaiah chapter 61, which Jesus read aloud in today’s Gospel passage, would have spoken of restoration and redemption for the whole people, who had been made captives by a foreign power and forced off their land. They would have understood that Isaiah was writing to a people who were living in poverty in exile, and that Isaiah’s words represented that God had promised to look favorably upon them and rescue them from their oppression and captivity.
And so when Jesus states “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing”, he is making a very startling claim. Just like Isaiah was talking about much more then property rights and economic justice, so was Jesus. Just like Isaiah was talking about God’s promise to save and redeem his people from captivity and oppression, so was Jesus. But when Jesus spoke, the people were living in Judea, and Jesus most certainly was not the great military messiah to defeat the Roman empire that some had hoped he would be. So what was Jesus talking about?
Jesus was talking about the inauguration of the Kingdom of God. Yes, this means economic justice for the poor, healing for the sick, and freedom from oppression, but it means much more than that. We are all living captive to our sinful natures, imprisoned in our narrow and selfish mindsets, spiritually blind, and oppressed by our own and others sinful and self-centered antics. Sin and self-centeredness are the wells that economic, social and political injustice spring out from. Defeat sin and self-centeredness, and justice will be the result.
We can all see the consequences of sin, evil and death all around us. The news is full of stories reflecting this. So many people in the world today are captive to evil regimes and gross injustice. Think of all the refugees in the world today. They are fleeing from such things. But it isn’t just them. Even those of us in the West who think we are completely free to do whatever we want, aren’t really free. So many of us are captive to our petty and selfish desires – always chasing a few more dollars, or another sexual conquest, or a fancier car, or a bigger house. The fact is that everyone is a captive, everyone needs redemption.
Jesus came to defeat sin and death by dying on the cross the rising from the dead. He is God’s rescue mission for his people. During the Year of Jubilee, or the year of the Lord’s favor as Isaiah calls it, the nation of Israel was to reset itself – debts were to be forgiven, prisoners set free, and the people were to reflect on their God. This is what Jesus is calling us to do – leave behind everything that we have built up for ourselves in this life, and reorient our lives to follow and obey God.
Jesus is good news to the poor, because not only will the Kingdom of God lead to economic justice, but no matter how poor someone is, if they know that Jesus died for them and loves them, they have something that the greatest riches in the world cannot buy. Jesus proclaims freedom to the prisoners, because not only will the Kingdom of God lead to civil justice, but everyone who follows Jesus will no longer be a prisoner of their sinful desires and self-centered mindset. Jesus proclaims recovery of sight for the blind, because not only will the Kingdom of God lead to healing from all kinds of sicknesses, but everyone who turns to Jesus Christ and sees him as their Lord and Savior will lose their spiritual blindness and be able to see. Jesus proclaims freedom for the oppressed because not only will the Kingdom of God banish all oppression, followers of God will no longer be oppressed by their own sinful outlook on life. Even if others oppress them, they themselves will no longer be oppressed from within.
This is what Jesus was proclaiming when he made his startling declaration “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” And this statement by Jesus is just as true today as it was then. Today, this scripture is still being fulfilled. Each one of us is God’s beloved child who (m) he longs to draw to himself through Jesus. When Jesus finished reading from Isaiah, we are told that the eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.“ Let us also fasten our eyes on Jesus and join in the Kingdom of God where we will find our debts forgiven and ourselves freed from our bondage and captivity to sin and death.
Let us pray,
God of all mercy, your Son proclaimed good news to the poor, release to the captives, and freedom to the oppressed: anoint us with your Holy Spirit so that we, illumined by your word and sacraments, may share this good news with others, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; and so set all your people free to praise you in Christ our Lord. Amen.