The Old Testament principle of Jubilee was familiar to the Jews of Jesus’ day — a celebratory year of release during which all debts were forgiven and all servants set free. But when Jesus’ inaugurated his ministry, he came to proclaim a Jubilee that was far greater. In Isaiah 61, we see Jesus taking this concept of Jubilee and alluding to an ultimate release that he, as the anointed one, offers to all people — one where those who are both materially and spiritually poor, brokenhearted, captive, and bound will gain freedom and be clothed with forgiveness and righteousness. This is the release we receive as followers of Jesus. Watch this sermon as we discover our cause for celebration!

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    I'm going to tell you a funny story. My wife, Ashley, learned that a friend who was a year ahead of her in high school grew up to become a comedian and an actor. He won the final round of the television game show “Celebrity Jeopardy," which meant that he went on to participate in the “Jeopardy Tournament of Champions.” As a comedian, he made jokes about his accomplishments with self-deprecating humor because, by his own acknowledgment, he wasn't that great of a student. When the host, Ken Jennings, asked him how he felt about being the first “Celebrity Jeopardy” champion to appear on the “Tournament of Champions,” he responded by saying,

    “I feel like a guinea pig a little bit, but I like guinea pigs. They’re adorable, like me. But yeah, it’s an honor to be here.”

    Then he goes on to say,

    “A lot of people were giving me well wishes, and a lot of them were tinged with the tone of, ‘I thought you were dumb.’ And I am, full disclosure. But it was wonderful! People were surprised, but I was happy they were saying nice things to me.”

    His sense of humor obviously distracted people from being able to recognize his intelligence. Clearly he was a smart person, because the final category in “Celebrity Jeopardy” was ancient poets of Rome, and he was able to correctly identify the source of a rather obscure line from Ovid. All this goes to show that we're often surprised at high school reunions to learn what our former classmates have gone on to do with their lives. 

    Today, this might be a little bit difficult, but I want you to take a moment and imagine what it might have been like to grow up in Galilee during the first century. Let's say you attended Nazareth High School, and there was a kid in the class ahead of you that you didn't know all that well, but you were aware of the fact that his stepdad was a carpenter and contractor and ran a few construction projects in the area. After graduation, you lost touch. You didn't really keep up with him, but then 15 years later, his name keeps popping up. He seems to have gained something of a reputation for being a good public speaker, which is a little bit odd because you remember him being sort of a quiet and reserved kid. The last you heard, he was spending time on the lake, about 30 miles east. 

    One day, you show up for a worship service, and you spot him in the crowd. About halfway through the service, one of the elders asks if he'd like to share a few words, because he's something of a hometown hero at this point. He gets up, moves to the front, addresses everyone, and proceeds to say, “Everything that you have ever hoped for in life has now become true right before your very eyes because I am here.” You'd be surprised, perhaps even a little shocked. You would think to yourself, “Who does this guy think he is? He's certainly not suffering from a lack of self-confidence. If nothing else, he has a very elevated view of himself.” 

    What I want you to realize is that this is exactly what Jesus did. Luke 4 tells us that after spending 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus launched his public career, and began to make a name for himself as a teacher and a healer. Then one day he goes back to his hometown of Nazareth, he goes to the synagogue — the place of worship — and he's handed the scroll of Isaiah. He opens it up very deliberately, to a very specific point — to Isaiah 61 — and he reads verses one and two. Then he concludes by saying, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words, he says, “Everything you've ever hoped for in life has now become true right before your very eyes simply because I am here.” As we've been discussing, Jesus read the book of Isaiah. He loved Isaiah. He memorized Isaiah. He meditated over Isaiah, but Jesus didn't just look down the long centuries to learn from Isaiah; He knew that Isaiah looked ahead and saw him coming centuries beforehand. He knew that Isaiah was writing all about him. 

