Summary: This ten day period leads up to the Day of Atonement, or what the Jewish people today call Yom Kippur.
(I am thankful to Rob Bell of Mars Hill Community Church for many of the ideas presented in this message)
Please turn with me to Leviticus. It is the third book in the Bible. I know many of you were probably reading Leviticus just this morning. Let’s go to chapter 16. When you think of Leviticus, what do you think of? Regulations for mildew and leprosy? After tonight, I hope to change that perception.
Chapter 16 focuses on what the Hebrews called “The Day of Atonement.” In the Jewish calendar there are seven major feasts – four in the spring and three in the fall. The fall feasts begin with the Feast of Trumpets which is called Rosh Hashanah. The Feast of Trumpets inaugurates ten days of awe. With the blowing of the trumpet (called the shofar), the Hebrews would begin every year with repentance, fasting, and soul-searching. It is a time of deep sorrow over sin and a plea for God to renew and restore the community. This ten day period leads up to the Day of Atonement, or what the Jewish people today call Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is a fascinating day full of ritual and reverence. It was rightfully been called the “Good Friday of the Old Testament.” Let’s begin in verse three:
"This is how Aaron is to enter the sanctuary area: with a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. He is to put on the sacred linen tunic, with linen undergarments next to his body; he is to tie the linen sash around him and put on the linen turban. These are sacred garments; so he must bathe himself with water before he puts them on.” (Leviticus 16:3-5)
Picture 200,000 people gathering together. They have just finished ten days of weeping, fasting and praying so they can come before God to be cleansed, and have their sins removed. Aaron, the high priest at that time, is charged with the awesome responsibility of going into the presence of God on their behalf. God had given specific instructions of how the high priest was to dress and it was said that the priest in his sacred garb could make one “amazed and astonished beyond words.” There was something “otherworldly” about this whole affair.
After washing his body and putting on the holy garments, the priest is ready to begin. He first sacrifices a bull. Knowing that he himself is sinful, the high priest has to first do something to get clean before God. He takes a bull and applies the blood to the altar so his own sins can be forgiven. Only then can he offer a sacrifice for others. He enters the Holy of Holies with hot coals in one hand and incense in another. He would drop the coals on the ground and pour the incense over them, creating a sweet fog of fragrance. He would then sprinkle the blood of the bull on the altar, or the mercy seat. After he had atoned for himself and his family, he would offer the sacrifice for the sins of the community. Let’s look at verse 6:
“From the Israelite community he is to take two male goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. "Aaron is to offer the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household. Then he is to take the two goats and present them before the LORD at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. He is to cast lots for the two goats--one lot for the LORD and the other for the scapegoat. Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the LORD and sacrifice it for a sin offering. But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the LORD to be used for making atonement by sending it into the desert as a scapegoat. (Leviticus 16:5-10)
Imagine the scene. Hundreds of thousands of worshipers have gathered to be reminded of God’s grace and mercy, and the high point of the day is when the two goats are brought to him. One of them is sacrificed; the other is brought to him alive. One takes the punishment, the other is taken away. Why goats? One theory is that goats smell and symbolized the stench of sin to God. Another theory was that most pagan religions had “goat gods” that they worshiped. Perhaps God had the Hebrews sacrifice goats to make sure they did not sacrifice to goats. I may have been another way to affirm that the Hebrews were different than the other nations around them. Let’s skip ahead to verse 20:
"When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the Tent of Meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites--all their sins--and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the desert in the care of a man appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place; and the man shall release it in the desert. (Leviticus 16:20-22)