Today at sundown our Jewish brothers and sisters will begin their celebration of Yom Kippur. This is the holiest day of the year in Judaism. This is the Day of Atonement, an annual observance of fasting, prayer and repentance. It is a time when reconciliation is made with others, self and most importantly with God. Commitments are made for inner change and for times of self-reflection. Part of this most holy day involves people being both seekers and givers of pardon. The command is to let go of any resentment towards those that might have offended. Many Jews believe Yom Kippur is the day they feel the closest to God. For many Jews this day is spent in the synagogue where five prayer services are held. At sunset the following day the observance of Yom Kippur is concluded with the blowing of the shofar, the ram's horn. After that there is time for a feast, singing and dancing. And while Yom Kippur is the most solemn day of the year it carries with it an undercurrent of joy...the joy of being immersed in the spirit of the day and the hope and thanks that God will accept His people's repentance, forgive sins and provide another year of life, health and happiness.
We turn to everyone's favorite book, the Book of Leviticus to get the story of the Day of Atonement. It is found in Leviticus 16:8-34. There is more in Leviticus 23 and Numbers 29. Here we see God making provision for His people to come to Him to ask for the forgiveness of their sins. It was a yearly reminder that all of Israel's daily sacrifices were not enough to permanently atone or pay for sin. This is the only time of the year that the high priest would enter the most holy of places, the holy of holies. This is the place where the ark of the covenant sat, the place where devout Jews believed God dwelt. The word atonement means covering. The purpose of this service was to repair the broken relationship between God and humans that sin had caused. The high priest would remove his fancy clothes and enter the holy of holies in a white linen robe...white for repentance.
Once his clothes were changed the high priest would make a sin offering for himself and the other priests. They could not ask for forgiveness unless they had first made atonement for themselves. Then the high priest would enter the holy of holies with a pan of glowing coals from the altar of incense, filling the air with a fragment and smoky cloud. Using two fingers the high priest would then sprinkle the blood of the bull of the sin offering on the cover of the ark of the covenant and on the floor in front of it.
When that was finished the high priest would come out of the most holy place and cast lots between two live goats. One was killed as a sin offering for the nation of Israel and the other...the high priest would place both his hands on the head of the live goat and confess the sins of the whole nation before the altar of burnt offerings, transferring their sins to the scapegoat. Then he would give the live goat to a specially appointed person who took the goat outside of camp and turned it loose in the wilderness. This was the scape goat because it bore all the sins of the people.
Every year this ritual was observed. Everyday animals without blemish were sacrificed for the forgiveness of sin because the only atonement for sin is the shedding of innocent blood. But the animals were not fully innocent because they were tainted by the sin of the world. So over and over sacrifices were made. Year after year sins were atoned for. But both the priests and animals were of the sinful and fallen world. So, sin was never truly atoned for.
But when the time was right God sent His one and only Son, Jesus. The Son of God incarnate, made flesh. He came to show us how great God's love for us is. He lived as we live. He was tempted as we are and probably much worse. Jesus was fully human, but unlike us He did not sin. He did not fall to temptation. HE was the perfect, sinless sacrifice. That is why He came. In Jesus day the high priest was still entering the most holy place on the Day of Atonement to ask for the forgiveness of sins.
With His arrest, trial and conviction, Jesus was sentenced to a most heinous death. Just like the innocent animals of Jewish history, Jesus became the sacrifice for sin...every sin ever committed. Except He was not tainted by the sin of the world. His sacrifice was the last one needed for the atonement, the covering of our sins. Just as the high priest laid his hands on the head of the scape goat, Jesus took all our sins upon Himself. He became the scapegoat. He too wandered in the wilderness...the wilderness of sin, death and evil. He defeated them all and because of that we know the promise of eternal life. Because Jesus made atonement for us, our sins are covered by His blood. And when we stand before God, He will not see our sins. He will see one washed clean in the atoning blood of Jesus.
The holy of holies was closed off from God's people by a huge curtain that in the temple was 60 feet tall and four inches thick. God's people had no direct access to Him. But when Jesus cried out it is finished, that curtain was rent in two, from the top to the bottom. By paying the price for our sins Jesus gave us direct access to God. There is no need to offer any more sacrifices. The price has been paid. As the song says, Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe. Sin has left a crimson stain, He washed it white as snow.
And every time we come to the communion table, we are reminded once again that the debt for our sins has been laid through the broken body and shed blood of our lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
In His grip
Pastor Matt W