The Three R’s of Jubilee

Delivered May 2, 1999, Jubilee Sunday,
by Dr. Ronald W. Scates and Dr. Pat Hartsock.

Sermon Text:
Leviticus 25:8-12
8 “`Count off seven sabbaths of years–seven times seven years–so that the seven
sabbaths of years amount to a period of forty-nine years.
9 Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on
the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land.
10 Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its
inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each one of you is to return to his family
property and each to his own clan.
11 The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of
itself or harvest the untended vines.
12 For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields.

Well, what do you get when you cross those two famous Civil War Generals Jubal Early and Robert E. Lee? “Jubilee”, of course! Today we’re here to celebrate the Jubilee, the 50 year milestone since the replanting of Central Church on this location by the Presbytery of Baltimore back in 1949. Fifty years have gone by and God has done some great and wonderful things here at Central Church.

But what is jubilee all about? You know, it’s not unique to Central, even this year! We watched just last week as NATO rather uncomfortably tried to throw a 50 year anniversary bash in Washington while at the same time bombing the heck out of the Serbs. And maybe you saw last Sunday’s Baltimore Sun, the article about Jubilee, how the Pope and the conference of Roman Catholic Bishops have declared Y2K to be a year of Jubilee, urging the wealthier nations of the world and international lending agencies to forgive the debts of poor nations so that they can use their resources for their own people rather than paying off loans.

But what is this Biblical concept of Jubilee and what might it mean for this congregation as we launch forward into the next 50 years, into a new millennium. Well let’s look to Leviticus which is the source of this whole concept of Biblical Jubilee. I would invite you to turn in your Bibles and keep your Bibles open to Leviticus the 25th Chapter as we are going to look at verses 8-12, and I would also encourage you to read the entire chapter sometime as it will give you great insight into what Jubilee is really all about. Leviticus 25, beginning to read at the eighth verse, this is the word of God.

“Count off seven Sabbaths of years. Seven times seven years. So that the seven Sabbaths of years amount to a period of 49 years. Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month. On the day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land. Consecrate the 50th year and proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you. Each one of you is to return to his family property and each to his own clan. The fiftieth year shall be a Jubilee for you. Do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a Jubilee and it is to be holy for you. Eat only what is taken directly from the fields.”

Join me as we pray. And now Father as our words are true to Your word may they be taken to heart, but as our word might stray from your word may they be quickly forgotten, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Jubilee. What’s it all about? Over the past few weeks a lot of people have asked me, “What’s so special? What are we doing this Jubilee thing for?” Well, you know, here at Central Church, above everything else, we try to be Biblical. And if you look at this text before us as God commands the Israelites as they are on the verge of going into the promised land, He tells them to keep track of time. He tells them, “Count off 49 years.” And the year number 50 is to be a Jubilee.

Now let me tell you what Jubilee is not. We are tempted to think that Jubilee is a trip down memory lane; that Jubilee means looking backward and just patting ourselves on our back for what we have done; that Jubilee is just an excuse for throwing a party and saying “Hey look what we have achieved, look how far we have come!” It is right and good to look back. If you and I are really going to figure out where it is that God is calling us to go, we need to know where we have come from. That’s very appropriate. And we have spent the last 3 weeks looking back and praising God, thanking God for what He has done at Central. But the Biblical concept of Jubilee has nothing to do with looking back, it has everything to do with looking forward to where God is leading.

And so, we’re trying to be Biblical. He told the Israelites to mark off fifty years and to declare a Jubilee. We’ve marked off 50 years. He told them, when the 50th year rolls around, blow the trumpet, the Shofar, as we have done today, and do it on the Day of Atonement. Fifty years from then, hopefully, the temple would be built, and on the Day of Atonement, the great high priest on that one day out of the year would go into the Holy of Holies in the Temple and make sacrifice for the people, bringing at-one-ment once again with their Lord and Maker.

And for us as Christians, really every day is a day of atonement; where through the once, for all, sufficient, perfect sacrifice of our high priest Jesus Christ, you and I can come into the holy of holies and be restored, be made at one once again in our relationship with God. And Sundays are an extra special day of atonement for Christians, for it is on Sunday that we gather corporately as the body of Christ and confess our sin (as we have done here) and be assured of God’s pardon and forgiveness and gracious love and to be made at one with Christ again.

And so this is a special day. We have been here 50 years, and it is Sunday, and Christ is calling us forward into a new era, into an exciting new millennium. But here’s the kicker. There is no evidence in scripture or anywhere else, that the children of Israel ever kept the year of Jubilee! Why? Well take a look at this text and see if you can figure it out, and look at the rest of Chapter 25 and see if you can try to get an understanding of why they never followed through on this.

