GOOD NEWS OF GREAT JOY
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; I Thessolonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
Perhaps you have noticed that the theme that we have chosen for this Advent-Christmas season is "Good News of Great Joy," which are the words that the angel spoke to the shepherds when they were told to go to Bethlehem and look for the child who would be their Messiah and the Savior of the whole world. Who would have ever thought that 2000 years later, we still would be proclaiming this good news of great joy because the world still needs a savior today as much as the world needed a savior way back then. In fact, we can go back even further to the time of Isaiah and hear the same announcement about bringing good news to those who are oppressed and being reminded that the good news of God's realm where God's justice and righteousness would spring up before all nations would be the cause for great joy among God's people at any time in human history.
If we take a closer look at this announcement by Isaiah, we also are told that this one on whom the Spirit of God has rested will proclaim the year of God's favor. Most scholars today would suggest that this reference to the year of God's favor is a reference to the sabbatical year and the year of the Jubilee that is described in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. According to this description, every seventh year the people were to give their land a rest from being farmed so that the dirt would have a chance to replenish itself. Also, during this seventh year, all debts were to be cancelled and every slave would be allowed to go free.
After seven cycles of this seventh-year practice, the people would come to the fiftieth year, known as the Jubilee year, when, in addition to the cancellation of debts and the liberation of slaves, the land that originally had been owned by someone else fifty years previously was to be given back to that owner, or to that owner's descendants if the owner had died during the past fifty years. This practice would ensure that no one could acquire and accumulate more land than they needed on which to grow their own crops and feed their own families, and would prevent the amalgamation of too much land by one person.
The people who had lived under the monarchy had learned the hard way about this abuse of authority and power as God had warned the people when they came to Samuel to demand to have a king like all the other nations. The kings, most of whom did what was evil in the sight of God Yahweh, had devised ways that allowed their supporters to take over the ownership of the land that originally had been owned and farmed by regular people who had become indebted because of the taxation that had been levied on them. As a result of this economic system, the wealthy landowners amassed huge amounts of land while the majority of the people became tenant farmers, or worse, slaves to the wealthy elite. Sound familiar?
After the Babylonians had conquered Judah and deported the people to Babylon, the nagging question on everyone's mind was, "Where did we go wrong?" According to scholars, the priests were the ones who concluded that this economic disparity was one of the worst things that had happened to their people under the monarchy, and they devised this new plan of expanding the concept of resting on the Sabbath day to include this sabbatical practice of justice and righteousness as a way of keeping the Sabbath day holy. Prophets, like Isaiah, were quick to pick up on this new plan, and became champions for the year of God's favor.
Jesus also was a champion of this sabbatical year and the year of the Jubilee. He made this point very clear from the very outset of his ministry when he went to the synagogue of his hometown and read this passage from the Book of Isaiah to indicate to the people that he also had come to proclaim the year of God's favor by the power of the Holy Spirit. The conditions that had existed under the monarchy 600 years previously were the same conditions that now existed under Roman occupation and the control of their own religious leaders. The people were being taxed by both of these authorities, and as a result, many of the people were going into debt and were being forced to sell their land in order to pay off their debts and ended up being tenant farmers or indentured slaves.
When the people heard this proclamation from Jesus about the year of God's favor, the people knew right away that this Jesus could be their messiah and savior just as John the Baptist had described to the people how the one who would come after him would do great things, including baptizing the people with the Holy Spirit. Having been baptized with this same Spirit himself, Jesus set out to challenge the way that the Sabbath had been so corrupted by the religious leaders of his day. They had turned the Sabbath into such a legalistic system of 613 laws that no one could lift a finger to help a friend in need on this day without being in violation of the Sabbath.
Time and time again, Jesus attempted to recapture the original intent of the Sabbath by healing people on the Sabbath, feeding people on the Sabbath, and allowing his own disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath simply because they were hungry. Every Sabbath, Jesus would find himself in the synagogue or out in the countryside where he would be teaching and proclaiming the good news about people being liberated from their poverty, from their oppression, from their enslavement to other people, from their captivity to an unjust economic system, and from the anguish that they were experiencing as a result of this bondage. Jesus' message of salvation was music to their ears, and gave the people a whole new understanding about what it meant to keep the Sabbath day holy.
The Sabbath day would always remain a day of rest in terms of taking time to focus on one's life and on one's relationship with God without all of the pressures about what we must do to put food on our own table. However, Jesus demonstrated that the Sabbath day also was meant to be a holy day when we might concentrate on the justice, as Isaiah says today, that God loves by doing something to right the wrongs of our society, by seeking reconciliation with someone who has wronged us, or by laying down our guns and bullets down by the riverside and studying war no more. The reason why this day has been set aside as being holy is because if we can pursue the justice and peace that God so dearly loves on this day, then perhaps the joy of this holiness will carry over to all of the rest of the days of our week.
Now I can hear some of you saying to yourselves, "But I already am pursuing this justice and peace that God so dearly loves in my daily life, especially in the work that I do throughout the week. I need the Sabbath day in order to rest and get geared up for the demands of my work that is devoted to the good news of liberation for which Jesus was such an advocate and was willing to die." If that is the case, then I would suggest that you devote your entire Sabbath day to the rest and rejuvenation that you need for the days ahead, because the demands of people who are in need in our society and throughout the world never go away and will always be there whenever we open our eyes to see, open our hands to serve, and open our mouths to advocate on their behalf.
I assume that most of you know about the Christmas truce that happened between the British, French, Belgian, and German soldiers during World War 1 when soldiers on both sides of no-man’s land began singing Christmas carols to each other on Christmas Eve. After a while, the soldiers were inspired to call for a momentary truce, put down their weapons, and exchange conversation with each other for the rest of Christmas morning. Reportedly, over 100,000 soldiers participated in this impromptu cease fire, which later was viewed as an act of subversion by the leaders of these armies. To this very day, people are still wondering how and why these men could go back to killing each other as if this holy day of Christmas had never happened.
The Sabbath day is meant to be such a subversive holy day every week when we call a truce and focus on all that we can do to right the wrongs in our personal relationships, enact the justice that God desires of us throughout our nation, and pursue the things that make for peace in a world that is fraught with oppression, corruption, and violence. If everyone in the world who goes to church on this holy day would do just one thing toward this end on this day, what a different world this would be! Is this too much to ask for? I hope not, because the One who came after John revealed to us this way of peace every day, and has called us to follow him, not only by proclaiming the good news about the year of God’s favor, but also by living into this vision where the land is regularly given a rest, debts are cancelled, slaves are set free, and there is an equitable distribution of land, food, and all resources such that no one needs to be hungry or have a reason to study war anymore.
Such is the good news of great joy about which we are reminded in our lessons for today—good news that we may not be able to accomplish on our own. That is why we are told today that the Spirit of God is the one who will cause justice and righteousness to spring up before all nations and that the God of peace is the one who is faithful and who will make us completely holy so that we might be sound and blameless at the coming of Jesus, our Savior. As we continue our journey through this Advent season in joyous anticipation of Jesus, our Christ, may the God of all grace keep our hearts and our minds ever faithful unto the One who proclaimed the year of God’s favor in word and deed for the salvation of the whole world. Amen.