Last Word, Jubilee - thrive UMC Official Blog

Last Word, Jubilee

Before we get to our reading for today, we need to talk about the Year of Jubilee.  The Year of Jubilee is this absolutely beautiful idea that we find in the book of Leviticus, chapters 25 and 27.  And there’s a little more to it than this, but the basic idea is that every forty-nine years, on the Day of Atonement,  trumpets would be blown throughout the land to signal a great return.  Families come back home, work is put on hold, and all debts are to be cancelled.  And the whole next year, year 50, will be a year of Jubilee.  Families will spend time together, Israelites who had become slaves due to poverty were released, and family lands that had been sold out of desperation were to be restored to their original owner.  It was a call, written in the law, to return home.  And chances were that you would see only a single Jubilee Year in a lifetime, so make the most of it.  Invest just one whole year of your life being a family at home, and a community together. God will make your harvest extra-abundant in the time leading up to the Jubilee, to ensure you’ll have plenty of provisions to sustain you through the year of freedom.  Store it up; but when the Jubilee Year arrives, everyone will be free to enjoy God’s overflowing goodness.

Oh, how many of us could use a year of Jubilee right now?  Credit card debts and student loans would be cleared! Hallelujah!  Adult children who moved across the country for work or whatever would be brought back home.  Family land sold in the farming crisis of the 80’s would be restored to you. Those forced into servitude would have release!  –because work and the whole world are put on hold for 365 days just so you can celebrate one another and make time for joy for once in your life –thus sayeth the Lord!

Who wants to create a bill instituting a Year of Jubilee here in the United States –wouldn’t that be awesome?  2068, I can’t wait!

Just imagine: every 50 years, the records would be reset! The accounting files for who owes how much to what would be erased!  Everybody would live with grandma and grandpa for a whole year, under the same roof!  If you sold your house 30 years ago, you’d just get it back!  And everybody –including Walmart, Hy-Vee, Mid-American Energy, and the police would shut down for 12 whole months!  Do you know what that means?  No spontaneous sales calls!  No more daily reminders of what the President is doing on Twitter –in fact no politicians at all!  Oh and no road construction!

…But also probably no gas too…

For a whole, entire year!

How crazy would that be? Every 50 years, a Jubilee ‘—thus sayeth the LORD!’

How would all of you feel about that prospect?

Now, some of you might be wonder, as I have, how that actually played out in real-world economics.   And you might be surprised to find out that ancient historians have almost nothing to say about how it all worked in actual history. Which is pretty curious, isn’t it?  Because today’s news has nothing else to talk about when even a little recession hits; and the Jubilee amounts to a total economic reset.   So, while there could be any number of reasons for this near-silence on the Year of Jubilee, several scholars have proposed the most obvious explanation: practically nothing was written about it was because it was never fully practiced as the scriptures prescribed.  In other words, the Year of Jubilee was this powerful idea and a striking sentiment, but it looks like the Israelites were never able to answer God’s call to make it fully real.

And I think all of us can imagine at least a few of the major complications attached with trying the clean the slate of public record.  For instance, who today might raise their hand in protest at the proposal of having your personal debt cancelled?  We can look at the American Civil War and ask: who, in real life, might possibly object to having all of the slaves set free?  Probably most of us know a Real Estate agent or two –how might they feel about the prospect of all property sales being declared null and void every fifty years?  Not good for business. Probably most of us wouldn’t want our homes to be restored to their original owners –because then we would become homeless.

Anyway, the point here is that freedom from debt and bondage looks different, depending on which side of the balance-sheet you stand on.  Those in debt long for freedom, while those holding the debt tend to hold on with an iron grip.

And we see this played out in Israel’s own history.  After those two chapters in Leviticus and a single mention in Numbers, almost nothing is said again about the year of Jubilee in the rest of the Hebrew Bible until you get to the prophets.  It’s not until after the rich and the powerful have lost their land and their livelihood, and they’re paraded through the streets in chains, that the leaders suddenly have a change of heart about the whole forgiveness business. Once they’re in exile, suddenly the time of Jubilee becomes an issue of the utmost urgency and importance.

