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Day of Atonement
Winter Quarter: Sacred Gifts and Holy Gatherings
Unit 3: Holy Days
Sunday school lesson for the week of February 21, 2016
By Helen & Rev. Sam Rogers
Lesson scripture: Leviticus 16:11-19
Background scripture: Leviticus 16; Leviticus 23:26-32; Numbers 29:7-11; Hebrews 7:26-28; 9:24; 10:4-18
In the study this week, we are facing the difficult tasks of understanding ancient Jewish customs of sacrifice for sins and searching for relevance in how we acknowledge and deal with our sins today. Not easy or simple to do!
The main focus of the entire Book of Leviticus is how sinful humanity can have a relationship with the holy God. In the hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” we affirm the nature of our wonderful, creating, and redeeming God. The majesty and wonder of God causes our hearts to burst into praise and song. God invites us into a close relationship, but sin is the barrier. How can we come to the holy God carrying the burden of sin?
A complex ritual to deal with this human reality was enunciated in Leviticus, involving bulls, goats, incense, and bread. This part of the scripture is where many of us drop out, and our good intention to read the Bible straight through from cover to cover becomes like so many other worthy New Year’s resolutions – forgotten!
If you will take the time to read not only today’s scripture, but, the Old Testament background scriptures in both Leviticus and Numbers, you have to be impressed with the thoroughness of the process! Nothing is left to chance! From ritual bathing, to dressing, to preparation of the place of sacrifice, to what the High Priest is to do – all combine to show how serious the Day of Atonement was for each individual Hebrew and for the entire nation. The people understood, “It’s me, it’s me O Lord, standing in the need of forgiveness
We are not dealing only with individual sins, but with SIN as the basic nature of human beings. The source of this proclivity to sin goes back to Creation itself, where the picture of Adam and Eve is vividly drawn, showing how easy it is for us to forget Whose we are and start putting ourselves above all else. No wonder Jesus defined discipleship by saying, “Whoever would be my disciple must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Self-denial and cross-bearing are the antithesis of our basic human nature.
When the Hebrew calendar was changed in the Second Century BCE, The Day of Atonement became the beginning of the Jewish New Year. How appropriate to begin a new year with a clean slate before God! John Wesley wrote a covenant service for the people called Methodist with the same focus in mind – to begin the New Year before God and with a restored relationship in place. The basic need for us human beings is the same: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)
The universality of SIN is expressed in the many different sins we commit by thought, word, and deed. By SIN we are separated from God. A deep yearning is created “to get right with God.” We can do nothing to solve the problem. What is the answer?
The Old Testament offered the complex ritual of blood sacrifice and the scape goat. The Day of Atonement, then and now, was a full day of total fasting, reflection, and refraining from work of any kind. Everyone living in the nation was expected to observe the day. Give them some credit! This was a serious undertaking!
Perhaps we need a reminder about the layout of the Temple – the place of worship and sacrifice. A series of courts led from the outer to the inner sanctuary. They were: the Court of the Gentiles, the Court of the Women, the Court of the Men, Court of the Priests, and the inner Court – the Holy of Holies. Most of the priestly activities took place daily in the Priestly Court. Only one day a year was the inner court entered – the Day of Atonement, by the High Priest only. Here, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept, was the place where SIN could be brought before God and faced.
Comforting! Assuring! Problematic! Could sin be banished in this fashion? The prophets gave a resounding, “NO!” Only a basic change in human nature could be effective, and no amount of animal sacrifice or scapegoating would work!
Jesus did for us what we could not accomplish for ourselves. The New Testament is written in blood – not the blood of animals, but the self-sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary. Moreover, this gift of God enables us humans to be really changed into the creation God-intended from the beginning.
Powerfully, the writer of the Book of Hebrews lets us know what and how this occurs! At one and the same time, Jesus is both the sacrifice and the High Priest, who intercedes on our behalf (7:26-28). This powerful drama is acted out in the metaphorical confines of the place of worship, where God is met face to face. Thus Jesus accomplishes what we cannot do. In His person, He presents us to the Holy One.
By the time Hebrews was written, the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed. The Holy of Holies no longer existed, but Hebrews affirms Jesus came into Heaven itself, the holy dwelling place of God (9:24).
Finally, and most importantly, once we have been forgiven and restored into relationship with God, no other act of sacrifice is needed (10:15-18). As the hymn declares: we are ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven (UM Hymnal 66). The Hebrews passage quotes Jeremiah 31, with the assurance of a total change of heart and mind. A new covenant (new relationship) has been created by God for us to live with God now and forever. Hallelujah! Amen!
Helen and Rev. Sam Rogers are a retired clergy couple. They can be reached at email@example.com.