Sunday, March 11, 2018

Sermon: Leviticus 16: 1-34 Scripture Fulfilled - Atonement

When you come along to a Church of Ireland service, you have a fair idea of the way things are going to happen. And that’s particularly true if you’ve been a member of the Church of Ireland for a long time. You know how things work. You’re familiar with the different types of services we have. There’s Holy Communion, and Morning and Evening Prayer, and then the Service of the Word which we’re using tonight - which follows a pattern from the Book of Common Prayer (page 165).

I imagine that we’re not just as familiar with the type of ceremony described in our reading tonight from Leviticus 16. And, in fact, it might even make you a bit uneasy, if you’re vegetarian; or even uncomfortable, if you’re a bit squeamish about blood. And you might think - that’s in the Bible? Or what’s that all about?

Tonight we’re looking at this ceremony, the Day of Atonement, as we continue to see how the cross of Jesus fulfils the prophecies of the Old Testament. And hopefully we’ll see that, through the blood and guts and gore of this chapter, we see another aspect of the cross, and what Jesus has done for us as he died on the cross for us. But in order to see Jesus, we need to take in some of the details of this seemingly strange ceremony.

We find ourselves tonight in the book called Leviticus. And this book is mostly instructions for the priests of the tribe of Levi (hence the name Leviticus). So, in a sense, this is like a handbook for the priests to know how to do the various different types of sacrifices. Maybe even a bit like the BCP.

I said it’s mostly about instructions, because there’s just one piece of narrative, just one action story among all the commands. Now, it happens in ch 10, but it’s referenced here in 16:1 - ‘The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they approached the LORD.’

Back in 10:1, we’re told that Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron, offered ‘unauthorised fire before the LORD, contrary to his command.’ They died instantly, when fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them. They had gone about things their own way, disregarding God’s commands. And they died for their misdeeds.

So here, in the instructions for the Day of Atonement, we’re reminded straight away that we’re meant to do things the way God wants, not whatever way we want. We see it in verse 2: ‘Tell your brother Aaron not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover on the ark, or else he will die, because I appear in the cloud over the atonement cover.’

So Aaron can’t just get up one day and think ‘I’ll pop in behind the curtain today.’ No, he can only come when God tells him to. Now, straight away, you might be thinking to yourself - what’s all this about the Most Holy Place, and the curtain, and the atonement cover, and the ark...?

We find ourselves at the tabernacle, the tent of meeting, right at the centre of the Israelite camp. Last week, we saw how the people were rescued from slavery in Egypt through the Passover Lamb. Now, they’re still in the wilderness, having crossed the Red Sea. At the centre of the camp is the Tent of Meeting. Outside the tent is the altar for sacrifices. Inside the tent is the Holy Place (where the Lampstand and the Table for bread are); but behind a curtain is the Most Holy Place (or the Holy of Holies). Inside it, you find the Ark of the Covenant, the top of which is called the atonement cover. Or at least, you would find it inside if you were allowed to go in. But you weren’t to go in. No one was, except only Aaron; and not at any time of his choosing, but only on one day of the year. The Day of Atonement, or as is was known sometimes, The Day.

In verses 3-5, we see the preparations Aaron has to undergo for the day. There’s quite a shopping list of animals - the young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering (3), as well as the two male goats for a sin offering and another ram for a burnt offering. There are also special garments to wear - a sacred linen tunic, with linen undergarments, a linen sash and a linen turban. And before he puts them on, he has to bathe, to purify himself.

Now, the two rams for the burnt offering are left until later on, but our focus is on the bull and the two goats. We see what happens to each of them in turn.

The bull is Aaron’s sin offering for himself and his household. It is to make ‘atonement’ (6). Now, that English word atonement was invented by William Tyndale to translate the Hebrew here. And, it simply means ‘at-one-ment’. To atone is to make at-one, that is, to reconcile, to bring together again. And we see how that works in Aaron’s case in verse 11. The bull is offered as his sin offering. It dies, and he takes some of the blood and sprinkles it on the front of the atonement cover and before it, seven times.

The blood of the bull has been shed, and is sprinkled to allow him to gain access to the Most Holy Place. Without the blood, he couldn’t go in. And yet, even the blood isn’t enough. He also takes coals from the altar and two handfuls of incense, to create a smokescreen to enable him to enter. If he saw God, he would die, and so the smoke and incense allows him to enter, shielded from the sight of God.

The bull is offered for his sin, and its blood is shed to allow him to come near to God, to take part in the sacrifice. But the bull was just for Aaron. The main atonement ceremony hasn’t even begun yet. For that, you need the two goats.

