Isaiah 61:1-11, John 1:6-8,19-28
What would you do, once things return to normal – whatever normal might be when this ends? Have you thought – am sure you have – of what it would be like, when it is finally confirmed that we are past this pandemic? Would you go on a holiday? Maybe visit your family? Throw a house party? Maybe just be relieved we are through this – you can breathe more easily, without a mask and you don’t have to be constantly afraid of getting the virus. The sweetness of that feeling comes from the knowledge of being set free. We’ve been released from captivity. It’s freedom! And if you can multiply this sense of liberation a thousand times, then you have some idea the power of this word we have just proclaimed. You can begin to understand why the Church asks us to “Rejoice!” on this Gaudete Sunday.
Jesus will adopt this Word from Isaiah as his own programme for his ministry. What Jesus did then, is what he does now – which means this is his ministry towards you and me. Which is why this word is so important. And this Word is framed by the announcement of the Year of Favour, or the Jubilee. This was a technical term. It came out of the Sabbath rest. Every seven days, the Israelites were to rest from work and worship (Lev 23:3). At the end of a “week” of years, there was further rest and release prescribed. The land was to be released and given a rest. Slaves were to be released and set free. Debts had to be cancelled and debtors released from their obligations (Lev 25:1–7). After seven weeks of years, the fiftieth year was the Jubilee (Lev 25:8–10). In this year, even land that people had sold had to be returned to them.
This was the Year of the Lord’s favour. It was the equivalent of a new king coming to the Throne. In many lands, when a new king came to the throne, he would give a release from debts and restoration of land to people if he wished. For Israel, God was their king. The pattern of seven was an indication of the relationship they were had with God, because seven was a symbol the covenant. To swear an oath in Hebrew was literally “to seven oneself” (nišbaʿ). Being in relationship with their God meant that they lived as a free people and with dignity. You did not enslave your brothers or take away their possessions. As God’s own people, you did not treat others or yourself with contempt. And the land that they possessed was a vital symbol of this relationship. The land belonged to God, not to them. It was given as an inheritance. It made Israel heirs of the Lord. So, it could not be treated as their own possession to do what they wanted. Like all inheritances, it came as gift. You couldn’t do anything to earn it. If you fell into bad times, through whatever reason and traded it away – which was a terrible thing to do – there was mercy built into the life of Israel – every 50 years, it had to be released back to you. If you lost everything through whatever reason, God wanted it restored to you at some point.
In reality, the land was of course, only a symbol of a much greater inheritance. God himself. God was their true inheritance. He was their God and they were his people. Their covenant practices of living in constant release and rest, was a symbol of being subject to God as their king. The problem was that God wasn’t always king. They were still coming to the Temple and making sacrifices. At other times, they were oppressing the poor, not treating their neighbours properly, not living from the heart of being a people of God. There was a place for God in their lives, not just at the center, as King. This was of course the power of sin – it was their problem and it is our problem. It means that our hearts are not fully given to God. And without God at the center, they found themselves at the mercy of all kinds of forces, other nations more powerful than them could prey on them, they found themselves enslaved and miserable.
Restoring land was easy. The real restoration would require a new heart. It would require a work of the Spirit. And this proclamation of glad tidings comes through an unidentified, mysterious figure. He announces he has been anointed with the Spirit of the Lord. Prophets had the Spirit of God but were not anointed; kings and priests were. This will of course be fulfilled only with the coming of Christ who will be priest, prophet and king. On him will rest the Spirit of God. The way for his coming will be prepared by the work of his forerunner: John the Baptist.
John’s work would be twofold – to announce to people that they were in sin and to point to the One who could set them free. The King who possessed the Spirit. John would refuse to be bracketed by the religious leaders. He even denies that he is Elijah, even though that was his mission. If John had acknowledged his identity, the leaders would have found ways of making John out to be mad or something else, but not a prophet because he wouldn’t have fit their expectation of Elijah. Instead, he identifies himself as the voice. A voice which cannot be labelled and so not dismissed. Which keeps telling you, you need to salvation. And assure you that the King comes to set his people free.
This proclamation of good news heard so long ago, we hear once again, today. Like Israel, when we don’t have God at the center as king, we can find ourselves prey to all kinds of forces; be it physical, mental, emotional – other people more powerful than ourselves. Our hearts, can be torn apart, shattered. This proclamation of freedom comes to us, as it did to them., It comes to the materially poor, of course. But the poor are also all of us, who know we cannot save ourselves, we are helpless. To us who are broken in heart. This does not immediately refer to those suffering from a relationship breakdown, but more to those whom the Psalms talk about – those whose spirits are crushed. We need healing and restoration. To release those who are captive. Whatever might be our addictions, to whatever we might be enslaved. But we need to name it. To all of us, the King announces the Year of Favour. That your inheritance, your home is being restored to you. God himself is coming to you. Rejoice! This announcement brings joy however, only for those who want to be free. Those who want Christ to be king in their lives, not just a safe part of it. He is the King anointed with the Spirit. When he comes, he baptises those who ask him with the Holy Spirit.
Paul describes this Spirit as the ‘downpayment’ of our true inheritance, God himself. The Spirit as the arrabon, the wedding-ring (Eph 1:13-14), given in promise of what God has in store for us. And when the Spirit comes in our lives, he can heal and restore our hearts. He comes to clothe us in garments of salvation, adorn us in jewels like a bride. Ask God to be the king of your life today and experience the power of his saving grace.