A Merciful New Year
Updated: May 13, 2019
Before I came to California to pursue my vocation as a Franciscan friar, I was a teacher for almost five years in a college town in Indiana. I loved my students, the staff, the administration, the community I worked with, and felt sad leaving that job even though I felt the call to the religious life. But the best job I ever had was in the summer of 2012. I had just graduated Indiana University and was in the process of looking for a job in education. While I was searching, my dad and mom recommended I take a job working for the City of Kokomo Indiana as a part-time summer employee. My dad, whose name is Jim, is an administrator in the Kokomo Police Department so it was very likely I would get hired if he helped me with my application. I was eventually hired into the Parks and Recreation Department where I worked with other part-timers alongside the veteran full-timers. I learned many new skills at the Parks Department. I learned new ways to construct the English language. I learned the existence of political philosophies they didn’t teach me at University. I learned how to work hard enough so you can be promoted to the flower planting crew instead of the 8 hour weed-waking crew. And I also learned, despite what I had believed to be true all my life, my name wasn’t actually James Nathaniel, but instead my name was, “Hey! Aren’t you Jim’s son?” Interestingly enough, when I applied for a job at the factory where my mom, Donna, works, my name was suddenly changed to, “Hey! Aren’t you Donna’s son?”
Today’s Gospel story is the first of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. Just prior to our Gospel today, Jesus previously overcome the temptation of the Devil in the wilderness. Now, Jesus is returning to Galilee, his home. News of him spreads to the surrounding areas. Jesus is arriving home to the place where everybody seems to know his name (or his parents’ name).
On this particular occasion in the synagogue, Jesus reads from the beginning of the 61st Chapter of the Prophet Isaiah, and claims that what the prophet has said is now fulfilled in their presence (Luke 4:21). What is not mentioned in the Gospel today is the reaction of the people in the synagogue immediately after Jesus sits back down. After our Gospel cuts off, Luke writes the people started questioning each other about Jesus, asking aloud, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” (v. 22). And, in the Gospel of Matthew and Mark, there are similar passages where the people in the synagogue ask, “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary?”
Today, Jesus proclaims the Spirit of the Lord is upon Him and the Year of the Lord's favor has begun. We may be tempted to believe that the Year of the Lord’s favor is confined to a particular point in history when Jesus walked the Earth. In fact, just the opposite is true.
The Year of the Lord is here and now, with us still.
What does it mean to celebrate the Year of the Lord as Christ may have seen it? “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Luke writes, “to proclaim good news to the poor...liberty to the captives, [recovery] of sight to the blind…liberty[to] those who are oppressed”(v. 18). This resembles the Jewish jubilee. At the time of Jesus and until the destruction of the Second Temple, every fifty years a Jubilee year would be held in accordance with the commands given by God in the Book of Leviticus. “And you shall hallow the fiftieth year,” the author of Leviticus write,
“and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants; it shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his family. A jubilee shall that fiftieth year be to you; in it you shall neither sow, nor reap what grows of itself, nor gather the grapes from the undressed vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you; you shall eat what it yields out of the field. In this year of jubilee each of you shall return to his property. And if you sell to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another. … You shall not wrong one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 25: 10-17)
One of the requirements for observing the Jubilee year is that all the tribes of Israel must gather into the land God had given them. However, the Babylonian exile and Jewish Diaspora of the 6th Century BC and the destruction of the Second Temple in the 1st Century AD ensured the Biblical requirements to hold the Jubilee could no longer be met.
But what does Jesus mean when he says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing?” What does he mean to say when he implies the Year of the Lord has come?
Today, Christ is telling us as clearly as he was then, “I am the Lord’s anointed servant. It is I who will bring all people—from the four corners of the world—unto myself in order that all may rejoice and enjoy the great Jubilee. It is I, who will do each and every moment of the day what you could only previously do every fifty years. It is I who will give freely to my children—near and far—the great benefits of my endless mercy and love. It is I who will speak of the peace that is for all people. Their sins I totally, abundantly, and completely cover. Their warfare now is over. Today, the great Jubilee begins and it will know no end.”
No longer do we, the Church here on Earth, have to wait for mercy to spring forth from the Heavens. God’s mercy is freely given at any moment, at any time, in any place. As our prayerbook reminds us, God is a God whose “property is always to have mercy” (BCP, p. 337). Just as water is wet, or fire is hot, God is perfectly, immutably, abundantly merciful.
No matter how strong we think we are, all of us carry wounds. All of us are in need of God’s mercy.
Back at the friary, we have a big, old Labrador named Jasmine. She’s lived with us for about 5 years now. She’s almost 12 years old. She likes her belly rubbed. She like food. She likes when you scratch her ears. She likes food. But the one thing she doesn’t like is other dogs. Whenever Jude or the brothers take her out for a walk, she will bark and attack other dogs without hesitation. Before Jasmine found her way to us, she was not treated well. She was used solely as a breeding dog and had multiple litters before being separated from her puppies only to have another litter. She must have been attacked and provoked by other dogs before she was given to the Labrador rescue agency. Despite living in what be be a doggie heaven, she still bears the wounds and scars of her youth. They show up from time to time and will sadly probably stay with her for the rest of her life.
Like Jasmine, there are just parts of us that are forever wounded. Sometimes, we’ve been wronged by others. Sometimes we’ve wronged others. Sometimes the hurt cuts so deep we try to fill the pain with other distractions in order not to think about it anymore. Young and old alike distract themselves with their music, their political affiliations, their food choices, their Instagram hashtags, their computer brands, their sexual identity—in almost anything except mainstream religion in order to move past their pain or emptiness. Only God can reach deep inside of our wounds and begin the long process of raising us up, healing us, and making us whole.
In Matthew chapter 5, verse 48, Jesus says, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” A more literal reading of the Greek word for “perfect”, means “complete” or “completeness”. Be complete, be whole, as your Heavenly Father is whole and complete.
Because when we’ve realized and embraced and encountered God who is merciful, we cannot help but share that mercy with others. My own Bible reads on its front cover, “[Our] first duty is to love and revere God, implore His aid in all laudable undertakings, and to seek His guidance through prayer.” But, then it says, “We demonstrate our love for God by extending and reflecting that same charity and sympathy to all—to the stranger, to the widow or widower, to the homeless, to the sick and hospitalized, to the defenseless or innocent. We demonstrate our love for God by honoring the bonds of friendship, protecting the helpless, lifting up the oppressed, comforting the downcast, restoring dignity to the rejected, respecting the laws of government, and promoting morality.” Sound familiar?
Today, Jesus speaks of proclaiming the Year of the Lord’s favor (v. 19). This year, this present year—2019—is this our aim as well? Do we share this same attitude? Do we seek every day to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor?
Exactly how we as individuals are supposed to go about fulfilling those commands is between you, God, and a good priest or spiritual director. As a parish, how are you going to build up the Kingdom of God here in Lakeport? Only YOU all know the depths of the gifts God has given you. Only YOU all can decide how much of your lives you are willing and able to give to the absolute primacy of Jesus Christ. Only YOU all can know how quickly you can make that happen.
What we read about in the Bible today, what we believe is eternally true, let us strive to make it present in our lives today.
Today, the Great Jubilee has arrived. The Year of the Lord is upon us. Today, our celebration begins.
Saint John Episcopal Church
January 27, 2019
Third Sunday in Epiphany
First Reading: Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Gospel: Luke 4:14-21
Brother James Nathaniel can be contacted at email@example.com.