Back in verse 7, we’re reminded of the two goats. They’re presented before the LORD. Lots are cast to decide which will be which - one will be the LORD’s. It’s the sin offering, and we pick it up again in verse 15. It is slaughtered as a sin offering - not just for Aaron this time, but for the people, for all Israel. Again, its blood is taken behind the curtain. It’s sprinkled on the atonement cover (as atonement is made, the people reconciled to God). but do you see that atonement is also ‘for’ the Most Holy Place (16) ‘because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites.’

We’re getting into the time of year for spring cleaning. It seems as if the Tent was being cleaned, the uncleanness and pollution caused by the people all being cleaned away.

The Most Holy Place is sprinkled, then the Tent of Meeting, then the altar too. All sprinkled with the blood of the goat. Atonement is made, the goat has died in place of the people, and the blood has been applied.

That all happens with the first goat. But now we come to the second goat, in verse 20. The first one died, but this one is still bleating. In verse 21, Aaron lays his hands on the head of the goat, and confesses over it all the sins of the people. By this, he transfers their sins from the people to the goat. Its name is the scapegoat. The one who takes the blame.

So what happens to the scapegoat? It is taken away, led off into the desert, to a solitary place, carrying the peoples’ sins. Do you see what’s happening? The sins of the people are put onto the head of the goat. The goat is taken away, and you’ll never see it (or your sins) again. The goat is gone, and your sins are gone.

With that, the ceremony is almost complete. Aaron goes and changes out of the sacred garments, then offers the burnt offerings. The fat of the sin offering is burnt on the altar, but the rest of it is taken outside the camp and burned up. Atonement has been made for all the sins of the Israelites - at least for that year, until next time, when it happens all over again.

These sacrifices, and the Day of Atonement, they all continued up until the end of the temple in Jerusalem in AD70. They had come to an end, because what they pointed forward to had now been completed. If you’re driving to Dublin, and you’re not sure where you’re going, then you’ll follow the signposts. They’ll point you in the right direction. But once you’re in Dublin, you don’t need the signposts any more. You’ve arrived. And the Day of Atonement is a signpost pointing us to the cross. The letter to the Hebrews helps us to understand what it’s all about.

Jesus is our great high priest, the one who makes the sacrifice that we need. And unlike Aaron, Jesus has no sin of his own. Aaron had to sacrifice the bull for his own sin, but Jesus has no sin - he is our perfect, sinless high priest.

And Jesus is also our offering for sin. Our high priest offers himself for our sin, to make at-onement for us. So both of the goats point us to the work of Jesus on the cross. Jesus, like the sin offering goat, died, for our sins - he brings his own blood through the veil / curtain - not in the earthly tabernacle or temple, but into heaven’s throne room itself. (Heb 9:12)

But that’s not all. Jesus is also like the scapegoat - he carries our sins far away. We’ll never see them again! As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our sins from us (Ps 103).

Jesus is our great high priest; Jesus is our sin offering; Jesus is our scapegoat. And he did it... once. In Heb 10, the writer says that the blood of bulls and goats can’t take away sin - it’s only Christ’s blood that can do it. And he doesn’t have to repeat the sacrifice time and time again. He has done it once for all time.

Our Day of Atonement was the first Good Friday, as Jesus died on the cross. He has fulfilled the details of Leviticus, bearing our sin, dying for our sin, making us at-one with God through his blood. The writer to the Hebrews picks up on one of the smaller details and shows that even it is fulfilled. Can you remember what happened to the remains of the sin bearing goat?

The blood was taken into the Most Holy Place. The fat was burned on the altar. The rest was taken outside the camp. A small detail, unimportant, perhaps. But the writer to the Hebrews picks up on it. Where was Jesus crucified?

As the hymn puts it, ‘there is a green hill far away without a city wall.’ Without, or outside a city wall. Jesus was taken out of the city to be crucified. Calvary / Golgotha was outside the city. Now listen to Hebrews 13: ‘The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking forward for the city that is to come.’

Even the location of the cross fulfils the Day of Atonement detailed in Leviticus 16. In this chapter, we see the shadow of the cross. We see just what the cross involved - the death in our place for our sins; the removal of those sins; and our spotless, sinless Saviour, our great high priest, who lives to intercede for us.

The sacrifice has been made. Your sins have been covered. This may not be the tenth day of the seventh month, but this can be your Day of Atonement, the day you are reconciled to God, through the cross of Christ. So don’t delay. Don’t wait any longer. Come today, to the foot of the cross. Be reconciled to God.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 11th March 2018.

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