The Day of Atonement

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Welcome to HTG today – a special welcome to you if this is your first time.  I'm really glad you could be here for this morning as we celebrate five years as a church.  But even more than that I'm glad you can be here to hear this, because this morning we're looking at one of the most central and important issues in all of the Bible, I would say in all of life.  We're looking at how we can get access to God.

I don't know if you've ever thought about it before, maybe you know God, you have a very clear idea of how we can have access to him, or maybe you're on the other extreme and you've given up on the idea of ever getting to know God, maybe you think God is far off and beyond our knowing, or maybe you doubt there is a God out there at all.  Well what I want to say this morning is that God is there and we can have access to him – and that's great news; but access is not completely free and open, we need special help to get it.

Now that shouldn't surprise us overly – there's lots of things that we limit access to.  Take money for instance – we want to be able to access our money when we like – but we don't want anyone else to be able to get it!

And its not just money that we try to restrict access to – when you came to church this morning did you lock your house behind you?  Did you lock your car?

And, of course the more significant the thing is the more we want to control access to it.  So think about trade secrets – like the Colonel's 11 secret herbs and spices; or the secret recipe to Coca Cola, they are increadibly closely guarded because they're the key to the companies success.

Or think about the hacking scandal and the Leverson enquiry – what was so scandalous was that journalists hacked into private things – emails, voicemails, private conversations – and they brought someone else's private things into the public.  They gave all of us access to things that didn't belong to us or them.

So what about God?  How can we get access to God?  Is he freely accessible like air and water, or is access limited, and if access is limited what is the key that opens that access so that we can get to God?  This is one of the big questions of life isn't it?  If God is really there, how can I get to know him, how can I get close to him?

We're going to answer that question this morning by looking at Leviticus 16, the Day of Atonement.  It will be helpful if you have that passage open, it's the one we read earlier in the service, on page 83 in the blue bibles.  Now this passage was written about three and a half thousand years ago.  And you probably noticed that it describes a world that is wildly different from ours.  A world of animal sacrifices and blood splattered on priests, altars and even people.  It sounds very out of date doesn't it?  Perhaps that fits with what you expect from church – about as relevant to modern life as anything else from the Bronze Age.  If that's you, try and work with me here and see if you still feel the same when we've had a closer look.

See, in that time, before Jesus came, access to God was limited to just one nation –Israel.  The book of Exodus tells the story of God rescuing the whole nation from slavery inEgypt– and God says to them I will be your God and you will be my people.  That arrangement leads to a system of law and government that is one of the main basis for our modern western society.  But it wasn't just a civil government.

The system God gave them included a detailed religious organisation too.  And at the centre of that system was the idea that God would live with them – the God who made the universe, who rescued them out of slavery would somehow come and live among the people.  God had them make a special tent – called the tabernacle – and it was set up in the middle of the camp.  God lived among them, right at the centre of the nation.  When they settled eventually in thelandofIsraelthey were to build a similar, but permanent, structure – the temple.

Along with the tent and thetempleGodgave them a religious system to regulate their relationship.  The Day of Atonement was one religious festival among many, but in a way it makes sense of the whole religious programme.  See Atonement – means at-one-ment – it's the process of making things at one.  On the Day of Atonement God and people are brought together, the Day of Atonement is about access to God.  In that sense it gets to the heart of the whole Jewish religious system.

And the first thing that we learn about the Day of Atonement is that access to God is limited. Aaron, the high priest had four sons, all four of them were priests.  But two of them, Nadab and Abihu, approached God directly, without the sacrifices that he required, and in Leviticus 10:2 we read that the Lord put them to death:

'so fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD'

HUH?  That's heavy isn't it?

Chapter 16 begins with that – saying that Aaron, even though he's the High Priest, mustn't think he can come to God any old time or in any way he likes.  No, he can only come to God in the way that God specifies and at the time that God specifies.  The Day of Atonement is the one day of the year when he can enter into the very heart of the tabernacle – the most holy place, where God lived.  The ceremony and ritual of the day was the key that opened the way to access to God. 

So what does it do, how does it open the way to God?  Let's have a closer look:

The ritual that makes us one with God

For many of us the Day of Atonement will be familiar territory, we've heard all this before.  Some of us might still be reeling at how strange it was.  Either way I want us to try and imagine what it would be like if we happened to wander into the Israelite camp while this was going on.  What would it be like to stand there and watch this day as it happened?

Some things about the jump out at us straight away don't they:

The day is very carefully structured – it's full of ceremony and drama, there's special clothes, everything is done very deliberately, everything is choreographed: there's ritual sacrifices, ceremonial washing's  and sprinkling blood and burning incense; but none of it's random, it's all done to a pattern.

