The Favourable Year of the Lord
For almost two weeks, I have been greeting people with the phrase: ‘Happy New Year’. What, precisely, do I mean by that phrase? Honestly, I’m not sure what I mean; I have been conditioned from childhood to employ that phrase in the days immediately preceding, and following, January 1st.
What, exactly, constitutes a ‘Happy New Year’ anyway? If you have some sense of what a ‘Happy New Year’ is, then I should ask you: Was the year 2004 a ‘happy’ one for you?
For some of us, likely, most of us, the year 2004 was filled with significant challenges. In 2004, some of us endured the death of a close family member; some of us grieved the passing of a good friend. In 2004, some of us watched in distress as friends, and members of our family, filed for divorce. Some of us became unhinged by the news that we, or someone we love, contracted a serious illness.
For millions of people in Southeast Asia, 2004 was not a ‘happy year’.
Did you know that the Bible speaks about a ‘Happy New Year’? In two places, in Isaiah 61, and in Luke, chapter 4, we read about ‘The favourable year of the Lord’. My prayer for all of you is that you might enjoy the favour of the Lord in 2005. Notwithstanding the hardships that you faced in 2004, nor naïve to the risk of impending hardships in 2005, I want you to look for, and embrace, the favour of our Lord Jesus Christ.
As we examine the biblical text, and as we seek to understand what receiving the favour of the Lord entails, we need to recognize that there are three contexts to consider. Firstly, how did Isaiah understand the favourable year of the Lord? Secondly, how did Jesus understand the favourable year of the Lord? And finally, how shall we understand the favourable year of the Lord?
Isaiah presents the favourable year of the Lord within a prophecy about the coming Messiah, who will be both, a liberator and a judge. The favourable year of the Lord involves freedom for the captives and prisoners (61:1), but it also includes “the day of vengeance of our God” (61:2).
To the Israelites of Isaiah's day, this was an announcement that Babylonian captivity would soon come to an end. To the Israelites of Isaiah's day, this prophecy was a promise of temporal freedom from literal bondage.
It should not surprise us then that this expectation of temporal freedom would spill over into Jesus’ context. As Jesus presented Himself as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, many imagined that the Messiah would liberate the Jews from Roman control.
There is, however, a problem with this expectation. If we claim that Jesus sought to gain temporal freedom for His people, history forces us to conclude that His mission was a total failure. In the years subsequent to Jesus’ ministry, in the year 70 AD, the Jewish Temple was burned to the ground. What we find is that the persecution of the Jewish people in, and following, 70 AD is even more pervasive and intense than before—not less.
If the primary mission of Jesus was to free His people from societal hardships, then we are compelled to view His mission as a dreadful failure. But, of course, we do not regard Jesus’ mission as a failure.
What then, was Jesus’ promising when He read from the scroll of Isaiah at the synagogue in Nazareth? Perhaps we should begin by noting what Jesus was NOT promising. Notice where He ends the reading from Isaiah. Jesus says, “(I have come) to proclaim the favourable year of the Lord” (4:19)—period; then He rolls up the scroll and sits down (4:20).
But that is not how Isaiah 61, verse 2, reads. Jesus omits a key part of the sentence. The sentence should read, “He has sent Me . . . to proclaim the favourable year of the Lord and the day of vengeance of our God.”
When Jesus says, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (4:21), there is no mention of “the day of vengeance of our God.” We conclude, therefore, that Jesus was not promising judgment—at least, not yet. What Isaiah envisioned as one messianic work, Jesus divided into two stages. What was not being fulfilled on that day was the promise of judgment. Instead, Jesus presents Himself singularly as the One ushering in the favourable year of the Lord.
If Jesus was the fulfillment of the favourable year of the Lord, and if that did not include judgment against the enemies of Israel, and if that did not include the onset of temporal comfort for Israel, what exactly was Jesus ushering in?
Let’s have another look at Luke 4, verse 18:
The Spirit of the Lord is on Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, (and) to release the oppressed.