Let me give you a clue. Jubilee consisted of basically 3 things. Three things were to happen on that 50th year that would make year 51 radically different from year 49. And the first thing was this. Release. Release of all of the slaves and bond servants. Reversion. The land was to revert back to its original owners. Now are you getting warm? And the third thing was that the land was to lay fallow for a year. They were not to cultivate. They were only to eat what grew wild in the field. Now do you understand why the Israelites balked at ever celebrating the year of Jubilee? And they weren’t even 20th Century North American capitalists! What about us? God is calling us to Jubilee. To step out and do some radical things for Jesus Christ over the next 50 years. And the big question before us this day is “Will we balk?” By God’s grace, we will not balk, but we will move forward into Jubilee, to make a difference in this world for Jesus Christ.

But I started thinking, “How do these three R’s – release, reversion, renewal of the land – how do they really apply to us as we are moving forward as a congregation?” Release – well, I guess we could release you all from your membership at Central. Reversion of the land – we could give the property back to the Wiedefeld family. And then Renewal of the land – I thought, well we’re not agrarian people anymore, we could call off all committee meetings for a year! (APPLAUSE) But I’m not sure that’s the direction that God wants us to go! Where does he want us to go? This is why we have brought in Pat Hartsock to help us out here, and Pat and I are going to kick around these three R’s of Jubilee to see how that might apply to us.

Ron: And so Pat, Release, that first R, what might that mean for this congregation?

Pat: For me, it comes from eight years of being mentored by that man right there [Dr. John Murray Smoot, Pastor Emeritus]. He releases our gifts, he releases us to be the body of Christ that God called us to be. And you released me. And what a glorious gift that was. And you are free. You know, once you were slaves, slaves to sin. But now you are free. For in freedom Christ has set you free.
Release means that this congregation, Central Presbyterian church, is a beacon of freedom and release for people. Think about the world out there, the world beyond these walls. They are slaves. They don’t know that they are slaves, but you proclaim freedom in Jesus Christ. You have the key to 20th Century culture in North America. God has made Central Presbyterian Church a lighthouse of Freedom. People should be able to come in here no matter what their slavery and find release. Come into this place and find grace, the amazing grace of God, that releases us from being slaves to sin to being slaves for Christ, which is ultimate freedom.

Ron: I have thought about “what are all those things that the world has seduced me into thinking I need so much that I hold so tightly to – I need to release those. When my fist is clenched I can’t receive all the things that God really wants me to have when I am clinging so tightly.
And then Reversion, the land was to revert back to the original owners. I started kicking that around and I thought, we’re not going to give the property back, but what does need to be given back to God? Well, I do! Who is the original owner of me, and my career, and my family and everything I have? The way I need to move forward in radical Jubilee is to revert everything I have back into the hands of God and to realize that I am not the owner of any of this stuff, that I am called to be a faithful steward, a steward who has been gifted by God with all of these wonderful blessings, and I am to manage it for the Kingdom and for the exaltation of Jesus Christ! What it all boils down to for me is a question that I have got to wrestle with in my life and I think we all do: “Am I going to allow my life to be impacted more by Dow Jones or by Jesus Christ?”

Pat: I think the amazing thing, as Ron was alluding to, is that you have been reverted back to your original owner. You see, we fell. Adam and Eve fell from grace. And they came under the spell of the Prince of this world. And you have been reverted back to your original owners. You are adopted sons and daughters of God. You are a part of God’s family now, you are part of his people and you are now reverted back to your original owner. The question is “Will you bow your knee to the Lordship of Jesus Christ volitionally now, or will you have to be compelled to do it with all of creation at the end of time?
You see that’s the ultimate choice that we all face, isn’t it? For every knee will bow and every tongue confess in Heaven and on earth and under the earth that Jesus Christ is what? What? Lord, to the glory of God the Father. That will happen. The question is will you and I revert to our original owner and make Jesus Christ Lord now? That’s the issue. That’s the question.

