From the Lectionary, Advent 3: Living Jubilee


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

I’m blogging through the lectionary this year, with an emphasis on the prophets this Advent season (See Advent 1, Advent 2), and today’s reading comes from Isaiah 61: 

‘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 the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory…

…I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.”

Blogging with the lectionary has given me a new appreciation for pastors, let me tell you.   

If I’m struggling to make sense of the lectionary text, if I get to the end of the week and I’m “just not feeling it,” I can simply skip a post and few people will notice, even fewer care. But a pastor can’t exactly approach the lectern on a Sunday morning, shrug her shoulders, and declare to the congregation, “You know what guys? I’m just not feeling this one.”  (Well, I suppose she could but someone might throw a hymnal in response.) 

...Nor can she wait until the following Tuesday afternoon to share her insights, as I have done here.

So thanks, pastors, for your faithfulness in listening to, learning from, and preaching the Word, even when it’s hard. Those of us sitting in the pews can never really know what that’s like to heed that call and we have no business demanding rapturous rhetoric week to week when, if put in your position, we would likely resort to showing Veggie Tale movies. 

Isaiah 61 threw me for a loop last week, not because of its poverty but because of its riches. There were just too many facets to this diamond, too many dazzling angles. I didn’t know where to start. The poetry (“give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit”), the theology, the call for social justice and the Christological implications—a thousand sermons live in these verses, a million possible reflections. 

I guess what I’m trying to say is that sometimes Scripture silences me with awe.  Even as my theology, my hermeneutics, and my understanding of the nature of the Bible have shifted and changed, this fact remains.  I am caught in these words as in a current. I may struggle at times, but they will never let me go. 

So I surrender....

***

Jesus preached a sermon on this passage once.  

His listeners responded by trying to shove him off a cliff. 

According to my copy of The Jewish Annotated New Testament, this was not because the Jews gathered hated the Gentiles Jesus referenced in his sermon, but because they felt left out. “The rejection of Jesus is not prompted by xenophobia,” says the entry on Luke 4:16-30, “it is prompted by Jesus’ refusal to provide his hometown with messianic blessing.” 

Indeed, like the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount, this passage reveals God’s special deference toward the poor and marginalized and can make the relatively privileged—the rich and the religious, the free and the full— feel a bit left out when the good news is delivered first to the perceived outsiders. It seems this tendency to equate justice and dignity for the marginalized with persecution of the privileged is an old one. But in this sermon and throughout his ministry, Jesus does not simply advocate for equality. He advocates for a complete reversal of priorities that blesses the poor, the outsiders, and the oppressed first and warns that those most in danger of missing the gospel are those who benefit from the world’s economy. 

Jesus, invoking the words of Isaiah and sharing God’s dreams for the world, announces the inauguration of a new Kingdom in which the Year of Jubilee—when debts are forgiven, slaves set free, land and its abundance shared—is celebrated perpetually. 

“At the center of biblical faith,” says Walter Brueggemann in a sermon on this passage, “is a command from God that curbs economic transactions by an act of communal sanity that restores everyone to proper place in the economy, because life in the community of faith does not consist of getting more but in sharing well.” 

This is good news for those in desperate need of a fresh start.   It’s bad news for those who kinda like things the way they are, those who buy the lie that all that extra stuff and power and prestige they won in the rat race make them more important, more worthy, more good. 

…Which, let’s face it, is most of us. 

***

Jesus reads Isaiah 61 from a scroll, rolls it up with dramatic flare, and declares that “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 

It’s an exciting moment in the text. 

But here’s the thing that tripped me up more than any other: I don’t see this Scripture fulfilled. I don’t see any Year of Jubilee. 

