Juneteenth and Sabbath: Holidays of Freedom

Juneteenth and Sabbath: Holidays of Freedom

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Published:
June 17, 2021

Several years ago, I discovered that my birthday (June 19th) connects to a relatively unknown American holiday. Juneteenth's general obscurity is due, in part, to its regional origins. In her recently released book, On Juneteenth, author Annette Gordon-Reed, professor of history at Harvard Law School, provides an account of this story: 

June 19th, 1865, shortened to “Juneteenth,” was the day that enslaved African Americans in Texas were told that slavery had ended, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed, and just over two months after the Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. Despite the formal surrender the Confederate army had continued to fight on in Texas until the end of May. It was only after they finally surrendered that Major General Gordon Granger, while at his headquarters in Galveston, prepared General Order Number 3, announcing the end of legalized slavery in the state.1

In this blended historical and personal narrative, Gordon-Reed paints an intimate portrait of herself as a young girl coming of age in the state of Texas and shares with her readers the impact and influence race had on her life growing up in the last state to abolish slavery. She captures a picture of racism in America that shaped both the interior and exterior dimensions of her life. Reading her personal account of how race shaped her early life in Galveston, Texas, caused me to reflect more personally my own experience with race and on the meaning and significance of Juneteenth for my faith and life today. 

As an African American man living in a nation that still reflects the character of a nation formed in a racist past and continually guided by racism in the present, I am daily challenged to consider the ongoing impact and influence of race in both my public and private faith experience. This has led me to reflect on the meaning and significance of freedom within my Adventist faith tradition. What I discovered during my time of reflection was that while Adventists have historically demonstrated a value for freedom of religion (religious liberty)—including freedom of conscience—in matters of religious faith (abortion, LGBTQ issues, military service, etc.), we have not always tied our biblical understanding of religious freedom to a theology of liberation. Yet a deeper reflection of Scripture expressly requires this understanding. In Luke 4:16-21, Jesus introduces his mission and purpose for coming into the world in the context of liberation. The Gospel writer Luke records this personal narrative account of Jesus’ life in this way:

So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, 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 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.”2

I would like to share a few observations from the text cited above as we prepare to celebrate Juneteenth in the coming days. In order to accomplish this task, I would like to consider the place, time, background, authorial intent/purpose, and the occasion for this passage of Scripture.

First, I would like to draw our attention to the place or location of the text. According to the Gospel historian Luke, Jesus went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day. In Jesus' time the synagogue was the place of communal worship, learning, and prayers. Having grown up in a Jewish family, it would have been customary for Jesus to visit the synagogue on Sabbaths to nurture the communal dimension of His faith. While there, He would have often listened intently to the various discursive conversations on the law. During the early years of His life he would not have been permitted to teach Himself due to the law that Jewish men must be at least 30 years old to teach in the synagogue.3 Having sat patiently, Jesus entered the synagogue in His thirtieth year with a profound declaration that would not only challenge the teachers of His time but would shake the very foundations of Judaism and shape the contours of His mission and ministry for the next three and a half years. 

Second, I would like to consider the significance of the time in Luke’s passage. According to the text, Jesus visited the synagogue on the Sabbath day as was His custom. This demonstrates that spending time in the synagogue on the Sabbath for worship, learning, and prayers was an integral part of Jesus’ life. On one occasion when Jesus was challenged concerning His and the disciples’ behavior on the Sabbath, Jesus dismissed the accusers’ argument by stating His claim of authority as “Lord of the Sabbath.”5 For Jesus, the Sabbath was a memorial of creation (Exodus 20), but it was also something more: it was a memorial of liberation (Deuteronomy 5). For Jesus, the Sabbath was a day for Freedom. In fact, most of Jesus' recorded activities on the Sabbath find Him either liberating someone from their broken physical and spiritual condition (John 5 & 9) or liberating the Sabbath itself from false theological ideas and traditional rabbinic claims (Mark 2) that had essentially transformed the Sabbath into a day of bondage and burdens. This text is highly instructive for us as Seventh-day Adventists who view the Sabbath as a special day of rest, worship, and celebration of creation. The Sabbath only becomes meaningful and transformative in the lives of human beings as it is understood in light of its two-fold blessing: creation and liberation.

Third, Luke introduces the background for the text against the backdrop of an Old Testament Jewish tradition known as Mashach in the Hebrew or “to anoint” in English. This ritual in Jewish history and tradition originated with Aaron (Exodus 40:15; Leviticus 21:10) and was initiated upon entrance into the priesthood. During this sacred ritual, oil was poured over the head of the individual being inaugurated into the Aaronic priesthood. From this ritual came the Jewish concept of the Mashiah or Messiah “the anointed one,” meaning the one whom God himself has anointed as the savior and deliverer of Israel. Borrowing from this ancient Hebrew concept of anointing, Jesus quotes from the opening lines of Isaiah 61:1-2:

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me, because the Lord has anointed Me to preach good tidings to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.