    During this season of Lent, we've been engaging in a brief series where we have been exploring Jesus Through Isaiah’s Eyes. Now I'd like us to turn to this rather famous passage, Isaiah 61, to see what we can learn from it. I'd like us, therefore, to consider three things: What Isaiah 61 tells us is ultimately 1) the problem with us as human beings, 2) the solution (What is Jesus going to do about it?), and then 3) the implications (How will Jesus do this and why does it matter?). 

    1The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,

        because the Lord has anointed me

    to bring good news to the poor; 

        he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,

    to proclaim liberty to the captives,

        and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;

    2to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor, 

        and the day of vengeance of our God;

        to comfort all who mourn;

    3and provide for those who grieve in Zion—

    to bestow on them a crown of beauty

        instead of ashes,

    the oil of joy

        instead of mourning,

    and a garment of praise

        instead of a spirit of despair.

    They will be called oaks of righteousness,

        a planting of the Lord

        for the display of his splendor.

    10I will greatly rejoice in the Lord;

        my soul 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 like a priest with a beautiful headdress,

        and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

    11For as the earth brings forth its sprouts,

        and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up,

    so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise

        to sprout up before all the nations. 

    The Problem: What Is Wrong With Us?

    First, the problem. What does Isaiah 61 reveal is ultimately the problem with us as human beings? Jesus claims that he is the one that Isaiah was talking about. He is the one who is anointed by the Holy Spirit to carry out the mission that Isaiah describes. The word “messiah” literally means anointed one, so Jesus is claiming to be the anointed messiah. If you look carefully at what the “anointed one” is called to do, we can understand the problem that Jesus is ultimately seeking to solve. Jesus says that he has been called and equipped by the Holy Spirit to proclaim a message of good news. He delivers this message of good news to four different groups of people whom he describes as the poor, the brokenhearted, the captives, and the bound. Then he sums up everything that he's going to do with the statement that he has come to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. 

    The first question we have to ask is: Who exactly is Jesus talking about? If we want to understand the problem that we human beings all suffer from ultimately, we first need to figure out who Jesus is talking about when he describes the poor, the brokenhearted, the captives, and those who are bound. This is where people tend to make one of two mistakes. 

    Spiritual Problems

    On the one hand, some people think that Jesus is only talking about spiritual problems, and therefore these groups of people are supposed to be interpreted merely metaphorically. In that case, people assume that when Jesus says “the poor,” he's talking about the poor in spirit. The brokenhearted are those who mourn over their sin. The captives are those who are enslaved to sin. Those who are bound describe those who are locked up in a world where they're forced to suffer the consequences of their own actions. They're forced to suffer the repercussions of their own poor choices.

    Material Problems

    Some people assume that Jesus is only talking about spiritual problems, but then there are others who make the opposite mistake and say that Jesus is only talking about material problems. They would say, “These aren't metaphors. Jesus intends these words, these groups, to be interpreted literally, so when Jesus says the poor, he's talking about the economically disadvantaged. When he talks about the brokenhearted, he's talking about the emotionally distressed. When he talks about the captives, he's talking about those who are enslaved by people. And those who are bound describes those who are literally locked up in prison and can do nothing to free themselves. 

    Which one is right? Is Jesus talking about only spiritual problems or only material problems? The answer is, yes. He's talking about both. Jesus is talking about both spiritual and material problems. The conservative mistake is to spiritualize the gospel and say that the gospel is limited to salvation from sin, but the liberal mistake is to politicize the gospel and say that the gospel is limited to liberation from injustice. But the Bible never drives a wedge between the spiritual and the material. Why is that? Because we human beings are ensouled bodies and embodied souls. It's not so easy to separate the spiritual from the material because that's who we are. We as human beings are both, and therefore we have both spiritual and material needs. Likewise, Jesus is concerned with the whole person, and he strives to bring wholeness to the entirety of who we are. We can't focus, therefore, on one to the exclusion of the other. 

    When Jesus takes these words from Isaiah and applies them to himself, he's suggesting that he's fulfilling the promise of Isaiah in the deepest, fullest, richest, most comprehensive sense. In a word, what Jesus is telling us is that he has come to bring release from everything that ties us down, from everything that diminishes our human lives and prevents us from flourishing as God intends. He has come to bring us release — release from those physical and material conditions that hold us down, and ultimately release from our bondage to sin and death. 

