You know that feeling you get when you find the perfect gift for someone you love? You know their likes and dislikes and their bent for certain things. You know that part of the pleasure for them will be knowing you know them so well that you’ve found this perfect gift in the first place. And it gives you pleasure to know that you’re giving pleasure.
Love like this goes ’round and ’round. But it started with your gift of love.
This is something like what we find in Leviticus. A relationship with God starts with his love.
The Israelites have been camped out at the foot of Mount Sinai since leaving Egypt months before. Moses has been on the mountain, receiving detailed instructions from God for how he wants to be worshiped, and he’s shared those instructions with God’s people. They’ve built a special tent to meet in called the tabernacle, and they’ve installed priests and a sacrificial system, all as God’s commanded.
In today’s chapters, God gives instructions for how Aaron, the high priest, is to come to God in the Most Holy Place, the place where his sons, Nadab and Abihu, had just offered unauthorized incense and died (for that story, see https://iwantmore.blog/2021/02/20/february-20-fire-and-storm/).
It’s the place where the ark is kept with the Ten Commandments and the jar of manna inside. Over the top is a cover called the mercy seat (or atonement cover) and above that are two winged cherubim made of gold whose wings touch. This is God’s sacred dwelling place inside the tent.
God commands that once a year, every year, on a special day called the Day of Atonement (known by Jews today as “Yom Kippur”), the people are to take a day off from work and fast. On this day, they don’t bring their own animals to sacrifice or slaughter and butcher them as they usually do; the priest gets the necessary animals and does all the work. This is a day of sacred rest, Le 16:5-9, 15-16, 29-32.
After Aaron takes a bath, he puts on simple, white linen–a tunic, boxers, sash, and turban–not the fancy things he usually wears like the ephod and breast piece, and it’s time to begin. Aaron kills a bull and takes the blood inside the Most Holy Place and sprinkles it on the mercy seat under the cherubim’s wings. He’s holding a censor of fire and incense that smokes a lot and covers the mercy seat, “so he won’t die.” Le 16:3-4, 11-14.
He offers this bull for his and his household’s sin and two goats for the sin of the people. One goat is to be killed as an offering to God and one is to be left alive as a scapegoat. Aaron will symbolically place the sins of the community on the head of the scapegoat, Le 16:6-10.
Aaron does the same thing with the goat’s blood as he does with the bull’s, sprinkling it on the mercy seat to make atonement for the people in God’s Most Holy Place, “because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been.” In this way, he makes atonement for himself and all Israel on this holy day, Le 16:16-17.
Then he comes outside the tabernacle, where the people are, and makes atonement for the altar there, for the tabernacle itself, and for the Most Holy Place. Evidently these areas are already defiled, simply by being connected with sinful priests and people. So he puts blood from both animals–bull and goat–on the horns of the altar and sprinkles them with his finger seven times to “consecrate it from the uncleanness of the Israelites,” Le 16:16, 18-19.
After that, Aaron lays hands on the live goat and confesses over it “all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites–all their sins–and puts them on the goat’s head.” A man takes the goat to the desert and let’s him go “to a solitary place,” Le 16:20-21.
Aaron takes off all his white linen and bathes again, and then puts on his fancy priest clothes. Whereas he was the humble servant in plain linen who offered blood for the people, when he changes clothes, he comes back as the radiant priest who assures the people of God’s forgiveness, Le 16:23-24, (Guzik, http://enduringword.com/bible-commentary/leviticus-16/)
How have they been forgiven? By the blood that was shed. But it wasn’t the bull’s and goat’s blood that saved and gave them God’s forgiveness. Animal blood didn’t have the power to save anyone. It could only be a stand in, a substitute for the blood of the Lamb, the Son of God, who would come and die, spilling his blood for them. Only Jesus’ blood has the power to save, He 10:4, 19; 13:12; Eph 2:13.