Ron: Then there’s that third R, Renewal. The land was to lie fallow. It was really sort of God’s design for the first Earth Day. The land was to renew by not being harvested and cultivated, not be domesticated, but to grow wild for a year. Again, we are not an agrarian people, so I started looking for Biblical analogies. Well there’s the soil of our faith. Maybe to be radically committed to Jubilee might mean that you and I allow our faith to grow biblically wild for a year. What might that mean? I think most of us, if we are honest, are on this journey to find this comfortable, convenient, domesticated God who we can neatly fit into our lives. Folks, that God, is nothing less than an illusion and an idol. One of the reasons I call you to read through the Bible with me every year is because you are going to find out that the God of Scripture, the God that you and I need to bow our knee to, is a God who is very angular, who is totally undomesticated, who will not be tamed by you and me, and who will not allow you and me to fit him into our lives, kind of on the back burner. You know – build up a little pile of stuff and put a little Jesus on top. He is a God who says, I will not be your co-pilot, I’ve got to fly in the pilot seat. An undomesticated faith. Allow your faith to run wild. You are on a journey not to find the answers to all of our questions nice and neatly tied up in an orderly way, because what the Biblical faith journey is all about – it’s about stepping out, risking, trusting, living your life within the mystery of grace, with this undomesticated God. And yet a God who has revealed himself supremely in Jesus Christ who is the anchor that holds us and tethers us. Like the high priest went into the Holy of Holies, but he was tethered in case he didn’t make it – he had a rope around him so that they could pull him out. We are tethered. God’s not going to strike us dead, but we can step out because we are tethered when we let our faith grow Biblically wild.

Pat: That third R is the R of renewal. And aren’t you glad that God is not done with you yet! I want you to think about this for just a moment. God does not take snapshots of your life, God takes a motion picture. And aren’t you glad! Think of it for just a moment, of the pictures we usually take. Aren’t you glad God doesn’t take snapshots of you when you are at your worst moments? Aren’t you glad God doesn’t take snapshots of your kids when they are at their worst moments? Aren’t you glad that God didn’t take a snapshot of that Prodigal Son and say, “You are condemned to slop pigs forever because that’s who you are.” But sometimes we don’t allow the renewal to come – we don’t allow the freedom of the renewal of God to come into our lives, because we’ve taken snapshots of ourselves. And we think certain things about ourselves and we don’t let God free us to become what he has called us to become. To free us like he freed the land.
The second part of this renewal thing is this: rest. The reason that they didn’t plant any crops in the land for that year was because they wanted the land to rest. I think that many of us think that the twentieth century version is this: “Come unto me, all ye who are heavy laden and I will give you frenzied activity. I will give you church committee meetings to go to every week. I will give you busy-ness.” Jesus said, “Come unto me and I will give you…” What? “rest.” Are you? Are you resting? Are you finding time to rest in the arms of Jesus Christ and to allow His renewal to come alive in your spirit. Are you resting in Him like that Jubilee year of resting the land so that you can be renewed?

Renewal, revision, and somehow in the middle of this, for us to understand that Jubilee means that you are God’s purpose for this fiftieth year. He wants to do something in you, Central Presbyterian Church so that in the 51st year you won’t be the same.

Ron: Well, Pat, it seems to me this whole Jubilee thing boils down to one word, and that word is trust. I think the reason the Israelites never celebrated the year of Jubilee, the reason that they instead just looked back and celebrated the status-quo, was because you don’t have to trust God for the past. The past is not the least bit threatening in terms of risk, or stepping out, but moving forward is. But that’s what Jubilee is all about. Moving forward with God. But you know, if you are like me, I’m willing to risk and step out when I trust someone. But I only trust someone when I know them. Jubilee – you and I will be able to move forward and faithfully in Jubilee when we trust because we know Jesus at more than second hand. Jesus is Jubilee. And we trust Jesus when we know Jesus. It is more than just inviting Christ into your life to be your Savior, but inviting Christ into your life to be your Lord, Lord of every facet of your life. It is more than inviting Christ into your heart, but it is taking the radical step of turning the whole deed to your life over to him and saying “I trust you Lord.” Jubilee is tough, it’s risky.

Here is our anchor. This table is the table of Jubilee. This morning, as we come forward for communion, I want you to make that your radical act of Jubilee if you are a Christian – you are coming forward because you are giving your life to Christ, you are reverting your life back over to Him, you are releasing your life into His care, you are seeking renewal, but also I want you to come with these words in your heart, “Lord I come here to trust you with everything I am and everything I have. I come turning the deed of my life over to you as my radical act of Jubilee.” And Christ has amazing plans in store for those who do.

Join me as we pray.
Father, we come now to your table, unworthy but made worthy by the perfect sacrifice of our High Priest, Jesus Christ. Lord, stir up within every heart within this place or listening on the radio, a gift of faith that believes your sovereignty, that trusts your Providence, that knows your presence here this morning. That knows your promises and your power and your peace, Lord, which comes through knowing Jesus Christ. Lord, that’s our prayer, and we make it in Jesus’ name, Amen.