Today is Ash Wednesday, a time of fasting for much of the Church in remembrance of our sins. Besides being a key date for this quarter’s Ember fast (next Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday), a time when the Church fasts before the Lord and makes ready for the quarterly ordinations of deacons and elders, it also is a key date for updates from WCCCC. Besides the time around Ash Wednesday, seasonal updates will also come around Pentecost (23 May this year), Holy Cross (14 September), and St Lucy’s (13 December), to help us gather our hearts together in the Lord. If you join in any of the quarterly Ember fasts, please also remember WCCCC in your prayers for the work of the Church, not least for the Thematic Bible Conference to be held in a few months.
In this time of a public fast for many Christians, and especially as much of the world still lives under the shroud of the SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) pandemic, we wish to invite Christians of all traditions to consider taking up the practice of fasting, adding to our devotions to seek the Lord’s face and repent of our own sins. We know that fasting is a practice the Lord Jesus took for granted (‘when ye fast’, Matthew 6.16), and we also know that God’s displeasure at our sins and the sins of the whole world is an occasion to mourn together the wickedness of our own hearts and grab tightly together to the saving gospel of Jesus Christ, by which we are freely saved from the guilt and the power of sin.
The Day of Atonement
Coming before Almighty God in prayer to remember our own need for the Saviour to cleanse us, and to banish sin from our lives, is a practice that has its roots in ancient Israel’s annual Day of Atonement. I invite you to read Leviticus 16, which tells us what the LORD said to Moses, Aaron, and all Israel after the LORD killed two of Aaron’s sons with fire for entering the Tent of Meeting with strange (unauthorized) fire and making improper offerings to the LORD. By their impure offering, they polluted the whole Tent of Meeting, where the LORD dwelt with his people, and this sin put all Israel in danger by threatening its relationship with the LORD. Israel needed, therefore, an emergency purification to restore its fellowship with the LORD, that it might continue to live. As we read Leviticus 16, we may reflect on the ways in which this rite of purification, continued yearly in the Day of Atonement, should inform how we live our own lives before God today.
Part 1: At the Tent of Meeting
The various offerings in the Day of Atonement’s complex sequence of ritual can be summarized as follows, with a bull, a ram, two goats, and another ram:
|Offering type||High priest (& family)||People of Israel|
|Sin (purification)||Bull||One goat, by lot*|
* The other goat is lonely, and made lonelier.
First, the high priest (starting with Aaron) took a bath for his body to be clean before handling the pollution of the Tent of Meeting.
Then, the high priest had to deal with two sets of sins (see also Hebrews 7.27). Ideally, the high priest was pure and spotless, foreshadowing Christ. The LORD’s sudden killing of high priest Aaron’s two sons, however, showed that this was not in fact the case, and that the high priest had to deal with the sin of the high priestly family itself. Thus, the high priest killed a bull and collected its blood to make a first purification offering for himself and all his family. Then, having killed a bull and collected its blood for himself and his whole house, the high priest did the same with a goat for the people of all Israel.
Thus, taking the blood of the bull (for his own house) and the blood of the goat (for the house of all Israel), the high priest then entered into the innermost part of the Tent of Meeting, where the LORD dwelt with his people Israel. Using the blood of the bull, he washed away the pollution that came from his own house; using the blood of the goat, he washed away the pollution that came from the people of all Israel (see also Hebrews 9.11–22)). Unless the high priest cleansed the place with blood for both sets of sins, the place where the LORD dwelt with his people was defiled, too disgusting for him to stay in. Likewise, the high priest used the blood of both the bull and the goat to cleanse the other parts of the Tent of Meeting, and then to cleanse the altar that stood before the Tent of Meeting. When the Tent of Meeting was cleansed of sins, the sins of both the priest and the people, then it was no longer like a house of dung; once the altar was cleansed of sin, then it was no longer polluted with sin, and it could be used to present whole burnt offerings in the worship of God.
Before actually making whole burnt offerings to reëstablish relationship with God, the high priest had to do another thing, involving the second goat; the first goat’s blood had been used to wash away the sins of the people from the Tent of Meeting and the altar that stood before it. Because there are two goats, interchangeable and chosen by the throwing of dice, we see that the first goat and the second goat both deal with the pollution broought by the sins of all Israel. So, after a second bath, for the impurity that he was about to deal with, the high priest confessed Israel’s sins over the second goat. The goat was now unclean, because the sins of the whole people had been placed upon it, and it was sent away into the wilderness, far away from the people, to symbolically banish Israel’s sin pollution all the way to the devil Azazel.
At last, the high priest made a whole burnt offering for himself and his family, symbolically offering his whole self up to God. And then he made a whole burnt offering for the people, symbolically offering Israel’s whole self to God. In this way, God provided a way for the high priest to express the right thoughts and feelings, for the high priestly family and all Israel to rededicate themselves to God in purity.
We should note that the people did not actually watch this. Aaron’s sons had already been killed because of the impurity they brought to the Tent of Meeting. So the people stayed away because of their own, related moral impurity. What they did instead of going to the Tent of Meeting will be told below.
We need to see how holy God is, and how he cannot dwell in a Church – that is, a temple, a people constituting the temple – when it is full of sin. Sin pollutes. Sin is so disgusting that there is no way for the holy God to dwell with a people of sin. Much less is it possible for such a sinful people to bring acceptable worship to him.
Part 2: Not at the Tent of Meeting
The people, who stayed away from the Tent of Meeting, were told to fast and mourn – to afflict themselves – so that the ritual applied to them. The second goat, chosen by lot, by the throwing of dice, was led away to Azazel in the wilderness. This meant that sin itself was led away and banished to the devils. The people had to mourn and separate themselves from the sins they ritually rejected. In the New Testament, in 1 Corinthians 6, the Apostle Paul speaks of the need to excommunicate a scandalous sinner from the Church when he refuses to repent of his sin. He says to ‘deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus’. That is, in order to save the Church, and to keep the Holy Spirit dwelling with the Church, the faithful must deliver the unrepentant sinner to Satan, and thus separate themselves from the sin thus banished. Instead, the Church must stand on the side of the Lord, on the side of the Saviour, against all sin and impurity and wickedness.
Therefore, we curse sin, and we curse all who hold on to their sin. One example of this is in the Anglican service of Commination (or threatening), when the people together curse a list of sins and those who commit them. In cursing sin, we set ourselves against it, and we curse ourselves if we hold on to those sins. Committing together to stand and make sin our enemy remains crucial today. By uniting together with Christ instead of sin, we experience the peace of God. This is what we invite everyone to do this year before Easter, that we may love God and put away sin from ourselves, banishing sin to Azazel and dwelling in the company of God all our days.