Here Jesus points to “the Spirit of the Lord” as the agent of His anointing. In Old Testament times, oil was utilized for the anointing ritual, but for His priestly anointing Jesus states that the Spirit, whom Biblical writers identify with oil (Matthew 25), is the one who is poured to inaugurate Him into priestly ministry. In other words, He was saturated with the Spirit.5 The Greek word utilized in this passage of scripture, christos, meaning “anointed one,” refers to Jesus’ Messianic identity. Although Jesus never officially entered the Aaronic priesthood according to Jewish custom, Luke points to this moment in Jesus’ life and ministry where in accordance with Jewish custom and law He was anointed to carry out His life mission and purpose as the christos of God. For Jesus, this mission and purpose was to bring liberation to humanity.6

Our fourth observation in Luke’s Gospel narrative is the author’s intent/purpose. It is clear from this account that Luke intends to introduce this as the moment where Jesus identifies His Messianic identity and kingdom. Thus, Luke intentionally records the moment when Jesus quotes from a well-known Messianic passage of scripture to point to His own mission and purpose, for the purpose of presenting Jesus as the promised Messiah of Israel. For Luke, this changes everything in the narrative life of Jesus because we are no longer dealing with another zealous Rabbi, Jewish revolutionary, or rebellious instigator seeking to overthrow the Roman Empire by force. Perhaps the only question for Luke’s readers and those present at the time of Jesus’ inaugural sermon was what kind of Messiah would Jesus be? For Jesus, the answer was abundantly clear; He was called to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to restore sight to the blind, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and to set free all of those who are oppressed. And unless the passage is naively misunderstood or spiritualized away, it is important to note that Jesus ascends the pulpit at a time in Jewish history when they find themselves under the oppressive regime of the Roman Empire. Many of the Jews still find themselves subject to various forms of slavery and oppressive laws that were designed to exclude them from full participation and entrance into Roman citizenry. Except for a few Jewish elite, they were largely denied the opportunity to join in the pursuit of the Roman way of life, with its promise of freedom and justice for all—via Pax Romana or Roman Peace. For all who came under the banner of Rome the promise of peace and freedom was legally secured through Roman citizenry. This peace and freedom that became the hope of so many was tragically secured through the brutal domination and subjugation of other people groups to include various minorities (non-Roman citizens) including the Jews. It was into this world that Jesus came preaching and teaching the Gospel of the kingdom: the good news of liberation from captivity and all forms of human bondage to include socialpoliticaleconomicphysicalmental, and spiritual

This brings us to our fifth and final observation: the occasion for Jesus’ sermon. In Jesus’ final words He proclaims “the acceptable year of the Lord.” Then Luke records Jesus’ next actions with great specificity and attention to detail, noting that He gave back the scroll of Isaiah that He was reading from and took his seat, and while all of the eyes of the people of the synagogue were fixated on Him, he uttered these declarative words, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Can you imagine what must have been going through the hearers’ minds as they heard these words? Scripture actually records their response. Astonished and amazed by what they had just heard, they could not believe their ears. “Is not this Joseph’s son,” they muttered amongst themselves. In that moment the full weight and gravity of Jesus’ words weighed upon their hearts. Not only had Jesus declared himself to be the promised Messiah of Israel, who was anointed by God Himself to usher in the Messianic reign of the Kingdom of God, He also declared that the moment and day that they had been waiting for throughout all of their lives, and the whole of their collective Jewish History, had finally come and had been fulfilled through His prophetic words on that Sabbath day in the synagogue. Jesus stunned His congregation that day by essentially closing the doors of the synagogue (rejecting the traditional Jewish interpretations of the law) and then reopening the doors of the church (the new way of liberation in Christ) all in the same sermon appeal. As the old saints used to say, My God, my God, what a Word, what a Word! He sure did preach that day! 

