“He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor.” Isaiah 61:1b-2a
I want to share with you some serious thoughts about an uncommon Chirstmas theme. Last Sunday, I studied the ‘official’ scripture for the day: Isaiah 61:1-4, which drew my attention to Luke 4:14-30. Then I went back and looked at Leviticus 25. Go ahead and read those, and come back. In Leviticus, God decrees a ‘Jubilee Year’ every 50 years. Basically, the whole economy goes back to zero. People return to their own hometown, slaves are released, debts are canceled, crops are not sown or harvested. (And this would follow a regular Sabbath year, so the land would not be sown for two years). God also stipulated that no Israelites were to be treated as slaves, because God had already redeemed everyone from slavery in Egypt. People were to redeem the debts of their relatives, so they would not fall into poverty. (The problem Ruth and Naomi had is that there was no next-of-kin to ‘redeem’ them – that is take them in, so they would not live in poverty).
It seems like such a radical idea to us, but the truth is that it was a radical idea then too! Israel never had a Jubilee year, even though God told them he would bless them beyond measure if they obeyed this difficult decree. He told them the land would require a Jubilee, and if they did not take a Jubilee, and leave the land fallow and return all that they own to the Lord, he would take it from them forcibly. It seemed the concept of redemption through a Jubilee was important to God.
So fast forward to Isaiah. God has kept his word. The Israelites never took a Jubilee, so God took everything from them, because they did not willingly give it to him. He sent them into exile, made them slaves again for 70 years (just about the number of years needed to make up for all those missed Jubilees!) So Isaiah is telling his people of a new Jubilee, when God will redeem them once again. In fact, the ‘year of the Lord’s favor’ is a pretty direct reference to the ‘Jubilee’ year of the old scriptures. Since the Israelites are exiles awaiting freedom and not land owners and creditors, this is good news; and end to their misery is coming soon!
Then in Luke, Jesus finds this very passage of Isaiah, reads it in the synagogue, and proclaims the scripture fulfilled that day. He would now redeem God’s people, free the captives who are slaves to sin, the Law, false righteousness. The religious economy would be turned upside down. Those who were ‘poor in spirit’ would now be blessed! Those who were ‘righteous’ would now be un-righteous! Those who were sinners and undeserving would inherit the Kingdom of God. Those who lived in exile from God would now live closely to him.
This should have been good news.
But you know the rest of the story. The people chased him out of town, and Jesus observed that only in his home town does a prophet have no honor. The people did not want to give up all the righteousness, all the piety, all the religion they had saved up by their own work. It was an insult to think that God would need to redeem them, not from slavery, but from their sins.
And it’s the same with us. God declares a Jubilee, but rather than looking at the blessings he wants to give us, we look at what he’s taking away. We hold back all the things we hold dear and say, ‘No, I must have this. I can’t give up that. I’ve worked so hard for those!’ The things we own, the righteousness we build for ourselves ends up owning and enslaving us! Our desire to follow God becomes stifled because it conflicts with our own interests. This is just the case with the rich young ruler. All the wealth he ‘owned’ ended up enslaving him. He could not boldly follow Jesus, because of the fear of losing his belongings. God wants to pour out immeasurable blessings on us by freeing us from what enslaves. But we look at what has enslaved us and feel we just cannot do without it. Like an abused woman who defends and depends on the one who abuses her. We tell ourselves that the ‘masters’ in our life are under our control, are not all that bad, are really quite good. So we remain slaves in exile who need a Jubilee.
Christmas is about the gift of Jesus and the Jubilee he brings – the end of exile from God, enslavement to sin and death. But we will never see Jesus’ Jubilee and rejoice if we hold too tightly onto all the little worldly charms He tries to pry from our fingers. “Freedom in Christ” means freedom from all that ensnares – all the vices and lies that God wants to resuce us from. I hope this Christmas you find the joy of God’s Jubilee – freedom from all that has enslaved your life and the joy of being redeemed as a slave is redeemed from his master.