“… to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Luke 4:19
Our reading out of Luke comes from the early days of our Lord’s public ministry. Though this is the first public address made by Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, Luke makes it clear that it is not the absolute first thing done or said by Jesus. Just before our reading starts Luke tells us that “a report about [Jesus] went out through all the surrounding country. And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all” (Luke 4:16b-17). Then, in our lesson, Jesus said, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself.’ What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well” (Luke 4:17). This account is not the absolute first thing Jesus did in his public ministry.
Our Lord’s first recorded public miracle was when he turned water into wine at the marriage feast in Cana of Galilee (John 2). That is not as grand a miracle as the Lord’s Supper, where he gives us his body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins, but certainly grand enough to spread his fame as the facts became known. In Matthew we discover that Capernaum was our Lord’s chosen home base (Matthew 4:13). Concerning these early days in Capernaum we read,
“23And [Jesus] went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. 24So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, those having seizures, and paralytics, and he healed them. 25And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan” (Matthew 4:23-25).
It was during this preaching tour that Jesus revisited Nazareth. Just for the sake of completeness, this is also the time frame when Jesus began to select his disciples who would become the Apostles.
The problem with Nazareth is that the people had known Jesus ever since he was a small boy, somewhere between three and five years old (Matthew 2:16, 19-23). They knew the earthly family of Jesus, his mother Mary, his presumed father Joseph, as well as his half-brothers and sisters (Luke 4:22; Matthew 13:55-56). It is rather natural for those who have watched us grow up to continue to think of us as young and inexperienced. How often have we heard someone older than us say, “When you are as old as I am, you will understand.” The last time someone told me this I was already past 50-years old. Perhaps we have also used that line.
So the difficulty the people of his hometown have with Jesus is natural, even if wrong. This provides us with a warning. Just because something seems natural does not make it right. Vengeance may seem natural and feel right, but God tells us that vengeance belongs to him, not to us (Deuteronomy 32:35; Romans 12:19; Hebrews 10:30). He is the judge, not us. Just because many of the people in Nazareth were Jesus’ elders, and had known him since childhood, does not make them his superior. They are in no position to order Jesus around.
Jesus enters the synagogue on a Sabbath, probably the very same one he and his earthly family attend every week as Jesus grew up. When I was in Israel, we visited this synagogue. Jesus’ fame as a rabbi, or teacher, was spreading. As was the custom of the day, visiting teachers were given the opportunity to address the congregation. As we have appointed lessons to read on Sundays, so the Jews had appointed lessons to read on Sabbaths. The appointed lesson was from Isaiah. After reading the text Jesus said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Here we find a fundamental principle for understanding the Old Testament. It is about Jesus. We see this principle when Jesus conducted a Bible study on the road to Emmaus. The text reads, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Or again, Jesus once said, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39). When you read the Old Testament, look for Jesus.
The text Jesus reads is the opening words of Isaiah 61. Part of the background for the Isaiah reading is the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:10). This year was thought of as the year of the Lord’s favor. In telling us that Isaiah’s words are fulfilled in him Jesus is also telling us that the Year of Jubilee was fulfilled in him. The Year of Jubilee came around every fifty years. During this year all debts were forgiven, all ancestral lands that might have been sold were returned to the heirs, and all slaves were set free. The practice pointed to how, in Jesus, our debt of sin is forgiven, we are freed from our slavery to sin and the devil, and our heavenly inheritance is confirmed.
To be frank, the celebration of the Year of Jubilee was spotty, at best. It required those people in society who have all the advantages to give up those advantages. Just imagine that next year was the Year of Jubilee. Do you still owe money on your home or car? Next year the bank will wipe the slate clean, and you will owe nothing. What bank would willingly do that? They would cry, “That’s not fair!” But that is exactly what our Lord does when he forgives us our sins and secures our heavenly home.
