Year of Change

‘She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will sosei his people from their sins.’ (Matthew 1:21)

‘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 4:18-19)

Yesterday, as part of the liturgical calendar, we celebrated the Baptism of Jesus. That celebration immediately follows the conclusion of the Christmas season and marks the transition of the church’s focus away from God’s arrival to God’s—inherently allied—works. More than just about gifts exchanged and a baby’s birth, Christmas is primarily a declaration of God’s unique effort to unite with humanity and the rest of creation through becoming one with us. The passage from Matthew’s gospel cited above alludes to this divine effort at communion with creation. Couched in the name given to the baby that is God’s incarnated-self, “Jesus” is as much a name as it is a descriptor. The name “Jesus” means “God saves.” Importantly, the Greek word in the original text we translate “save”–sosei—more regularly is translated “heal.” We still have this healing connotation of “salvation” imbedded in the toast “salud,” meaning “good health,” and in the notion of a “salve,” as a healing balm.

So what needs healing?

God’s incarnation and the name given at the incarnation discloses the nature of the healing, i.e., setting the broken connection between Creator and creation and restoring creation to itself. In other words, there is something inherent to the incarnation that assumes a healing is needed and that this healing will be actualized through God’s becoming flesh. However, assigning this name leads us to ask, what saving/healing is needed? In the text itself, the salvation brought is said to be “from their sins.” Yet, we cannot move too quickly to assume that we know what it means to save from “their sins.” Here, the Greek text uses the term harmartia. Harmartia is a general term for sin, meaning “to miss the mark.” More specifically, though, harmartia is a kind of error that negatively affects relationships. In other words, the kind of sin we are concerned about, here, are those practices that directly harm relationships.

Building on this concept of relational healing, the subtle ordering of the liturgical calendar supplies an additional nuance to the nature of this relational healing. The quick succession between the concluding celebrations of Jesus’ incarnation and the inaugurating of his ministry with his baptism implies a strong connection between the incarnation and Jesus’ ministry. The very first words of Jesus’ ministry shortly follow his baptism follow in Luke’s Gospel. Returning from his temptations in the wilderness, Jesus enters the synagogue for his initial public declaration of his ministry. Such an initial declaration carries additional weight because it proposes to shape all that follows.

So, what text does Jesus choose to read that will inform and forms his “saving” ministry?

The text Jesus uses as his ministry’s “mission statement” is from the prophet Isaiah. Jesus reads:

‘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 4:18-19)

The choice of this particular text from the prophet is highly significant both to explain the character of Jesus’ ministry and the notion of the kind of salvation /healing Jesus purports to offer.

Within the text Jesus read is a phrase that might seem innocuous to us, but the Jews sitting in the synagogue with Jesus would have heard it very differently. That collection of words, “the year of the Lord’s favor,” was not random but significant for Jews. The phrase did not simply refer to a time that God would act but it referred to an entire tradition of thought that had its own incarnational character imbedded within it.

The phrase “the year of the Lord’s favor” was a direct reference to the year of God’s Jubilee. The Jubilee was a tradition originating from Leviticus where the entirety of Israel’s existence was meant to manifest God’s divine character and their worshipful nature within their calendar. Just as God was thought to have rested on the seventh day and how Israel’s life was designed to reflect that weekly rest as an allusion to their alignment with God’s will, the weekly Sabbath was extended into every aspect of Israel’s corporate life as part of a tradition of the “year of the Lord’s favor.” In addition and more specifically, that sabbatical rest was institutionalized in Israel’s economic, political, and social existence with the celebration of the Jubilee. Recorded in Leviticus 25, Israel was commanded to allow all land to rest, debts to be forgiven, slaves to be freed every seventh year. Then, following the seventh seventh year, e.g., on the fiftieth year, a great Jubilee would be declared.

This Great Jubilee “Year of the Lord’s Favor” is inherently an incarnational idea because it takes an abstract theological concept, e.g., that God rested, and converts it to a practical reality! The Jubilee takes the past—how things were originally made—and the future—how things are intended to become—and joins them with the present. The Jubilee was the incarnation of God’s intentionality for all of creation. Jesus’ choice of the Jubilee as the foundation for his ministry links several latent ideas in the minds of the Jews. This reading binds together the idea that God’s character is meant to be taken from the abstract and placed into the concrete reality of our lives; it unites the idea that all of creation is to benefit from God’s transformative reality; it merges the spiritual with the practical; and, with the idea of salvation, it expands the concept to include not just our souls but our world, our politics, our economic, our societies, our whole existence; salvation becomes essential a relational category of restoration rather than an absolute abstract or idea because the Jubilee was meant to restore people to write relationships with each other and their world in practical, authentic ways.

At the beginning of another year as we conclude our celebrations of the incarnation and transition to a year of faithful ministry, may our prayer be that this truly becomes a “year of the Lord’s favor” in our lives. That means that we must come to understand the importance of taking our need to be relationally restored seriously, to recognize that God has already taken the first step to make this possible, and, most importantly, to understand the connection between our personal restoration and God’s desire that we actively manifest that healing in of all our material reality, i.e., in our relationships, our societies, our politics, our policies, our economics, our everything. Now, that is what I call a difficult New Year’s resolution to keep, but one well worth the try!

Happy New Year!

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: