- The Washington Times - Monday, October 2, 2006

These are excerpts from a sermon given yesterday at Memorial Baptist Church by the Rev. William Smith.

Leviticus 16 gives us an account of an ancient ritual that people have continued to practice in some form for more than 3,000 years. I have respect for ancient things. We can see even today the Egyptian pyramids or some of the roads that Roman emperors built. Perhaps some of you have traveled to England and seen those strange 25-ton rocks set in a circle called Stonehenge. That mysterious formation has stood for more than 4,000 years.

These ancient monuments and ancient practices give us perspective. They challenge the tyranny of frivolous fashion and pointless innovations. They make us ask the question: What holds true today that held true a thousand years ago and will remain true a thousand years hence?

Pyramids point to the hope of life after death. Roman roads remind us that communication, interaction and understanding will always be the basis of civilization. Stonehenge points us beyond our worldview to the reality that, millennium after millennium, life remains mysterious.

In our text for today, we see the ancients wrestle with one of life’s continuing questions: How does a guilty conscience find release? This morning what I hope for you — what I pray for you — is that you will do more than hear the question. I hope and I pray for you and for myself that we will indeed find release from guilt and freedom to embrace life fully.

When we experience the touch of eternity, we experience life that is at the same time ancient and present. I felt that touch this week as I sat at the bedside of a man who has entered hospice care. He told me as he has told many that he has no problems, no fears, and feels only the blessing of God. In his witness I saw the intersection of the present with the eternal. Have you stood at that intersection? All who have been there, even for a moment, want nothing more than to return to that singular place of truth and transcendence.

On the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, the people of God as recorded in Leviticus 16 would gather before the place of worship and offer themselves to God. Their high priest would take sacrifices into the place of worship and ceremonially cleanse that worship place. Likewise, the priest would offer sacrifices in order to cleanse himself from anything that would offend God. In a dramatic demonstration of their longing, the people would bring a scapegoat to the priest. He would place both hands on the head of this goat and confess the sins and failures of God’s people. Then, this goat would be led into the wilderness. This scapegoat took away the sins of the people.

Of course, no goat or bull can take away sins. The people must have understood that truth. They were not so naive as to think an animal had power to cleanse spiritually. The writer of Hebrews in the New Testament said bluntly that there is no forgiveness of sin without the shedding of blood; he also said that the blood of goats and bulls cannot take away sin. The ancient people knew that only God can take our sins. The Day of Atonement, as every true act of worship, expresses our longing for God, who is our only hope of release and freedom from sin and guilt.

In the cross of Jesus we see clearly who must shed blood if sin is to be forgiven. In the cross of Jesus we see the “whole fullness of deity” (Colossians 2:9) dwelling in a body, the Body of Christ; He is the one who carries away our sins.

This same Jesus who died was raised from the dead. He lives, and in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit He comes to us in worship. In our imagination we place our hands upon Him and pronounce our sins. He delivers us from our transgressions and sets us free. The ancient becomes present. The eternal and the now come together at an intersection where we discover hope and meaning. We hear Good News. That which has been always true is now true again in our own lives. This is the Gospel. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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