Lastly, Aaron burns two rams on the altar as burnt offerings, one for himself and one for the people. The fire for burnt offerings is tended to all day and night and represents the people’s renewed hearts of love and devotion to God, now that their sins are forgiven, (Ligon Duncan, http://fpcjackson.org/resource-library/sermons/aaron-and-his-sons-complete-the-ceremonies/).
Dealing with sin wasn’t just a little part of worship, tacked onto the daily doings at the tabernacle. It was the whole focus of the physical structure and scheduling of the tabernacle. It was the work that all the priests were involved with. The altar and nearby wash basin were front and center in the courtyard of the tabernacle and both dealt with sin. You couldn’t walk into the tabernacle without bumping into them. On the altar, which was the main attraction, animal sacrifices were made for sin. At the basin, priests washed their hands in order to be ceremonially cleansed and separated from sin, so that they could go-between God and men-and-women, (http://christianity.com/wiki/christian-terms/what-was-the-purpose-of-the-tabernacle.html).
Confession of sin and repentance aren’t tacked onto faith, either. They’re foundational, vital parts of coming to God and having a relationship with him. In fact, we can’t come to God without them, because God is holy, and he can’t have fellowship with sinful people. His holiness demands that something be done about our sin, or we can’t commune with him, Le 26:40-45.
The Jews would spend the next 1400 years after camping out at Mount Sinai sometimes trying but mostly failing to worship God the way he’s commanded. Eventually they forget what worship is about and zero in on getting the rules right, missing the whole point, which is loving God from the heart, loving him with all that they are. They’re so entrenched in the law that when the Messiah finally comes–the One the law was supposed to lead them to–they don’t recognize him and kill him rather than repent and believe in him, Mk 3:1-6, 12:30; GA 3:23-24; He 10:10.
But why did it have to be so hard to come to God then? Why so much detail and ritual?
Connecting with people matters a lot to God, but connecting sinners with a holy God was a complicated process. The sacrificial system was only a limited picture of what it would take for God to commune with them. Because the 8 x 10 glossy is of a cross on a hill and a naked Son gasping, “Father, forgive!” All of this detail and ritual points to the One who would come and offer his blood and take our sins on his own head and suffer and die and break sin and death to rise and reign for us, Lk 23:334; Eph 1:20-21; He 10:19-25.
God says why he has so many laws about how to live rightly with him: “I am the LORD your God. Keep my decrees and laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them. I am the LORD,” Le 18:1-5.
It’s because God is their God, the LORD, Yahweh, who brought them out of slavery and is taking them to the promised land, the God who has protected and provided for them along the way, the One who has made promises to be their God, and who they’ve made promises to obey. His laws are for their good because he’s created them, and he knows how he’s designed them best to live. It’s not in sin–it’s with him.
God desires nothing more than to connect with people, to have fellowship and communion with them. It’s what the sacrificial system was all about. It’s why there was so much surrounding it–so much sacrificing and splendor and beauty and awe and wonder. It was the God of the Universe stooping down to dwell with men and women, his glories of creation, creating a system that pointed to the Savior who would secure their relationship with him, (Hebrews 9 and 10).
God gives us a visual for what happens to the sins the slain goat’s blood covers. They’re taken by the living goat into the wasteland and never seen again, removed as far as the east is from the west. When God forgives, he doesn’t bring our sins back to accuse and condemn us. God’s system has closure for sin. I might remember them, but God says they’re gone, and there’s “No fishing,” Le 16:20-22, Ps 103:12.
The forgiveness and connection they experienced on the Day of Atonement wasn’t earned–it was pure grace. It was God providing the sacrifice and doing all the work, as Aaron did, so that all the people had to bring was their repentance. God provided all the rest–and all the relationship. He’s still the same God, and he still cares about sin, and he still does all the saving work so we can find rest in him, Is 30:15; Ac 20:21.
