Magnifying our Advent Jubilee

Third Sunday of Advent – December 13, 2020 – Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Canticle 15; John 1:6-8, 19-28 – STEM-Wide Morning Prayer via Zoom

Today’s portion of Isaiah 61 might sound familiar to you. If it does, it may not necessarily be because you’ve heard it directly from Isaiah.

You might also recognize it as the text for Jesus’ “first sermon” as it appears in Luke’s Gospel account. Remember that story of Jesus, just as he is beginning his ministry? At the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth he unrolls the scroll and 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.”

This text puts us in mind of something else you may have heard of, the “Year of Jubilee.” According to the Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 25: 8-13, to be exact), every fiftieth year, debts were to be forgiven, slaves freed, and property reverted to its original owner. This was a practice meant to manifest the benevolent mercy of God, a way to act out (at least as best anybody on Earth can) the reality of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Today’s tech gurus might call it a “hard reset.” It was a chance to wipe the slate clean, to start once again from a place of purity, unfettered by money owed and shackles bound. 

The important, some might even say miraculous, thing about the concept of Jubilee is that it was prescribed for everyone—no exceptions. It was meant to squelch that dreadful “me-first” notion that seems to have plagued each one of us since birth. We could think of it as a societal depiction of what we all learn—or are supposed to learn—in kindergarten: that sharing is caring, forgiveness is important, and selfishness does not lead to true success.

It’s no wonder Jesus chose this text for his first sermon. Not only is it a very real way to begin to enact God’s heavenly vision on earth, but it sets the stage for Jesus’ entire ministry by unveiling an extremely counter-cultural message, one that asks its hearers to confront some fairly uncomfortable scenarios. Having your debts forgiven may be one thing, but can you imagine forgiving the debts owed to you? The very notion upsets our concept of fairness. Jesus is going to be doing a lot more of that! Just think of the parables we’ve heard in the past several weeks about the talents or the laborers in the vineyard.

Today, in the middle of this season of preparation, it is especially important to remember that Jesus didn’t just make up all the counter-cultural stuff he preaches. His words are firmly rooted in God’s ancient law, and they were even echoed by others before him.

Jesus may be the “reason for the season,” but he isn’t the first person in the Gospel to give voice to this Jubilee prophesy. He wasn’t even the first person in his family to do so. That honor goes to his mother, Mary, whose song we sang this morning. 

“My soul proclaims he greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” We often call this important passage by its Latin name, the Magnificat. Perhaps the most famous translation of the first line goes like this: “My soul doth magnify the Lord.”

Magnify. During Tuesday’s Bible study, Amy brought to our attention the powerful images this word might generate for us. I found myself shot suddenly into a past where I stood in my grandmother’s kitchen, in front of the drawer where she kept her calendar, playing with the magnifying glass laying at its side.

What does it mean for one’s soul to magnify the Lord? Surely it’s more than holding an old magnifying glass up to your heart, enlarging the logo above your shirt pocket. I think it more likely has something to do with living your life in a way that draws attention to God’s vision for the world.

Mary magnifies this vision by reveling in the joy of a God who magnified her. “For he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed.”

God’s selection of Mary, a pitiable young girl by many standards, becomes for her—and for us—a kind of Advent Jubilee, a sign that something new is indeed coming to pass. The slate will be wiped clean, not only in the coming of Jesus our redeemer, but in the manner in which he comes—by a poor virgin’s womb.

God’s selection of Mary is a reminder for us that God often works in the ways we least expect, ways that tend to scandalize the so-called “natural order of things.” Perhaps God’s surprising methods are themselves something that we should by now have come to expect, for God has employed them over and over again.

God’s unconventional methods stretch all the way back to God’s covenant with Abraham, back to ninety-year-old Sarah’s pregnancy. (Joyful news to be sure, but no laughing matter.) And they stretch back to that Levitical prescription for the Year of Jubilee, and back to Isaiah’s proclamation of good news for the oppressed. Yes, this news that Mary’s son will soon share is news that God has been sharing for a long, long time, and it is news that takes center stage in her own familiar song.

A virgin, pregnant. The proud, scattered. The mighty cast down with the mountains. The lowly, like the valleys lifted up. The hungry, filled. The rich, sent to bed without dinner for a change.

And then there is, of course, a person I haven’t mentioned yet—John. The Baptizer, like Isaiah and Mary, knows what’s on the way. He knows that Jesus is coming to tell us God’s Good News like we’ve never heard it before. And so he joins the chorus of those crying out God’s favor, telling us that rough places will soon be made like a plain.

Yes, in their own way, I’d say that all of these folks pretty much sum up God’s vision for the world. A dear friend of mine puts it this way: the way things always have been need not be the way they always will be.

