Sunday Essay: The year of favor

Isolde D. Amante

THERE'S a moment in Luke that inspires amazement. It tells the story of what appears to be a simple incident: Jesus enters a temple in Nazareth and is handed a scroll.

You have to dig a little deeper to see what’s so amazing about this moment.

What’s the big deal, right? It’s just Jesus receiving a document, from which he then proceeds to read aloud. To an individual in the present day whose attention almost always gets drawn to a screen, rather than to a page, it’s nothing. A small, forgettable non-event.

The scroll is from the prophet Isaiah, who lived nearly 800 years before the birth of Christ. The passage that Jesus chooses to read is what we now know as Luke 4:18-19. In it, Isaiah utters both a prophecy and a promise. A list of promises, actually: the forthcoming arrival of good news for the poor, healing for the broken-hearted, freedom for the captives, sight for the blind and liberty for the oppressed.

Isaiah then sums all these promises up by declaring that “the year of the Lord’s favor” is approaching.

So, what’s happening in this particular chapter and verse of Luke is a full-circle moment. Christ is reading aloud a prophecy about his birth, death and resurrection—written nearly eight centuries before he takes his first breath as a human being.

You can imagine the shock waves that must have swept across the temple when Jesus then declares, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” It is a bold declaration, so bold that within moments, the crowd in the temple, now gripped by wrath, threatens to throw him out of the city and push him over the edge of a cliff.

For believers, this passage is deeply reassuring. Here is Jesus Christ, our hope and our salvation, announcing the fulfillment of a promise revealed nearly 800 years before that moment, by a prophet whose name just happens to mean “God is salvation.” Talk about God being in the details.

Of course, the contexts differ. When Isaiah first talks about the promise of freedom, his people are weary after a succession of wars. When he talks about how his nation will “renew the ruined cities that have been devastated” for generations, hanging over their heads is the real threat of being annexed by a larger and more powerful empire to the north.

But by the time Christ, many centuries later, reads aloud the promises revealed to Isaiah, the stakes are much higher. It is no longer freedom from the threat of Babylon or Egypt or the Assyrian Empire that he promises. It is freedom from the penalties of sin: a clean slate, a reunion with God himself, a price impossible for anyone but Jesus Christ alone to pay.

In the moment we accept Christ’s priceless gift of salvation, our year of living in the Lord’s favor begins.

Ranged against that promise, our own sorrows and burdens in any given year become much easier to bear. In Isaiah 61:3, the prophet speaks of the Lord’s promise “to bestow on them who grieve a crown of beauty instead of ashes.” Centuries later, Christ fulfills that promise by allowing his human tormentors to nail him to a cross, while a crown of thorns pierces his head.

What gift made by human hands could possibly top that? What human disappointment could eclipse it?

Consider the promise of a year lived “in the Lord’s favor.” Think of it lasting a long season, entire decades, the rest of one’s life here on earth. It is not the most famous passage from Isaiah and probably would be judged too earnest to appear in a greeting card, unlike the verse that begins, “For unto us a Child is born.”

But it’s a powerful phrase. Powerful enough to heal the broken-hearted, to free those bound by human hurts and to help us see what we’re missing. I hope you’ll claim this promise for yourself soon. Merry Christmas, dear reader, to you and all you love.