Essay Coffee with Michael Card?
Jesus the JubileeLike most Christians, I rarely open the book of Leviticus. It's full of rules and regulations. It's a book of technicalities. Until recently, I probably couldn't name one Christian who would brew a hot cup of coffee, flip on his favorite worship play list, and then read through the property laws from ancient Hebrew society. It's not the sort of book we enjoy. But some time ago I had a conversation with Michael Card, and now I can name at least one.
If you're in your twenties or thirties you probably don't know who Michael Card is, but your parents may have loved his worship music. On the other hand, they may have loved it so much that they wore his cassette tapes out listening to his hit song, El Shadai, as mine did. My parents played his music all the time; I even remember listening to Michael Card on our family camping trips.
Michael Card was a permanent member of my internal jukebox from the 80's, and that's probably why I was never a big fan. But then I met the man at one of my school's chapels, and now I am tempted to convince my church to have him up for a concert just so I can take him out for coffee afterwards. That's one of the first things I learned about him in our conversation; he loves good coffee. Not just Starbucks, he said, - "good coffee." And where coffee is concerned, money is no object. That's exactly what he told me. Then, he told me a story. In the story, he and Keith Green, another Christian artist your parents may have loved, were at a party where there were lots of rough individuals, and by the end of it, Keith Green was in a car with a pretty scary drug dealer, trying to convince him that there was a better way to live life.
That's when I was really hooked. Not only was I chatting about coffee with one of my parents' favorite Christian artists, a man who had been a regular part of my family's long drives and rain soaked camping vacations in the Smokey Mountains, but I was becoming convinced that he was, in fact, a Christian artist - the kind that cares about Jesus' perspective more than he cares about other people's perspectives. For Michael Card, Jesus stands at the center of it all. Oh, and its worth mentioning that it takes a pretty cool guy to wear jeans and a t-shirt to a Presbyterian chapel. And he had an awesome beard.
After our conversation, Michael (I'm pretty sure we were on a first name basis by then.) did his thing. He played all of my parents' old favorites. There were points when I actually thought I was sitting in my family's old station wagon heading down I-75 toward Tennessee, the mountains growing larger in front of us and my dad threatening to pull over and spank me for punching my sister while the rest of the family was trying to listen to El Shadai.
But at some point in that short Presbyterian chapel, Michael began commenting on another famous song, Jubilee. Nostalgia had been working on me, and I was daydreaming about the mountains, but when he began citing a passage from Leviticus 25, I began to listen a little more closely, because I was pretty sure I had never seen a worship leader crack open the bible and encourage a congregation to worship with ancient Hebrew property regulations.
He spoke for a moment. Then he sang:
The Lord provided for a time
For the slaves to be set free
For the debts to all be cancelled
So his chosen ones could see
His deep desire was for forgiveness
He longed to see their liberty
And his yearning was embodied
In the Year of Jubilee
Once again, this man had intrigued me. I grabbed my phone, recorded a note to take a closer look at Leviticus 25, and let myself drift back to the Smokey Mountains.
As I later discovered, the passage in Leviticus is part of the Holiness Code, supposedly given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The passage contains a set of regulations that were to be observed by all levels of ancient Israelite society. It was a celebration that rolled around every 50 years or so called the Year of Jubilee.
Jubilee literally means "trumpet," after the instrument that was designated to announce its opening. "Have the trumpet sounded everywhere...sound the trumpet throughout the land" (25:9). The name itself is significant, because at that time trumpets were not used for musical purposes much at all. They were primarily used in military and religious ceremonies, and they invoked a certain sense of attention and respect. They were public proclamations that something very significant, probably life altering, was getting ready to take place. The book of Exodus, for example, tells us that "the voice of a trumpet" was heard amid the thunder and lighting on Sinai when God met with Moses, and it caused the people to tremble. Trumpets were also used when the Ark of the Covenant was returned after being captured, when Jericho was destroyed, when there were victories in battle, when kings were anointed, and when the temple was dedicated. The sound of a trumpet was a signal that everyday life was about to change - that it must change.
So, the Jubilee was actually a time of celebration that God used to announce to all of his people that it was time for their lives to change. And thankfully, God did not let his people decide for themselves what changes they needed to make. He made it very clear. Leviticus 25 contains a detailed list of the things that must be done during this celebration, and they can generally be boiled down to three dominant themes: freedom, return, and forgiveness.