It isn’t surprising, then, that the prophets saw the ultimate fulfillment of the Year of Jubilee in the actions of our Lord. Psalm 146 tells us:
7 [The Lord] executes justice for the oppressed,
[He] gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free;
8 the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous. (Psalm 146:7-8)
So, The Lord’s favor is found in Christ. It always has been. It always will be. Though Jesus’ message draws us back to the days of Isaiah, and through Isaiah to the days of Moses, this message did not begin with Isaiah or Moses. It is found in the days of Abraham, when the Lord, out of pure grace, plucked a wandering Aramean to be the ancestor of Jesus and the progenitor of the people of God (Deuteronomy 26:5). It dates back to the days of Noah, when the Lord spared the lone family who still believed in him and rescued them from the destruction to come (Genesis 6:9-11). Indeed, it dates back to Adam and Eve when God did not let them die without hope but gave them the very first promise pointing to Jesus (Genesis 3:15).
Without Jesus we are all under the Law. We are destined for death and damnation. The law leaves us mourning and weeping, as we saw in our reading out of Nehemiah (8:9). But Ezra tells the people, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). Ezra understands the rebuilding of the city of Jerusalem with its walls and temple as an echo of the Year of Jubilee, not just a pointer to the year of the Lord’s favor but actually an expression of that year of the Lord’s favor. The age of Jesus is breaking in on them.
The temple is always pointing to Jesus. Our Lord once said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). John goes on to explain, “But he was speaking about the temple of his body” (John 2:21). The city of Jerusalem finds it ultimate fulfillment in the eternal life we enjoy. So, John wrote in Revelation “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2). There we dwell securely, of which the walls of Jerusalem that Nehemiah rebuilt, remind us. I might also add, as an aside, that this heavenly security found in Jesus is what the cities of refuge, established when Israel entered the Promised Land, were pointing us to (Joshua 20:13).
Let us break down the text Jesus used. He begins, “The Spirit,” that is the Holy Spirit, “of the Lord,” that is God the Father, “is upon me” that is, Jesus, the eternal Son of the Father. So we begin with a reference to the Trinity.
Jesus continues, “because he has anointed me.” This identifies Jesus as the Anointed One, the promised Messiah. He has a job, and that is “to proclaim good news to the poor.” As you probably already know, the word “gospel” means “good news.” This text, then, could just as easily be translated ‘to proclaim gospel to the poor.’ This Gospel is framed in terms of the Year of Jubilee. Captives are set free, those who are oppressed are given liberty. The recovery of sight for the blind points forward to the miracles of Jesus but is not limited to physical sight. The fullest meaning is granting spiritual sight to the spiritually blind. This, we know, is a reference to the salvation we have in Jesus. This sight/blind image is also carried forward with the whole light/dark images, which begins in Genesis and runs through Revelation (Genesis 1:2-3; Revelation 22:5). My favorite light/darkness image comes from John 1. There Jesus is described as the light that comes into the world and the darkness of the world is unable to put it out.
This all reaches a climax with the proclamation of the year of the Lord’s favor. We are not to think of this year as having 365 days. It is the New Testament age, the age of Jesus. This use of the word “year,” to refer to an extended period of time, can also be found in Jeremiah’s description of Jesus when he wrote, “He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit” (Jeremiah 17:8). Jesus’ leaves remain green, so to speak, at all times, even during droughts. He always bears fruit.
Those of us who trust in Jesus have been grafted into the tree of Jesus. We can also call this the tree of the cross and the tree of life. He has received our sins and we have received his righteousness. Therefore, we can rejoice.
I know I’ve jumped around with a lot of images from the Bible. That is because the salvation of our Lord is so great that one metaphor simply cannot convey the richness of it. But know this, Jesus is our Year of Jubilee, he is our acceptable year of the Lord’s favor. Because of Jesus we will enter heaven where we will “eat the fat and drink sweet wine.” Because of Jesus, this day, and every day, is holy to our Lord. We are not grieved, for the joy of the Lord is our strength. Because we have the Lord’s favor in Christ Jesus, we can join with the prophet Habakkuk and say, “I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation” (Habakkuk 3:18). Amen.