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Acceptable Year of the Lord

Luke 4:19; Leviticus 25:10

Anāl Naga Baptist Centenary #1

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Ps. 19:14) is a prayer that many preachers say before they begin speaking.

You may be surprise to hear the English words coming out of my mouth as whom we call an Asian American; that is, a person of Asian origin but is an American citizen who sees his home in the United States. Not only am I an American Baptist minister but as one who was born in Boston, Massachusetts and today coming to you as one of the American Baptists here to celebrate your centenary.

The words I say are expected to be of some significance and thus this privilege of speaking to you from this pulpit at your anniversary. I thank you for this honor and I humbly pray that I will speak from my heart the words that would be acceptable by our Lord.

Luke 4

Our text Luke 4:19 comes from the Scripture when Jesus received wide and positive responses in Galilee and has now returned to his childhood home, Nazareth. He enters into the familiar synagogue where he attended with his family as a young child. He knows the people; he knows their faces. He can even call many of them by name.

It’s like the way we are gathered for this anniversary celebration; many of you are familiar with each other even knowing your names. I read that the Anal Naga is a rather small tribal group making up about only 30,000 people.

This ordinary day in the synagogue becomes a very extraordinary day when Jesus comes to town. We can suspect that the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9) was read. They may have read Leviticus 25:10 to remember that in every 50 years, it is the time of Jubilee. And when Jesus requested the Torah, he turned to the scroll of Isaiah and begins to read:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Isaiah 61).

When the people heard these words, it was a dramatic moment. These familiar words to the worshipers have been reinterpreted before their very eyes. “The eyes of all of them in the synagogue were fixed on him.” There was no chatting on the side. There was stillness in the air. Then Jesus speaks from his place of sitting: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Assaulted by the Word

This weekend we are commemorating 100 years of faithful ministry. I am happy to be alive these days because many years ago American Baptist missionaries came to NE India to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. Last year I was with the Garo Baptists for their 150th anniversary. In a few days, we’ll be with the Manipur Baptists for their 125th anniversary. Today we are with you for your centenary. It’s good to be living through these milestones of Baptist witness and the conviction to remain courageous in the faith in the days ahead.

But what is the purpose of an anniversary? Is it coming together to see old friends and to meet new ones? Is it coming together to eat good home cooked food? Is it to remember our tribal traditions and rituals in song and dance? It is all of this but much, much more.

In our modern world, our daily existence is often acculturated with what is happening in the world. We have jobs to do, homes to run, chores to get done and sometimes we are caught up with what may be happening to someone else than what’s going on with ourselves. We stay pretty busy day in, day out. And we then locate the normative answers to all of life’s questions solely within the confines of ourselves and in our own experiences. It’s almost a badge of courage to shout out that, “I did it myself!”

When you go to church on Sunday and when you decided to come to celebrate the centenary, we are asking you to make a very different move, to open up your lives to the power of God’s word, to incline yourself to these ancient texts, to risk being remade by the Word.

Remember what happened to the people after Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah recorded in Luke 4? “The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” They were shocked in what they heard. They were shaken by what it meant.

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At this anniversary, we celebrate the Word of God that the missionaries long time ago brought to the Anal Naga people. We claim our dependence on the Bible as one of the most distinctive characteristics of our Anal Naga Baptist community. When we proclaim that today is the “acceptable year of the Lord,” we better be ready to risk being assaulted by the Word of God.

Nehemiah

That was our gospel lesson but now we turn to Nehemiah in the Old Testament.  Read Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10 with me. Turn in to your Bibles and read along with me.

The Israelites had not been back in Jerusalem for long. Jerusalem lay in ruins. It was a time of rebuilding. Nehemiah’s restoration program began with rebuilding the temple first and then the wall surrounding the city. So, they’ve got the temple, center of national prestige, sign of stability, symbol of the their possession of God. And they’ve got their wall to keep out all of the undesirables. (Unfortunately, we know something about this in the US.)

This is where the text begins; after the temple, after the walls, after our protection, our stability, we get the Word. This is where the trouble begins. During the rebuilding of the walls, an ancient scroll is found, and it is here that the people began to recognize who they are again. After rebuilding the temple and the walls, the intrusive Word of God comes.

The people wept when they heard again the long lost Word. Here Israel at its best: listening to the Word, the intrusive Word, aligning itself accordingly. We should hear an echo of Nehemiah 8 when we hear Luke 4. That day when Jesus unrolled the scroll and preached what everyone had come to hear and no one expected to hear, namely, the Word of God, there was also a stirring in Nazareth, even as there was a stirring in the hearts of those who gathered before the Water Gate in Jerusalem recorded in Nehemiah.

