Freedom: The Kingdom of Jubilee (A Sermon on Leviticus 25:8-17)

A sermon given at Colonial Church on July 5, 2020. You can listen to the sermon below or you can watch the service on YouTube.


You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud on the 10th day of the seventh month, on the day of atonement. You shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land and you shall hallow the 15th year, and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you. You shall return, every one of you, to your property, and every one of you to your family. That 15th year shall be a Jubilee for you.

You shall not sow or reap the after-growth or harvest the unpruned vines for it’s a Jubilee. It shall be holy to you. You shall eat only what the field itself produces. In this year of Jubilee, you shall return every one of you to your property. When you make a sale to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor, you shall not cheat one another. When you buy from your neighbor, you shall pay only for the number of years since the Jubilee. The seller shall charge you only for the remaining crop years. If the years are more, you shall increase the price, and if the years are fewer, you shall diminish the price for it is a certain number of harvests that are being sold to you. You shall not cheat one another but you shall fear your God, for I am the Lord, your God.

– Leviticus 25:8-17 (NRSV)


As we continue in worship and turn to a time of sitting with and considering the passage that we just heard, would you join me in prayer? 


God, on this weekend as we, as a nation, celebrate the invitation and cry of freedom, might we be a people who align ourselves and our lives more deeply with your kingdom, with your vision, and your work of jubilee and freedom for all. 

For it’s in Christ’s name that we gather and we pray, and it’s in your power that we move and work for freedom. 

Amen.


As many of you know, we are in the midst of a sermon series in which we are considering what it means to be a Kingdom People: A people who, in the midst of a world that is rife with political division and strife, root in and identity ourselves not according to our affiliations of Republican or Democrat, or Minnesotan or Wisconsinite, but as people who are fundamentally oriented and grounded in the Kingdom of God. For to be a Kingdom People means that we seek to be a people who together, in affirmation that Jesus is Lord, repudiate any cries which would invite us to name any other human as Lord. 

And over these next two weeks we’re going to embark upon a deeper exploration of an aspect of God’s kingdom —  because if we’re going to be a kingdom people we need to know what kingdom we’re a part of, right? — and when we pray, thy kingdom come we need to know; What is the content of that kingdom?

So this week and next, we’re considering an aspect of the kingdom of God that is woven throughout Scripture but we don’t often talk about: Jubilee. Today, I’m going to outline a bit of the historical context of this cry for freedom and for jubilee as it appears in the narration of the life of God’s people, the Jewish people. And next week Tony Jones, who has been our Confirmation Pastor for the last year and a half, will be preaching about Jesus’ inaugural sermon, in a message he has titled “Jesus for President.” So stay tuned both this week and next week as we explore this aspect of what it means to be kingdom people together.


In 2015, a film staring Tom Hanks was released entitled Bridge of Spies. It tells the story of a lawyer, played by Hanks, who was called to defend a man who’d been accused of treason against the United States during the Cold War. Many people pressured the lawyer to only perform a perfunctory defense of the man, and when Tom Hank’s character stuck to his principle that all people are deserving of a right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence in the United States, people threatened his family for doing so. Grounded in principle, committed to our constitution and the ideals to which we ascribe as citizens, he believed it was his job to ensure that everyone had a right to a fair trial in the United States. Though he and his family received death threats for his work, he persisted because he believed in the dream and the possibility of what America is and should be.[1]

And on this weekend, when we have celebrated and looked for and longed for the promises of what our nation has oriented ourselves to: freedom, life, and liberty for all, we are also this day invited to also consider that this promise is something that we never fully grasp. It exists in part as a critique and as a reminder to us to continue to be and become people of the promise. Life isn’t ours in a way where we can clutch it tightly, and justice is a working out that continues throughout our journey as individuals, communities, a nation, a people, and in so many ways, no less has this also been forever true of God’s people.

Going back to the passage that we heard in Leviticus, it details the ways in which God’s people were to orient themselves to be faithful as they lived in the land. The cry and the call of Leviticus 25 is one that invites the people to remember that the land in which they are inhabiting is fundamentally YHWH’s. They’ve not done anything to deserve this life. To be called out as God’s people wasn’t because of their merit, it just simply was…because of who God was and who God was inviting them to be.


