This sermon was first preached by Rev Caroline (@caroline_G51) on Sunday 23 October 2016.
On 13th October 2010, after 69 days of millions across the world holding their breath and hoping and praying, 33 Chilean miners were released from being trapped in the depths of the mine that they were working in when it collapsed. As, one by one, they were winched to safety from the darkness below, they came blinking and overwhelmed into the bright lights of news crews and into the arms of loved ones. Throughout those 69 days’ wait, people speculated as to whether they could survive so long, engineers puzzled over strategies to rescue the men and it emerged that legally required escape ladders had not been installed by the mine owners. There was no possibility of them escaping without external help.
People across the world shared tears of relief and joy as the rescue was completed. It was a triumph of the faith of rescuers and of the rescued alike. Some of the rescued men talked about the importance of their faith seeing them through the experience and how their release from captivity was like a resurrection experience. The word FREEDOM would have had a whole new meaning for them.
“Welcome to life” said President Pinera to the first miners who emerged.
Freedom was the entire reason that Jesus came to earth. Humankind was in bondage and darkness through the choices that we made that lead us away from the joy of knowing ourselves to be the beloved children of God. We needed an escape ladder to lift ourselves out of the consequences of some of our choices. We needed to know that we had a fresh start.
The freedom Jesus talks about in today’s gospel reading is that of the year of Jubilee (the year he describes as being ‘of the Lord’s favour’). In the synagogue that day, Jesus was saying to all those present “welcome to life”; life in all its abundance, through the spiritual freedom that he was offering. To do this, he was drawing on the scriptures to enlighten his listeners – just as we rely on the Bible to hear His voice today.
The Hebrew calendar revolved around the number 7. In Exodus we are told that every 7th day is a Sabbath, set apart for worship and fellowship. Every 7th year was to be a Sabbath year in which no sowing or reaping was to be done (the land was to rest, and they lived off what they had stored or could glean). The year of the Lord’s favour was after every 7th Sabbath year. That is, Leviticus (25:8) tells us, they must “Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you…”
It is uncertain how fully this was observed but, in principle, the year would begin with Atonement of sins when those who had sold themselves into slavery to pay their debts would be released, all debts would be written off, and land would be restored to its original owners. The land and all the people would rest, so crops were used direct from the fields and justice would be brought for all people. Jubilee is when the slate is wiped clean and the Jewish people could enjoy a fresh start on an equal footing again to remind people that God has entrusted their land and wealth to them. It protected against imbalance in society as it prevented amassing great wealth at the expense of others whilst leaving them with little hope of reversing their fortunes.
Imagine how that would play out today. Loans would be written off, farmers needing to sell land to compensate for bad crops would get their land back and a second chance to make ends meet. In its fullness, the whole idea of a Jubilee is powerful. It is a sign of the things to come and, in today’s reading, Jesus is proclaiming that this very freedom will be found in Him.
The Jews had been in a very dark place. Their history includes many times of war and being taken into captivity. In Jesus’ times, oppressive Roman rule meant that they were setting their hopes for deliverance from the hands of their enemies on the Messiah, who would combine the qualities of a king, a priest and a prophet; all in one. In Isaiah’s words, the idea of a year of Jubilee has been turned into a promise of all becoming restored for the people of Israel. Many Jubilee years had come around before Jesus stood up and declared; ‘today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’ and claimed this scripture as a prophecy of his mission in the synagogue of his home town.
Jesus was newly returned from his baptism and time of testing in the wilderness. He is clearly setting out his mission that is about to commence in earnest, that he is the Messiah. In other words, he is the escape ladder that God had provided to release his hearers from the bondage of captivity and oppression as well as to bring good news to the poor. What they didn’t realise is that he was referring how many ways people can be oppressed, held captive by circumstances and how they can experience poverty in spiritual as well as financial ways.
His claim is astounding. He is not simply planning a year of Jubilee but is declaring an ongoing Age of Jubilee. What he is promising is that, from this day forth, they can have spiritual freedom by putting their trust in him.
Jesus had clearly set out his manifesto:
• To bring good news to the poor in spirit as well as the poor in means;
• To set people free who are captive to the things controlling their lives;
• To heal bodies, minds and spirit;
• To free those who are oppressed; and
• To declare the year of the Lord’s favour – that fresh start with the slate of our lives wiped clean.
He presents the good news of a new way of life whereby we have a choice to either embrace our human instincts and behaviours or reach our hand out to God’s to be lifted out of the mire.
In times of trial we can often be tested as to whose hand we will reach for in our hour of need. It is a tension between moving forward in our own strength or trusting in God. Mario Sepulveda (the second miner to get pulled from the mine) put it very starkly:
“I have been with God and I’ve been with the devil. I fought between the two. I seized the hand of God, it was the best hand. I always knew God would get us out of there”.
What was striking in the response of the miners as they were pulled from the pit that had imprisoned them is the number of people who showed a degree of still, calm faith that God would release them from the pit but also the deep joy that Jesus had met with many of them in the midst of that time of trial. Six years on, each of the men will have been changed forever by their experience both by the scars they bear through it but also the depth of their personal knowledge of redemption.
Jesus’ promises are profound and for each one of us. He came to live amongst us to show us the way to that escape ladder during times of trial, he walks alongside us as we live through those experiences and greets us as we experience those Jubilees in our lives.
Let us pause for a moment and offer up those situations in our own lives where we may want to give thanks for a time of Jubilee that we have been blessed with, or, if life is presenting challenges at this time, to ask Jesus to take us by the hand and lead us out of them.
(Pause for prayer)