Stirring Hearts

Nehemiah says the people wept when confronted by the Word. Here is my question to you: Did the people weep that day from joy or sadness? You decide. It is conceivable that they wept for joy at being reminded of who they were, to whom they were accountable, to whom they belong. They were Jews, people of the Word; accountable not to racial, gender, cultural, emotional experiences, but to the Word.

Yet when Jesus read and preached from Isaiah that day in Nazareth, Luke says there was rage, not joy, at hearing the Word. They wanted to kill the preacher, and eventually they did, for delivering an intrusive Word from a living, active and present God, a God brought near to us through little more than the mere unwrapping of a long-forgotten scroll, buried in the wall, and somebody with enough courage to read from it.

Are you hearing the Word with joy or sadness today? Is the Word of God stirring your heart?

While the Roman Empire assaulted their subjects with oppressive power and unspeakable violence, in less than 400 years, the church defeated the Romans on nothing more than the Word, the intrusive Word of God. The Baptist prophet Will Campbell says, “The Word is our first offense, it is also our last defense.”

In December 2018, there was a story in our newspapers about a small Protestant chapel in The Hague in the Netherlands. For more than a month, a rotating roster of preachers has been leading a non-stop, round-the-clock service. They are attempting to shield a family of Armenian asylum seekers from deportation.

Under a centuries-old tradition, authorities in the Netherlands don’t enter a church while a service is under way. That means that for now the Tamrazyan family—parents, their two daughters and son—are safe from Dutch authorities who want to send them back to Armenia.

“There was only one thing you could do and that was starting a church service to save the life of this family, but also call attention for the fate of so many children in similar circumstances,” said Theo Hettema, chair of the General Council of the Protestant Church of the Hague. “It is heartbreaking. We had compassion and we had good reasons and we thought it was the mission of our church to act like this.”

Hettema said that after initially using local preachers to deliver the service, the church has now reached out to others and has received offers of help from some 500 people from different churches as far away as Belgium.

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By preaching the Word of God, these many preachers and the church in the Netherlands are proclaiming the acceptable year of our Lord.

To proclaim the acceptable year of our Lord is to once again unwrap the scroll of the Word of God, the godly words to come forth, to begin the adventure again. The Word of God is given freedom to roam about in your life, in our lives, and the people of God are renewed once again.

Year of Jubilee

One of the Scriptures you chose is Leviticus 25:10 that speaks about the Year of Jubilee. Anal Naga people are agricultural people who have a deep understanding of the relationship between the land that God has given to you and you as the people given the responsibility to become good stewards of the land. In fact, your origin folklore speaks about your ancestors coming out of a cave in the ground, on the land.

Read Leviticus 25:8-10. Now that you have entered the 50th year, “you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all of its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family.” This is what we are celebrating this weekend.

Returning to Luke 4, Jesus has come to proclaim the good news to the poor. No longer do they need to wait. His message will bring much needed healing among the people. In addition, Jesus has come to bring forgiveness, to release those who have been imprisoned. To those eyes who have been blinded to the reality of God in their midst, Jesus will provide sight. Finally Jesus has come to announce the year of forgiveness, the acceptable year.

Jesus announces that his ministry will be like the year of Jubilee. Every fifty years, the fields rested and were reinvigorated for future harvests. In this jubilee year, debts are forgiven. People returned home. Slaves were set free. Some scholars speculate that the very year that Jesus appears in the Nazareth synagogue may have been the year of jubilee, around 26-27 CE.

Anniversary Words

As Anal Naga Baptists in your centenary celebration, what might be your words to live by? How will the Word of God transform the words that you will now speak for the next 50 years of faithfulness and witness?

When two people stand up and say things like, “I take you as my lawfully wedded husband,” a world is created that did not exist before, a world no less real simply because it came into being through words.

Or someone arrives saying, “Your cancer test has come back and it’s negative.” That’s a new world, too. Or just little words like, “I love you.” There is no world until we find the words to make that world.

Walter Brueggemann said, “By our speech, we are world makers, even as Genesis 1, the creator God spoke and the worlds came into being with, ‘Let there be light.” And there was light. All from the Word.

What will your words be for the next 50 years? God is calling you today:

            To bring good news to the poor;

            To proclaim the release of the captives

            And recovery of sight to the blind’

            To let the oppressed go free,

            To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

When Jesus was being tempted in the wilderness for 40 days, starving for the lack of bread, Satan came to him and offered him free bread, all he wanted, if he would just bow down and worship him. And Jesus, so hungry he could die, said, “We don’t live by bread, but by the Word of the Lord.”

We live, only because of the Word.

Let us pray.

“Let the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and my redeemer.” Bless this anniversary celebration to be an acceptable expression of our praise to you in Christ Jesus who became Lord and Savior granting new life to the Anal Naga people. May every time we hear the Word of God that we change our ways from this world and toward your grace and mercy to be your beloved community. In the name of our Lord, we pray. Amen.

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