This text begins with the remembrance that this land itself is God’s land. It’s not something for us to use and abuse. It’s something for us to remember, something that we are to live with in rhythmic truth: That rest is part of what it means to honor the God who gives us graciously all things. You may remember, even going back to the stories of the creation of the world, there is rest involved. The goodness of the earth is already present when humans are formed. It wasn’t through striving or any work of their own, it was because of who YHWH this God is and was, that then the people can flourish and eat and drink the goodness of promise. And so in Leviticus, we’re reminded, “Hey, people, the land is God’s. Live in a rhythm of that honors that, but not just with the land….in all ways live in rhythm with who YHWH is.”

The cry in Leviticus 25 is for us to remember: to remember that as we move into the land, that the promises of freedom from slavery which God had saved the Israelites after 400 years of captivity in Egypt, that promise isn’t ever something that is fully realized but it is a constant need to reorient ourselves to the call of YHWH, to be a people who live freedom in relationship with one another. That is why Jubilee exists, because humans are going to human. And sometimes us humans, even with our best intentions, we forget what it is to live the promises that God has invited us to.

And so every 50 years, the people are called to live in such a way so as to make possible the breathing space and the renewal of the people so that everyone can actually live free. For those who, because of circumstances in their life, for one reason or another, have forfeited their property and their inheritance, it is returned to them. For as a people to whom land mattered a lot to their wellbeing and survival in the world getting back their land changed everything. No matter the reason they had forfeited their land, Jubilee is the reset that, boom, elevates them to their right position again in society. Jubilee makes possible freedom.

And for those of us who over time in this land would have taken on as payment the land of another, we are then called to give back to them so that indeed the people of Israel could be a people who walked together as persons equally formed in God’s image, as one’s called to live in this land as a people of freedom. A people have this sort of promise. And so today, as we have celebrated and honored the movement of freedom in our world and particularly in our country, we’re reminded that to be a kingdom people, to be a people of Jubilee and make freedom ring.

Jubilee reminds us that freedom isn’t something we capture at once, but it is a promise that we live. It is a prayer that we answer by walking out faithfulness. Jubilee is the embodiment of that which we pray each week: God, that your kingdom would come and your will be done here on earth. Freedom isn’t ours, even though it is, it’s not fully. And so we continue to move in rhythm and dance with the God of all freedom who hears the cry of God’s people, whether that was from thousands of years ago or whether it is from today. And whether that cry for freedom is one in your heart because of pain and trauma you have known, whether it is because of the reality of systemic injustice, these are all similar echoes and cries to one God, the Lord and God of all of us: cries for freedom and jubilee.

That’s why I love hearing this passage: At the beginning of the year of Jubilee, the shofar was to blow. This is the same shofar which blows on the Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. In fact, it’s sound signals and invites us to see that individual liberation, that the atonement for our sins as individuals and as a community is fundamentally tied to the collective political and economic liberation for all of us. 

One of my favorite ethicists, Reinhold Neibuhr lived and wrote in the early to mid-20th century. In the wake of World War I and the modernist fundamentalist split inside of Christianity in which people were trying to discern how science and modern understandings of the world intersected with Christian faith, he wrote a book called An Interpretation of Christian Ethics. In it he argued for a vision of a prophetic religion rooted in Jesus and the gospel and the ethic of love.[2]


He was speaking to a world in which, on the one hand, too often more conservative Christians were focused solely on the dimension of justice and of love between the self and God. We might say in Leviticus terminology, they focused on Yom Kippur and the shofar blow for individual freedom. Indeed, Reinhold argues that this individual and God relationship is part of the call and the cry of the good news of Christ, but that’s not all that the call is about. He likewise critiques the more liberal Christians of his time who were focused on the dimension between us and human only justice and the sentimentality of liberal ideals that believed that humans are only good, which he believe also missed that the shofar blow isn’t just about jubilee in the economic or political sense. 