More than that its all very vivid, striking, as the Priest in his white linen robes works through these ceremonies in front of the whole nation (you can imagine the children squeezing to the front, the people at the back peering around to get a glimpse of the action, perhaps people arriving early to reserve the best spots ….).  And it's not just visual, there's a distinct smell as the burnt offerings sizzle on the altar all day, like a spit roast gone a bit wrong.

Probably the thing that stands out most for us are the graphic animal deaths that happened right in front of everyone, especially since the animals weren't just killed, their throats were slit and their blood was drained out and then splashed around everywhere – the priest's white linen must have been stained red, the tent must have been stained, the altar must have been stained, even the people watching were covered with blood – it's almost barbaric.

And that's another thing – there's a whole lot of death and blood in this passage – it's a gory, bloody day.  The high priest kills a bull and a ram for his and his families sin, and then he kills another bull and a goat for the sin of the people.  He would put his hands on the animal's head and confess sin over it, and he would then cut its throat and drain it's blood.  Later a second goat would be led off into the wilderness to die.  Can you imagine how disturbing all this would be to watch?  It certainly wouldn't count as family entertainment.

But there's still more death in Leviticus 16 – there is a very real chance that the Priest himself could die if he gets any of this wrong.  Two of the high priest's sons had already been killed for approaching God in the wrong way.  v2 warns that the High Priest will also die if he approaches God in any old way he likes.  vs 3 says these instructions for the Day of Atonement must be followed to the letter or the High Priest will be put to death; and in case he forgot about this warning, vs 13 reminds the priest that he is entering into the very presence of God and it could be fatal for him if the atonement cover is not covered by a cloud of incense.

And along with all that death there is sin, the day was about dealing with sin, rebellion and wickedness, and about uncleanness as a result of sin, rebellion and wickedness:  Aaron offers up sin offerings for himself and his family, and for the whole nation of Israel.  Vs 16 talks of making atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been, and for the tent of meeting, which is among them in the midst of their uncleanness, verse 30 and 34 make clear that this whole day has been necessary because of their sin, it's their sin that needs to be atoned for if they are to be clean so that God can live among them.

Finally we notice there seems to be a whole lot of atonement going on, there are a whole lot of things that need it.  All sorts of things have been contaminated by Israel's sin.  The priest, his family, the people, the most holy place, the tent of meeting, the altar on which they make their sacrifices – everything needs atonement because of the sin of the people.

What are we to make of all this?  What's going on?  It's a bit like we have stumbled onto a game of Gridiron or Australian Football.  Something is going on that has the crowd enthralled.  The crowd's watching someone who they identify with, doing something that they're passionately supporting.  They're very carefully and deliberately doing something very meaningful to them, everything is ordered and deliberate.  They seem to be playing by a set of rules that have some sort of meaning.  But if we don't know the rules the whole thing seems meaningless, bizarre, and brutal, primitive even.  It's all so barbaric, why all the blood and guts, why is bloody death at the centre of it all, and why are the crowd so into it?  What is going on here?

Unlocking the Symbols

So the question is: 'what do these symbols mean? How can this ritual unlock access to God?'

So let's work through it:

First, access to God is a great privilege. Israel were profoundly blessed – we would say lucky – to have God in their camp.  When they pitched their tents, God had his tent (the tabernacle) right in the very centre.  He was with them, he was their God: there to protect them and lead them and bless them.  The very God who made the universe chose to live with these people.  It's astonishing when you think about it.

But this Day of Atonement reminds the people not to take this privilege lightly – God lives among them, but he wasn't domesticated, or owned.  He is God, he rules and they're his possession, not the other way around.  God is not open access like air and water, he's more like state secrets – severely restricted access, we can only come to him on his terms, in the way that he decided.  He's God he makes the rules.

Second, sin blocks access to God.  The things we do matter, all of them.  There are no things that God isn't interested in, and when we do things that are offensive to him it blocks our access to him.  Not only is God a great ruler, but he is pure and holy, and all sin is offensive to him, so much so that we will die if we ever enter his presence in our sinful state, just like Aaron's two sons, the priests, died when they entered God's presence.  This is the point of all the sacrifices and the sprinkling of blood and the washing that God required on that day. 

God was showing the people that sin leaves a stain, a mark, it makes us unclean, unfit for his presence. 

And the stain that sin leaves is not the sort that will come out in the wash, Daz won't touch it.

Third access can be restored by sacrificial blood.

The really curious thing here is that Sin leaves a stain that only blood will remove.

