The following is the text of Rev. Joseph Heddens first sermon at Emmanuel Reformed Church, Sunday January 24, 2010
14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.
15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 ‘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,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
20 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.
21 Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’
A couple of years ago I went with my father in law to see a relatively well known Old Testament professor lecture at a gigantic Presbyterian church in Harrisburg. He talked about this very passage: Luke 4.
Jesus is talking about the Jubilee Year of Leviticus 25—Do you remember the Jubilee Year? Every seventh year—the land was to rest—called a Sabbath year, where farmers wouldn’t plant crops on that seventh year. Seven times seven years is 49 years plus one—the 50th year is the Jubilee Year. Every 50th year, the Israelites were commanded by God to let the fields lie fallow, forgive debts of anyone who owed them money, let the prisoners out of jail, let people go back to live on their ancestral property (no matter who had the deed).
“This is an act of justice—Biblical Justice,” the professor said. He also said that historians were divided on whether the Jubilee year actually happened or not in the history of Israelite people. We know that in Leviticus, God through Moses commanded the people to do it; we don’t know if they ever did it. As you might imagine, such a radical activity every 50th year would bring ‘normal’ economic life to halt, setting prisoners free, property chaos.
At the end of the day, the professor determined, it was not real important if the Jubilee Year was historically practiced or not. What is important, he said, hand raised in emphasis, is the idea of Jubilee. Jesus believed in the idea of Jubilee—important enough to him to be the subject of his first sermon in public.
Now, the professor spoke on many other things for the better part of an hour. When it came time for questions there was that awkward pause; when no one wants to be the first. People looked around–uncomfortably. I thought to myself, “Okay, I’ll bite.” (Which you should never do—never ask the first question, I’ve since learned.)
“Historically,” I asked, “what is your personal judgment? Did some people practice the Jubilee? Say 20% or 50% or 90%? Or do you think 100% of the people tried it and failed? What is your best guess?”
The professor stared me down with a twinkle in his eye. He raised one finger in emphasis.
“Were you listening to what I said?” he asked, witheringly. “I said it doesn’t matter. The idea of Jubilee—the idea is what matters. Is it important that any Christian congregation ever lives out the Sermon on the Mount perfectly?”
Then he came the line that cut me to the heart—to me—a minister with 13 years of experience; sitting next to my father in law; in front of all these people! “That’s the kind of question my first year seminary students always ask!”
The doctrine of Jubilee asks us the question “What is the will of God?” for your life and for my life.
Will of God is found in Leviticus 25—the Jubilee Year. People who have been oppressed and beaten down economically or politically will receive payment. “Will of God” in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is turning the Other Cheek. Will of God is forgiving those who have sinned against you 70 times 7.
Some say that we use questions like ‘Could this really have happened?’ Or ‘How could this really have happened?’ to avoid dealing with the real issues in the Bible. My question to the Old Testament professor, for example, wasn’t really a question of curiosity but a way to avoid dealing with the Jubilee as the will of God. In other words, if the ancient Israelites never tried it, then I don’t have to pay much attention to Jubilee either.
Yet, such a line of thinking ignores that Jesus proclaimed the year of God’s favor and wanted us to participate in it.
You and I are God’s sign of Jubilee in the year 2010. That’s what Jesus wanted his audience to hear in Nazareth those many years ago. That you can be part of the Jubilee.
We can pray with honesty and earnestness for the Kingdom of God to come and for God’s will to be done, as we pray in The Lord’s Prayer. You and I can and will be part of that magnificent vision of Jesus.
We don’t often live Jubilee though. You and I we get depressed and downtrodden. Perhaps your family life wasn’t so good as a child. Or you find the bad news on the television too much to handle, such as we’ve seen on the news regarding Haiti in the past couple of weeks.
To that Jesus says,
“Come and feed the poor with me.”
“Come and protect the abused”
“Come and preach to the depressed, the lonely, the lost.”
“Come and clothe the naked with me”
“Come and be part of my Jubilee”
Every new morning confronts us with the question of how will I be obedient; how will I believe? Every dawn and every darkness meets us with the question: “What is the will of God?”
It may seem overly simple to say it this way. Here is the will of God; in this Bible. Jesus Christ as encountered in this book is the will of God. The Risen Jesus Christ as encountered in this book and obeyed is the will of God.
We’re all called to come proclaim the year of God’s good favor. Some proclaim it well using big words and persuasion. Some of us proclaim the Word of God clumsily. Some of us proclaim it quietly—we’re shy people after all.
In any event Jesus has called us out to proclaim Jubilee to the people.
In churchly terms, we’re called not to be a people of serious bureaucracy but people of unimaginable joy. We are called to articulate a vision —not to concentrate on ministry we can’t do because our budget is too small or our building is too old or our staff is the wrong size but what is right—where God meets people every day—in Bible study, or in Holy Communion or forgiveness.
In terms of stewardship and wealth, we seek to become people who believe in abundance of Jubilee not insufficiency.
Most people wouldn’t perform Jubilee because they would be afraid to lose what progress that they had gained in the previous 49 years. I understand that. Yet, wealth is really in the head, not the wallet. Some people are satisfied with their bank account even though it is small and some people will never be satisfied with their bank statement; no matter what the numbers say.
In terms of our families, we live in a time of epic stress in our family life: misbehaving children, old resentments, unresolved issues . . . yet Jesus goes right into this, his hometown synagogue, with his family sitting before him in the congregation. And he says, “This day, Jubilee is fulfilled in your hearing. Let go of your old resentments, the time has come for a new day! A new experience.”
Most of the time, if we don’t think about it—we live in a time absent of Jubilee. We live according to our fears and our defenses. We live for our grudges and resentments. We live for our bottom line and for our bank cards.
If that’s ever described you, as it often does me, then this scripture is for you! Life with God, and with God’s Son, Jesus Christ, in Jubilee is much richer and fuller and more imaginative than we could ever say or think!
In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.