    It's interesting that this word “release” is the same word that's translated here as opening, when he says he's going to bring the opening of the prison to those who are bound. That word “opening” or “release” is the same word that Luke uses in his Gospel to refer not only to freedom but to forgiveness. Jesus has come to bring release in all these many varied senses, but the heart of it all is forgiveness. Forgiveness is what this release looks like up close and personal. He’s come to set us free from everything that hinders life the way that it's meant to be lived. 

    If that's true, then what does that mean for us? Let me offer just one point of application. For Jesus, the spiritual and the material went together. You never prioritize one over the other. He addressed both spiritual and material needs. Sometimes he addressed the spiritual first when he encountered a person; sometimes he addressed the material first, and so should we. The spiritual and the material go together. As Christians, as his followers, evangelism and social responsibility always go together. Ministries of word and deed always go together. We have to proclaim the gospel of grace, and we also have to do justice in the world. We can't drive a wedge between the two. We always have to address them both. And yet, while they are both equally important, there is an ultimacy to our spiritual need. That is our deepest problem, and let me describe why. 

    Let's say you had everything you wanted based on what this life could offer. Imagine that you were rich, happy, and free, rather than poor, depressed, and enslaved. Even if you're rich, happy, and free, but your relationship with God was off, you'd still be lost. Therefore there's an ultimacy to our spiritual need. And therefore, when we, as Jesus' followers, engage in mission to the world around us, we have to engage in mission of both word and deed. We can start at any point, but ultimately we need to address the spiritual need because that is our deepest problem. That is why Christopher Wright, an Old Testament scholar who has written many books on mission — God's mission and the mission of his people — prefers to speak of the ultimacy of our spiritual need rather than the priority, because if we talk about the priority of the spiritual, it can lead to misunderstandings. This is how he describes it. He would say that he prefers to speak of ultimacy rather than priority because: 

    “Priority means it is the most important, most urgent, thing to be done first, and everything else must take second, third or fourth place. But the difficulty with this is that (1) it is not always possible or desirable in the immediate situation, and (2) it does not even reflect the actual practice of Jesus. Rather, almost any starting point can be appropriate, depending possibly on what is the most pressing or obvious need. We can enter the circle of missional response at any point on the circle of human need. But ultimately we must not rest content until we have included within our own missional response the wholeness of God’s mission response to the human predicament — and that of course includes the good news of Christ, the cross and resurrection, the forgiveness of sin, the gift of eternal life that is offered to men and women through our witness to the gospel and the hope of God’s new creation. That is why I speak of ultimacy rather than primacy.  Mission may not always begin with evangelism. But mission that does not ultimately include declaring the Word and the name of Christ, the call to repentance, and faith and obedience has not completed its task. It is defective mission, not holistic mission.”

    The Solution: What Will Jesus Do About It?

    If that's the problem — Jesus has come to address both our spiritual and material brokenness — then what's the solution? What is Jesus going to actually do about it? In verse two, Isaiah sums up everything that the anointed will do by saying he has come “to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” This would not be obvious to most. In fact, this was not obvious to me at first either, but Isaiah here is actually quoting Leviticus 25 which describes the ancient Jewish hope of the Jubilee, in which all debts would be canceled and all indentured servants would be set free.

    What was the Jubilee? Leviticus 25:10 is actually inscribed on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. Leviticus 25:10 says, “And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land.” So what was the Jubilee? You can think of it like this: It was the Sabbath of Sabbaths. Most of you are probably familiar with the Sabbath. You know that God rested on the seventh day of creation, therefore he tells us as his people that we should rest one day out of seven. It's a Sabbath, and it's holy to the Lord. Not only was there a Sabbath day, but there was also a sabbatical year. God said that every seven years should be a sabbatical year, meaning that his people should allow the land to lie fallow, that they should rest from any kind of agricultural work and instead live off of the food that they had stored up over the previous six years, and by allowing the land to rest, it could restore its own balance when it comes to its nutrients, the nutrients in the soil. During that sabbatical year, debts were forgiven and indentured servants were set free. But the Jubilee was kind of a sabbatical of sabbaticals. After a seven year cycle of seventh year sabbaticals, the 50th year was meant to be a Jubilee, a celebration of release, a celebration of forgiveness where all debts were forgiven and servants set free. 

