One Scapegoat is Enough

Delivered September 23, 2001 by Rev. Jerome D. Cooper.
Theme: The Day of Atonement looks forward to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for our sins, reminding us of the seriousness of our sin and the need to approach God according to His path and not the way of our own choosing.

Sermon Text:
Leviticus 16:1-10

As two and a half year olds are wont to do, our daughter, Joy, recently touched something she wasn’t suppose to touch. And when confronted with this transgression, she declared with a straight face, “Anna did it.” Well, we only have one child, my wife’s name is Ingrid and no one else was around – except her doll, Anna. And technically, Anna did touch it, but Joy was the one who made her touch it.

We laugh, but we are not really so different than Joy, are we? We often don’t really want to take the blame or the responsibility for things, and we too look around for who we can blame. It is a skill often found in politicians. Nothing is ever a politician’s fault. It is always the fault of the opposing party or the previous administration, isn’t it? Or in sports, we are always looking for someone to blame for bad times. If your baseball team loses 14 out of 15, you are looking for a someone’s head. The manager, the top salary player, whoever. You know, I still remember the National Football Conference Championship game from 1984. The Washington Redskins beat the San Francisco 49’ers. All because of that one referee’s bad call near the end of the game that brought back a touchdown. It is the ref’s fault. You see how it goes? The point is that we often look for someone to blame when something doesn’t go right. Even when it is not our fault, most of us would like someone to blame.

I found this ad recently for a company with a great future. It is for “Rent-A-Scapegoat” and their motto is “Mea Culpa.”

In today’s society finding a solution to a problem is much less important than finding someone to blame. If you find yourself being blamed for something you did not do, or even if you did, that’s where we come in. For a nominal fee, one of our trained experts will come to your place of work and take all the blame for whatever happened. Our courtesy professionals will gladly admit to just about anything. And accept whatever punishments people are tempting to meet out to you, up to and including getting fired in your stead.

Let’s be honest. How many of us can us that service? Especially if they did house calls in addition to going to your place of work. But seriously, we all look for someone to blame. We all want someone to punish, someone to focus the blame on. It’s a historical trait. We see it throughout history and in fact, we have seen that tendency even in the last couple of weeks.

Since the tragedy of September 11, where terrorists whom we know were at fault, caused this tragedy through their own evil choices, many Americans are looking for a scapegoat with a face, rather than this unnamed terrorist organization – except for the name of Osama bin Laden. And many people have been put forward as scapegoats, including all Muslims and all Arabs. Of course, these accusers don’t realize that most Arabs in the US are actually Christian. But we focus our hostility on the face that we can see, the Muslims we can see rather than terrorists we cannot. Or we blame the CIA or the FBI, because they should have been able to catch what was going on. Some people blame the Bush administrations policies, some people blame the policies of the Clinton administration.

My favorite – or maybe favorite is not quite the right word – is Jerry Falwell’s scapegoat. He said it’s the fault of the gays and lesbians, the ACLU, the atheists, the abortionists and all those who are secularizing American society. Because of them, God is bringing his judgment upon us. Now to his credit, he apologized for that statement and said that it was both wrong, insensitive and ill-timed. In fact, in his apology he said, “I do not know if the horrific events of September 11 are the judgment of God, but if they are, the judgment is on all of America including me and all fellow sinners and not any particular group.” His apology gets us much closer to the truth. And that truth is we are all sinners.

We are all sinners. We all need the grace of God. In fact, in his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote, “All have sinned, all have fallen short of the glory of God.” (3:23) It also tells us that “the wages of sin is death.” (6:23) Now, we all recognize as evil the act that the terrorists perpetrated. But it is interesting to note the things we are willing to call evil and the things that we are unwilling to describe in that way. We generally think of evil as describing only those actions and attitudes that are particularly unacceptable. But the Bible says that evil is in all of us. We all deserve the death penalty before God.

One of the things that Jerry Falwell didn’t seem to grasp the first time around is that when judgment comes, generally God judges his people first before those “out there.” So if anything, as Christians we need to ask the question, “What might God be saying to us as Christians – about our own sins – about the evil within each of us?” To get at this, we are going to take a look this morning at Leviticus, Chapter 16, which tells us about the Day of Atonement – Yom Kippur as it’s often known today. In fact, this coming week Jews around the world will be celebrating Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. That is why I have chosen this passage for us today. Please turn with me to Leviticus, Chapter 16, Verses 1-10.

“The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron, who died when they approached the Lord. The Lord said to Moses, “tell you brother Aaron not to come whenever he chooses, in to 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.

This is how Aaron is to enter the sanctuary area with a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. 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 the sacred garments. So he must bath himself with water before he puts them on. From the Israelite community he is to take two male goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.

Aaron is to offer the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household. Then he is to take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the entrance to the tent of meeting. He is to cast lots for the two goats. One lot for the Lord, and the other for the scapegoat. Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the Lord and sacrifice it for a sin offering. But the goat chosen by lot, as the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the Lord to be used for the making of atonement by sending it into the desert as a scapegoat.”

May the Lord add his blessing to this reading from his word. Please join me as we pray.

Lord, we do thank you for these words that you have given to us through your servant, Moses. And we pray now that your Holy Spirit would fill us anew, that you would teach us what you desire us to learn and that you would use that to transform us, that we might be more faithful disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ. For it’s in his name that we pray. Amen.

Most of us would probably find it to somewhat repulsive to actually participate in a Day of Atonement celebration as it was performed during the time of the Old Testament as well as the time of Christ. Most of us would be appalled to see the priest take a bull, open up it’s throat and drain out the blood, open up it’s belly and take out the entrails cutting out the fat from around the kidneys, liver and intestine so it can be burned on the alter as a sacrifice to God, and then finally deliver the flesh, hide and offal to be burned outside the city. Not just with one animal, but with four different animals that day. One each for the sin offering for Israel and the priest, and one each for the burnt offering for the priest and for the community of Israel. “Disgusting,” might be a word we would use to describe it. It is hard to even imagine what the smell was like. Not a pretty picture, which is probably why one liberal theologian a few years ago said, “you know we don’t need any of this blood and stuff, or any Jesus hanging on the cross … that’s uncivilized, barbaric.” Is it?

The Day of Atonement teaches us a couple essential truths through this “uncivilized and barbaric activity.” Truths about our sin and our relationship with God. First, it teaches us about the seriousness of sin. Second, it teaches us that we are not to approach God by a method of our own choosing. We are to approach God in the way that he has sent out before us.

Let’s look at both of these points a little more closely. First of all, the Day of Atonement sacrifices teach us about the seriousness of our sin. It teaches us that our sin has consequences. And the consequences of our sin is death. In fact, it is because of our sin we that need to come before the Lord and make this sacrifice to him. This sacrifice was a powerful reminder of the cost of sin. I should add that although the Day of Atonement was one of the holiest days of the year when sacrifice was made for all of Israel, most Israelites had to offer individual sacrifices for sin at other times in the year as well. So both the annual sacrifice for the community and the other individual sacrifices were regular reminders that our sin deserves death. We kill this animal as a substitute for us before the Lord. A reminder, a constant reminder, of the gravity of our sin.

We are also told that Aaron was only to go in the Holy of Holies, the Most Holy Place one time a year. Only once a year could he go behind the veil, the curtain that separated the people and the priests from the place where God made His dwelling. This was the case, because sin causes a separation between ourselves and God. A barrier is erected. And God allows only one individual, only one time a year, to go on to the other side of that barrier, that curtain, to be in the presence of God and make atonement for the sins of the people. Our sin is so serious, that it erects an absolute barrier between ourselves and God. A barrier we can not get through. Only God can open it when he wills. And that barrier is so severe that it requires the death of another to substitute for our own deserved death.

In today’s world we really don’t understand the seriousness of sin. Many people make light of sin, saying, “God will forgive me, that’s his job.” With this attitude I can do whatever I want to because I imagine God will simply forgive. Just use one more “Joy story.” I try not to use her very often, but you know kids are such good illustrations when it comes to sin. They just lay it all right out there for us to observe. You see, when Joy does something wrong she doesn’t generally understand the seriousness of it – not that she is in to anything too outrageous. The other day she did obey, so I told her, “Joy, you don’t get any dessert, since you did not obey.” Immediately, “Uh-Oh,” she realized that this infraction had unfortunate consequences – no dessert! So in that way that only little girls do with their daddies she looked up sweetly saying, “Daddy, I’m sorry … Can I have desert now?” You know as well as I that she was only sorry because suddenly she had to do without something. By the way, my loving answer was “no.”

Now how many of us live very much that same way? Aren’t you and I often sorry for our sin because we suddenly realize that there is a consequence to it? Not because we realize the gravity of our sin, and how our rebellion against God has spiritual consequences. It is more, “Oh, no! I sinned.” Then, “Lord, forgive me, and by the way can you help me out here?” “Will you still bless me in this way, I’m sorry.” What we don’t do as often as we should is truly repent of our sin. Not just being sorry, but repenting. Repenting means recognizing the gravity of what we have done and knowing we need to turn around and begin to live in a different way. Not just sorry, but “I repent, and by your strength, Lord, I will change.” That’s what God is after. An introspection about who we are. A dependence on him and a desire and commitment to change.

The seriousness of our sin is the first thing that we learn from the Day of Atonement. The second thing we are shown is that we are not to come to God just any way that we choose.

