” … proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”
What would the year of the Lord’s favour look like?
Standing at a bus stop in Austria, a big, burly man with a bushy beard walked down the other side of the road, carrying a brown leather bag of the sort that used to be favoured by country doctors. “There’s Dr Martin!”, I thought. Except, of course, it wasn’t Dr Martin, it was someone who looked as Dr Martin looked 25 years ago.
Dr Martin was the GP in the village where we lived for two years after getting married. On Saturdays, he played for the village cricket team, which in those days played in the senior league. He was a slow right arm bowler, who batted at Number Eleven in the team; his innings would frequently last three balls, one would go for four runs, the next for six runs, and then there would be an almighty swipe which missed the ball completely and his stumps would go flying.
Dr Martin was part of the fabric of village life, a village which was from the far past, even in the 1980s. The mill and the farms around provided work; there was a village school; two grocers; a post office; a hairdresser; a working men’s club. There was even a village sweet shop—something that would be a rare sight now. There was no police station, for, apart from the pub perhaps opening a few minutes too long, and farmers not keeping shotgun licenses up to date, there would have been little for them to do.
The village wasn’t ideal, there was much that might have caused annoyance, but it was a community and communities are something precious.
When people are asked what thing they miss most from the past the answer is usually the sense of friendship and the sense of community they remember.
What would the year of the Lord’s favour look like in our church and our neighbourhood? It would look like a time when there was a strong sense of community.
The Scripture readings this morning are about creating a sense of community. The reading from the Old Testament, from Nehemiah, talks about Ezra reading the Book of the Law of Moses to the people and we are told that he read from daybreak until noon in the presence of all the adults and younger people who were able to understand. They stood and listened, for six hours they stood and listened. Can you imagine someone reading from the Bible for six hours while we stood and listened?
What was all this about? This was the people of Israel being reminded of who they were and how they were to live. They had received the Books of the Law from God. These books told them their story and they told them about the faith which held them together, but they had been through terrible times, including losing their land, and the Books of the Law had been lost.
They stood and listened for six hours because these books told them what their life was about and how they should live as a community. Life as a member of the community is at the heart of the life of God’s people. This reading of the Law wasn’t just about rebuilding their relationship with God, it was also about rebuilding their relationships with each other. In the Gospel reading Jesus picks up the scroll and reads from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah was trying to encourage the same community to whom Ezra would read the books of the Law, people whose community had been destroyed.
Jesus says to his listeners, ‘this is what I believe’, ‘this is what my mission is about’ and he reads:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’.
Jesus has set down the values for a Christian community, for our community, he has set down the rules by which we should live. Taking these words to heart, believing in the year of the Lord’s favour means starting the work of building a strong community; it means making our church and our neighbourhood a happy place to be.
Jesus comes to preach good news to the poor. Being poor is not just about money, it is about not having friends and neighbours, it is about having no-one to lean on, it is having no. support and no-one to share your troubles. Some of the richest people I have known have had very little in material terms, they were rich because they were surrounded by a community that knew them and loved them.
Jesus comes to proclaim freedom for the prisoners. If you look at places where there are strong communities, there is little crime. When everyone knows everyone else, there is little opportunity for crime. The highest crime rates are in big cities where people become anonymous. Communities discourage crime and they nurture people who are less likely to become involved in crime. If you live in a community where people care about you and where you are respected you haven’t the motivation to break all the ties that mean so much to you.
Jesus comes to proclaim recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed. How important it is for us, just to know that there is another person who cares enough just to be there. There are 101 things, little things, we can do to support those who suffer or who feel oppressed by their circumstances, just picking up the ‘phone or knocking at the door can make a difference.
This is not ambitious, this is not a grand scheme, this is the way things used to be, this is what life is like in a community.
When we lived in Co Down we would sometimes go to Ardglass to watch the fishing fleet coming in. Occasionally there would be nets on the harbour wall for repair. Each strand of the net seemed small, but each was important. If a strand was not in place the net would begin to tear and would become useless. Building a community is like making a net, each of us is a strand, we might feel that our part is not important, but without us the whole net falls apart.
Jesus came to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. When we build a community, when we have a sense of belonging, a sense that we are cared for, a sense that our life is worth something in the estimation of God and in the estimation of others, then we will have a sense of the Lord’s favour.