Here’s a Lenten sermon from a while ago that I thought would be appropriate to share again for Yom Kippur.
The ancient church fathers believed the Book of Hebrews was originally one long sermon on Leviticus 16.
Leviticus 16 details God’s instructions to Moses for the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur revolves around the high priest. The person who represents all of God’s people, the only person who can ever venture beyond the temple veil and into the Holy of Holies, where the ark and the presence of God reside, and ask God to remove his people’s sins.
Remember, in the Hebrew Bible God is a consuming, refining fire.
And as much as God loves us and as much as we love God, in the Hebrew Bible no one can come near God’s presence.
So when the high priest enters the Holy of Holies, he risks his life.
And because of that, every detail of every ritual matters.
The high priest must bath the right way.
The high priest must dress the proper way.
The high priest must make prescribed sacrifices for his sin and his family sin.
When he’s done with the preparation, the high priest is brought two goats.
Lots are cast so that God’s will would be done.
One goat is sacrificed to cleanse the temple of sin.
The second goat is brought to him alive.
The high priest lays both his hands on the head of the goat and then confesses onto it all the iniquities of the people of Israel.
The priest removes all the people’s sins and places them on the goat.
And after the priest’s work was finished, the goat would bear the people’s sin away in to the wilderness.
The wilderness symbolized exile and forsakenness and death.
The high priest transfers the sins of the people onto the goat and then the goat is sent away to where the wild things are.
You see, Yom Kippur isn’t about God wanting to punish you for your sin.
Yom Kippur’s about God wanting to remove your sin.
The Day of Atonement is not about appeasing an angry, petty God.
It’s about God removing that which separates us from God and from each other and sending it away so that it’s not here anymore.
While the high priest prayed over the goat, the king of the Jews would undergo a ritual humiliation to repent of his people’s sins: he’d be struck, his clothes would be torn, the king would ask God to forgive his people for they know not what they do.
When the high priest’s work is done, the goat’s loaded with all the sins of the people. Chances are, you wouldn’t want to volunteer to lead that goat out into the wilderness.
So the man appointed for the task would be a Gentile. Someone with no connection to the people of Israel. Someone who might not even realize that what they’re doing is a dirty job.
That Gentile would lead the goat away with a red cord wrapped around its head- red that symbolized sin.
The name for the goat is ahzahzel. It’s where we get the word ‘scapegoat.’
Ahzahzel means ‘taking away.’
The Gentile would lead the scapegoat into exile while the people shouted ‘ahzahzel.’
Take it away. Take our sin away.
So that it’s not here anymore.
The Gospels all say Jesus dies during the Passover Feast not Yom Kippur.
But I’m not sure it’s as simple as that.
Because the Gospels tell you the calendar says Passover, but what they show you looks an awful lot like the Day of Atonement.
The Gospels show you Jesus being arrested and brought to whom?
The high priest.
The Gospels show you the high priests accusing Jesus of blasphemy, placing what they say is guilt and sin upon him when in reality all they’re doing is transferring their own guilt onto him.
The Gospels show you Pilate’s men ritually humiliating this ‘King of the Jews.’ Mocking him. Casting lots before him. Tearing his clothes off him.
And then wrapping a branch of thorns around his head until a cord of red blood circles it.
The Gospels tell you that the calendar says Passover, but what they show you is Pilate holding Jesus out to the crowd and Pilate asks the crowd what to do with Jesus.
And what do the crowds shout? Not ‘Crucify him!’ Not at first.
First, the crowds shout ‘Take him away!’
Then they shout ‘Crucify him!’ (John 19.15)
The Gospels tell you that the calendar says Passover, but what they show then is Jesus being led away, like an animal, with a red ring around his head, with shouts of ‘ahzahzel’ ringing in the air- led away from the city by Gentiles to Golgotha.
A garbage dump.
A barren place where some of his last words will be ‘My God why have you forsaken me?’
The Gospels tell you its Passover, but what they show you isn’t a Passover Lamb but a Scapegoat.
This is what the Gospels show you when Jesus breathes his last and the veil of the temple- the entrance to the Holy of Holies- is torn in two, from top to bottom.
This is what the Gospels show you when they quote the prophet Isaiah:
‘He has born our grief.’
‘He has carried our sorrow.’
‘Laid on him is the iniquity of us all.’ Those are all references to Leviticus.
This is what the Gospel shows you at the very beginning right after the Christmas story when John the Baptist points to Jesus and says he’s the one who ‘ahzahzels the sins of the world.’
This is what St Paul alludes to when he says that because of Jesus Christ ‘nothing can now separate us from God.’
The Gospels tell you the calendar says Passover, but what they show you is a Day of Atonement.
Unlike any other.
Every year after the ahzahzel goat was led into the wilderness the red cord that had been tied around the goat was taken off.
And the cord was hung on the altar in the temple where, over the next year, Jewish tradition says the cord would turn from red to white, signifying God’s forgiveness of the people’s sin.
However, according to the Talmud, approximately 40 years before the destruction of the temple in 70 AD that red cord stopped turning from red to white.
The Talmud, I should add, was written by Jews who rejected Jesus as the Messiah.
According to the Talmud, approximately 40 years before the temple was destroyed, the lot cast between the two goats on Yom Kippur no longer was able to discern a scapegoat.
The doors into the sanctuary stopped opening at the high priest’s oblation on Yom Kippur.
40 years before the temple was destroyed in 70 AD- the whole process of atonement stopped working.
It was no longer effective, says the Talmud.
70 AD – 40 AD = about 30 AD.
In other words….
Around the time Jesus was led away to Golgotha while crowds shouted ‘ahzahzel’ the atonement that had been repeated year after year since Moses met God on Mt Sinai- stopped working.
Says the Talmud.
Or maybe you could say it stopped working because it had already worked perfectly.
Maybe you could say it had worked once and for all.
I’ve been a minister now for almost 11 years.
I’ve pastored in 4 churches, 1 hospital and 1 prison.
And in at least 1 way, you’re all the same.
All of you could tell a story like the one I told you about my dad and me in the garden.
All of you have someone in your life who might say: ‘I forgive you, let’s move on.’
But the next time a fight erupts, you know, it’s all over again. All the archived animosities will come out.
All of you have someone in your life with whom it’s never done. It’s never finished. It’s never put to rest.
Someone with whom you can try to put it behind you, but next time it’s right there between you again. Like it never left.
All of you have someone in your life for whom what you’ve done is never done with.
Someone for whom the past is only in the past until it comes back tomorrow or next year.
It’s never gone once and for all.
And for some of you, that someone in your life is you.
You’re the one who can’t put it away, can’t send it away, who always brings it back to where or how it started.
And for still others of you, it might not ever occur to you what that has to do with that (the cross).
On the Jewish calendar, this year Yom Kippur will be on September 25.
And next year, Yom Kippur will be on September 13.
And the year after that it will be on October 3.
And the year after that the Day of Atonement’s scheduled for September 22.
It’s already on the books: on Saturday, October 12, 2025 the Jewish high priest has to get up and do this all over again.
And I’ve had a goat in my office all weekend.
Trust me, Yom Kippur’s a lot of work.
But our High Priest, our Great High Priest, Hebrews says, sat down.
He sat down.
And he’s not getting back up again.
Not next year. Not the year after that. Not in 20 years.