Jesus’ message on that day was just as liberating and transformative then as it is today. It is the message of freedom. Jesus’ hearers that day would have understood clearly that his reference to “the acceptable year of the Lord” was a scriptural allusion to the year of Jubilee, a law given by God through Moses in Leviticus 25 that mandated the cancellation of all debts and the manumission of all slaves. During the Jubilee year, all persons who had sold themselves into slavery as a form of payment of debt were released from any further commitments of servitude, and all persons whose land had been sold as a payment of debt was returned back to its rightful owner or nearest kin. The law of Jubilee was built upon the Sabbatical laws, also known as the fallow laws, that required rest for the land every seven years (Exodus 23:10-11). The Jubilee year would occur following seven sabbatical years or every forty-nine years (7 x 7 = 49). It would begin with the Day of Atonement, representing the forgiveness of all sins and the renewal of the covenant (Leviticus 16), and conclude with a Jubilee celebration for the forgiveness of all debt and the release of all slaves. This release from debt and bondage meant that following every 49th year (in the 50th year); freedom and liberation became available to all. It was a time of great rejoicing and jubilation that all of God’s children were finally free. It was a day for freedom! Dr. Jacques Doukhan, former professor of OT and Hebrew at Andrews Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, suggests that Luke 4:16-22 should be read in light of Daniel 9:24-27, where Jesus is prefigured as the Messiah prince who finishes transgression, brings an end to sin, makes reconciliation for iniquity, and ushers in everlasting righteousness. For Doukhan, Daniel’s vision of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection represents a macro-jubilee where God brings freedom and liberation to all of humanity.7 This theme of freedom and liberation runs all throughout our beliefs as Seventh-day Adventists. It can be found in our understanding of the Sabbath, the liberating work of the Spirit, the messianic work of Jesus, and the uniquely Adventist belief in the anti-typical Day of Atonement, also known as the Pre-advent Judgment (the announcement of a cosmic Jubilee). With each of these beliefs, Adventists see the continual work of God in Jesus Christ on behalf of humanity, providing us with rest in Him, freedom in the Spirit, deliverance from bondage in all of its forms, and the joy of God’s judgment on our behalf—the promise of freedom and justice for all (Daniel 7:22, 8:14, 9:24-27). 

This brings me to the meaning and significance of Juneteenth for my faith and life today. As an African American Seventh-day Adventist, I believe we have a lot of work to do in order to properly represent the Messiah to the world in our present times. In a world filled with hate and bigotry, where minorities, immigrants, LGBTQ persons, and other marginalized groups are constantly discriminated against in the name of God and in the advancement of Christian beliefs (to include our own Fundamental Beliefs), Adventists must take a decided stand for present truth (denouncing all forms of bigotry), righteousness (reflecting God’s love in all of our social interactions) and justice (advocating for justice for all people). We must determine that we will advocate for those who are discriminated against, historically marginalized, and systematically oppressed; and we must determine once and for all to rid our own institutions of all vestiges of racism and bigotry. If we are going to faithfully claim to be believers in freedom and divine justice, we must affirm not only freedom of religion and conscience but freedom from all forms of enslavement (including all dehumanizing laws and discriminatory practices, including church policy).

Of all Christian faiths and people groups, Seventh-day Adventists should be foremost in promoting Juneteenth, not merely because it commemorates the final day of legalized slavery in the United States of America but because it points symbolically to the final day of enslavement and bondage in a world of sin that will soon come to an end on the day when the christos of God returns to set the captives free.8 On that day we shall be fully free from political corruption, racial bigotry, social injustice, economic deprivation, and all forms of enslavement to the sins that hold our world in bondage. What a day of rejoicing that will be! On this Sabbath, June 19, 2021, let’s join together in transforming a relatively unknown American Holiday (Juneteenth) into a national Sabbath celebration of our shared liberation, as a memorial of Jesus' messianic proclamation during the time of His first advent and the promise of His soon approaching second advent. Until then, as we practice truthrighteousness and justice, we wait with unbounded hope and joyful anticipation for the coming eternal Sabbath and cosmic Jubilee—our eternal Freedom Day.9

Notes & References:

1. Gordon-Reed, Annette, On Juneteenth. (New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2021), pg. 11.

2. All scripture texts are quoted from the New King James Version of the Bible unless specifically stated otherwise.

3. In Luke chapter 2 Jesus is seen at the age of 12 teaching in the Temple following the Passover celebration. This would not have been the same as the local synagogue in Jesus' hometown of Nazareth where He would have had to be at least 13 years of age to enter into the synagogue.

4. Mark 2:23-26

5. Luke 1:15 and Acts 10:38

6. 2 Corinthians 3:17

7. Doukhan, Jacques, “Shabbat Shalom” The Journal Of Jewish-Christian Reconciliation, Vol. 53, No. 2, (2006), pg. 7.

8. Although June 19, 1865 represents the day of the end of Legal slavery in the United States of America, slavery still remains permissible through penal labor (incarceration) according to the 13th Amendment. In addition to penal labor laws, convict leasing, sharecropping, and others forms of slavery continued well after 1865. For further study on the implications of modern day slavery see The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age Of Color Blindness by Michelle Alexander.

9. For further reading and study on the Sabbath and Jubilee see: The Old Testament Sabbath by Niels-Erik Andreason, The Sabbath More Than A Day–A Person by Clinton Baldwin, Rest And Redemption by Niels-Erik Andreason, Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest In A Nonstop World by A.J Swoboda, Divine Rest For Human Restlessness: A Theological Study of The Good News of the Sabbath for Today by Samuele Bacchiocchi, and The Lost Meaning Of The Seventh Day by Sigve K. Tonstad.

 

Dr. Michael C. Mickens, D.Min., received his Doctorate Of Ministry in Community Health and Sustainability from the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University in Richmond, VA. He currently serves as the Senior Pastor of the South Jackson and Canton Seventh-day Adventist Churches in Jackson, Mississippi.

Image Credit: Dr. Michael C. Mickens

 

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