Isaiah: The Advent of Jubilee
| Isaiah 61:8-11
|Sun, December 12, 1999
Rev. Ed Searcy
|This text should come with a surgeon-general’s warning. There should be bold black letters in a large black box in the pulpit,reading: “Isaiah 61 can prove dangerous, even fatal, to those who dare to preach it”. The Bible, dangerous to preachers? We thought that the Bible was a preacher’s best friend. Think again. Remember what happens to Jesus when he preaches Isaiah
chapter 61. There he is, just fresh out of his theological training with the Tempter out in the God-forsaken wilderness, making a big name for himself all around Galilee. His fame spreads back to his home town, to Nazareth, and it is not long before there is an invitation to preach back in the synagogue where a young Jesus had been raised. That is the scene that is set in the fourth chapter of Luke when Jesus gets up to preach his first sermon in a service of worship. It is, in fact, the only such sermon of his that we have on record. Well, guess what? He rolls open the Isaiah scroll to this very passage and says:
“The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4:16ff)
And, then, the sermon. The haiku-like sermon: “Today this scripture has been fulf illed in your hearing.” Well, everyone is impressed ... amazed, in fact. At coffee hour they can all be heard wondering aloud: “Isn’t that Joe’s boy? Who’d have ever imagined!” But when Jesus overhears their enthusiasm he realizes that they’ve missed the point. So he reminds them that when prophets like Elijah and Elisha showed up in Israel they reserved their miracles for non-Jews. Ipso-facto, the oppressed and brokenhearted, the captives and prisoners who are to receive good news of great joy from Jesus are not among the Nazarenes present in the synagogue that day. Hearing this, it takes Jesus’ hometown congregation no time at all to decide to rid the town of this trouble-maker. They quickly decide to throw him over a cliff before he begins to spread this foolishness any farther. They do,
in fact, almost pull off the rough justice of the mob. They get him to the brow of the hill and are about to throw him off when, as Luke puts it, Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” Well, Jesus may have had the miraculous ability to simply pass through an angry crowd ... but I am not so sure that I care to try it. I suspect that I would, instead, end up at the foot of the cliffs over at Towers Beach if I risked the wrath of such a mob. Perhaps
I can be counted with one of the preachers referred to by the United Church Moderator in the December issue of the United Church Observer. In reply to lay people who long for a strong social justice message from the pulpit Moderator Bill Phipps tells of fearful ministers who say that they “can’t say that in my congregation”. Can’t say what, you say? Isaiah chapter sixty-one is as
good a place as any to start. Verse two is enough to get any honest preacher who has been anointed by the Spirit of the Lord God into trouble. Why? Because she will find herself announcing something called “the year of the Lord’s favour”. The year of the Lord’s favour ... which is otherwise known in the Bible as the Year of Jubilee ... from the Hebrew word “yobel” meaning ram. It is the year that begins with the blowing of the ram’s horn on the day of Atonement once every fifty years. Recall how Israel’s
sabbath calendar was organized: one day out of seven set aside for legislated rest; one year out of seven set aside to lie fallow - a
sabbatical year; and then, after a week of sabbatical years (that is, after forty-nine years) a Jubilee (see Leviticus 25). We hear
Jubilee and think ‘party’. And we are right ... it is some party! When the acceptable year of the Lord rolls around once every half-century the fifty year game of Monopoly that the people have been living is over. With the sounding of the ram’s horn all players return to ‘go’. That means that everyone who is behind bars gets out of jail free and everyone who has mortgaged all of their
properties finds their debt forgiven by the banker. It also means that the players who have amassed a fortune owning entire blocks of houses and of hotels begin all over again at square one. Can you imagine the outcry you can expect to hear on Boxing Day if, every time fifty minutes have passed, you automatically reset the Monopoly game to the beginning without declaring a winner?! The kids will be outraged.
Which is precisely why Jesus finds himself in such hot water back home in Nazareth ... and the reason that preaching from Isaiah chapter 61 is always fraught with danger. This year there is no getting around the trouble. Jubilee is on people’s minds. Perhaps it is the millennium, divisible of course by fifty, which caused the Pope to name the year 2000 a Jubilee. Then again, the World Council of Churches beat him to it by deciding to mark its fiftieth year in 1998 with a call for Jubilee. It was a year ago this week
that the World Council of Churches was assembled in Harare, Zimbabwe. June Lythgoe was in attendance and brought back these copies of the daily newspaper of the 8th Assembly. It is titled ‘Jubilee’. Here, on the front cover of the United Church’s annual Mission and Service Fund report are members of Hillcrest United in Fort Nelson, BC over the caption “Dance the Jubilee”.
Could there ever be a better time to proclaim the good news of the beginning of a year that is acceptable to God? Just a few weeks ago the American House of Representatives passed legislation calling on the International Monetary Fund to cancel some of the most glaring examples of oppressive third-world debt so that poor nations who are captive to impossible payment schedules can be set free. CNN reported with some surprise that the key factor in this surprising turn of events was the effective work done by
the Episcopalian Church lobby. The Anglican church lobbying the US Congress in convincing fashion?! Maybe we should have invited an Episcopalian to preach the sermon here this morning!