    Here's the thing — and this is kind of odd — but as far as we know, the Jubilee was never actually practiced. It was stipulated, it was laid out in the Book of Leviticus, but as far as we know, it was never practiced. Perhaps the reason why is because it was so radical. Here's why. If you lived in the ancient world, and if you lost money — either because of bad weather, bad crops, bad judgment, bad decisions — and fell into debt, you very well might need to sell yourself into indentured servitude. But this is the reason why the sabbatical year was practiced, because in the year of the sabbatical as well as in the year of the Jubilee, all those debts would have been canceled, and then all the indentured servants would be set free. But there was something special that was supposed to happen in the Jubilee year. Because it may be that through bad weather, bad crops, bad decisions, bad judgment, you might not have only lost money, you might have lost land. You might have lost your family's ancestral lands. So in the Jubilee year, the original land was supposed to come back to you. If during that 50-year period you'd lost your ancestral lands, that land went back to the family. That's why the Jubilee was called the ultimate celebration, the ultimate release, but it was so radical, it was probably never practiced. But you can see the wisdom in this. It prevented wealth from being concentrated in too few hands, and it made sure that people were not locked into cycles of poverty forever, generation to generation. It prevented people from generating bad habits from too much wealth or bad habits from too much poverty. Instead, it gave people a fresh start, a running start to regain their economic lives. 

    When Jesus reads Isaiah 61 in his hometown of Nazareth and says, “I have come to proclaim the year of Jubilee,” people would have understood immediately what he was talking about, and they would have been shocked, because Jesus was saying, “Everything you've ever hoped for, everything you've ever dreamed of has now come true right before your very eyes, simply because I am here.” 

    But notice — and this is important — Jesus declares the Jubilee, but there's no indication that he ever tried to set up a social or economic program. Jesus never stipulated that everyone should get their ancestral lands back. He never tried to enforce this from the top down. We also know that Jesus never tried to release any captives from prison, not even those who were incarcerated for religious or political reasons. Jesus even refused to try to set free his own cousin, John the Baptist, which was a source of confusion for John. John was Jesus' cousin. He was the one that prepared the way for Jesus' ministry, and then when John gets locked up, he's assuming if Jesus is the anointed one, the one who has declared the Jubilee release, that he would spring him from jail. But though Jesus is the Messiah, he doesn't operate in any of the ways that people anticipated. So even John begins to have doubts, and he sends messengers to Jesus from prison saying, “Did we get it wrong? Are you the one who is supposed to come? Or should we look for another?” 

    How do we make sense of this? Jesus declares that he's come to bring the year of the Lord's favor. And yet clearly he didn't politicize the Jubilee, but he didn't completely spiritualize it either. He didn't reduce the Jubilee, the year of the Lord's favor, to merely forgiveness of sin. How do we make sense of this? What's the best answer? I think the best answer comes from something the New Testament scholar N.T. Wright wrote a number of years ago. He said that Jesus did not expect Israel as a whole — Jesus didn't expect Israel as a nation — to keep the Jubilee, but he did expect his followers to keep the Jubilee principle, which meant that now that Jesus brought the ultimate release from our bondage to sin and death, now that he offers us forgiveness in an up close and personal way, as his followers, we extend forgiveness to one another. But we're not only supposed to forgive one another of our sins, we're also supposed to forgive one another of our debts. That goes a long way to explaining why the earliest Christians were not only so committed to forgiving one another from the heart, but they were also committed to radically sharing their resources with one another. The earliest Christians sought to address the spiritual as well as the material needs of one another, so much so that the Book of Acts can tell us boldly that there was not a needy person among them. Jesus was not enacting the Jubilee in any kind of heavy-handed, top down sort of way, but voluntarily he expected his followers to practice the principles of the Jubilee. 