For instance, in the 61st chapter of Isaiah, the prophet announces:

The LORD God’s spirit is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me.  He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim release for the captives, and liberation for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and a day of vindication for our God… (Isaiah 61:1-2 CEB.)

And guess what?  Eventually, they get to go back home.  Only, this time, again, it wasn’t their possession.  When they return to the land promised to their ancestors, it’s now owned and governed by foreign powers.  Once more they find themselves foreigners in the place that supposed to be their home.  So their Jubilee hope, while partially realized, was not totally fulfilled. And it wasn’t good enough.  Thus for the next 500 years, they dreamed and schemed for the day of the great return and release –they yearned for the time where they could be restored to their God and reestablished in the promise they had been called into.

The only question they had was how this could possibly come about.

Our reading for today comes from Hebrews, chapter seven, verses 14 through 27.  It says this:

14 It’s clear that our Lord came from the tribe of Judah, but Moses never said anything about priests from that tribe. 15 And it’s even clearer if another priest appears who is like Melchizedek. 16 He has become a priest by the power of a life that can’t be destroyed, rather than a legal requirement about physical descent. 17 This is confirmed:

You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.[a]

18 On the one hand, an earlier command is set aside because it was weak and useless 19 (because the Law made nothing perfect). On the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God. 20 And this was not done without a solemn pledge! The others have become priests without a solemn pledge, 21 but this priest was affirmed with a solemn pledge by the one who said,

The Lord has made a solemn pledge

and will not change his mind:

You are a priest forever.[b]

22 As a result, Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant. 23 The others who became priests are numerous because death prevented them from continuing to serve. 24 In contrast, he holds the office of priest permanently because he continues to serve forever. 25 This is why he can completely save those who are approaching God through him, because he always lives to speak with God for them.

26 It’s appropriate for us to have this kind of high priest: holy, innocent, incorrupt, separate from sinners, and raised high above the heavens. 27 He doesn’t need to offer sacrifices every day like the other high priests, first for their own sins and then for the sins of the people. He did this once for all when he offered himself.

Once again, there is way more going on in this passage than we have time to unpack today, but to helps us maintain our sense of focus, I want you to first notice the question that’s being addressed here.  The question that’s been raised is one of restoration: how can we be restored to the home we believe is rightfully ours?  And to be clear, this is a question that is economic, political, religious, and psychological, all at the same time. To the ancient mind, there is no parsing out these issues into separate categories –they’re dealing with the whole ball of wax called life at once. They wanted the forgiveness of their spiritual debt, they also want the deed to their land back, and perhaps most of all, they wanted the peace ofmind that comes with being the master of their own castle.  So the question becomes, for them, who do we need to go to, in order to make that happen?

Now if we were trying to work out that kind of stuff today, we’d first have to go see our financial advisor, then we’d call up a lawyer who could help to argue our case for us and navigate our rights and the record-trail, then maybe we’d be in contact with our local legislators about gaps in the housing-rights policies, and then we’d have to swing by our psychiatrist for some anxiety meds, and then finally, if you had time for it, maybe you’d come and see me, but let’s be honest: probably not.

And there were certainly ancient parallels to most of those options back then too, but for the Jewish people, there was also a one-stop option: the priests.  The priests of the temple in Jerusalem could help you with all of your troubles at once, because they had access to the Ultimate Manager. Skip the lawyers and bypass the faux-customer-service  barricade and the accounting jargon –here’s a way to even go over the Roman Emperor’s head –these priest-guys had access to God! And God has the power to restore everything: your land, your rights, your blessings, your righteousness –all of it.

There’s just one problem: these priests aren’t getting the promised results.  After more than 500 years of sacrifices, they still never blew the horns of Jubilee! That was the signal: on every 49th year for Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement, they just had to announce the time! But by this accounting, they’d missed it –they’d failed, about ten times over!

So what could everybody do?  They were the royal priesthood –elect by God!  It’s in the scriptures: only blood-descendants of Aaron, the Levites, could serve as priests.  And only the priests can gain us access to God –so what possible options do we have left if our priests have failed us?