And even while so beautifully, there is the Jubilee cry of shofar justice, we need to bring together these dimensions of the individual and the communal, the political and the spiritual for the Spirit transforms both individual hearts, but Jesus and the gospel is also fundamentally concerned with livability and justice for all of God’s people and for this earth…and that these don’t need to be in conflict.

And part of why we’re doing this summer series on being a “Kingdom People,” is because 98% of our lives are influenced by the new sources we watch, by the pop songs we listened to, and by our political party. But as a church, as people who follow Jesus we want to be a people who are first rooted and grounded in what it means to be a kingdom people. We want to FIRST be a people whose cry for freedom is rooted in the God who has worked freedom for God’s people throughout all time in history, freedom in every sense. For to encounter God is to have both our individual and our corporate and our collective and our societal life changed. So that indeed, as kingdom people, we get to bear witness to a coming kingdom that is already here and in our midst.

This is why we say and we cry freedom, for this is the kingdom cry of Jubilee!

We long for freedom, for jubilee, so that we might live rightly in this land and in the whole world together. 

Strangely, sometimes when I hear people talk about freedom, as a person who is a doctoral candidate in ethics, I often have a few thoughts about it. Namely, the ways in which sometimes we talk about freedom as if it had no encumbrance at all. Even our mask debate is often rooted in an ideal of “Don’t tred on me! I should be free to do whatever I want.” 

This stupefies me because this is not how freedom works in general, let alone for us as Christians. Freedom is always and fundamentally constrained and shaped by boundaries. For if I just do whatever I want all of the time, can I harm you? Am I free to hurt my neighbors, to ignore the needs of others? No. Does freedom give me permission to kill you if I want to? I sure hope not. 

To think that freedom means I can just do whatever I want and I bear no obligation to another is both philosophically and biblically wrong. That is not what freedom is about. 

That’s why I thought I’d go old school on this 4th of July weekend, and bring us back to one of the original purveyors and fighters for freedom inside of Christianity, Martin Luther. Back in 1520, Martin Luther wrote a piece on the “Freedom of the Christian.” He argues that on account of the freedom that we know because of Christ, we are then made free to be fundamentally constrained and obliged to love our neighbors. He writes:

We conclude, therefore, that a Christian lives not to himself, but in Christ and in his neighbor. Otherwise, he is not a Christian. He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbor through love. By faith, he is caught up beyond himself into God. And by love, he descends beneath himself into his neighbor. [3]

Martin Luther also wrote that “A Christian is perfectly free and subject to none,” because we know the freedom that God gives us in our inner beings, free to be, free to live, free to be relieved from the ways that ego and self-preservation seek to tell us that freedom is fundamentally selfishness to do whatever I want. But he then also says “A Christian is also a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”[4] For the freedom that we have and the freedom which we seek and the freedom of which we dream is something that invites us to live out of the places of love and freedom so that we might then work out that freedom with fear and trembling as we work to make freedom possible in every dimension for everyone and live as servants and neighbors who love all.

Today as we celebrate, today as we remember, today might we also dream, might we also gird ourselves up so that we can be a people who, as Paul reminds us, press on to take hold of that for which Christ has taken hold of us, and Christ has taken hold of us for freedom.[5]

A freedom in which the bells ring, the trumpets blast, and the good news is proclaimed: That it is for freedom that we have been set free!

Freedom for ourselves.

Freedom for all of us. 

So let’s live in this land as a people who are committed to Jubilee, that those who’ve been brought low might be raised up, and that the world might exist in view of a kingdom vision of the God who is the creator and sustainer and bringer of freedom for all of us. 

Indeed, may freedom ring.[6]

Amen.


[1] Steven Spielberg, Bridge of Spies (Hollywood: Dreamworks, 2015)

[2] Reinhold Niebuhr, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, original edition 1935 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2013).

[3] Martin Luther, “Freedom of the Christian,” Martin Luther: Selections From His Writings, John Dillenberger, ed. (New York: Anchor Books, 1962), 80.

[4] Ibid., 53.

[5] Philippians 3:12-14.

[6] Referencing Martin Luther King, “I Have a Dream,” “I Have a Dream,” Address Delivered at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (August 28, 1963). Access online: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/i-have-dream-address-delivered-march-washington-jobs-and-freedom.

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