Our church’s custom on the last Sunday of the year is to have a single worship service where all our people take the Lord’s Supper together. It’s always a simple, worshipful service with families sitting together and enjoying the afterglow of Christmas while not yet back into the rush of the regular work and school schedules the New Year brings.
This year was more difficult, though, because 2015 was filled with such bad news. And the New Year doesn’t look much better. The Presidential campaign grows more acrimonious and divisive by the day. War in the Middle East seems more likely than ever. The world’s economy is drifting toward recession. So many of us are looking for hope but don’t know how to find it.
As I wrestled with all this I settled on a portion of God’s Word as the focus of the service that speaks to people in our situation. I didn’t realize at the time how much it would resonate in my life, the lives of the folks in my church, and even in people far outside our normal circles. So much so that many of us now are praying and expecting that 2016 will be the year of the Lord’s favor.
The Bible passage begins with something Jesus said at the beginning of his ministry that was itself the fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy recorded in the book of Isaiah. Isaiah’s words actually track back still earlier—to the moment in Israel’s history when the Lord established the Jewish state along specific guidelines of worship, law and culture—in the book of Leviticus.
Jesus’ statement is recorded in the fourth chapter of Luke, where he chose a worship service in his hometown of Nazareth to announce the beginning of his public ministry. This is what he said on that day:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19)
Jesus claimed a special anointing to do the divine work of gospel proclamation, of performing miracles and setting captives free. His ministry was the fulfillment of those words, and the thousands of people he touched during the days of his earthly ministry were the beginning of an uncounted multitude since. The last phrase of his announcement captures the essence of all his ministry when he says he’s about “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
The concept had a long pedigree in Jewish history and theology. The great prophet Isaiah—Jesus actually was quoting his prophecy—appealed to “the year of the Lord’s favor” some 700 years before Jesus used his words to define his own ministry. This is how Isaiah put it:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me, to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; o grant to those who mourn in Zion—to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit (Isaiah 61:1-3)
Isaiah uses the phrase “The year of the Lord’s favor” in the same way Jesus used it, as the description of a movement of God through the Messiah that would bring a new era of peace, healing and freedom into the hearts of God’s people.
But Isaiah himself was referring to something even earlier. In the beginnings of the Jewish state—700 years before Isaiah—the Lord had commanded his people to observe a practice called “The Year of Jubilee,” a super-Sabbath that was to be practiced every fifty years as the culmination of the weekly Sabbath worship. This is how the Lord commanded the Year of Jubilee to be observed:
And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his clan. That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; in it you shall neither sow nor reap what grows of itself nor gather the grapes from the undressed vines. For it is a jubilee. It shall be holy to you. (Leviticus 25:10-12)
The Lord’s instructions regarding the year of Jubilee was what lay beneath both Isaiah and Jesus as they proclaim “the year of the Lord’s favor.” Every fifty years, ancient Israel was commanded to do something radical: all debts were to be forgiven; all land was to be returned to its original owners; and all slaves were to be released. And all these astonishing acts were a direct reflection of the mercy God shows to his people.
No wonder Isaiah, and later Jesus, called it “the year of the Lord’s favor”—anyone who was blessed to experience this kind of generosity and the hope it brought in its wake couldn’t help but to feel a sense of divine favor!
So as I prepared for Sunday’s service on December 27, all this was circulating in my mind and heart as I asked myself the question: How do we prepare ourselves to live in the Lord’s favor in the coming year? It’s kind of a loaded question because in the broad sense we begin living in the Lord’s favor the moment we receive Jesus as our Lord and Savior. Indeed, the entirety of Jesus’ ministry was the full expression of what Jubilee only hinted at.
But there’s another dimension to the Lord’s favor that has special application for life in our modern world, and that’s how we actually position our lives to experience the concrete blessings that God wants to give us. In our service on that last day of the year I challenged our people to take three specific actions in order to align themselves and their families to experience the Lord’s favor in 2016.
First, we have to expect the supernatural. Our Christian faith isn’t an exercise in moral behavior or even the gaining of religious knowledge. It’s the personal experience of a Savior who died and then was miraculously raised from the dead. We live now in a supernatural realm; for us to receive the Lord’s favor we have to expect his supernatural work in our lives and circumstances.
Second, we must accept our strangeness. There may have been a time in the past when Christians were generally accepted by the surrounding culture and our moral values embraced by society at large. But that time is over. Our beliefs, morals and practices set us squarely in a counter-cultural position. We’re aliens now, and the more we come to terms with our status the more we’re positioned to receive the Lord’s favor.
Third, we have to align our lives with biblical authority—that includes our personal lifestyles as well as the institutions we associate with. The Lord’s favor comes on those who obey biblical teaching; to put it another way, divine blessing flows along the lines of biblical authority.
Back to that Sunday’s service. We had a marvelous time, and the Lord blessed our service with an invitation time where many people came forward for special prayer. But in the days following, things went in an altogether unexpected direction.
One of our minister’s wives does calligraphy and she did a special piece for me illustrating the concept of the Lord’s favor in 2016—that’s her artwork that leads this blog. I shared it with our people in overnight many people jumped on it and began downloading it to share with their friends. And it keeps growing. One person in our church let me know this week that when she posted in on her website, she had over 11,000 downloads in two days.
Many people are yearning for the Lord’s favor in the New Year—my prayer is that we would all position our lives in order to receive it.