God’s gift of Jesus was pure grace with skin on, love wrapped up in a baby lying in a feeding trough, who offers us what we could never have done for ourselves–his life of perfect faith and a once-and-for-all death that paid for sin for us. We bring repentant hearts, trusting his offering’s been made and our account is all paid, and our sin is carried off on a goat’s head and flung in the depths of the sea, Mic 7:19, Mk 1:15.
That God could love people (like me) this much, who don’t deserve it and who often forget to say thanks, is beyond me to comprehend. How could he? And why would he?
Because he just does. Because God is love.
The hero in our story will always be him.
“And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.
God is love.
Whoever lives in love lives in God,
and God in them,”
1 John 4:16
[I included Leviticus 16:1-28 from yesterday’s One Year Bible reading in today’s comments because they were about the Day of Atonement.]
Jesus goes to the area of Tyre, hoping to slip into town without being noticed, but “he couldn’t keep his presence secret,” Mk 7:24. He helps a little girl who can’t control herself, a man who can’t communicate, a crowd who needs feeding.
A Greek mama with a demon possessed little girl finds him and falls at his feet, begging for help. Jesus says he’s come to feed his children, not their dogs, but she doesn’t miss a beat and says, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Jesus tells her that for her reply, “the demon has left your daughter,” Mk 7:25-29.
Then he goes south near the Sea of Galilee and people bring him a deaf, nearly-mute man to heal. He puts his fingers in his ears and touches his tongue, looks to heaven, deeply sighs, and says, “Be opened.” At this, the man hears and speaks. Jesus commands them not to tell anyone, but the more he says this, the more they speak of him, because “People were overwhelmed with amazement.” Maybe they still don’t believe? Mk 7:31-37.
A hungry crowd gathers. They’ve been with Jesus three days, they have no food, and Jesus cares. He asks the disciples how many loaves they have. They find seven plus a few fish, and Jesus does the feeding of thousands again. There are seven baskets full left over, Mk 8:1-10. [I wonder if that was a little lighthearted, show-off move on God’s part–See, I didn’t even need those seven loaves to start!]
What stands out to me is this mama who doesn’t bristle when Jesus calls her and her daughter “dogs.” She presses in for what she came for, “I’ll take your children’s crumbs! What we need is you, however much you’ll give us.” Jesus gives her more than crumbs–he gives her daughter a restored life. The mother’s faith and courage are rewarded, because she believes in him.
Jesus pours himself out for those who come to him, regardless of who they are. Surprisingly, he’s made a trip to Tyre, a Phoenecian, Gentile city that’s out of the way, and gives a little girl healing. It’s not the first time he’s given himself to those who aren’t his people.
Jesus still comes for everyone, Jn 3:16.
In verses 1-3, David tells what God does for the one who has “regard for the weak”:
–He’s delivered from his own trouble when it comes.
–His life is preserved.
–He’s blessed in the land.
–His enemies won’t prevail.
–He’s sustained on his sickbed.
–He’s restored to health after illness.
It’s as if remembering and regarding the weak is its own kind of life assurance policy. We get help and protection in life; blessings of all kinds; no worry from enemies; health care benefits.
Who are the weak? The poor, the sick, the young and old, the ignorant, the handicapped, the unwanted and unloved, the lonely, the oppressed, the abused, the confused, the mistreated, the hated, the innocent, the immigrant, the outsider, the jailbirds, the addicts, the prostitutes, the aborted.
Look out for all these?
Surely I bump into the weak every week, if not everyday. Open my eyes and heart, God. Move in me to see and to care and to help. I want good things for me and for others, too. I need Jesus’ heart that reached out to those outside his community, helped the destitute, fed the ones who were hungry. I’m prone to get too busy. Please forgive.
My take away today is God’s love that wants to connect with us through worship at the tent, through the rest Day of Atonement, through Jesus’ life and death, through sending us to be his eyes and ears, hands and feet for the weak, and rewarding our watching over them for his sake.
It’s a beautiful place, a beautiful life, a beautiful privilege you call us to with you, God. Thank you for the head of that goat and the blood of the Lamb and the forgiveness and love I have because of him.