Getting Rid of The Garbage
Hebrews 9:11-14, Luke 15:11-24
Wouldn’t it be wonderful, if on garbage collection day when we put out the trash, and put out the box or bag filled with recyclables, there was another box into which we could dump our sins, and have them hauled off to the dump as well? Wouldn’t that be great? Along with cleaning out the garbage we could clean out the guilt as well. Along with getting rid of the recyclables, we could clean out the regret and the remorse too. That would be great! And when we hear this service is absolutely free, well that would be an added bonus.
In fact, in Ancient Israel such a service was provided. For 3,000 years Judaism has celebrated annually the festival of Yom Kippur. In English translation YOM KIPPUR mean, “Day of Atonement.” This was the day when guilt was taken out with the garbage.
The Great Day of Atonement
Leviticus Chapter 16 describes this important day, in the religious life of Israel. It was the one day in the year when the High Priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies of the Temple in Jerusalem.
On that day he would offer a sacrifice and ask God for the forgiveness of all of the sins of all of the people of Israel. Then a goat, that we have called the “scapegoat”, was selected and in symbolic fashion, the sins of a nation were placed on the head of that animal and it was driven out into the wilderness, taking away the sins of the people.
Of course, questions come flooding into our modern minds. “How can a ritual such as this take away sin?” Sin is moral, not ceremonial. Sin is personal. How can some words pronounced over the heads of thousands of people forgive their sins? Isn’t sin such a weighty matter that it calls for personal repentance and restitution. Besides, in any crowd there are people who sin, but feel no penitence and intend to keep on sinning. How can a ritual like this absolve them of their guilt?
Two things need to be said in response to the questions.
First, the ritual does not take away sin. God alone can do that. But this act did declare to Israel what God does with sins when they are confessed to him. The symbolic carrying away of the sins of God’s people, was a graphic proclamation that God has removed their guilt.
But a second thing needs to be said that appears to contradict what I have been saying. Not every sin of every Israelite was forgiven on that day. That was not the intention of God when this day was initiated. Listen to the Book of Hebrews as its author speaks of that Great Day of Atonement.
“Only the high priest goes into the Holy of Holies, and he but once a year, and not without taking the blood that he offers for himself and for the sins committed unintentionally by the people.” (Hebrews 9:7)
Did you catch that word, “unintentional”? The sacrifice on that day did not forgive a person, in spite of repentance, or in spite of their attitude. But it did announce the forgiveness of God’s people for the sins of accident, impetuousness, inadvertence, and human weakness that we all commit far too frequently.
In the Old Testament sins fall into two categories.
- Some sins are committed intentionally, willfully and with premeditation. These are the high-handed sins that we might call “willful transgressions against the known law of God.” These are serious and must be dealt with personally before God. No sacrifice avails for such sins.
- But some of our sins are due more to weakness than wickedness. Some of our misdeeds are due to carelessness not criminal intent. They take place often without our willing or wishing and often without our awareness that we have done them. These kinds of sins also need be dealt with because they too can do significant damage to self and others.
Let me explain. Years ago, when I first got acquainted with my first computer, I noticed that it went through a strange phase. It began to operate too slowly. It took too much time to do some simple tasks. I remember the day I first discovered the truth about my computer. It was getting slow again, and I was getting frustrated. So I erased all the files I didn’t need that I knew were taking up memory, but that gave little relief. I defragged my computer and disk-scanned, hoping to get my computer back up to speed. But that didn’t help much.
Then I noticed that hidden away on the Windows directory were thousands and thousands of files that ended with TMP. “Temporary files.” These were files that I did not even know were there! But they were taking up massive amounts of memory. I had not placed them there. They were unknown to me, but they were still causing me problems. I learned to go, every few months, into this directory and erase all the Temporary files that have gathered inside windows, so that my computer could run more effectively. Recently I also went into the temporary internet directory and erased 10,400 files, most of them “cookies”. Wow. I think I need to take the garbage out more often!