The ancient Israelite economy, like most all ancient civilizations of that time, was heavily influenced by slavery. Slaves could be attained any number of ways, and in most of the world, slavery was a permanent condition. For the Greeks and the Romans, for example, slaves could be set free by their masters or they could purchase their freedom, but most of the time, slaves remained slaves for life. But that is not what God desired for his people. They were not to remain slaves, nor possess one another as slaves permanently. The people were instructed, "Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants" (v. 10). One of the conditions of the Jubilee was a complete emancipation, a complete proclamation of freedom throughout the land.
Another theme that dominates all of Leviticus 25 is the theme of return. "In the year of jubilee everyone is to return to his own property" (v. 13). For the Israelite civilization, which was largely agricultural, the specific form of return to which God called them was to their ancestral lands and farms. People were supposed to move back to where they came from. They were supposed to reconnect with the land of their family heritage. But for them, a return to ancestral property represented much more than a change in location. It was not simply an opportunity to pack up and move. The Israelites associated their land with their relationship with God and the covenant God made with their forefathers. For example, God told Abraham, "I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant...The whole land of Canaan where you are now an alien, I will give you as an everlasting possession, to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God" (Gen 17: 7-8). For the Israelites, words such as: God, land, presence, blessing, tradition, family, heritage, and salvation were all related to one another. They were not interchangeable, but in the minds of the ancient Israelites, they occurred together. So, a second condition of the Jubilee was that the people should return, not just to their land, but to God, to the traditions of their ancestors, to the way God intended things to be.
Finally, having been commanded to proclaim freedom and return, the Israelites were to practice forgiveness. In the Jubilee this primarily took the form of the forgiveness of financial debt. "If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or a temporary resident, so he can continue to live among you. Do not take interest of any kind from him...he is to work for you until the year of jubilee" (v. 35-40). In a society where debt could lead to oppression, God offered his people a way out, a light at the end of the tunnel. But God's insistence that his people's debt be forgiven in the Jubilee was not the only way he protected them. Leviticus 25 lists many different ways someone's debt may be 'redeemed', even if the jubilee year had not yet arrived. "If one of your countrymen becomes poor...he retains the right of redemption...a relative may redeem him...any blood relative may redeem him...but if he is not redeemed in any of these ways, he and his children are to be released in the jubilee year" (v. 47-55). Redeem means "to gain or regain possession of", and God expected the Israelites to redeem one another, especially those with family ties. He expected them to work hard and to sacrifice in order to free one another of their debts and the things that oppressed them, even if it was costly.
If we step back for a moment and look at the bigger picture, we can imagine what a beautiful moment we would be witnessing if we saw an entire nation of people proclaiming freedom, return, and forgiveness. The trumpet blasts would echo across Israelite territory - through the crowded city of Jerusalem and out into the countryside beyond. Parents, broken beneath insurmountable debt would cling to one another and praise God for his provision. Children, living in terrible, oppressive conditions would erupt into the streets singing the songs of their ancestors. The evening meals would be taken with gratitude and thanksgiving. Fathers would slaughter the fatted calf and mothers would serve the best wine. Entire villages would dance and laugh together. And they would bless the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who commanded Moses to rescue them from slavery, the God who brought them safely through the waters of the sea.
It's a wonderful image isn't it? But it gets even better.
There was a prophet named Isaiah, and he believed there would be a day when this celebration of freedom would not belong to the Israelites alone but to every nation, to every person from one side of the world to the other. He believed there would be a day when God would extend his peace and his love, his shalom, to the entire world. And here is the interesting part: he believed that when this happened, that celebration would occur in the form of a person. This ancient tradition of freedom, return, and forgiveness would no longer just be an Israelite festival rolling around every 50 years or so. Instead, freedom and forgiveness would exist in the form of a living, breathing person.
Isaiah called this person the 'Servant of God'. He was convinced that this person would be anointed by God to accomplish a specific task, and he believed that this person's task would be to set things right in the world again. Isaiah said that God's spirit would be upon this servant in an incredibly special way. He said this person would be determined and strong, that he would be unstoppable, that he wouldn't rest until justice and peace had been established on earth. This servant would be a symbol of all Israel, but he would be a light to all the nations. He would open the eyes of the blind and he would set the prisoners free. His very existence would be the proclamation of the year of God's favor (42:1-7). The Servant of God would be a perpetual, living Jubilee, a celebration that would cross oceans and seas, deserts and mountains, political ideologies, language barriers, ethnicities, philosophical differences, intellectual disputes, and cultural norms. This person would be a Jubilee for everyone.
And we know the rest of the story, don't we?
Hundreds of years after Isaiah, a man came from one of the poorer regions around Jerusalem, and he began teaching in local synagogues - just the small ones - but it was enough for him to build a reputation and get himself invited to speak at the larger synagogue in a town called Nazareth. There, he opened Isaiah's scroll and found one of the more famous passages about the Servant of God. Then he read:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor (Lk 4:18-19).
