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TEXT: Leviticus 16:6-19
SUBJECT: Yom Kippur #3: Atonement
If you had to sum up the Bible with one verse, I'm not sure you could do any better than Romans 6:23-
For the wages of sin is death,
But the gift of God is eternal life
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.
This is what the Bible is all about: Sin, death, Christ, and Life. Pastors with a semester of Greek under their belts will tell you, 'to sin means to miss the mark'. This is true as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough. Sin is more than a single act of missing the mark, or a succession of acts missing the mark. Sin is living for someone other than God, or rather, for someone instead of God. In the words of Paul, sin is-
Worshiping and serving the creature,
More than the Creator, who is blessed
Does it matter which created thing you serve more than God? In a horizontal way, it does-of course it does. The man who lives for his country and lays down his life for its defense is a far better man than the one who lives for money and betrays his country to line his pockets.
From the perspective of God, however, the two are more alike than they are different. The first man idolizes his country; the second man idolizes money. But they're both idolaters, for neither man puts the Lord first. This is what He wants from us; it's what He demands-
Love the Lord your God with all of your
Heart, with all of your soul, and with all
Of your mind. This is the first and greatest
How can it be otherwise? Reason alone tells you the one who gives you a gift is better than the gift he gives. And, what would you think of the ten-year-old boy he eagerly tore open his Christmas present and then spit in the face of the parents who bought it for him? Would you say he really likes the X-Box, or that-though differing from yours-his set of values is equally good? Or would you say he's a rotten kid? 'He's a rotten kid'-we'd all say that-because that's what he is.
This is what we are when we want the gifts of God but not the Giver. Rotten kids. Sin is living for someone or something other than God. We choose to live this way, of course, but there's more to it than choice. Sin is a power that is both inside of us-and outside. Let skeptics laugh at us for believing in the devil, but after the laughter stops, ask them how to explain the world without him.
In the Medieval world, suicide was the unpardonable sin. If a man died this way, the church would not bury him in hallowed ground, the priest would not say last rites over him, and his family would be told in no uncertain terms: he's in hell.
Martin Luther grew up in this world, but he did not consign suicides to eternal flames. Because, he said, not all of them wanted to die, but-
They were overcome by the devil, and died, like a man killed by robbers in the forest.
What am I saying-that we're not responsible for our sins? I am not saying that: we are responsible for our sins-but sin has a power far greater than willpower. Yes, we choose to sin, but we're also the slaves of sin. This is what our Lord said, and what our own consciences bear witness to daily-
Whoever commits sin is the slave of sin;
And if the Son shall make you free, you shall
Be free indeed.
We are sinners by choice and compulsion, both because we want to be and because we can't help it. When asked about free will, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous said-
The alcoholic is free to drink whiskey, gin, or beer; what he's not free to do is to not drink.
If drinking is not your thing, you may think he's making excuses for himself and other drunkards. You'll feel this way until it comes to your thing-maybe not drinking or drugs-but what about resentment? If it's all a matter of 'trying harder' how come all your trying has not freed you from your grudges? Or pride? You look down on other people as failures or losers or weaklings-and maybe they are: but if you can change yourself by trying harder, how come you can't stop looking down on others as failures, losers, or weaklings?
What I'm trying to say is: we're all addicts, we're all hooked on sin.
And, as I said a few minutes ago-
The wages of sin
SIN AND DEATHWe should know this by now, and in a certain way we do, but then we forget it. We need to retell ourselves the story: When the Lord made Adam and Eve, He gave them some things to do: have babies, till the ground, tame the animals, protect the Garden, and eat all the fruits and vegetables and grains they want.
These were the positive commands they got from the start, but there was a command on the other side too. There was only one thing Adam and Eve were not allowed to do-
Eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Because, if they did, they-
Would surely die.
Did they eat the forbidden fruit? Yes they did, and that very day they died spiritually, and years later, they died physically, just as the Lord said they would.
The next major event we have in the Bible occurs ten generations later. By now, the human race has grown in number and power and skill, but not in wisdom. The world has soured like milk, and God's not going to take it much longer. One man finds grace in His eyes, and for decades he pleads with the others to turn from their evil ways, but they don't. They only get worse-
Every imagination of the thoughts of men's hearts was only evil continually.
Till God washed them away in the Flood. Within forty days, the whole human race was destroyed, except for Noah who was in the ark with his family.
Many years later, God's people went down to Egypt, and were received by Pharaoh as honored guests. There they prospered, till a new king arose who did not remember Joseph. He forced the Israelites into slavery, and would have wiped them out, if God had not struck first. Nine deadly plagues crashed down on the head of this wicked king and his people, but he would not give in to God or let His people go.
Then God sent an angel of death through the land of Egypt and struck down-
The firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on the throne, even to the firstborn of the maidservant who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the beasts.