Weird: blood's a stain maker, not a stain remover.  So why all the blood?  The next chapter in verse 11 tells us that the blood represents the life of the person or animal – when our blood is poured out, our life is poured out and we die.

On the Day of Atonement the blood of the animal sacrifices represented the lives of those animals which died for sins.  When the priest put his hands on the head of the animal and confessed his own sin or the sins of the people, the guilt for sin was symbolically transferred to the goat, or the bull.  And Then the animal got what the people deserved.  It died in their place.

The blood of the sacrifice removed the stain of sin because the life of the animal was taken – their guilt was dealt with and they were cleansed and fit to come before God.  There's something remarkable going on here – this ritual sacrifice is no empty ritual, it says that there is a way for us to get clean from the stain of sin.  Sin leaves a guilty stain, but that stain can be removed by sacrifice.  In another passage in Isaiah God says that he will take away the stain of sin so that we will be as white as snow – pure, brilliant white, unstained, beautiful.

God makes this clear by the scapegoat.  Remember the High Priest brought along two goats for the people – one to be sacrificed as a sin offering for the people and the other as the scapegoat?  After the high priest had finished making atonement, after he had sacrificed the sin offerings and the burnt offerings for himself and for the people, after he had cleansed the altar, the tent of meeting and the most holy place, after blood had been poured out and spread all over all those things – then he brought out the scapegoat.

He took that goat and he put both hands on its head and he confessed all the sins of the people over the goat, just like he had done earlier with the other sacrifices.  Only this time he didn't cut its throat and pour out its blood, this time the animal was led away to a far distant place and left to die in the wilderness.

God was showing by this that when their sin had been atoned for it was taken away from them, just like that goat was separated from them.  God would not remember their sin anymore.  Its guilt and its stain was removed from them.

Do you see the implication of all this – God wants us to come near to him – this is perhaps the most surprising thing about this whole day.  God is a great King, and we are filthy with the stain of sinful rebellion, but God makes a way for us to be made clean so that we can come to him and be his people.  It doesn't have to be this way, there is no reason in God or in us that meant that he had to chose a people and give them access – but he makes a way.

But there is still a problem –  atonement by blood of bulls and goats doesn't fully work – at the end of the day access to God is severely limited. There is only one nation who gets to enjoy God's presence.   Of that nation only one of them ever gets to go into God's very presence.  That guy only gets to go in once a year.  And to go in he has to go through a complex ritual of dealing with sin, and even then, he might still die!  His access is limited and fleeting, and the rest of the people only enjoy access to God by proxy, they're represented by the priest who goes in for them.

After all of that, the whole thing needs to be done over and over year after year – it is established to be a lasting ordinance, the job is never done, they have to come back and do it all again next year, and the year after –indefinitely.  Doing it once isn't enough, it needs to be repeated year after year so God can continue to live with them.

In this sense, the Day of Atonement was a bit like owning an old banger for a car.  I had one when I was a student and there was something wrong with that car.  For little trips it was fine, but every time I went on a long trip it would just cut out on me – everything just died, usually half way up a hill on a cold night in the middle of nowhere.   So I'd call the AA and they'd tow me to the garage and the mechanic would fix it.  Or at least he did stuff to the engine and I paid him.  But it never made a difference; it just kept on breaking down.  The problem wasn't fixed at all.  If it had been fixed the ca wouldn't break down and I wouldn't have to keep going back with the same problem over and over and over again.

And the same goes for the problem of sin and the Day of Atonement.  The Day of Atonement didn't fully deal with sin, if it could the people wouldn't have had to go back, year after year to do the same thing over and over and over again. 

The Day of Atonement says that access to God is available, but it's severely limited because we just can't stop sinning.  To gain access to God something had to be done about the stain of sin.  That stain could be removed by appropriate sacrifices, performed by a representative priest, but bulls and goats didn't do it perfectly so they had to be repeated year after year to get just a short moment of access to God.

All this is a bit like having access to the internet – but only after cleaning your desk and backing up all your files and dusting off your computer and setting your room in order and taking a shower and dressing in special clothes, and only for between the hours of 1 and 2 pm and only on Monday the 22nd of May, and only at miserably slow speeds – that is, pretty much no access at all.

But doesn't God want us to know him?  Doesn't the whole set up show that God wants to be close to people – why rescue people in the exodus and live in the middle of the nation if they still couldn't get access to God?  Doesn't the whole thing sound like there should be some sort of solution, some way of getting rid of the guilt of sin so we can get unrestricted access to God?  Surely this can't be the end of the story.