We are told that he finished the reading, rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the synagogue official, and simply took his seat. So, people began whispering. They already knew that passage by heart. It had been read to them hundreds, perhaps thousands of times. Was this all he was going to say, this man whom they had heard so much about?
But he wasn't finished, not even close.
"Today," he told them, "this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." This man from Nazareth was claiming to be the Servant of God, the one who would proclaim Isaiah's world wide Jubilee. Everywhere he went he preached those same themes: freedom, return, and forgiveness. He acquired a following, people that wanted to help him. And he told those people to free the poor and the helpless, to be a light so others could return to God, and to forgive as many times as they needed to along the way. As Isaiah had believed, this man from Nazareth healed people, raised the dead, cast out demons, and destroyed all kinds of oppression. He was powerful, determined, and strong. Nothing, not even death, could stop him from his world wide mission of Jubilee.
This is the Gospel, and it's not just good news; it's the best news possible! So, I wish we could stop right now and celebrate God's Jubilee and worship the Servant of God. But there is one more really important point.
Before he played the song, Jubilee, Michael made a casual comment in that Presbyterian chapel service that has not left me since. In fact, I would say it has changed everything for me. He said that there is no biblical, historical, or archaeological evidence that the ancient Israelites ever fully practiced the Jubilee. And, having done some investigation, it seems like most scholars agree with him. Apparently, the Israelites talked a lot about the Jubilee. They even used it to help measure time. For hundreds of years, their religious leaders argued about it, wrote books about it, and studied it. They talked about its symbolism, its meaning, and its theology. They read about it publicly. The people memorized it, hoped for it, and longed for it. But they didn't actually do it. God had commanded his people to follow a straightforward list of laws that would revolutionize their own hearts and their entire society. The laws were a compulsory invitation to experience God's blessings for his people, a way for them to take the advice of the Psalmist - to taste and see that the Lord is good. But they didn't do it, because it was too impractical. It would have cost them too much. It would have elevated the lowly members of society and humbled the proud. Unlikely individuals would have stood alongside the successful, the wealthy, the moral, and, by the standards of those days, the righteous. Freedom, return, and forgiveness would have altered the entire world that the Israelites had built, but it was the world that they had built around themselves, so they wouldn't do it.
Typically, this would be the point when good Christians who know their bible and their systematic theology would say, "Of course they didn't do it. Those Israelites never got anything right. But it was all part of the plan anyway. Now we believe in Jesus!"
We believe in Jesus? What do we mean when we say we believe in Jesus?
Let's rephrase the question: What does it mean to believe in a man who claimed to be committed to freedom, return, and forgiveness?
Jesus said amazing things like: "Love your neighbor as yourself," "When you give a cup of cold water to the least of these you do it for me," and "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall see God." Did he really mean all of that stuff about making peace and seeing God, or was it just nice talk? What does it mean to believe in a man who says things like that?
Jesus did amazing things. He fed the masses, healed the sick, and raised the dead. He died for the world. But he told his followers that they would do even greater things than that. So, have you raised anyone from the dead lately? What does it mean to believe in a man who does things like that?
The Apostle Paul and many of the other early followers of Jesus taught their churches that belief in Jesus was not just an idea but an actual agreement to be his hands and his feet. They agreed to be his body, his presence among the brokenhearted, the blind, and the oppressed. They would partner in his Jubilee mission. The problem is: followers of Jesus are often a lot like the ancient Israelites. We spend a lot of time arguing about Jesus, writing books about Jesus, studying Jesus, memorizing Jesus, hoping for Jesus, publicly preaching Jesus, and even personally longing for Jesus, but sometimes his mission is strangely absent. So, I'll ask again. Have you raised anyone from the dead lately? Have you even tried?
I know people who are trying. I know a girl who is obsessed with combating the child slave trade that is creeping into the U.S. I know an older gentleman with a PhD who teaches for pennies at a local business college, because he is passionate about helping his students return to the love of God. He teaches Business Writing, but he always tells me his real mission is restoration. Recently, I spoke with a young person who wanted to make people more aware of the growing rate of teen suicide. I know people in medicine, business, legal professions, education, and all kinds of other careers who see their real mission as freedom, return, and forgiveness. The mission looks different for each of them, and they aren't physically raising people from the dead, but they aren't afraid of being impractical either.
My prayer is that we won't sacrifice the real world aspect of our mission simply because it's impractical, costly, or because we have built a church culture and put ourselves at the center of it. If we do, we will miss out on the blessings of renewed, spirit filled hearts and a changed society.
Josh Fraley # May 28, 2014