A few months after their escape from Egypt, the Israelites met God where He had told them He would be: at Mount Sinai. He gave Moses the Law, and it was shot through with capital crimes, from murder to idolatry, adultery, blasphemy, witchcraft, and many others. The Lord was impressing upon His people the gravity of sin and the danger it exposes them to.
The death penalty was not merely 'on the books', it was enforced, as for example:
A whole generation died in the wilderness for the crime of unbelief; the sons of Aaron died for offering strange fire to the Lord; Korah and others died for trying to take the leadership away from Moses; 3,000 died in the shadow of the Golden Calf; and one man was stoned to death for picking up sticks on the Sabbath.
We could follow the history of Israel for many more years, and the same lesson would be hammered home time and again-
The wages of sin
What was enacted in history so many times, is also spelled out for us all over the Bible, but no verse captures it better than Ezekiel 18:4-
The soul that sinneth,
It shall die.
Yom Kippur is the holiest day on the Hebrew calendar. On that day-the Day of Atonement-the justice of God was satisfied in the only way it can be: by sinners getting what they deserve, and that is death.
The whole nation was sinful-from angry Moses to cowardly Aaron; from the crooked merchant to the envious milkmaid to the lustful schoolboys, and everyone else. What Isaiah said of the people in his day was equally true in the wilderness-
Alas, sinful nation,
A people laden with iniquity,
A brood of evildoers,
Children who are corrupters!
They have forsaken the Lord,
They have provoked to anger
The Holy One of Israel,
They have turned away backward.
If they were a well-meaning people, needing only a gentle nudge in the right direction now and then, killing them would be unjust and criminal. But they weren't misguided children or sinners with hearts of gold!
They were sinners with hearts of sin! 'Stiff-necked', the Bible calls them, and 'rebels'. They knew God and had experienced His infinite power and tender mercies. But they rejected Him-and not once only-but every day, for forty years they despised Him and flouted His law.
On the Day of Atonement, God settled the score with His people. He imposed on them the punishment their crimes deserved, and that's death.
But it wasn't they who died that Day; it was a goat and a bull. Had they done anything wrong? No they hadn't: animals cannot sin, and both were without spot and blemish, indicating their goodness, not their badness.
Yet it was the clean animals who died in the place of unclean sinners.
Some ceremonies are empty-they're 'full of sound and fury signifying nothing'. The rituals God gave are not empty; they're full of meaning, meaning on the surface and below it as well. The Atonement taught Israel-and teaches us-the things we most need to know:
In Israel, the sin bearers were bulls and goats (on the Day of Atonement), and other animals on other days, sheep, oxen, turtle doves, and so on.
But whether His wrath fell on the Nation or on the Sacrifice, fall it must and fall it did. The Day of Atonement was a bloody day-
Aaron shall kill the bull.take some of its blood and sprinkle it on the mercy seat with his finger seven times.then he shall kill the goat and bring its blood inside the veil, and sprinkle it on the mercy seat.he shall take some of the blood of the bull and some of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around.
The Day of Atonement wreaked of death, and the white linen clothes Aaron wore were splattered with blood. Not, however, the blood of sinful men, but the blood of animals without spot or blemish.
When the blood was received by God, the high priest came out of the Holy Place alive and well, and with Good News for the people! Peter tells us what it was-
The just for the unjust.
Israel deserved to die, but they didn't die, because a bull and goat died in their place. The animals were the gift of God and they gave Israel life, life in the Promised Land, and the good things that go with it: happy marriages, children, fertile farms, peace, security, all the earthly good they could want.
The wages of sin is death.
And, under the Old Covenant-
The gift of God is the sweet life through the atoning sacrifices.
From here, there is a straight line to Christ. We are sinners deserving death, in body and soul, time and eternity. But we have not died under the wrath of God-and we won't die because Someone died in our place. John calls Him-
The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
If God gave Israel bulls and goats to secure their earthly life, He gives us the Lord Jesus to secure our eternal life. This is what He has done for us-
He bore our sins in His own body on the tree that we should live righteously, by whose stripes we are healed.
The Son of God has died for us, and this means we are free from God's wrath, both now and in the future. The Lord will discipline us in this life, and sometimes the discipline feels like His wrath, as though He is so mad at us for what we've done, He no longer loves us or wants us or will take us to heaven when we die. But the writer of Hebrews knows better. The pains we suffer in this life are of His doing, but they come from His love and will make us the people He wants us to be, and deep down, the people we want to be.
In a word, we will not be damned, in fact, we cannot be, for as Paul says-
Who is he who condemns?
It is Christ who died.
Let us, therefore, live our lives in the godly fear of reverence, but no more in the sickening fear of guilt. Are we sinful? Yes we are, but Jesus is the Sin Offering, and because He died, we live.
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