[Note: This is the prepared text for a sermonette given at the Day of Atonement at the Portland congregation of the United Church of God on September 19, 2018.]
As I stand before a group of hungry and thirsty people, some of whom are likely counting the hours until they will be able to eat and drink once again, I would like to ask a question that I do not believe is often asked of this day. What does the Lord require of you on this Day of Atonement. When we examine the biblical record about this day, we are faced with two very different approaches to it. On the one hand, the day is rich with symbolic meaning and deep if sometimes obscure importance. On the other hand, though, the day is full of very practical requirements. I will focus on the practical requirements, as we look through biblical history, and hopefully we will come to a clear understanding of what the Lord requires of us on this day.
When we look at the Day of Atonement as it appears in Leviticus 23:26-32, we get some sense of God’s expectations for this day. Leviticus 23:26-32 tells us the following: “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “Also the tenth day of this seventh month shall be the Day of Atonement. It shall be a holy convocation for you; you shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire to the Lord. And you shall do no work on that same day, for it is the Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the Lord your God. For any person who is not afflicted in soul on that same day shall be cut off from his people. And any person who does any work on that same day, that person I will destroy from among his people. You shall do no manner of work; it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. It shall be to you a sabbath of solemn rest, and you shall afflict your souls; on the ninth day of the month at evening, from evening to evening, you shall celebrate your sabbath.”” Although these verses should be familiar ones, it is important to note that most of God’s requirements for us are things to avoid doing–namely eating or drinking on the one hand, as the passage repeats over and over again that we are to afflict our souls, and that we are to refrain from any kind of work. The penalty for either eating or drinking or working on this day is being cut off from the people, something that has special resonance for this particular day.
When we move from the responsibility of individual believers to the congregation of Israel as a whole in Numbers 29:7-11, we see the focus on the offerings that were given by the people as a whole. Numbers 29:7-11: “On the tenth day of this seventh month you shall have a holy convocation. You shall afflict your souls; you shall not do any work. You shall present a burnt offering to the Lord as a sweet aroma: one young bull, one ram, and seven lambs in their first year. Be sure they are without blemish. Their grain offering shall be of fine flour mixed with oil: three-tenths of an ephah for the bull, two-tenths for the one ram, and one-tenth for each of the seven lambs; also one kid of the goats as a sin offering, besides the sin offering for atonement, the regular burnt offering with its grain offering, and their drink offerings.” Let us note that Numbers reminds people to afflict their souls and also that the sacrifices required for Atonement are without blemish. It is important to note that the sacrifices had to be without blemish.
The most famous sacrifices that took place on the Day of Atonement are mentioned in Leviticus 16. There were two sacrifices on behalf of the people that were done on this day. First, let us look at Leviticus 16:15-19 to read about the sacrifice of the first goat: “Then he shall kill the goat of the sin offering, which is for the people, bring its blood inside the veil, do with that blood as he did with the blood of the bull, and sprinkle it on the mercy seat and before the mercy seat. So he shall make atonement for the Holy Place, because of the uncleanness of the children of Israel, and because of their transgressions, for all their sins; and so he shall do for the tabernacle of meeting which remains among them in the midst of their uncleanness. There shall be no man in the tabernacle of meeting when he goes in to make atonement in the Holy Place, until he comes out, that he may make atonement for himself, for his household, and for all the assembly of Israel. And he shall go out to the altar that is before the Lord, and make atonement for it, and shall take some of the blood of the bull and some of the blood of the goat, and put it on the horns of the altar all around. Then he shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times, cleanse it, and consecrate it from the uncleanness of the children of Israel.” There are myths about the high priest putting ropes around his leg when he faced God in the Holy of Holies, and these myths have some plausibility because of the corruption of the high priests during the second temple period. Yet there are no contemporary accounts of priests dying in the Holy of Holies, even despite their corruption, which demonstrates God’s mercy and longsuffering in allowing even corrupt high priests to sacrifice on behalf of God’s people.
The more famous sacrifice on the Day of Atonement of the Azazel goat, which we read in Leviticus 16:20-22. In verses 20 through 22 we read: “And when he has made an end of atoning for the Holy Place, the tabernacle of meeting, and the altar, he shall bring the live goat. Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to an uninhabited land; and he shall release the goat in the wilderness.” While there is a great deal of symbolism regarding this particular goat, there is one aspect of this goat whose practical importance is vital in understanding God’s requirements for us on this Day of Atonement. In order for reconciliation to take place between the people of Israel and God and with each other, the iniquities and transgressions of Israel were placed on the head of a live goat that was driven into the wilderness, never to return. Our ability to reconcile with God and with other people depends on us avoiding the lamentable human tendency to act like historians and archaeologists digging up and referring endlessly to the past. Instead, when we are dealing with fellow repentant, if struggling, believers, the offenses and wrongs of the past have to driven away from our relationships and overcome, so that they do not poison the relationships among the people of God.
What does all of this have to do with those of us asesembled here today? When we see the Day of Atonement referred by name for the last time in the New Testament, in Acts 27:9, we see it called as the Fast. Yet, as we see in Isaiah 58:5-12, the Day of Atonement is about far more than simply refraining from food. Isaiah 58:5-12 reads: “Is it a fast that I have chosen, a day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, and to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord? “Is this not the fast that I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; when you see the naked, that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh? Then your light shall break forth like the morning, your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you extend your soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul, then your light shall dawn in the darkness, and your darkness shall be as the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your soul in drought, and strengthen your bones; you shall be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail. Those from among you shall build the old waste places; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; and you shall be called the Repairer of the Breach, the Restorer of Streets to Dwell In.”
The Day of Atonement is the fast that God has chosen to loose the bonds of wickedness, to afflict the soul, for us to bow down our head in humility, to set free the captive and to release the burdens. Do we follow through on what God demands of us? It is not enough that we refrain from food and drink alone, but it is also vital that we take away the yoke from among us, to satisfy the afflicted, to cease to point the finger at each other and the speaking of wickedness to and about each other. God tells us in Isaiah 58 that if we fast as God wishes for us to do, to use the day to set others free like the Jubilee that was to take place on this day every 49 years, then we ourselves will be millennial blessings in the lives of others. If we do what God requires of us in seeking to reconcile with Him and with each other, to remove the burdens that divide us and overcome the sins and offenses that divide us, then we will be repairers of the breach and the restorer of streets to dwell in. Is this not exactly what we want to enjoy in our own lives? Then what are we waiting for so that we may do what God requires of us on this Day of Atonement?