Chapter 16 begins by saying that these words were given to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron. You see, they died when they approached the Lord in a way that was contrary to what God had commanded. The Bible in Leviticus 10, says, “they offered a strange fire before the Lord in a way that was not commanded … and they died before the Lord.” Now notice how detailed the Day of Atonement ritual is, telling exactly how Aaron or the high priest is to do things. Just in the small portion I read for us it talks about the garments right down to the underwear and up to the turban you are suppose to wear. It gives you the order of how everything is to happen. It is to be followed exactly. God even commands, “Tell Aaron not to come in to the most holy place whenever he chooses … or he will die.” He was to come only accordingly to the method that God placed before them.

You see when we try to take matters in to our own hands, when we decide the best way to come to God, when we choose our own way to deal with our sin, when we try to achieve salvation in our own way, rather than God’s, it leads not to life, but to death. There is only one way that results in life, that’s God’s way. Any alternative we choose will lead to death as it did for Aaron’s sons.

Well you and I don’t celebrate the Day of Atonement anymore, do we? Other than the fact that the Temple is gone, why don’t we celebrate it? It’s because a greater sacrifice has now been made than was ever made through goats and bulls. That sacrifice is Jesus Christ. God himself came to earth through his son Jesus Christ and lived a perfect, a holy and a blameless life, that he might be an unblemished sacrifice, that as he gave his life on the cross, it was not a punishment that he deserved, it was a punishment that we deserved. He took upon himself the punishment that was meant for us. Because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we no longer sacrifice animals. Hebrews 10, Verses 3 and 4 tells us, “but those sacrifices, the ones that we have been speaking of, are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” If they took away sins we wouldn’t have had to come back year after year after year after year.

Up to the time of Jesus there had been literally millions of sacrifices for sins. Possibly tens of millions of animals sacrificed in payment for human sin, but not really in payment, because they could not pay the debt. An animal can not pay my debt. That would be like repaying my mortgage with “Monopoly” money. Only Jesus Christ, God incarnate, only He is able to make a sacrifice great enough for my sin. Great enough for your sin – all of our sins – and the sin of the world. You see it’s that sacrifice that above all others teaches us how serious our sin is. That God himself came to pay the debt. He couldn’t just say, “Don’t worry, we will just pretend it never happened.” There are real consequences of sin. Consequences of the evil at work within us that we often give in to, the evil we call sin. The consequence is death, but Jesus has paid that price for us.

In addition to the seriousness of sin, we also need to remember that we can not come to God by the method of our own choosing. Jesus Christ said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the father, but by me.”

“No one comes to the father, but by me.” There is only one path, only one method by which God has given us through which we might find forgiveness and life – and that is Jesus Christ.

There are two general perspectives on sin in our world, both wrong. Make light of it, or become preoccupied with it. The first perspective leads to our own attempts at dealing with the sin. It isn’t so bad, so I can work it out somehow, like I work out other things in life, negotiation, payment, handshake. Whether playing down the seriousness of our sin, or trying to find a scapegoat to take the blame so we don’t bear responsibility, either way misses the truth. Neither way has any ability to deal with our sin at all. It is Jesus Christ alone who removes our sin from us. And that can only happen when we take the responsibility and blame for our own sin, and then ask Jesus to take it from us.

Think of the two goats on the Day of Atonement. One was sacrificed for the forgiveness of the people’s sins. The other was led out of the community after all the sins and the wickedness of the people were pronounced on his head, and it was sent in to the wilderness never to be heard from again. In the same way, Jesus Christ, through his sacrifice, provides for our forgiveness and removes our guilt completely. Our guilt is no more. As David said in the Psalms, “as far as the east is from the west, so far has God removed our sin from us.”

The second perspective on sin is preoccupied with it. It dwells on our corrupt nature and our guiltiness before God. This person understands the deadly seriousness of sin, but somehow does not understand the power of the sacrifice Jesus made once for all to pay for our sin. Some people are so burdened by guilt they are unable to get out from under it. The good news for all in that place is that Jesus Christ has paid for it all. Hear me well: there is no sin you could imagine that is stronger than Christ’s ability to forgive. Not even the greatest evil that we have seen in recent times. The atrocities committed on September 11. Those responsible who are still living may, and hopefully will, be brought to earthly justice, but they are not beyond the forgiveness of their sin and the removal of all guilt before God. As long as they have life and breath and can call out to Jesus Christ and accept his sacrifice on their behalf, there is hope.

That should give hope to every one sitting here this morning. Jesus Christ has paid for it all. It is good news for you and for me. It is good news for the world. Let us open again our hearts and lives to the one who loves us, to the one who gave himself for us. Jesus Christ.

Please join me as we pray. Lord, we thank you for your amazing sacrifice, and Lord, we pray that you would give us the courage to face our lives honestly, to reject all the strategies that we have devised to make ourselves feel better, that we would turn our lives over to you and to you alone. For we ask it through Jesus Christ, our only Lord and Savior, Amen.