Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land

A Sermon for July 4, 2020

My title comes Leviticus 25:10 “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”

That text is inscribed on a large cast bronze bell in Philadelphia known as the Liberty Bell. In 1751, the Colony of Pennsylvania was building a new state house, and wanted an appropriate bell to call the legislature to assemble. The bell was also to honor the 50th anniversary (or Jubilee) of the “Charter of Privileges” approved by William Penn to be the constitution for the colony. And that’s why they chose the Leviticus text.

The first article of that charter underscored the principle of religious liberty, rare among the American colonies—Penn extended liberty of conscience to anyone “who shall confess and acknowledge One almighty God, the Creator, Upholder and Ruler of the World.”

Pennsylvania had the richest diversity of any colony, with Lutheran, German Reformed, Presbyterian, Quaker, Mennonite, Baptist, Anglican, Moravian, Roman Catholic, Methodist, and Jewish congregations. And Ben Franklin noted that “even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us,” he would be able to use the town hall as freely as any other preacher.

That’s the liberty that was represented by the new state house and its bell; but it wasn’t named the “Liberty Bell” then, or even during the Revolution, when the state house acquired a new name, Independence Hall. It was there that both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were debated and approved. No, the bell didn’t get the name by which we know it until the 1830s, when it was dubbed the Liberty Bell by abolitionists who remembered the text inscribed on it, and used it as a symbol for the antislavery cause.

Let’s look more closely at that text. Turn in your Bible with me to Leviticus chapter 25.

The first seven verses talk about the Sabbath year—every seventh year would be a Sabbath for the land. The people were to live off what they had stored, and the land was to rest, with no planting or harvesting.

Verse 8 tells us about the Year of Jubilee, the 50th year.

‘And you shall count seven sabbaths of years for yourself, seven times seven years; and the time of the seven sabbaths of years shall be to you forty-nine years. 9 Then you shall cause the trumpet of the Jubilee to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement you shall make the trumpet to sound throughout all your land. 10 And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you; and each of you shall return to his possession, and each of you shall return to his family.

Verse 13:

‘In this Year of Jubilee, each of you shall return to his possession. And if you sell anything to your neighbor or buy from your neighbor’s hand, you shall not oppress one another. According to the number of years after the Jubilee you shall buy from your neighbor, and according to the number of years of crops he shall sell to you.

According to the multitude of years you shall increase its price, and according to the fewer number of years you shall diminish its price; for he sells to you according to the number of the years of the crops. 17 Therefore you shall not oppress one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the Lord your God.

It was to be a year of rest for the land. But beyond that, it was to be a year of freedom—slaves were set free, and land went back to its original owner.

That’s explained in verse 23: “The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with Me.”

No one could ever be a real estate tycoon. Rich people couldn’t buy up land and profit through extorting ever higher rents from their tenants. All had to realize that they had no permanent title to the land, no claim to it—it belonged to God, and his people were always to see themselves as “strangers and sojourners.” Or, as the New International Version puts it: “You reside in my land as foreigners and strangers.” Therefore, God says, “You shall not oppress one another.”

This was our Sabbath School lesson a year ago this week. And that lesson quoted from Ellen White’s book, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 534:

“The regulations that God established were designed to promote social equality. The provisions of the sabbatical year and the jubilee would, in a great measure, set right that which during the interval had gone wrong in the social and political economy of the nation.”

The story of much of the Bible is how Israel went from slavery to freedom, and they were to remember this always. God’s deliverance of them from slavery established the condition of his relationship with them, his covenant. It set the norms for how they were to live with one another, and with those who would come later, and with the weakest among them.

This principle is first stated in Exodus 22, just two chapters after the Ten Commandments:

21 “You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

You shall not afflict any widow or fatherless child. 23 If you afflict them in any way, and they cry at all to Me, I will surely hear their cry; and My wrath will become hot, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless.

If you lend money to any of My people who are poor among you, you shall not be like a moneylender to him; you shall not charge him interest. If you ever take your neighbor’s garment as a pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down. For that is his only covering, it is his garment for his skin. What will he sleep in? And it will be that when he cries to Me, I will hear, for I am gracious.

