Year C Epiphany 3: The year of the Lord’s favour

There has never been a time that God was absent from us.

There have been times when it seemed a close thing. The Flood, for example, the bondage in Egypt, the Exile, the cry of dereliction from the cross.

But we have seen, we know, we are here because we trust that God was never gone, that God would never leave us.

We read in Luke’s gospel that Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah, from that wonderful oracle about the year of the Lord’s favour, with its images of freedom and vitality, health and restoration, gladness and joy, and then he sat down and began to say to the gathered worshippers,

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

We assume that he was talking about himself and his mission. But he was also talking about the fact that every day this scripture is being fulfilled; every day this scripture has been fulfilled since the beginning of time. Every year is the year of God’s favour, because God, since the creation began, has proclaimed it good, and loved it.

Jesus in the synagogue was following in the traditions of his ancestors, reading from the scriptures and then giving interpretation, explanation, for the understanding of the people. We see it back in Nehemiah, in our first lesson, where the scribes “read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”

In Nehemiah’s time, the people had lived without the law for years during the exile of the Jewish people in Babylon and Persia, and part of the restoration of the people to Jerusalem and the temple was their restoration to the covenant of Moses, to the law of the Lord. When they laid the foundations for the new temple, the people sang responsively, singing psalms back and forth as we do even today,

“praising and giving thanks to the Lord, ‘For he is good, for his steadfast love endures for ever toward Israel.’ And all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid.” (Ezra 3:11)

As a gradual return and resettlement program began, the found scriptures guided the reestablishment of the old religion in the old country, and the people were reminded of their covenant with God, the covenant which Moses had received and brokered on behalf of the people after their return from the Egypt, after the Exodus through the Red Sea so many centuries and generations ago.

The people wept to hear the law, because they had abandoned it for so long; but their leaders told them, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep,” because the law was the sign that God had made an everlasting covenant with them, and had never left them, would never abandon them. Their leaders told them, today this scripture is being fulfilled in your hearing.

But the people wept in their joy, because the human condition is always mixed, because restoration of one thing means letting go of another, because recognizing a better path means realizing that the one we have been struggling along was not so good, was not, perhaps, worth all the toil that we invested in it. Hope brings, paradoxically, a little bit of hopelessness in its wake.

We hear the words of Isaiah, the year of the Lord’s favour, sight to the blind, good news to the poor, freedom to the oppressed, release to those held captive by whatever binds them; we hear Jesus proclaiming that this is the year, this is the day, that this prophecy is fulfilled, here and now, and we look around, and we wonder, why, then, are we not free from poverty and disease, hunger and oppression, violence and bondage to sin?

Like the people gathered before Nehemiah, hearing the word of the Lord as if for the first time, we mourn for what we know could be, even as we hear God’s promises to us.

But here’s the thing. When God restored the fortunes of Israel, when God led the people on another Exodus back into the promised land, to rebuild the city and the temple, to restore their way of life and their relationship with the covenant that God had given them, God did not hand them a finished temple, a city with its walls intact. God did not raise up for them houses and fields of grain. God gave them God’s word, God gave them a promise to be among them, to work among them, to lead them and to correct their compass and never to leave them.

But they had to work. They had to build. They had to grow. They had to care for the sick and the needy, to help those who could not help themselves back to the old country; they had to pore over the old scriptures and discern what God was asking of them, what God was promising them. They had to meet together and to share ideas and to work them out and to plan and to promise one another that they would work together. They had to make decisions and choices and they had to dig out foundations and put one stone on top of another, piece by piece, until the work was done.

When Jesus sat down, and told the people gathered, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” he did not stay sitting down in the synagogue and let it be. He did not mean that the work was over, that his work was done. No; he went out after this and he began to preach good news to the poor, and he began to proclaim release to the captives. He restored sight to those who were blind, and he set free many who were oppressed by disease or demons or by guilt. His fulfillment of the prophecy was to do the work that the prophecy proclaimed; and if we call ourselves followers of Jesus, we might think about doing the same.

There are many ways that we might think of doing that.

Did you see yesterday the people lined up behind the banner of the National Cathedral, Episcopalians among so many others marching together to require that we take action to curb our gun violence, to rein in our addiction to weaponry? They were pleading liberty for the oppressed.

Or maybe some of you were there, or at least you will have seen on the news or in the Plain Dealer that on Thursday evening people of God from around the city of Cleveland and from the cities around Cleveland gathered to talk about access to healthcare, about the extension of Medicaid to those who are most vulnerable and who have no means of paying for medical assistance. Our bishop was there. They said that 600,000 extra people would be helped to better health and security if our state chooses to expand our Medicaid program as provided for in the Affordable Care Act. My friend and colleague Dean Tracey Lind told the assembled congregation on Thursday night that the number 600,000 occurs just once in the Bible, in the book of Exodus, so I looked it up: it is the number of the Israelite men, not counting women and children, who were led out of Egypt on the night of the first Passover; the people whom God led to safety through the Red Sea (Exodus 12:37). Talk about proclaiming release to the captives. Talk about preaching good news to the poor.

The year of the Lord’s favour is the year that we proclaim, this year and last year and next year. It is any time in which we remember the promises of God and share them, do the work that shares them with our neighbours, with the people whom God loves. Because God has never been absent from the world; there has not been a year which God has created in which God has not loved the world. And that is the prophecy into which we are called to live. And this is the work that we are called to do: to preach good news to the poor, and release to the captives, sight to the blind and liberty to those who are oppressed.

“Today,” said Jesus, “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Because any day that God is with us is the day of the Lord’s favour; and God is with us, every day.

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