    The Implications: Why Does This Matter?

    If Jesus has come to bring about the ultimate Jubilee — release from our material and spiritual burdens — how does he do it, and why does it matter? The Gospel of Luke makes clear that when Jesus shows up in a synagogue in Nazareth and reads Isaiah 61, he reads verse one, and then he begins to read verse two, but then he stops right in the middle of verse two. He says that he's come to proclaim the year the Lord's favor, but then he stops. He doesn't go on to read the rest of verse two. He doesn't go on to say, “I've come to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor and the day of vengeance of our God.” Why doesn't he say anything about that? Why doesn't Jesus say anything about the day of vengeance of our God? 

    There will be a day of vengeance. There will be a day of judgment when Jesus will hold all of us to account for the lives that we've lived. He will put right everything that once went wrong. He will hold perpetrators to account. But when Jesus inaugurates his ministry, he proclaims the year the Lord's favor but not the day of vengeance, because that is not what he has come to do — not yet. That's why Jesus didn't fulfill many of the expectations that people had for what the messiah would be like. That's why even John the Baptist was confused. Jesus did not come to bring God's vengeance against evil and injustice. No, Jesus came to bear God's vengeance against evil and injustice by taking it upon himself, because that's the only way that he could condemn evil and injustice without condemning you and me. 

    Isaiah saw this in shadowy form 800 years before it ever happened. Isaiah here speaks of a great reversal. He says that the anointed will comfort all those who mourn. He will provide for those who grieve. He'll bestow a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of despair. But how does this great reversal take place? Let's just focus on one of these images. Let's focus on the image of ashes, which is appropriate for us during this season of Lent. In Old Testament times if somebody died or something tragic happened or if you did something wrong or if you corporately, as a people, did something wrong, you didn't just wear black. You wore ashes. It's not as if you just went to the fire pit and got a little bit of ash and put it on your forehead, like we might do here on Ash Wednesday. No, people would take ashes out of the fire pit and they would just dump it over their heads. They would pour ashes all over themselves. It was this dramatic symbolic way of saying, “This is what life is like. This is what life is like in this broken, fallen world in which we live. Everything eventually is going to ash. It might happen fast. It might happen slowly, but everything eventually turns to dust. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.” 

    Think about it. If you put a log inside a fire, what happens? It accelerates the process. The wood disintegrates. It loses its integrity. It breaks down. That's what happens eventually over the course of a lifetime. Everything eventually turns to ash, and we might try to slow the process or to cover it up with a new diet or new exercise routine with new medicines or maybe new makeup. We might even be really good at covering it up, but everything eventually turns to ash. These bodies of ours, they're already turning to dust. Our relationships, give it enough time, they turn to ash. Everything we create, everything we might build, everyone we've ever loved, it turns to dust. 

    But here's the hope of the gospel. Jesus promises to do what no one could. Only he can lift us up out of the ash heap and give us new life. But how does it happen? It only happens through exchange. It only happens through substitution. Jesus substitutes himself for us in our place on the cross. We get beauty for ashes. Why? Because he takes our ashes — our death upon himself — so that he might give us his life. We receive a crown of beauty. Whose crown is it? It's his. He gives us his crown of beauty because he takes our ash, our dust. He was crushed into the dust on the cross so that we might receive new life in him. Why do we get beauty? Because he took the ashes. Why do we get joy? Because he mourned for us on the cross. Why are we able to praise? Because he experienced the Ultimate Despair on the cross. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” 

    How should we apply this to our lives? Let me offer two thoughts as we close. When Jesus says that he has come to fulfill Isaiah 61, he proclaims the year of Jubilee. There is a day of vengeance. There is a day of judgment. There is a day when Jesus will come and make all things right. There will be a day of judgment coming, but this is the year of Jubilee. Think of the contrast between a year and a day. Right now is the moment. A year is much longer than a day, so there's still time, but it won't last forever. If you're not a Christian, or if you're not sure yet if you're a Christian, then what Jesus is saying is, seize the moment. Don't just seize the day; seize the year! This is the year of the Lord's favor. Receive this good news of release. You can experience the ultimate release from our bondage to sin and death so that we might become the people that God has called us to be, so that we might truly flourish. He took the way of the cross so that you might wear the crown, his crown. He became sin with your sin so that you might become righteous with his righteousness. That means that he will not just declare you righteous in the right in God's eyes, but he'll make you actually righteous by putting his Spirit within you to transform you from the inside out. That's why Isaiah promises that Jesus will clothe you with the garments of salvation, and he will cover you with a robe of righteousness.

    Secondly, Jesus takes the words of Isaiah 61 on his lips and says that he has been sent to bind up the brokenhearted. Christianity never ignores the harsh realities of life. It never denies the reality of pain or suffering. As for Jesus, so for us as his followers, we can't go around suffering. No, the only way is straight through it. But if God is going to lead us through the path of suffering and death to new life, then it means that more than likely we will experience a broken heart. But Jesus has come to bind up the brokenhearted. It's one thing to bind up a broken leg, but how do you bind up a broken heart? 

    It may just be that if you're a Christian, maybe even especially as a Christian, you will experience a broken heart. Like Jesus you might find yourself feeling misunderstood, mistreated, misrepresented, misremembered, mistaken. But you see, the whole reason why he can bind up the brokenhearted is because he knows what it's like. There's nothing that you’ve felt, nothing that you've experienced that he didn't experience first, so maybe you're brokenhearted this morning. Maybe you're brokenhearted spiritually because you sense the distance between you and God. Or maybe you feel brokenhearted relationally, socially because you've experience the distance between you and another person. Maybe you feel brokenhearted because you experience the material, physical breakdown in your own life.

    How does Jesus bind up the brokenhearted? Psalm 56:8 says, 

    “You have kept count of my tossings; 

        put my tears in your bottle.

        Are they not in your book?”

    I wonder, how many times have you tossed and turned at night in bed because you couldn't sleep? How many times did you toss and turn over the course of a lifetime? I have no idea how many times I've tossed and turned, but he does. Or how many tears have you cried? How many tears have you shed in a day, in a week, in a month? How many tears have you shed over the course of a lifetime? I have no idea, but Jesus does. Not only does Jesus count our tears, but he also keeps them in a bottle. You know why? So that one day he can redeem every single tear. 

    Everything you've ever hoped for, everything you've ever dreamed of, has now come true right before your very eyes because Jesus is here. He proclaims the year of the Lord's favor, the Jubilee, release from everything that holds us down and prevents us from living life the way that it's meant to be lived, but ultimately release from bondage to sin and death so that Jesus might lift us up from the ash heap and receive new life in him. Receive this good news of release. Receive that forgiveness for yourself. Allow Jesus to bind up your broken heart, and then together as a community, we can become people who practice the Jubilee principle. We can forgive one another from the heart, not only of our sins but also of our debts. We can be radically generous with our resources, and we can bind up the brokenhearted by bringing them to Jesus to try to find spiritual healing. We can restore relationships so that we might find relational and social healing, and we can meet the material and physical needs of others so that we might address the full gamut of need that we as human beings experience. But don't you realize, it's the year of the Lord's favor? Now's the time. Seize the moment. Seize the year. It won't last forever. That's what this table is all about. Jesus became what we are so that we might become what he is. He took what was ours in order to give us what is his. He took our cross so that we might wear his crown, and that is cause for celebration!

    Let's pray together. 

    Father, we thank you that Jesus is the Lord's anointed, the one who has come to proclaim good news to the poor, to the brokenhearted, to the captives, and to those who are bound. Help us all to recognize that we are in great need. We need your release, so help us to experience it for ourselves and to participate in the year of the Lord's favor, and show us how to share the celebration with others and put the Jubilee into practice. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.