If you're anything like me, when you were growing up there was always 2 nights of the year when you couldn't get to sleep. The night before your birthday, and the night before Christmas.
Well if you were an Israelite boy or girl a few thousand years ago, there would also have been 2 nights of the year when you couldn't sleep.
Because there were 2 great days in the Israelite calendar. The first was the Passover, and the second was the 10th day of the 7th month, and it was called Yom Kippur, or the 'Day of Atonement'. And we can see why the Day of Atonement was so important in Leviticus 16 vv29-30...
"This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work--whether native-born or an alien living among you-- because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the LORD, you will be clean from all your sins."
On this day, every year, the people of Israel would be cleansed from their sin. All their wrong-doing and rebellion against God was taken away and their relationship with God was restored.
Do you know that feeling? Perhaps you said something or did something that didn't just upset the other person, you thought it had destroyed your relationship with them forever, and you're desperate to make things right again.
Do you know that feeling when you clear the air, when you're forgiven, when the relationship is restored and you're brought back together? It's a wonderful feeling isn't it?
Well, that's what happened on the Day of Atonement. Infact that's what the word atonement means, literally it means at-one-ment. This was the day when the people of Israel were cleansed from all their sins and were made "at-one", with God again.
So what happened on the Day of Atonement, and how did it work? Well to understand the Day of Atonement the first thing we need to see is...
The awesome holiness of God
Look at v1...
"The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they approached the LORD."
Back in Leviticus chp 10 two of Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, had tried to offer their own sacrifices to God. And the instant they did they died, and we're told why in v2...
"The LORD said to Moses: "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."
In the middle of the Israelite camp was something called the Tent of Meeting. It was like an enclosure, with a wall around it. And any of the people could go into it to bring their sacrifices to God. But inside the enclose was a tent that was called the Holy Place, and only the priests were allowed into the Holy Place. And inside the Holy Place, there was a room that was separated off by a great thick curtain. And the space behind the curtain was called the Most Holy Place. And it was there, in the Most Holy Place, where God symbolically met with his people.
And what we see in v2 is that you can't just walk into the presence of God whenever you felt like it. No-one was allowed into the Most Holy Place.
No-one. Except for one man, the High Priest, on one day, the Day of Atonement. And if anyone tried to come at any other time, like Nadab and Abihu, they would die. Why? Because of the awesome holiness of God. Because of the power and purity of Almighty God.
And look at how the High Priest came into the Most Holy Place. Look at v4...
"He is to put on the sacred linen tunic, with linen undergarments next to his body; he is to tie the linen sash around him and put on the linen turban. These are sacred garments; so he must bathe himself with water before he puts them on."
Back in Exodus we read that as High Priest had a pretty impressive outfit. He was dressed all in blue, the most expensive colour. On his chest he had 12 precious stones, representing the 12 tribes of Israel, mounted in gold and held in place with gold chains. On his shoulders were more precious jewels and gold, and on his head he wore a blue turban and from it hung a gold disk with the words 'Holy to the Lord' written on them.
That was the High Priest's usual outfit. But on the Day of Atonement he wears none of it. Instead he wore just simple linen.
The point is, you don't come before God in your fancy robes. When you stand before him, you come in humility, because he is an awesomely holy God. And even dressed in linen, on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest couldn't just walk into the Most Holy Place, look at v12...
"He is to take a censer full of burning coals from the altar before the LORD and two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense and take them behind the curtain."
Behind the curtain was the Ark of the Covenant, which was a box with a copy of the 10 commandments inside. The box was covered with gold, and the lid of the box, which was called the atonement cover, was made of pure gold. And it was there, above the atonement cover, that God would met with his people. Now look at v13...
"He is to put the incense on the fire before the LORD, and the smoke of the incense will conceal the atonement cover above the Testimony, so that he will not die."
Can you begin to grasp the awesome holiness of God? The power and the purity of Almighty God? Only one man, on one day, after he had clothed himself with humility, could go before the presence of the LORD, and even then he had to fill the place with smoke to make sure that he couldn't see anything, so that he wouldn't die.
We sometimes think don't we, or we sometimes say, 'When I see God I'm going to give him a piece of my mind. When I see God I'm going to ask him why he did this, or allowed that to happen.' No. When you and I stand before Almighty God, we will drop to our knees and bow our heads in fear and trembling. When you see the holiness and wonder and power and majesty of Almighty God, you won't ask your question, he won't have to explain himself to you. You won't wag your finger or shake your fist at him. If that's what you think, then you haven't understood God at all.
The first thing we see in Leviticus 16 is the awesome holiness of God. The second thing we see is...
The wretched sinfulness of man
Before Aaron, the High Priest at the time, could go behind the curtain into the Most Holy Place, look at what he had to do in v11...
"Aaron shall bring the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household, and he is to slaughter the bull for his own sin offering."
Sin is the Bible's word to describe our rebellion against God. Every time we chose to do what God has commanded us not to do, or chose not to do what God has commanded us to do, we sin. We all sin, all the time. And it is sin that spoils our relationship with God. It makes us unclean in his sight.
