Time to Start Over Again

How often have we heard people, especially those over fifty, say, "If only I could have my time over again"? Then, with a sigh of resignation, comes the return to reality, "but of course I can't". We all know it is impossible to rewind the tape of history back to the beginning. Or is it?

In this Herald we reflect on Israel at 50 and our thinking has turned to the idea of Jubilee. Many are familiar with the English word but perhaps do not realise it comes directly from the Hebrew word yobel, the ram's horn which heralded the jubilee year. In ancient Israel the weekly Sabbath recurred every seven days, and the sabbatical year came round every seventh year, so seven sabbatical years culminated in the Jubilee.

Israel strictly implemented the provision of the weekly Sabbath, but observed less rigorously the sabbatical year and, it seems, the practice of Jubilee disappeared. However, Jubilee as an ideal was not forgotten. Its lessons of trust in God (no crops were to be sown and the land was to lie fallow for the whole year), new beginnings, the remittance of debts and the proclamation of liberty, continued to have significance for Jewish people throughout the ages. It pointed to a time when things would return to how they had been, a time for a fresh start, hopefully with everyone a little older and a little wiser.

Jubilee draws attention to God's ownership of the land in which Israel dwelt, and their relationship to it. Leviticus 25:23 states, "The land is Mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with Me." The old English word "sojourners" could be rendered "tenants". Jubilee served to remind Israel that it had no inalienable right to the land, the condition of occupation was obedience, and tenure was forfeited by rebellion.

It is therefore most alarming when writers like Jonathan Freedman, a Jewish commentator, speak of a spiritual vacuum lying at the heart of the Jewish community. Many Jews suffer a spiritual hunger that Judaism struggles to satisfy. The October 1997 Jerusalem Report provided evidence of a frightening breakdown in the spiritual and moral fabric of Israeli society. All crimes were reported to be up by 13.9%: apartment break-ins up by 32%; murder 13%; drug dealing 10%; and car theft 26%. Its small population committed almost a quarter of a million serious crimes between January and August 1997. As Eli once trembled for the safety of the ark of the covenant, so today concerned friends of Israel do well to fear for the nation.

Jubilee was directly linked to the provisions of the Day of Atonement, and so brought God's answer to human sin. The Jubilee Year was announced on Yom Kippur with the sound of the yobel, the ram's horn trumpet, proclaiming liberty for the captives throughout the land (Leviticus 25:8-17). As the exodus from Egypt had delivered a nation out of captivity, so the provision of the Jubilee was a guarantee that no Israelite would be reduced to such unremitting bondage again. It was also a celebration and anticipation of Israel's full redemption to be achieved by the Messiah.

What will not be lost on the Christian reader is that the great themes of Jubilee — God's provision received by faith, the promises of renewal and regeneration, forgiveness and freedom — are none other than the core themes of the Good News. Luke 4:16-21 records that when Jesus proclaimed redemption to Israel in the synagogue at Nazareth, he did so in terms of the messianic jubilee:
He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written: "The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD." Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, "Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."
As Israel commemorates its fiftieth anniversary there is little to encourage its friends to believe that the nation is resolving its most serious challenges. Intractable internal divisions such as those between Arabs and Jews, and between the secular and the strictly Orthodox, gape like open wounds in a body. Recurrent attempts to introduce intolerant, anti-Christian legislation reveal a society poised for a rejection of democracy.

Who, observing it sympathetically, can deny that Israel is desperately crying out for God's Shalom, for redemption and peace? Yet it is only in the presence of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, that Jubilee hope can become reality; that broken hearts can be healed, liberty enjoyed, and sin-blinded eyes opened. What Don Cormack wrote of Cambodia, another tortured and divided society, emerging from its own terrible holocaust, is in like manner true for Israel:
"Only the risen Prince of Peace, with scars in his hands and feet can reconcile man with his God, man with himself, man with his neighbour and man with his environment. This is the essence of the gospel."1
The gospel is the authentic trumpet sound of Jubilee. Yet the awful irony is that what Israel shuts its ears to above all things, is this message it so desperately needs to hear.

Luke movingly observed, "the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him". If only that were so today, yet without Nazareth's scepticism! What contemporary Israel has set before its eyes is a prosaic messianic vision of material prosperity and national security. It has substituted its greatest God-given promises and hopes for "a human-centred perspective far removed from the religious ideals of the past"2.

It must be our fervent prayer that as Israel celebrates its fiftieth year so it will soon celebrate its true Jubilee. By looking to its abandoned Messiah may it discover that he indeed "makes all things new".

1 Don Cormack, Killing Fields Living Fields. Monarch, 1997, page 444

2 Dan Cohn-Sherbok, The Jewish Messiah, T & T Clark, 1998, page 199

This article appeared in our special Israel at Fifty Summer 1998 Herald.

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