Jesus purportedly rose from the dead more than 2,000 years ago and yet inequities still persist. Injustice remains.  Slavery, in the words of songwriter Brett Dennen, is “stitched into fabric of my clothes” and more than 140 Pakistani children were gunned down for going to school today.  Eric Garner is still dead, our prisons are still overcrowded, and I can’t seem to let go of that stupid grudge or my excess stuff or my idolatrous conviction that the most important thing in the whole world is to be right, to stay on top.  The Empire economy doesn’t seem to be budging one bit...in the world or in my heart.  

I suppose this is all part of the here-but-not-yet, inaugurated-but-not-consummated nature of the Kingdom, which we talk about a lot during Advent but which, let’s face it, doesn’t seem like enough for Ferguson right now, or for Sandy Hook and Peshawar. 

Here’s Brueggeman’s take on things: 

“What [Jesus] meant was, ‘I am Jubilee. Isaiah wrote about it. I am going to enact it.’ And he set about giving social power and social access and social goods to the poor and excluded. And says Luke, ‘They were filled with rage.’…They did not want to hear about the Jubilee that would curb their accumulation, not even for Jesus. It is a hard command…

….The only reason one might obey such a hard command that is concrete material, and economic divestment is that we have a different, larger vision of the future. We know what is promised and what will be, by the power of God. The command is to serve the great social vision of the Gospel, because that vision of God will only become reality when there is enough human obedience. This vision of God is not a vision of accumulation and monopoly so that those who have the most when they die win. This vision of God’s future is not about angels who have gone to heaven floating around in the sky with their loved ones. This vision, rather, is about God’s kingdom coming on earth as it already is in heaven. God’s rule where the practices of justice and mercy and kindness and peaceableness are every day the order of the day. It is a vision of the world as a peaceable neighborliness in which no one is under threat, no one is at risk, no one is in danger, because all are safe, all are valued, all are honored, all are cared for. And this community of peaceableness will come only when the vicious cycles of violent accumulation are broken.”*

“…That vision of God will only become reality when there is enough human obedience.” 

Obedience. 

As Liz Lemon might say, “Oh, that word bums me out.” 

Obedience sounds hard. It sounds like work. It sounds like sacrifice. 

The words we like best for Advent are words like wait and prepare.  But paying attention to the prophets in this season reminds us that the sort of waiting and preparing that God calls us to as citizens of this upside-down Kingdom is the active kind that demolishes obstructions and levels the playing field, that binds the brokenhearted and liberates the imprisoned, that beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, and bets it all by going all in on this irrational and seemingly impossible vision of peace on earth. 

“From the outset of the Bible, certainly in God’s command of Sinai and surely in the ministry of Jesus,” writes Brueggemann, “signals of neighborliness are endlessly enacted. That finally is what is odd and true and demanding and glorious about the Gospel, that God wills and acts toward a neighborliness that curbs greed, vetoes fear, and removes the causes of violence. We baptized people are the ones who have singed on for this vision and act toward it.” 

To listen to the prophets is to share God’s dreams for the world and to live into those dreams, to bet it all on that vision for the future.  Jesus is our example for exactly how to do this. That’s what he meant when he said Scripture had been fulfilled with his presence among us. He was saying: Watch me; this is how it’s done. This is what Jubilee—God’s Kingdom— looks like in action. 

In the last Advent reflection, I fretted that when it came to making a way for God and leveling the uneven ground, I wasn’t sure where to start.  But that’s not true. I know exactly where to start. I start with Jesus. 

If Jesus embodies God’s dreams for the world, then citizens of the Kingdom start by imitating him—by eating with the people he ate with, by telling the sort of stories he told, by healing and forgiving, by serving and praying, by resisting the temptations of power and money and violence, by breaking down religious barriers, by loving enemies, by showing humility and grace, by overturning some tables and dining at others, by being obedient to the point of death. 

The good news we declare at Advent is that, in Jesus, God has given us everything we need for peace on earth. God has shown us the way. The question is: will we believe enough to obey, to live Jubilee? 

...Lord, help me in my unbelief. 

***

The Brueggemann quotes come from Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, which I cannot recommend enough. 

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