And it's not.  Because when Jesus came he said all that stuff in the OT was pointing to me.  When it comes to guilt and sin Jesus taught that the ritual and sacrifice in the OT didn't actually deal with sin and guilt – instead it was a great big picture of what Jesus was going to do by his death for us.  The NT reading that we heard earlier explained that the Day of Atonement was just a shadow of the good things would come in Jesus.  The blood of bulls and goats made the worshipers outwardly clean so they could get a fleeting access to God, but Jesus' blood – his life remember, his life given for us on the cross – Jesus' blood gives true inward cleansing so we can have unrestricted access to God.

In the OT God was closely guarded – like Fort Knox, the tabernacle was like a bank vault – on a time switch, it only opened once a year, and the PIN code was a whole days worth of sacrifices.  God's in there, but you can't go in to see him, you can't walk off with him, he's just out of reach.  But when Jesus came 1500 years later he radically transformed everything – he was the great high priest who made sacrifices to cleanse our guilty consciences.  He didn't offer up cheap sacrifices of animals, but he gave himself up in our place.  And most important of all, he didn't need a yearly top up – he gave himself once for all, never to be repeated.  He didn't need to repeat a thing because the job is done – unlike my old banger that never got fixed, Jesus did the job once and did it properly, we never need to go back and repeat it.  Jesus died on the cross as a sacrifice of atonement – he died to take our sin and to make us clean.

So the amazing conclusion to all this is that Jesus transforms our access to God; Jesus washes us clean in our very consciences.

Remember that promise that I quoted from elsewhere in the OT – God says your sins are like scarlet, but they will be as white as snow.  Sacrificing bulls and goats can't make that a reality.  Nor can going to church, or getting baptised, or living a basically good life.  But Jesus can.  All our guilt, all our shame, all the things we've ever done that we wish we could undo.  All the hurt we've caused to others, all the times we've let ourselves down and done things we're ashamed of or embarrassed by.  Those things add up to a great big guilty stain on our conscience, and it weighs us down.  Worse, it keeps us at a distance from God, blocks our access to him.

But Jesus, one day in 1st Century Jerusalem gave up his life on the cross as a sacrifice of atonement – to wash our consciences clean and to make it possible for us to be at one with God despite all those things.  Now we can be at one with God – not by ritual, nor by religious practice, but simply by trusting in what Jesus has done.

That's what we're about here at HTG – putting our trust in Jesus so that we can come close to God again; being his people so he can be our God.  The reality that we know is that God is very good.  He is real, he is mighty and powerful and amazing.  And he gave up his son for us so that we could come close to him again.  And there is nothing in all this world like coming to him and having your conscience cleansed.

So I don't know why you're here this morning, I don't know what you might be looking for.  But I want to offer you something amazing.  You can be set right with God, at one with him.  Right here and now you can deal with guilt and do away with it – your very conscience can be cleansed, washed clean like fresh snow.  And you don't have to sacrifice a bull and a goat and splash around in blood – the sacrifice has been made for us; all we need to do is to admit to ourselves and to God that we need it – and put our trust in Jesus who has done it all for us.

Do you think that sounds like a good offer?  Do you think that's worth checking out?  I hope you do – it is, it really, really is.  The best way I know to check this out is to come along to Christianity Explored – it's a seven week course that lets you look closely at what Jesus has done and weigh it up for yourself.  We've got a course starting on Thursday night with a free meal – why not come along on Thursday and just see where it goes.  There are other ways to check things out – we've got lots of literature in the foyer that might help, I'd recommend this free book called 'more than a carpenter' if you want to take that and think it through at your own pace.  Or you might want to talk to some one privately, we'd be happy to arrange that too.  Or you could start making coming to HTG a habit – we're looking at what Jesus has done for us in our morning services all this term.  You're very welcome to join us.

As I finish I want to ask you to take out the yellow response slips that you've got in your service sheets.  I'd like to ask you all to take a pen and fill that out as I'm speaking to you now.  If you all fill it out no one needs to be embarrassed to be the only one doing it.  If you don't have anything to say just write happy fifth birthday HTG.  But – if you want us to know you've been here and you want us to keep in touch please give us your details.  But more than that, this is a way to respond to what I've been talking about – if you want to sign up for that course you'll see there's a tick box that says I want to know more about Christianity Explored.  There are other tick boxes there if you want to find out about any of the other things that we do as a church.  There's also space on the back for comments or questions or even to ask for prayer if you'd like it.   You can return those yellow slips during the final hymn in the blue bags as they come by.

But I'm going to close now with prayer, so please join with me as I pray.

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