“The Year of the Lord’s Favor”
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme, “4 New Year Blessings”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
January 27, 2019
14Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.
15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
16When 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,
19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20And 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.
21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Have you ever heard good news that turned out to be bad news that turned out to be good news? There are a lot of old “good news-bad news” jokes. There is even a preacher’s page of “clean jokes” with a series of “good news-bad news” gems, like:
Good News: The Council accepted your job description the way you wrote it.
Bad News: They were so inspired by it, they also formed a search committee to find somebody capable of filling the position.
Good News: Pastor, you finally found a choir director who approaches things exactly the same way you do. Bad News: The choir mutinied.
Good News: Church attendance rose dramatically the last three weeks.
Bad News: You were on vacation.
I know, these are pretty bad, “groaners,” but if you are looking for clean jokes you take them where you can find them, right?
I bring this up because the story we read from Scriptures this morning is kind of a “Good News is Bad News is Good News” at least according to one theologian. The reading is from the “Gospel” of Luke and of course, the word “Gospel” can be translated “good news.” And Jesus delivers what perhaps would be a sermon of good news for those who are poor, captive, blind, or oppressed. But that probably means, as the theologian points out it may seem like bad news perhaps for those who are not poor, or who have stock in for-profit prison companies, or for those who benefit from the oppression of others. The question then is how does what seems like bad news turn and become good news?
I bring this up because the theme of my message is “4 Blessings for the New Year,” and my topic is “the year of the Lord’s favor.” So if something is a blessing one assumes it is “good news,” right? So let’s look at that whole “year of the Lord’s favor thing.” This is Luke’s translation of what was known in the Jewish religion and in Israel’s national history as the “Jubilee year.” No it is not the 50th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. The Jubilee year was a specific demand that God makes in the law found in the Book of Leviticus.
The year of the Jubilee is an economic program that probably sounds like bad news to anyone who believes in ownership of private real estate. It is based on the concept of “Sabbath.” Sabbath, of course, is the commandment by God that we should work 6 days and on the seventh, rest, Sabbath meaning “seven.” The year of the Jubilee extends this out to say that on the seventh year the land should rest, or lay fallow for a year. The extension of that is the Jubilee year which was the seventh coming of the seven year Sabbath. In that year the land was not only to lay fallow but all lands return to the original family which owned it:
“10And you shall hallow the 50th 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. 11That 50th year shall be a jubilee for you…. 12… it shall be holy to you…. 23The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.”
So this is what Jesus was referring to when he gets up to do his first sermon in his old home town, Nazareth. Now, at first, the congregation received this as Good News. They remarked how remarkable this teaching was and marveled at the young preacher from their own home town. But then Jesus goes on to turn what sounded like good news to them into what they believed was bad news. It turns from pride and smiles to testy and then just plain nasty. We didn’t read the verses that follow this part, remember I don’t like saying controversial things, but in the verses just after what we read, Jesus goes off on how prophets never get a good welcome in their hometown. Then he points out how, back in the day, during a famine it was a widow from Sidon who received a visit and a food blessing from the prophet Elijah. And in Elisha’s day when there were many lepers in Israel, it was a Syrian leper who got healed by the prophet. These little illustrations prompted them to give Jesus the bum’s rush to the edge of a cliff before he walked away from the conflict.
So let’s review: not only has Jesus brought good news/bad news to those who are not poor, not blind, not in jail, but to those who have landholdings. So as I often have to point out, I pretty much never hear those who insist that the Bible must be taken literally listing this passage as one they advocate for literally. There is debate on how many times, if ever, this was practiced in all of Israel. There is certainly debate amongst economists if this is desirable or doable, but God doesn’t seem to care much about human economies or about human practicalities and following that point of view, Jesus announces this social plan, from God, fully documented in Scripture and says that his presence is the sign that this plan is fully present. “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
By the way this same book of the Bible, Leviticus, often used to oppress sexual minorities also says, “33When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 34The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God [ Leviticus 25:33 ]. So in a time when we are furiously debating what we should do about “aliens” e.g. immigrants, as in refugees from other countries, and whether we should build a wall to keep them out, there is God’s word on it. But again, remember, I warned you when Jesus shows up and speaks it often sounds like a good news, bad news, good news situation. So if it is true about economics, if it is true about not oppressing people of differing sexuality, why shouldn’t it also be true of public policy on immigration? How does that work out for a nation in which many people want to claim that this is a “Christian nation?” I know, I know, we have to have laws, etc, etc. It’s just funny how God never seems to worry about these etcs.
Well, I would never preach any of this stuff because I don’t like being controversial. When I went back to my hometown and preached a sermon at my home church I certainly didn’t use this text or preach anything controversial like Jesus. So I don’t want to seem to say anything controversial this morning, I just want to quote Jesus and explain what he is saying and like a lot of things in life you and I have to decide how to take it. Is it good news or bad news?
So kind of like that non-controversial sermon I gave in Vero Beach a few years back I want to leave you with a winsome, easy to swallow illustration of all this. It is an illustration written by a far better writer, preacher, and pastor than I will ever be, Father Andrew Greeley, [andrewgreeley.com, January 17, 2010]. Father Greeley loved to use parables in his homilies and usually they were couched in the context of teenagers and their challenges in a mythical Catholic school, probably not unlike the one where he served for many years as a Catholic priest.
Father Greeley makes the point that “Jesus is laying down a claim to be the sign of the messianic age…. [making it] clear at the beginning of his ministry that the messianic age, properly understood as a new age of creation, was also beginning. The people in the synagogue must have been thunderstruck. They knew Jesus and liked him, but how could anyone claim to be fulfilling personally the prophecy of Isaiah?”
Father Greeley then goes on to tell this parable:
Once there was a great high school basketball team that everyone said would win the city championship without even trying. So they swept through the season without even trying. … they won all their games by fifteen points or more and were hailed as the best ever. That came the championship against a team they’d already beaten twice. However, the other team was all pumped up, the refs were manifestly unfair, and crowd was for the other team. The coach, who had warned them all season about being flat on the wrong day, screamed at them to no avail.
Then at the beginning of the second half he screamed at the refs for a blatantly unfair call. The refs threw him out and then the assistant coach who screamed and the refs through him out too. So the only adult on the bench was the second assistant who was just out of college and who had played on the team a couple of years ago (and wasn’t truly great) took over. He called time out and said, look, guys, we may be down by ten but we can beat these clumsy oafs and I’m going to tell you how. They’re rotten ball handlers. We’ll put on a full course press and steal the ball from them every time they try to bring it down.
What does he know a couple of guys said as they returned to the court? Who does he think he is? But they put on the press and caught up almost at once and were ten points ahead when the final quarter started. We’ve got them on the ropes, guys, the acting coach said, keep up the press. But the guys were fed up with this punk’s enthusiasm and decided to ease up. What happened? The score was tied with only three minutes left and they were five points down with two minutes left. Let’s do the press, someone said. Only by now they were too tired. So they lost by ten points.” And Father Greeley’s “moral of the story?” You take your prophets wherever you can find them.
Jesus said the Jubilee Year is here, fulfilled. Well, is that good news or bad news or just a joke? Hey, I don’t like controversy so I am just going to say: you have to decide for yourself. And by the way, when Fr. Greeley says you take your prophets wherever you can find them: that’s spelled “p-r-o-p-h-e-t-s,” not “p-r-o-f-i-t-s.” Just sayin’. May the blessings of the God of the Jubilee year be good news to you and to me always!