Do you do guilt? There was a time when guilt was considered to be a good thing, a motivator for keeping people moral and upright. In the sixties, guilt became out of fashion. People were encouraged to get rid of guilt and not to carry it around. Twenty years ago, one of my wife’s friends said, “I don’t do guilt.” She wouldn’t be guilted by others to be or do certain things.
But what about real guilt? Yes, we don’t want to be guilted or manipulated into doing things that aren’t necessarily good for us. But what about the guilt that is deep inside of us. The guilt we feel when we continue to do the things we know are wrong and maybe no one else knows about them. What about the guilt that weighs us down so much that we find it hard to function? Superficial guilt is one thing. Life-crushing guilt is something else. That is the guilt that we are talking about in these feasts: the Feast of Trumpets and the Day of Atonement. What if we could just have that guilt removed completely and released from our shoulders? This is what these feasts anticipate and celebrate. Let’s read Leviticus 23:23-32.
I. Let’s look at the timing of these feasts.
We have now moved to probably around the time of September in our calendar. This is the beginning of the fall festivals which would occur in the seventh month of the year. In this month the dry hot summer draws to an end, the grapes and olives are picked and the people start looking forward to the coming of the rains. In a good year these rains would begin in October and last until March. The seventh month marked the end of the agricultural year. Now farm work was at a minimum and there was time to take stock spiritually. I’m not a farmer but I get a bit of that feeling when I don’t have to cut my grass anymore in the fall.
In fact, all of the fall feasts tend to have a different tone than those in the spring. . One way we can see that is that there are four extra Sabbaths prescribed in the space of one month including the most holy Day of Atonement. There is a deliberate change of pace in which the work slows down. However, the intent is to have more time for spiritual thinking and reflecting. About 15 years ago, there was an article in USA Weekend entitled “Dream Home 2000: Today’s top trends in home design.” One of the three trends highlighted was “Rooms for reflection — Americans build their spiritual life with home altars and sacred spaces.” People were looking for places and times in life to be quiet and reflective. It’s not a new trend for this is what this feast calls the Israelites to do in these feasts.
This is another feast where there is an additional prescribed Sabbath day. . Those were days of solemn rest and some believe that this meant not only no heavy work but also no minor household chores such as cooking and fire-lighting. Some of you may have grown up with that idea of Sabbath as preventing work. There was no cooking, no Sunday newspaper and no work of any sort all day!
But notice that this is also called a day of rest which is unusual from the way that the Sabbath days were usually described in the feasts. We can physically rest because God has all things in his hands. Physically resting is a gift from God and it is a good thing to do when thinking about God and our relationship with him. It’s hard to focus on God when scrambling around being so busy. But notice also that this is a day of sacred assembling. Some people say that they rest by going for a hike or something like that. They say that they can meet God there as well as in church. But there is a clear requirement that this resting is to be done at an assembly of the whole group of God’s people.
These trumpets were probably the rather somber sounding rams horns. . They would be blown at the beginning of the day to summon the people to the gathering. But it is quite possible that those long somber blasts were heard throughout the day as an ongoing reminder to the people that they are living in the presence of God. The Day of Atonement is coming and so the trumpets were to call the people to repentance and to recognize that they live in the presence of a holy and just God. The other aspect of this day is that it is very sacrificial as we see in Numbers 29:1-6. There is a lot of sacrificing going on! This was a reminder to the people that the penalty of sin is death and all those animals being given to the priest to be killed would be a solemn reminder of that.
“By the way they drive their cars on expressways, treat checkout clerks at the grocery store, pay attention to those who serve them by collecting their garbage or taking their order at restaurants. By the political programs and economic policies they support or refuse to support - especially when their stand threatens the self-interest of the particular political, racial or economic group to which they themselves belong. By the way they keep hoping and working for change in people and institutions when others say that nothing can be done. By the way they are saddened or outraged by events that cause some others to rejoice, and rejoice when some others are bitterly disappointed. By the way they remain calm when others panic and are deeply disturbed when others are complacent.”
We live in the presence of God in all these ways in our lives.
III. Let’s look next at the Day of Atonement.
Let’s look first at the preparation for this special feast which is found in Leviticus 16. The high priest had simpler but special clothes to wear on this day. On this day, he must look more like a slave than the high priest. In God’s presence, even the high priest is stripped of all the honor he would ordinarily have.
The ceremony itself was quite simple but very powerful visually. . The high priest would offer a bull as a purification offering for himself and the priests. The blood from the bull is sprinkled on the mercy seat. He would then enter the Most Holy Place, which is something filled with danger. He would use a sensor of hot charcoal and put in fine incense. The smoke of the incense covers the mercy seat and would thus create a screen for the priest so that he could not gaze on the holiness of God.
The high priest then would cast lots to decide which goat is to be sacrificed as a purification offering for the people and which is to be sent into the wilderness. The lot would be placed in an urn and then removed and placed on the goats’ heads. One said for the Lord and the other was the scapegoat. The goat of purification would then be sacrificed. This emphasizes that sin demands the punishment of death. Something has to die because of sin. The other goat would be brought before the Lord and then sent into the wilderness. This stresses that sin is offensive to God and must be removed from God’s presence. The goat would die in the wilderness, again underscoring the death penalty for sin.
This is atonement and it is something that many are uncomfortable with today. At a “Re-imagining” theological conference several years ago one liberal theologian said, “I don’t think we need a theory of atonement at all. I don’t think we need folks hanging on crosses and blood dripping and weird stuff ...” But this is the atonement and not only is it vital in our understanding of what Jesus did, it’s vital for us today.
IV. So what is the meaning of Atonement today?
This is one feast where the fulfillment is very clear in what Jesus did. . Jesus fulfills this in what the high priest does. He offered the blood that was needed to purify us and forgive our sins. He took on the form of a servant in order to save his people. Moreover, Jesus took the place of the goat that was sacrificed as well as the one who was sent away for he suffered the pains of hell and being separated from God. But the result is that our guilt is gone! The goat is killed and the other one is gone! Jesus died for us and he took our sins and guilt away from us so that they are gone forever. We can rest in God knowing that he has saved us and is redeeming us fully.
However, in this feast we also see our response to our guilt being removed. . Verses 27-32 say that this is to be a day of self-denial but why do we deny ourselves? Think of what is happening here in this feast. The people are being shown graphically and vividly that God is forgiving them and taking away their guilt. The day is a day to focus exclusively on God and the amazing things he is doing by removing our sin and guilt! The purpose of self-denial is to focus on God and to forget about our needs and desires. We don’t even think about what we want or need. We focus completely on God above all.
Jesus calls us to deny ourselves and live for him; to give up everything as we follow him. The atonement says that God forgives us and we, in turn are to deny ourselves. Yet we can be reassured that God will return to us what we have given... and more. Think of what Jesus says when he speaks about denying ourselves and following him in Mark 10:29-31 where he says, “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” Atonement followed by self-denial means our guilt is gone and we receive blessings far beyond anything we can imagine.