Sermon: “The Year of the Lord’s Favor” (January 24, 2016)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Year of the Lord’s Favor” (Luke 4:17-19)
January 24, 2016
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In today’s gospel reading Luke writes of the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry. When baptized by John in the Jordan River Jesus had been proclaimed as the Son of God by his Heavenly Father and anointed with the Holy Spirit symbolized by the descent of a dove. He then overcame an intense season in the wilderness where he was tempted face to face by none other than Satan himself.

Luke then tells us that Jesus, “filled with the power of the Spirit,” returned to Galilee and entered a synagogue. During worship in a synagogue it was customary for people to read various Old Testament scriptures from scrolls and briefly expound on them. Jesus then unrolled a scroll containing the book of Isaiah and read this:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:17-19, see Isaiah 61:1-2).

The crowd in the synagogue was transfixed, as Luke notes, “The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” What does Jesus say next? How does Jesus expound on this reading from Isaiah? All he says is this: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

In this sermon I am focusing on the last phrase of the passage Jesus read, about how Jesus was anointed to proclaim “the year of the Lord’s favor.”

What was one of the best years of your life? 2015? 1995? 1970? 2000? With all due respect to George Orwell, was your favorite year 1984? Looking back on your life, is there a special year that stands out as one of the best years you ever had?

One of the best years of my life was 1979. My family drove from Virginia to Denver, Colorado to visit my grandparents and see the Rocky Mountains. I began what was to be my favorite year of elementary school, 5th grade with an amazing teacher and hilarious friends. I built airplane models and collected football cards and spent hours and hours with my best friend from childhood named William. Not only that, some of my favorite rock albums were released in 1979—The Wall by Pink Floyd, Rust Never Sleeps by Neil Young, Damn the Torpedoes by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and The Long Run by The Eagles.

I actually spent some of my allowance on a 45 RPM record of the title track of The Long Run, in one of the remaining few years you could still do so. As many of you know, Glenn Frey of The Eagles passed away last week, and like many of The Eagles’ hits Frey co-wrote “The Long Run” with Don Henley. Some of you may remember these lyrics:

I used to hurry a lot
I used to worry a lot
I used to stay out till the break of day
Oh, that didn’t get it
It was high time I quit it
I just couldn’t carry on that way
Oh, I did some damage, I know it’s true
Didn’t know I was so lonely till I found you
Who can go the distance?
We’ll find out in the long run

I listened to that 45 over and over again.

But 1979 was one of the best years of my life for a different reason. It was in the spring of 1979 that my family began attending church, a charismatic Episcopal Church in Fairfax, Virginia called Church of the Apostles. And on November 19, 1979 at age 10 I was baptized—the best day of one of the best years of my life. I felt the love of God for me that day and an overwhelming sense of joy that in spite of all the ups and downs of the decades since, I have never forgotten. You could say 1979 was my year of the Lord’s favor.

Jesus proclaimed in the synagogue that he had come to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. The concept of the year of the Lord’s favor hearkens back to the Old Testament, specifically the Book of Leviticus in which God spoke the following to Moses about what became known as the Year of Jubilee:

You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month—on the Day of Atonement—you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family. That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, or reap the after growth, or harvest the unpruned vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you shall eat only what the field itself produces (Leviticus 25:8-12).

The Year of Jubilee was a year in which all Israelites who had been sold into indentured servitude were set free, a year in which all mortgaged property was returned to the original owners, a year in which all agricultural labor ceased and the land was to lie fallow, a year in which everyone was to return home, a year in which all debts were completely forgiven. The Year of Jubilee was a time of rest and renewal in which everyone was given a clean slate, a new beginning, a fresh start.

Imagine what the Year of Jubilee would look like today. Imagine all your debts being erased—no more mortgages, no more car payments, no more credit card balances, no more student loans, no more medical bills—all of it erased, forgiven, done. And then imagine taking an entire year off of work, a Sabbath year, and then beginning the next year by hitting the restart button. Imagine the relief.

After Jesus read from Isaiah that he had come to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor he rolled the scroll back up, sat down and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” But Jesus was not talking about a specific twelve-month calendar year, but rather the beginning of a never-ending year of the Lord’s favor, the beginning of a never-ending year of jubilee, the beginning of a never-ending era of grace.

And that is why the gospel is good news for those who hurry a lot and worry a lot, good news for those who have done damage in their lives, good news for the lonely, good news both for now and in the long run. It all goes back to grace.

One of the best books I have ever read about grace is Grace in Practice by Paul Zahl, in which he describes grace this way:

What is grace? Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return. Grace is love coming at you that has nothing to do with you. Grace is being loved when you are unlovable. It is being loved when you are the opposite of loveable. The cliché definition of grace is “unconditional love.” It is a true cliché… Grace is love that has nothing to do with you, the beloved. It has everything and only to do with the lover. Grace is irrational in the sense that it has nothing to do with weights and measures… It reflects a decision on the part of the giver, the one who loves, in relation to the receiver, the one who is loved, that negates any qualifications the receiver may personally hold… Grace is one-way love (36).

Jesus came to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, to usher in an era of grace, to demonstrate God’s one-way love for all of us, including you.

On her 1994 Grammy winning 1994 album Stones in the Road Mary Chapin Carpenter sings a moving song called “Jubilee” in which she poetically describes the longing we all have to experience it. Perhaps these lyrics pertain to your life:

I can tell by the way you’re walking
That you don’t want company
Well, I’ll let you alone and I’ll let you walk on and
In your own good time you’ll be
Back where the sun can find you
Under the wise wishing tree
And with all of them made we’ll lie under the shade and call it a jubilee

And I can tell by the way you’re talking
That the past isn’t letting you go
There’s only so long you can take it all on
And then the wrong’s gotta be all its own
And when you’re ready to leave it behind you
You’ll look back and all that you’ll see
Is the wreckage and rust that you left in the dust on your way to the jubilee

And I can tell by the way you’re listening
That you’re still expecting to hear
Your name being called like a summons to all
Who have failed to account for their doubts and their fears
They can’t add up to much without you
And so if it were up to me I’d take hold of your hand
Saying, “Come hear the band play your song at the jubilee”

And I can tell by the way you’re searching
For something you can’t even name
That you haven’t been able to come to the table simply glad that you came
And when you feel like this try to imagine
That we’re all like frail boats on the sea
Just scanning the night for that great guiding light announcing the jubilee

And I can tell by the way you’re standing
With your eyes filling with tears
That it’s habit alone that keeps you turning for home
Even though your home is right here
Where the people who love you are gathered
Under the wise wishing tree
May we all be considered then straight on delivered down to the jubilee

Because the people who love you are waiting
And they’ll wait just as long as need be
When we look back and say those were halcyon days
We’re talking about jubilee

When Jesus proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor, he was “talking about jubilee”—and on Good Friday, the Day of Atonement, Jesus died to ensure you that when it comes to your relationship with God, all your debts are erased, forgiven, done. In other words, the Lord has hit the restart button for you.

The year of the Lord’s favor means that you will go the distance in the long run, and that ultimately you will return home to the people you love who are waiting and join them in celebrating the never-ending Year of Jubilee.

Amen.