This text, unfortunately, has been subject to considerable misuse. This is due, in large measure, the ambiguity of the reference to “the poor”. The Greek word for “poor” can cover poverty of every kind. In many instances in the New Testament, the word clearly refers to a socio-economic status, but in other places it refers to a spiritual state.
For example, when Jesus addresses the wealthy in the church of Laodicea, He says, “You say, ‘I am rich, I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But do you not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17).
The great hymn writers understood the biblical imagery in this way, prompting John Newton, in Amazing Grace, to write: ‘(I) was blind, but now I see’—referring to a spiritual condition. In the same way, when we sing, ‘Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind’ we recognize that we are speaking about spiritual, and not physical, realities.
Even still, one of the misuses of this text that we commonly see is the view that Jesus’ primary mission was to correct the socio-economic imbalances of the day. This view tends to prompt churches to direct the bulk of their efforts and resources towards simply remedying the tangible and temporal problems that ail society. What is neglected in this emphasis is the attention to whether individuals are addressing their spiritual poverty. The condition of spiritual poverty, if unattended to, makes us enemies of God and leads to eternal misery (Rom. 3:10-12; 5:10).
On the flipside of this view, however, is another misapplication. There is an erroneous view that concludes that since what people need most is a remedy for their spiritual poverty, we need not pay any attention to their temporal needs. Clearly, these two misuses of the text create a dangerous, and an unbiblical, dichotomy.
The aftermath of the Tsunami disaster has brought to the forefront something that happens every day in this world: people die because they lack clean drinking water, sufficient food, and basic medicinal treatments. This is a serious problem, which must be addressed—not only in Southeast Asia, but wherever such conditions exist. And the Christian Church must do its part in offering temporal relief to people in need.
Yet, it must nevertheless be declared: that the most significant and most loving thing we can do for another human being is to help them to recognize Jesus Christ as the all-sufficient One—as the One who can save them from sin and eternal misery.
But it should also be said that such a wonderful message cannot be received by dead people. If we do not attend to the temporal needs of human beings we will not be afforded the opportunity to attend to their spiritual needs.
As a church, we must do both. We must be ready to give a cup of clean water from one hand (Mt. 25:35), and we must also be prepared to present the living water of Christ from the other hand (Jn. 4:10-14). If we withhold the message of Christ, as the Saviour from our sins, we commit ecclesiastical malpractice. And, if we fail to share our resources with those in need, we act cruelly—dishonouring, both, God and our neighbour.
It’s time for us to return to our original question. What is Jesus presenting you and I with when He ushers in the favourable year of the Lord?
Friends, Jesus is presenting us with the riches of the kingdom of heaven: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:3). Jesus is promising us kingdom resources. Jesus is promising us freedom from the dominion of sin. He is promising to give us a vision for heavenly matters. And, all of these things transcend our temporal circumstances.
Even if our health, wealth, and happiness has been compromised, that need not affect our blessed state as heirs to God’s eternal kingdom.
Because Christ has ushered in the favourable year of the Lord, we can say with the apostle Paul, “We are hard-pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed” (2Cor. 4:8, 9).
As you reflect back on 2004—as you consider the hardships you faced: strained relationships, compromised finances, serious illness, the death of a loved one—it may not feel like it was the favourable year of the Lord for you.
Based on what I see in the Scriptures, I would argue otherwise. You were hard-pressed on every side, but God did not allow you to be crushed. You were perplexed by God’s will, but He did not allow you to totally despair. You were persecuted by others, but God did not leave your side.
As you look ahead to 2005, I want you to have the assurance that this is the favourable year of the Lord for you. Oh, yes, we will have new challenges. For some of us, 2005 will bring even more challenges than the year before. And because we may face some daunting challenges, I am compelled to remind you of the riches that are available to you in Jesus Christ. If your circumstances bring you low, remember that you have the resources in Christ Jesus to stand up again.
My commitment to preach biblical truth obligates me to proclaim anew that this year, 2005, is the favourable year of the Lord. The blessings that Jesus announced, and ushered in, 2000 years ago apply to us today.
And, from now on, this is what I mean when I say, ‘Happy New Year!’ Amen.