The author of Hebrews has a solution –call it a loophole in the scriptures, if you will.  It’s Jesus!  Jesus can save us completely, because he always lives to hit God up on our behalf. He can be our new, eternal, most-high priest –not because he was born to the right tribe or bloodline, as it’s proscribed in the law, but because debt and death have no power over him.  In that way, he’s like Melchizedek, that original priest-king of blessing, who has no genealogy at all.

Now, for those of you who might be wondering how you could be free from crippling credit-card debt, this might not seem like a very satisfying resolution.  I mean, I suppose you could try replying to your bills with a note that says, “Jesus has forgiven my debt, so should you!” and see what happens.  But I expect that won’t be  a Jubilee horn MasterCard would likely give much credit to.

And it’s become something of a cliché for Christians to just ‘turn it over to Jesus!’  these days.  But the call of the community in Hebrews is a little more than just that.  Instead of just sitting by and idly trusting Jesus to take care of all of their troubles, what their community was doing was hitting the reset button on pretty much everything.  They abandoned the priesthood that had no blessings to bestow. They withdrew from  the society that had no place for them. They  circumvented the arena of dirty politics –and they went and did their own thing.  All for the sake of a higher calling, a more life-giving blessing.

They didn’t break with their tradition, or lose their faith –and the long, complicated passages about scriptural interpretation are a testament to that fact; but from the life and example of Jesus, they saw a way to create a new way of life together, which allowed them to be free in the here and now.  In order to be free from their bondage to money and debt, they gave up all of their personal possessions and committed them to the community.  At the same time, there’s also evidence to suggest that they may have moved out of the city to live together in the countryside, growing their own food together, and providing for their own needs. This set them free from Roman eyes and whips.   Then they devoted themselves to study, prayer, and service.  This is why this sermon called Hebrews could be so long, and so dense, and so action-packed –because years of intense study had brought them a vast amount of knowledge to help them connect the dots.

Jesus preached about the kingdom of God, here on earth, and this community got together to live out its truth!  In his first public teaching, as it’s recorded in the gospel of Luke, Jesus reads from 61st chapter of the scroll of Isaiah, and announces that it’s fulfilled.  In other words, the Jubilee has begun.  The Year of the Lord’s favor is now!  Therefore, you don’t need to wait another 49 years in vain hopes the sell-out priests will have the courage to blow their horns next time around.  You don’t need to wait for the Emperor of Rome to acknowledge your claim that this land is yours.  You don’t need to wait until you feel worthy enough of the blessings God has in store from you –you can just get together and go live it now!

While everyone else was waiting for the promise to come true, and while other groups like the Zealots and the Essenes were plotting to make the promise to come true with violence and coercive politics, these earliest followers of Jesus just lived it.

Like Jesus, and like Melchizedek before him, they gathered the good fruit of the land, and they lived free –as if it were their kingdom. Because it already was.  And then you know what else they did?  They shared it.  Because their priest showed them that this isn’t just about paying for the things you need –this is all about giving our lives away, to God and to our neighbors.

And brothers and sisters –this is wildly empowering for us in the church.  Because the example of this Hebrews community is a lived reminder that liberation and restoration are always, already on the table for us.  We don’t have to wait 49 years for the time of restoration to roll around.  We don’t have to wait for the holy people to get their acts together. We don’t need to wait for the bill collectors to realize our freedom, or even to get out of jail first.  The gift has already been given. Once and for all.  The only thing that remains is to live that truth to make it real. And we make our freedom real by giving ourselves freely –to God and to our neighbors, in service.  True slavery comes only when we’re convinced we must hold the offering of ourselves back.

But there’s a cautionary tale here for us, too. Let this super cession of the Jewish temple-system also be a reminder for us that if we should ever become stingy with our blessings, or if we should ever grow ineffective in our sharing of this liberating good-news , then there will always be a way around us.  The good news of God’s saving grace won’t wait for us to catch up and regain our focus. Others will be called to the joyous task in our place, while we’re stuck sitting in the self-exile of irrelevance.

Therefore, let us not hold back. The eternal word of a greater covenant has already been spoken: ‘Jubilee is now.’