December 14, 2014, Advent 3 – The Year of Our Joy

To listen to this sermon, click here: 110423_001

It was about 1400 years before Jesus was born that the Israelites finally came to the end of their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, and were entering the land that God had promised to give their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. There were twelve tribes of them, who were the clans of the twelve sons of Jacob, and the new land was portioned out among the twelve tribes. And God gave them some kind of unusual instructions about the land. In this new place, every seventh year was to be observed as a Sabbath year, which meant that , for six years, crops would be sown and harvested as usual, but in the seventh year the land was to be left fallow, not planted, and not harvested, and the people were to eat the stored-up produce from the previous year. It was a way of acting out their dependence on God, a way of being stewards of their land, living by faith, rather than exploiters of the land, trying to seize everything they could. Those were the Sabbath years. And then, after seven sevens, seven Sabbath years, on the fiftieth year, God instructed them to have a Year of Jubilee.

The Year of Jubilee was to be a gigantic reset button, where all land was returned to the family God had given it to. On the year of Jubilee a man who had become poor and sold off his land to pay his bills would have his land returned to his family. And a man who had become so poor that he had had to sell himself into slavery would be freed from his bondage in the Year of Jubilee. All transactions in Israel were to be figured according to the Year of Jubilee – the price of land was figured, not according to real estate values, but according to the number of crops that would be harvested before the next Jubilee, because ultimately, the point was that the land belonged to God. No one could amass great wealth at the expense of his unfortunate brothers and sisters. And no one would lose the inheritance of his family, no matter how poor they became. The Year of Jubilee was the year of grace, when justice and goodness was restored and all debt was forgiven. But the strange thing about the Jubilee is that as far as anyone knows, it never actually happened. There is no evidence that Israel ever got around to observing a single Jubilee.

Until one day, when Jesus stood up in the synagogue in Nazareth and read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah – the passage we read this morning:

The spirit of the Lord GOD 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 favor

And then he said – today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Jesus was proclaiming a Jubilee year at long last, a year when the effects of sin would be undone, when oppressors and would finally lose their power, and when people would finally get to go home.

The oppressed, and the brokenhearted, the captives and prisoners – Jesus was talking about us, about everybody, all of mankind, staggering under the heavy yoke of sin. Because sin is bondage, sin is slavery. Sin is the most impossibly great debt – psalm 49 says “truly no man can ransom another or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice, to live forever and never see the grave.” A person could put forth every ounce of his strength, he could give everything he had, even his own life, and it would never wipe out the debt of sin. Because sin is not and never was just a matter of right and wrong and following rules. Under the reign of sin, ever human being is enslaved not just to sins, wrongdoings like murder and adultery and lying and stealing and cheating, but also to the inner oppression of fear and envy and pride, to our desires and craving, to sickness and growing old, and finally the crushing debt of death itself. Unless I am unusually sinful, I think that we have all had the experience of willing ourselves to do or think or feel what we know is right, but then seeing ourselves stubbornly do exactly what we know is wrong. We go ahead and tell that funny story we know will hurt someone else, or we go ahead and leave the store knowing that they forgot to charge us for the cheese… doesn’t matter how small a thing it is – the point is that we see in those times that battleground within ourselves, where we our former master, who is sin, still tries to call the shots.

On our own, we are powerless to escape the prison we made with our own free will, because it was by our free will that we chose to turn away from God. In the Fall, mankind traded away the perfect home we had with God to be our own gods. The serpent said to Eve, “You won’t surely die if you eat the fruit. God doesn’t want you to eat it because he knows it will make you like him, knowing good and evil.” And the woman and the man bought the lie. We sold ourselves into slavery so that we could be our own gods and create our own kingdom. And if you look around you at the world, here’s what we have created – a world full of war and racism and hunger and sickness and violence and cruelty. People always ask why there is so much evil in a world that was supposedly created by a good God, but the wonder and the goodness and the grace of it is that there is still light shining in a world that has rejected him. And the light is that there is a Year of Jubilee, there is a new beginning with the birth of the Christ, and sin and slavery and death don’t get the last word.

I saw an article recently about a person who had gone into a Toys R Us store. And they went to the Layaway counter, where people had reserved Christmas gifts for their children. All those people had been paying, little by little, as they could afford it, maybe a few dollars every payday. But this person wrote out a check and paid every account off in full. Can you even imagine the joy when each family came in to make a payment, only to find that the debt was gone and they were free to bring their children’s gifts home. For some it might have been just a very pleasant surprise, but for others, for those whose paychecks barely made it through the month for food and rent and utilities and gas, it must have been an immense joy, and an enormous weight lifted from them. It was a tiny Year of Jubilee for them.

That kind of joy, times infinity, is what Jesus was proclaiming in that little synagogue in Nazareth. Because he had come to proclaim the Year of Jubilee at long, long last; at long last to make a way out of the slavery of our sin – to pay off our whole debt – to re-boot the system, not once, so that we could start over and keep on trying to make things work on our own, but once for all so that we are no longer enslaved by the weakness of our wills, or the brokenness of the creation, or even the seeming inescapability of death. In the Year of our Lord’s favor we are set completely free to stop trying to be god and to start living as children of the true God.

May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

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