Because Bill Phipps is right. I am fearful of the task of proclaiming Isaiah’s message. Oh, I am not fearful because our table fellowship includes such a wide diversity of views on economics and criminal justice. We have devotees of supply-side
economics sitting next to bleeding-heart liberals. I am not afraid of a little controversy over economics or politics. Besides, I
figured out a long time ago that the worst that can happen is that I might lose my job. I would have to say something pretty outrageous to find myself thrown off of the bluff over by Cecil Green. Jesus doesn’t get into trouble because he gets into an argument about economics or politics. Jesus gets into trouble over theology. The point of Jubilee had always been to remind
Israel that this is God’s world, not Israel’s or anyone else’s world. Without Jubilee the people begin to imagine that they are self-sufficient. The reason for the sabbath - the sabbath day and the sabbath year and the great high sabbath of Jubilee once every fifty years - is to continually remind the people that the earth and all of life is God’s. The practice of Jubilee is the practice of letting go ... it is the practice of letting go of all the things that our hard work has brought us ... and letting go of all the wrongs that have separated us. It is, says Isaiah, a day of great joy ... the day of God’s favour. Hence the practice of lighting a pink candle on the third Sunday of Advent ... a hint of the great joy that is about to be proclaimed by the angel choirs when the child is born and the
age of God’s favour begins. See how Isaiah piles up the images of joy: the grief stricken will wear garlands of flowers instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning; the pitiful and weak will become ‘oaks of righteousness’. Listen to the good news of great joy that Isaiah brings ... and that Jesus announces... to all who have given up hope that they will ever be able to start over again. Even you.
But there are many for whom the good news is not a great joy. The prospect of letting go of what has been acquired ... be it ‘stuff’ or a good name or a position of privilege ... is terrifying. Why, even the United Church Moderator is finding that out these days as he announces the news that all United Church properties - including church buildings and theological colleges - are at risk in the unfolding drama of atoning for our involvement in the Indian Residential Schools. As the trumpet sounds the call to Jubilee for former students of the schools many within the church do not imagine that now could possibly be the time to go back to
square one. The first response of many United Church members when confronted with the high cost of atonement - of making amends - is to wonder how to protect the building, the property and the trust funds. Do you see what has happened to us? We have not been practising the Sabbath. We are not used to letting go. We no longer trust in God but, instead, imagine that we must be self-sufficient if we are to survive. This is why I am afraid to preach from Isaiah 61. I am afraid, you see, that Isaiah prepares the way of the Lord by speaking not to the IMF but to us ... to you and me and to the Moderator, too.
Speaking of preparing the way of the Lord, perhaps you noticed that this morning we read the story of John the Baptist for the second week in a row. This is the one time in the church year when you will hear the same story repeated on successive Sundays. It is as if we before we meet Jesus we need to repeat John’s refrain twice: “Repent ... Repent”. Or, in the words of Eugene Peterson’s insightful translation: “Life-change ... Life-change”. This is precisely what following Jesus means: a radical change in
the way in which we live with one another and, therefore, with God. How did Arla put it at our gathering last Wednesday? “I think”, she said, “a year acceptable to God would be a year in which we live in right relationship with all of our neighbours”. A year of Jubilee. Do we dare imagine giving ourselves over to such a vision? Can our beloved United Church of Canada dare to
live the message of repentance and of life-change that it has so boldly prescribed for all manner of other sinners over the years?
In thinking on these things this past week, Gerald recalled a painting of the nativity that he has seen in the Uffizi Gallery in Italy.
It is, he reports, a typically joyous portrayal of the birth filled with a delighted Mary and Joseph in the midst of a crowd of smiling
shepherds, kings and angels. But there, on the side of the painting, is a hairy, stern and rather wild-looking figure who, alone, is not staring at the child. Instead, John the Baptist has turned his head and is staring straight into the eyes of the viewer of the painting as if to ask “And you, are you prepared for his arrival ... are you as delighted as they are that he has come?”
On first glance, if the advent of Christmas means the advent of a Jubilee kingdom-come we may wish to reconsider just how joyful we are at the prospect of such life-changing, earth shattering news. After all, we were just hoping for a little mid-winter merriment. Then again, if the Christ-child really does bring the advent of a new age ... if the Virgin Mary’s baby boy is the bearer of long awaited good news to the oppressed and of healing for the brokenhearted ... we may yet be among those whose grief is turned to joy. Notice the couple portrayed on the cover of this morning’s order of service ... a bride and groom on their wedding day. This, says, Isaiah is what God has in store for those who trust their lives to God. Imagine this, he says. Imagine a wedding
with all of its promise of hope and love and faithfulness ... and especially with all of its joy. How much joy? In English Isaiah’s words are translated: “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord”. In Hebrew, however, this sentence is the peculiarly exuberant shout of a bride or a groom: “I will joy joy in the Lord” (Isaiah 61:10). This is the message of hope for all those who dare to prepare the way of the Lord. “Repent ... Repent” is sure to be followed by “Joy ... Joy”.