Epiphany 4: Proclaim Jubilee
A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany, January 27, 2013. Epiphany is the season in which the identity of Jesus, his real identity, is made clear and clearer to all who will look and see. What God is up to in the birth of this child becomes increasingly clear to an ever-expanding circle of witnesses.
According to Luke, Jesus’ ministry began with a clear mission. When Jesus stands and reads the scroll of Isaiah that proclaims God’s liberation of the poor and oppressed and announces the arrival of the “year of the Lord’s favor” – an allusion to the biblical Jubilee year, we can imagine the people of the village applauding with pride in him and hope for the Jewish people whom Rome had subjugated.
In addition, “By reading from the Isaiah scroll, Jesus not only announces the fulfillment of prophecy, but defines who he is.” As Fred Craddock, professor of preaching, writes, the passage from Isaiah is a servant song, and “anointed me” means “made me the Christ or messiah. When understood literally, the passage says that the Christ is the servant of God who will bring to reality the longing and the hope of the poor, the oppressed, and the imprisoned. The Christ will ushers in the amnesty, the liberation, and the restoration associated with the proclaiming Jubilee.”
The Proclamation of Jubilee, referenced in the Isaiah scroll Jesus reads, is Good News for the poor. The practice is rooted in the Hebrew Bible and in the particular experience of Hebrew slaves who are newly liberated from Egypt. These free people now have as their task the rebuilding of Hebrew society, but they are determined not to rebuild it according to the pattern of their Egyptian oppressors. As people who have experienced the anguish and dehumanization of poverty and slavery, they are committed to resisting the lure of becoming like Egypt. So instead of building a society that honors the powerful, the wealthy, and the strong as instruments of God’s revelation, these newly freed slaves adopted an unheard of strategy. They focused on the anawim, the poorest of the poor. For these newly released slaves believed that God was raising up poor people, meek people (like themselves) to possess the earth. These anawim, literally, these “little ones”, these poor broken people, the remnant, will somehow become the purest sign of God in our midst. Therefore the newly freed Hebrew slaves structured a society that had as its first priority, not security or safety, but ensuring justice and well-being for the poor. For, according to the Torah, the very fact of the continued poverty of some of the people was a sign that they were not keeping God’s covenant (Deut. 15). A permanent underclass was a certain sign that they had fallen away from God. Sure, disaster or bad luck or illness could cause a family to fall into poverty. But if the society ran according to God’s laws, this family would be protected and be able to recover with the help of their community. These new builders of Jerusalem and Jewish society were determined to respond to the poor as they would respond to God. So it is that we read in Leviticus 25 the Jubilee instructions for how to live.
You shall let the land lie fallow, that is, you shall practice Sabbath;
You shall forgive debts, letting forgiveness in;
You shall free captives and proclaim liberty;
You shall find out what belongs to whom and give it back;
You shall hold a great feast, learning to sing the canticle of “Jubilate.”
According to biblical scholar Ched Myers, “The Jubilee was intended as Israel’s hedge against the inevitable tendency of human societies to concentrate power and wealth in the hands of the few, creating … classes with the poor at the bottom. The rationale for this (unilateral) restructuring of the community’s wealth was to remind Israel that the land belongs to God (Leviticus 25:23). And that they are an Exodus people who must never return to any system of slavery (25:42).” Jubilee remains at the heart of scripture, and Luke’s Jesus intends to renew that tradition.
When Jesus finished reading he says, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” It is significant that in Luke’s gospel the first public word Jesus speaks, apart from reading the scripture, is the word “today.” Today, all that God has promised to the poor and oppressed, the blind, the debt ridden and imprisoned, will take place. Today, those who have waited and hoped and worked and worshiped will live in abundance. Today, is the day of God’s story. Luke continues the story himself in the Acts of the Apostles, where the Jubilee is practiced concretely among the first generation of Jesus’ followers who shared all that they had as any had need. And this story is meant to continue with us. And it continues with us in three ways.
First, the proclamation of Jubilee today means that we are freed from our personal sin and guilt. The Jubilee has its root in the recognition that every human being and, indeed, every living thing is sacred; that all people are created in the image of God to live as part of God’s love, justice and peace. All are created for abundant life. Forgiveness “has its source in the capacity to perceive through the eyes of God’s love, to feel for the other and the self with divine compassion, and to know divine grief and wrath over injustice.” Normally, the concrete realities of our lives obscure our ability to see our world and our life the way God sees it, with the eyes of divine love, justice and peace. And so because we cannot see past our confusion, our fear, our need for security, we harm those whom God loves, we exclude those whom God calls, we oppose those who are not like us, and we betray those whom we love. Jesus walks into this and announces that all is wiped away, our sin is covered, our debt released. But just as importantly, we are called to forgive as we have been forgiven, to accept those whom God has forgiven and to welcome all into the kingdom. How will we announce God’s forgiveness in our own words and actions?
Second, the proclamation of Jubilee today means that we can be liberated from evil structures that threaten and destroy us. Preaching about structural injustice too often depends on stock phrases and images that often when we hear it, our brains go on autopilot. But if we were created by God as people connected deeply with one another, and if we are to take up the mantle of the Hebrew slaves who proclaimed the Jubilee message, we must take a serious look at our world and ask the question, who is still enslaved among us? And by slavery this time, I don’t simply mean those who are living and working in situations of forced labor – the human trafficking that Noelle and others are working against. I mean who is being made poor by the ordinary operation of our economy? Who is being excluded or drowned out in public policy debates? Do the goods we purchase and the services we receive promote well-being or exploitation? If we, like our ancestors in faith declared with Jesus, God’s jubilee has come today, what practices would we adopt? What pledge would we make?
And thirdly, the proclamation of Jubilee today would mean that we can be liberated from fate, “from a sense that there is nothing we can do about anything; that events are going to unfold according to scripts utterly other than our own; that the deck is stacked; that we cannot take significant control of our lives.” Christianity is the story about God’s world coming to us in this place and this time, to make all things new. God’s promises are real possibilities for us, if we let them be. One of my spiritual mentors once wrote that “To believe means to accept God as present here and now.” – “Now is the acceptable time, the year God’s favor.” How will we demonstrate our freedom to be different than we were before?
Jesus comes, bringing God’s eternal promise – we are liberated for one another; we are freed for life together; neither poverty, nor imprisonment, nor illness, nor oppression can defeat God’s intention for our well-being. But it is up to us to live out God’s intention, day by day, week by week, with one another and with people we don’t yet know; we live it falling down and getting back up, striving, believing, hoping, enduring, praying, sharing, trusting God’s promise and presence. Good news is new news every morning. It is news that we have a hand in writing. We are not passive readers of this news. We are the news story. How will God’s good news of liberation shine forth in our story today?
[The image of Jesus above is the creation of Patti Miller, an artist in Fairhope, Alabama, and a teacher in Redeemer Lutheran Church. It is used here with the artist’s gracious permission. I discovered this image, and Patti’s reflections on Jubilee, while working on this sermon. Patti’s studio is called “Jubilee Art,” inspired by an early reading of Luke 4. I thank her for permission to use her image here and introduce her work to a wider audience. Please visit her site, Jubilee Art, and have a look around.]
 Paraphrase inspired by Walter Brueggemann, professor of Hebrew Scripture and an ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ.
 Fred Craddock, professor of homiletics in the Disciples tradition.
 Ched Meyers, activist scholar.
 The late Robert McAfee Brown, Presbyterian pastor and peacemaker.