1st Sunday after Epiphany - Isaiah 61:1-3 - January 11, 2014
1) In Leviticus 25 the Lord institutes every seventh year as a Sabbath year. The ground was to lie fallow and anything that the fields and vines did produce could not be harvested, only eaten directly from the source. The Sabbath year was to allow the land to rest from man’s cultivation and to allow man to rest. The cycle of Sabbath years would continue unbroken until seven Sabbath year cycles were complete. The next year, the fiftieth year, was to be the Jubilee year. The Lord says, “You shall cause the trumpet of the Jubilee to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement you shall make the trumpet to sound throughout all your land. You shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you; and each of you shall return to his possession, and each of you shall return to his family.” (Leviticus 25:9-10) The Jubilee year followed the same paradigm as the Sabbath years. No sowing or harvesting. Everyone lived off what the fields and vines naturally produced. But the Jubilee expanded the idea of Sabbath rest. “Each of you shall return to his possession, and each of you shall return to his family.” If anyone had sold their land to repay a debt, in the fiftieth year the land reverted back to the original owners. This was because the land was not to “be sold permanently” (Leviticus 25:23) as it belonged to the Lord. The Lord gave each family their portion of the Promised Land during the years of Joshua, son of Nun. They could “sell” their land to pay off debts, but in the fiftieth year, whether they had the ability to buy the land back or not, the land was restored to the family which the Lord had assigned to that plot. The Jubilee also released Israelites who had sold themselves in servitude to repay debts but could not afford to fulfill their debts. Debts were forgiven, slaves released from their servitude and restored to their ancestral land. We ought to also note that this all happened at as the trumpet sounded on the Day of Atonement of the fiftieth year.
2) But this does not apply to us, for we are not Hebrews living in the land of Israel. Nor are we to try to impose the laws of Moses upon other nations, even our own, for these laws were not intended for all mankind but to paint a shadowy portrait of the Messiah and His work. This is what St. Paul means in Colossians 2:16-17 when he writes, “So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.” The Jubilee year is not a model for our own lives. It is a model of Christ’s life and ministry. This is most certain because Jesus applies this Jubilee year to Himself in Luke 4. Jesus enters the synagogue at Nazareth, takes the Isaiah scroll and reads from the prophet’s sixty-first chapter, the same words that we heard read in the Old Testament lesson. “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me, Because the LORD has anointed Me To preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives, And the opening of the prison to those who are bound; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.” (Isaiah 61:1-2) Having read the prophet, Christ sits down to teach and says, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21)
3) The phrase Isaiah uses, and which Jesus applies about Himself is the same phrase used in Leviticus 25 about the purpose of the Jubilee year. His ministry will “proclaim liberty to the captives.” But the Jubilee year is only a shadow of the substance that comes in Christ. Christ does not institute a new Jubilee year where slaves go free and property reverts back to its original owners. The kingdom of Jesus is a kingdom not of this world. So Christ is not proclaiming liberty to prisoners, inmates, or slaves in the world. He is preaching good tidings not to the poor in wealth but the poor in spirit, those who are afflicted by their sins and burdened by guilt. Christ comes to heal the brokenhearted. The broken hearts He heals and consoles are not the broken hearts from love songs but those whose hearts are broken by their sins in thought, word, and deed and contrite over those sins. David teaches us this is Psalm 51:17, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart -- These, O God, You will not despise.” The liberty He proclaims to the captives is not financial peace and freedom but freedom from the captivity of sin. And lest you think that we are making more of this than we ought, the Greek word used for liberty or release is the same word that is often translated “forgiveness.” Christ preaches release to the captives, that is, forgiveness to those captive under the tyranny of Satan, their own sins and an evil conscious.
4) Jesus reads Isaiah and says, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21) This is what Jesus comes to do! He does not advent among mankind to burden them with more laws and regulations on how to please God. He does not assume human flesh so that He may be the new and improved Moses, laying down the law so that we can just try harder to please God. St. Peter Himself admits in Acts 15:10 that the law was a yoke “that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear.” Nor does Jesus reveal Himself to us as someone who seeks to punish us for our sins. He comes to preach good tidings that in His death He makes atonement for all our sins. Jesus inaugurates the new Jubilee year, a year that will go on until His second coming. Every day we have is a gift to enjoy the benefits of repentance and faith in the Gospel, that in Christ our sins are covered so that we are released from the captivity to those sins, their guilt, and all the terrors of the law which work to drive us to despair. In the Gospels we hear of Christ freeing men from their sins. He tells the paralytic, “Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.” (Matthew 9:2) He releases a man with an unclean spirit from the captivity of Satan’s accusations by saying, “Be quiet, and come out of him!” (Luke 4:35) He heals sinners who are broken hearted over their sins, coming to Jesus in repentance. When a woman begins to anoint Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume Jesus explains, “Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little." Then He said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’” (Luke 7:47-48)
5) Such is the true Jubilee year of the Lord’s favor. Christ comes among His people to forgive their sins, to give them what they truly need, not what they think they need. The Jubilee Christ proclaimed in Nazareth and brought about during His earthly ministry still goes on through the Office of the Holy Ministry today and will go on until Christ returns. The ability to release penitent sinners from the servitude of sin is given to the Apostles in John 20:23 when Jesus tells them, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” So the Apostolic message is the message of Christ’s Jubilee year, that it still advances on in spite of His ascension to the right hand of God the Father. His mercy did not cease when His foot left that blessed stone on the Mount of Olives. Nor did His power to release sinners from their sin and return them to their Divine inheritance cease when the Apostles died, but it goes on in the preaching of the Gospel through God’s called and ordained men. This is why we preach continually of the forgiveness of sins, because we continually need the forgiveness of sins. This is why we exhort everyone back to their baptisms, because in baptism Christ washes you clean of sin and makes you His own. This is why we preach you to the Lord’s Supper because there Christ feeds you with body and blood that forgives your sins in a tangible, visible means.
6) This is the ministry of Christ. Just as the Israelites were released from their financial debts on the fiftieth year, so we are released from the debt of sin as often as we confess our sin and believe the Gospel. As the Israelites regained their divinely appointed inheritance in the Jubilee year, so we regain the inheritance that Adam and Eve lost for us in the Garden of Eden, so that now the Triune God dwells in our hearts by faith. As the land and the cultivators of the land were given the Jubilee year to rest from their labor and rejoice in the good things the land brought forth, so we are given rest for our weary souls in the Gospel that our sins are forgiven and no work is necessary to earn God’s favor and forgiveness, before, during, or after the absolution. As the Jubilee year began with the trumpet blast on the Day of Atonement, and everyone was released at the Day of Atonement, so we are released from Satan’s grasp and the tyranny of an evil conscience when we believe that Christ’s atonement is for us and our salvation. This is the acceptable year of the Lord, His Jubilee that releases from our servitude to sin, you are no longer bound to drag it around with you in your thoughts, it is absolved by Christ. His Jubilee Gospel heals the your heart broken by sin and its effects, for He speaks tenderly to you in love and reminds you that in all things He will provide daily bread for body and soul. Today is this fulfilled in your hearing once again. Be of good cheer, children of God. Your sins are forgiven. Go in peace. Amen.