This is one of those very few Sundays when our first reading comes not from the Epistles but from the Old Testament. It comes from the great prophet Isaiah, who wrote most graphically of Jesus the Messiah. Isaiah's prophecy (a unified book of 66 chapters) describes the person and work of Jesus Christ in such detail that we almost forget it is in the Old Testament and not the New. Isaiah reads like a fifth Gospel.
Our passage from Isaiah 61 is quoted at length in Luke 4. When Jesus returned to His hometown of Nazareth after His Baptism and Temptation, He was invited to preach in the synagogue there. Jesus' sermon infuriated His townsmen, so much so that Jesus and His family were forced to leave town and move to Capernaum, but that is another story.
The key line, the critical verse in this Isaiah passage, is “to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” In these words Jesus alluded to the Old Testament institution (see Leviticus 25) of the Jubilee year. In the Law of Moses, every seventh year was to be observed as a “sabbath year,” when no crops were planted and the land was to lie fallow. After seven weeks of seven years, the fiftieth year was to be celebrated as a Jubilee year. Slaves were to be set free, and all land was to be returned to its original owner. The pertinent text from Lev. 25, “Proclaim liberty through the land to all the inhabitants thereof,” is inscribed on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia,
These customs of the Sabbath year and the Jubilee year had fallen into disuse long before the time of Christ. But devout Jews remembered them and piously recalled which years were supposed to be observed. Biblical scholars suspect that the year when Jesus began His public preaching in Nazareth was indeed the Old Testament Jubilee year.
The public ministry and work of Jesus Christ, which He commenced in the Nazareth synagogue, fulfilled all the meaning and intent of the entire Old Testament ceremonial law. (That is why we celebrate His circumcision eight days after His birthday.) He has brought us to the “Sabbath rest of the people of God.” But beyond that, He has brought us to the glorious freedom of the sons of God, in which we have been set free from the bondage of sin, and our birthright in His kingdom has been restored and secured to us. What was stolen from us by Satan, He has recaptured for us; what we forfeited and threw away, He has purchased back for us.
As we have just celebrated another New Year, counted as a “Year of Our Lord,” we are reminded that He ushered in a new era, in fact a New Creation. We Christians should not forget that this is no “common era” year as modern secularists would have us call it, but truly a year which counts time from His Birth. His saving work began our own Jubilee year. LKW