So before the High Priest could go into the Most Holy Place, first of all he had to make a sacrifice for his own sin. An animal had to die so that he didn't have to. Then, in v15, he makes another sacrifice...
"He shall then slaughter the goat for the sin offering for the people and take its blood behind the curtain and do with it as he did with the bull's blood: He shall sprinkle it on the atonement cover and in front of it."
The two great themes that we see most clearly on the Day of Atonement, are the utter, awesome, holiness of God, and the utter, wretched, sinfulness of man.
So the question is, how can we ever be in a relationship with each other? How can there be atonement? How can we ever be 'at-one'? How can sinful people ever be in a right relationship with a holy God?
And do you see, now it's not just a sermon on a slightly obscure bit of the Bible. Now it's about you and me.
Because their God is your God and my God, and he is still awesomely holy. And you and I are still wretched sinners, every day we do more than enough to ruin our relationship with God.
I'm not talking about swearing and lying and not tidying your room. I'm talking about living our lives as if God didn't exist. Living our lives doing our own thing, going our own way and sticking two fingers up at the God who made us and gave us life and the world we love. How can people like that, people like you and me, have our relationship with God restored?
And the answer is in vv20-22...
"When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the Tent of Meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites--all their sins--and put them on the goat's head. He shall send the goat away into the desert in the care of a man appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place; and the man shall release it in the desert."
There were 2 goats sacrificed for the people on the Day of Atonement. The first was killed, but the second was different. The high priest takes the second goat, he places his hands on its head, and he admits to God all the things the people have done wrong throughout the year.
After all the sins of the people have been confessed, the High Priest would stand up and the goat would be lead out. Out of the Tent of Meeting, and out through the camp. And surely all the people would have gathered to see the goat as it walked its way through the tents. They would watch it, because that goat carried all of their sins on its head. This is where the term 'scapegoat' comes from. Because as the goat walked out, through the camp, it took with it all the sins of the people.
And as the people watched there would come a point where they could see it no more. It would be gone. And as the goat was gone a smile must have crossed on their faces, their hearts must have been lifted. Because they knew that the scapegoat had taken their sins away. It had been punished, so that they could go free. Their sins had been dealt with, so they could be at-one with God again, back in a right relationship with Him.
It's an amazing picture, isn't it? But it is just a picture.
Because even as we read it now, we wonder, did the first goat really pay the price for their sin? Did the second goat really take their sin away? And the answer is no, it's just a picture.
Look at what it says in the NT, in Hebrews 10 vv 1-4...
"The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship…
But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins."
Those sacrifices on the Day of Atonement didn't actually take away sins, they weren't meant to. Instead they were meant to be a reminder, an annual reminder that the people needed their sins to be taken away, and they were a picture of how, one day, God would deal with our sin forever.
So the last thing we need to see this morning is...
The wonder of the cross
We need atonement.
Sinful people like you and me need to have our relationship with the holy God restored. We need a day of atonement. We need a scapegoat to die for our sins and to take them away.
But a goat won't do, or any other animal for that matter, "because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins." So how can we be saved? We find the answer in Romans chp 3, vv21-25a...
"But now a righteousness from God (that is, a way for us to be right), apart from law, has been made known…This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood."
Leviticus 16 and the Day of Atonement was a picture of how God would save us. The reality is Jesus.
God became a man at Christmas. He lived a perfect life, but then he chose to die. He chose to be our scapegoat and take upon himself all the sin that you and I would ever commit. He took upon himself every word you've ever said in anger. Every time you've shouted at your kids, or blown up at your wife. He took on himself ever time you've lied to save yourself, every time you've made others look small so that you could feel big. He took on himself all those lustful glances, and the internet pornography. He took all the times you hated someone or hurt someone, or wished that you had. He took on himself every proud and boastful claim, all your envy and your bitterness. He took on himself all the times we love ourselves, and put ourselves first. He took on all the years you've rejected your Heavenly Father.
He took on all the things you've ever done. All the ways in which you've sinned, all the things for which you deserve to die. He took them on himself. And he chose to die. In our place.
He took everything that separates us from God on himself, and he nailed it to the cross. God did it. He became to be our scapegoat. So that if we put our faith in him, all our sins are forgiven, and forgotten.
Good Friday is our Day of Atonement. On that day, "God presented Jesus as a sacrifice of atonement," so that, "through faith in his blood" we could be saved.
So all that is left this morning is for me to ask you, have you put your faith in Jesus?
If you have, then you are at-one with God. And nothing you have done this week, or this year, or have ever done, can come between you and God.
No sin you commit this coming year will change that, because Jesus has taken all your sin upon himself. God loves you like you're perfect and he always will. So stop sinning, and live your life for him.
And if you've not yet put your faith in Jesus, well then, why not? Someone will have to pay the price for your sins. Someone will have to die. And Jesus says to you this morning, let it be me. Let him be your scapegoat, so that you can be free.
Maybe today could be your Day of Atonement?