This theme is taken up in the Psalms and in the Prophets, time and time again we read passages like Psalm 103:6, “The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed.”

And from Isaiah 58. We like to focus on verse 13, 

“If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath, From doing your pleasure on My holy day, And call the Sabbath a delight, The holy day of the Lord honorable, And shall honor Him, not doing your own ways, Nor finding your own pleasure, Nor speaking your own words, Then you shall delight yourself in the Lord, etc.

We take that text just like that, completely out of context, and we twist it. We use it to turn the Sabbath into a day of drudgery, a day in which you dare not do anything that gives you pleasure. We have nitpicked what that meant—you could stick you feet in the water, but couldn’t swim; you could play a board game about the Bible, but couldn’t throw a ball; you could take a nap, but you better make sure you only sleep in that bed on the Sabbath.

Some people still use the text in that way.

But look at the context. The context is about freedom from oppression, and concern for the poor.

Chapter 58, verse 2:

They take delight in approaching God. ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and You have not seen? Why have we afflicted our souls, and You take no notice?’ In fact, in the day of your fast you find pleasure, and exploit all your laborers.

Verse 6 

“Is this not the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh?

Then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’

If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you extend your soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul, then your light shall dawn in the darkness, and your darkness shall be as the noonday. Then you will find blessing from the Lord!

What were they doing on the Sabbath? Taking a walk along the beach and getting in too deep? Tossing a ball in the back yard? No!

They were doing like those condemned by Amos, in Amos chapter 8, verse 5. They spent the Sabbath wondering when it will be over, so they could get on with business, and cheat the people.

They used the Sabbath not to give rest and freedom to those who labored, but to plot how they will cheat the poor and make a buck.

In Luke chapter 4 Jesus comes into the synagogue and preaches his first sermon. He picks up the scroll of Isaiah.

And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written (chapter 61)

“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 brokenhearted, 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.”

Jesus introduces himself as the bringer of the year of Jubilee. The one who will give justice to the oppressed, who will free the slave, who will preach good news to the poor, the one who will give hope to all who are downcast. 

There is so much more I could say, but I need to bring this to a close. I hope I can come one day and preach what could be part two, even part three, of this sermon.

Let me for now just draw attention to this. We sometimes think that Jesus as the preacher of jubilee just applies to what he will do when he comes again. Jesus said that was what he was and about then and there.

It’s what we are to be about, too. Take a look at Matthew 24 and 25 in this light. In chapter 24 he tells of the signs of the end, but he tells the disciples not to worry about that, because no one knows the day nor the hour. Then he tells a series of stories about how they should live while waiting for his return. In chapter 25, verses 31-46 he tells the parable of the sheep and the goats. He says to the sheep:

I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; 36I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’

They are surprised. They say, “We don’t remember seeing you. We would have remembered!” And he says, ”inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.”

He is telling them what God told Israel on Sinai in Exodus 22 and what Amos, Isaiah, and the other prophets said in their day:

You are free people, delivered by God from slavery. He has executed justice for you, he has overturned your oppressors. And like Israel of old, God’s people today need to be carrying on God’s work of deliverance now. The prophets focused on the widow, the orphan, the foreigner. Jesus names the hungry, the thirsty, the foreigner, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned. You are either a sheep, showing the compassion of Jesus in lifting up those who supper—or you are a goat, silently observing their oppression but doing nothing.

Jesus proclaims to us the year of jubilee. He proclaims liberty to all the land. He rescues us from our captivity. And he calls us to be participants in extending that freedom to others.

Our early Adventists understood well what they meant. They were ardent abolitionists. They set men free. They welcomed escaped slaves into their homes, and gave them shelter. They stood up to oppressive laws, and refused to obey those that required the return of slaves.

What of us this Fourth of July? As we celebrate our freedom as free people in a free land. What does it mean for us? What does it mean for how we serve this community? What does it mean as we speak of injustices in our society?

I encourage you to reflect upon these texts, and what God is calling you to do in this community.