This is a vision that you and I know, too. It’s a vision of God’s mercy, a vision revealed at Christmas and confirmed on Easter—Death doesn’t get the last word! Your sins are forgiven! Salvation is at hand! It’s a vision that truly magnifies God’s presence among us. And it’s a vision that we must share—especially right now.

There’s no use repeating the laundry list of despairs that many of us have felt this year. I’m certainly not suggesting that we deny them. It’s just that it’s so often our habit to focus on them instead of God’s vision for us.

I know we’re still about two weeks from Christmas, but things are certainly ramping up. So I’d say it’s high time we took some time away from despair and started with a clean slate. I’d say we ought to magnify the Lord. Yes, I’d say we might as well revel like Mary in the joy of the One who comes, at least a little bit, until we hear the angels sing.

Fulfilled in your hearing

Third Sunday after the Epiphany – January 27, 2019 – Luke 4:14-21 – Epiphany, Sherwood

Today we encounter Luke’s description of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. After he is born, baptized, and tempted in the desert, Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, travels through Galilee.

Reports of his presence begin to spread throughout the region, and while he is in his hometown of Nazareth on the sabbath day, he goes to the synagogue.

There he participates in the days “lectionary” reading, taking up the scroll of Isaiah and reading the appointed lesson. This happens to be a very important lesson. I know you just heard it, but I don’t think we can ever get too much of the Bible, so I’m going to read it once more.

“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.”

The phrase “the year of the Lord’s favor” refers to the Year of Jubilee, an Ancient Israelite practice occurring every fifty years. According to the book of Leviticus, every fiftieth year all debts would be forgiven and financial slates wiped clean. Property would revert to its original owner and slaves would regain their liberty. 

Leviticus 25 says, “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.”

In addition to financial freedom, the Jubilee Year was observed as a “sabbatical” year. There was to be no working of the land. Instead, the Israelites were to live off of the overabundance of crops that God provided during the previous year.

“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.”

The Jubilee Year was a year of rest, both for the people and for the land. It was a time for the Israelites to give thanks to God. It was a time to remember that they were first and foremost members of God’s kingdom and brothers and sisters to one another. 

It sounds like an admirable tradition, but it also sounds like an impractical tradition. You might be wondering, “Did they really do that?” If you are, you’re not alone. 

God’s law might have laid out a plan for Jubilee, but as we well know, the Israelites were not always the best at following God’s instructions. They did, from time to time, turn away from him, cast idols, and fight amongst themselves.

Why should we expect the Jubilee Year to be any different? Could they really have forgiven all the money owed them or ceded their property to its heredity owner? Well, perhaps not, but that’s really not the point. 

How successful the Israelites were in their efforts to keep the Jubilee Year is immaterial. What’s more important is that God’s plan for the year of jubilee existed in the first place. God’s vision of Jubilee illustrates his desire for his people to live virtuous lives, regardless of how successful they were at following through. 

The same is true today. God desires healthy, productive, sinless lives for each of us, but that doesn’t mean that we are always going to meet the mark. God’s puts forth the goal, but we fall short. That’s a given. We fail. That’s the way life goes. Even so, God loves us, and God forgives us.  

God does not bestow his grace on you based on how well you follow the rules. God’s gives grace freely. I promise, there’s not a thing you can do about it! The fact that God gives his chosen people instructions for holy living proves that God’s grace is abundant. God has always been on our side, and God will aways be on our side. 

Proof of God’s support for us lies in the final sentences of today’s Gospel, “And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”

Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. That day, though most in attendance would not believe it, the scripture was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. 

Jesus, God incarnate, is the physical manifestation of God’s plan for all people. God came in the person of Jesus to give us the knowledge and love of God in a more intimate way that we had ever experienced it before. Jesus came to tell us that God is on our side and that God will always be on our side, so much so that he took on our frail human nature. 

Jesus still comes to call us back into community with one anther and to proclaim the “year of the Lord’s favor.” We are divided by love of money, power, and status, but Jesus tells us that what unites us is stronger than what divides us. We are children of God. Our bond in Jesus Christ is worth more than what the materials of the present age could ever offer us. 

Our duty is to live into our identity as children of God, following Jesus’ example. Our duty is to share God’s love with one another and to live like the siblings in Christ that we are. Our duty is to live peaceably with one another, even when we disagree. Our duty is to forgive one another. Our duty is to respect one another because each of us is made in God’s image. 

God wants all good things for you. He’s here today to offer them to you in the breaking of the bread and the proclamation of his Word. A Word that, even as we speak, is fulfilled in your hearing.