The human spirit is the same. Our conscious mind knows of some things that cause a slow-down in our lives. But our subconscious selves are dimly aware also of other things that have not been erased, that cause our hearts to grow weary, and our faith to flag. The accumulated debris of living out our lives needs to be dealt with, as well as our sins of intention. The irritabilities, the impatience, the fears, the flickers of greed, lust, envy, pride, doubt, anger, and a myriad other defections from the ideal, take their toll on our lives.
Israel was a culture that had a high sense of the ideal as a guide. It aimed for excellence in all things. But because its ideals and goals were high, it also knew that there was considerable slippage between what they wish they were and what they ended up being. A great dilemma was faced; what do we do with ourselves when we fail to live up to our own standards? And what do we do with ourselves when we fall short of God’s standards, which are true and good and right?
Once a year there came that marvelous declaration to the ancient Israelite. The sins of accident, the sins you did, but did not willfully intend, are forgiven you. The errors you made; God does not hold them against you. You do not have to live with continual remorse and self-accusation, for God has declared that you are forgiven. Now go and sin no more.
But some Israelite might be heard to say, “I do not will to sin anymore. But in the face of some temptations I am weak, under the stress of some moments I collapse, and I end up doing those things I ought not to do, and I fail to do the things I should. Wretched person that I am! I know the ideal, and aim for it, but I still fall short.”
God understands. He knows that we share in the weakness of the world. But, He cannot say, “It’s all right then. It doesn’t matter. Go ahead and sin, just try not to sin too often. Try to sin less, even if you can’t be sinless!” Friends, God cannot lower the ideal without betraying his own nature or our true calling.
God is not prepared to lower the ideal for which we aim, but he is willing to forgive us for our failures to do the things we should. And so, to a sullied conscience, to unhealthy guilt feelings, to our feelings of failure, God grants his forgiveness. And the ancient Israelite could leave the worship service on the Day of Atonement saying, “Thanks be to God for his forgiveness. I don’t feel so bad anymore. I sense a new desire to serve God without feeling weighed down by a past I cannot change.”
When the Christian Church was born, it began a similar practice. We call it “Holy Communion”. It is the equivalent of the Great Day of the Atonement. But instead of holding this event once each year, the churches celebrated this event frequently – some, every day, some, every week, some, every month, some, once a quarter. Was it because we are greater sinners than our predecessors? Perhaps so. But that is not the reason. If the religion of Israel had an ideal presented to them in the Law of Moses, the Christian Church has an even higher ideal revealed to us in the character of Jesus Christ.
A Christian conscience is sensitive to its own wrongdoing. We are pained by our sins of impatience, ingratitude and insensitivity. We feel guilty over our prolonged selfishness. We know that we are God’s children, but we sense in ourselves that we are not good like He is good, and we cry with the hymn writer, “Oh to be like Thee, blessed redeemer. Stamp thine own image deep on my heart.” It is at such times that we need to hear God’s word to us, ”You are forgiven!”
But you know that Presbyterians are a strange denomination. In every service of worship, we incorporate a prayer of confession as a distinct item and we usually place it quite early in our services of worship. In most churches this is not the case. Sometimes in a pastoral prayer the minister may include words of confession, but not always and sometimes not often, but we ensure its “pride of place.” (In fact, the statement was made that Presbyterians are not joined by a common theology, but by a common order of worship where prayers of confession and the reading of the scriptures, and the sacraments provide us with our central identity. )
Is our preoccupation with prayers of confession needed, because we are the worst of all Christians, and need more forgiveness than most? Perhaps. But it flows from the central conviction that God wants his people to be holy. It comes from the conviction that we are not only to be safe but also to be sound.
On this communion Sunday, I am glad to be able to tell ourselves once again that God grants absolution for all those sins of accident and weakness and temperament, and intends this hour to be one where he confirms and strengthens us in all goodness. All this is possible because Jesus Christ God’s Son became the Scapegoat for us, dying outside the city walls, carrying away our guilt and shame. Thanks be to God!