Sin-Bearer to Sin-Bearer: The Day of Atonement to the Atonement

Isaiah 52:13-53:12 See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. 4 Just as there were many who were appalled at him— his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness— 15 so he will sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him. For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand.

Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? 2 He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. 3 He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. 4 Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. 6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. 7 He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished. 9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth. 10 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand. 11 After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

On Christmas Eve, 2012, a black Angora goat named Curly went on the lam from a live nativity scene. The goat was supposed to have a supporting role at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Fergus Falls, Minnesota.

According to the Fergus Falls Journal, tracking the goat was difficult because of a lack of snow. Curly was spotted several times since his escape, prompting phone calls to the police and an interactive map of his whereabouts posted on the Journal’s website. The goat was missing for 25 days, before a farmer in southwest Fergus Falls noticed an extra goat among his count. The goat was reportedly hungry, cold, and had lost some weight, but overall, he didn’t look all that baa-d.

Curly’s presence at the nativity scene would have made the church’s Christmas celebration seem more complete. But, there are two other goats we focus on today that point to Jesus, who actually did complete humanity’s salvation.

In the Old Testament, God promised to dwell with His people. So, He gave Moses instructions for the construction of the tabernacle, the tent used for worship. In the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle, God made His throne room on earth so that He would be truly present with His people. But God’s presence has drawbacks and difficulties. How can the unholy, sinful people of Israel dwell in the presence of the Holy One of Israel? How can the unworthy be in the presence of the Righteous One? How can man be face-to-face with God? To add terror to this reality, fire came forth from the altar of the tabernacle and consumed the sons of Aaron. Nadab and Abihu offered unholy fire — fire they took from the wrong place, fire from the true presence of God — and they died. How can anyone stand in the presence of the Holy One?

The people were terrified. But God, who wishes to dwell with His people, established a way for the Holy to dwell among the unholy. The Lord instituted the Day of Atonement. On the Great Day of Atonement, celebrated annually on the tenth day of the seventh month, the high priest would cast lots between two male goats. One goat would be offered to the Lord as a sin offering. The other goat was chosen to be the scapegoat (Leviticus 16:10). The high priest placed his hands on the scapegoat and confessed Israel’s sins over it before sending it into the wilderness to die (Leviticus 16:21-22).

On the Day of Atonement, the high priest took the blood of a goat behind the curtain into the Most Holy Place and sprinkled it on the Mercy Seat to atone for the sin of the people of God. Thus, the people of God were cleansed of their sin, and they could dwell with God without fear.

The second goat was the scapegoat. It became the sin-bearer. The high priest placed his hands on the second goat, the live goat, to symbolically transfer the sins of the people to it. Then, the high priest would have the scapegoat led out into the wilderness, to die. The sins of the people were gone forever – never to return.

Would it not have made more sense if God had devised a system of atonement where sinners suffered for their own commandment-breaking? Shouldn’t they earn forgiveness by paying with their own pain for the wrong they’ve done? You would confess your wrongdoing to the priest, turn around, put your hands on the altar, and take the whipping you deserve for whatever iniquity you committed. You would admit your guilt to the priest and be grounded from certain sanctified activities. You would spill your guts and receive a spanking.

Doesn’t that seem to make more sense?

But that’s not what happened. A guilty Israelite did not even get his finger pricked to put a drop of his own blood on the altar. Instead, guilty Israelites had the high priest offer the goat’s blood spilled over the Mercy Seat of God, so that He would not look upon their sins. Additionally, the sins of the people were placed onto a scapegoat and then it was sent into the wilderness to die. Then, the sinner would go home with his sin atoned for.

This Day of Atonement pointed ahead to Jesus becoming the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

A good way to remember the meaning of the word “atonement,” is to divide it into two words – “at onement.” We had been separated from God by our sins. We had hidden from God and no longer wished to walk with Him in the garden. We had buried our skeletons deep within our closet, hoping that God wouldn’t look there for them. We were enemies of God by nature, not wanting anything to do with Him – no praise, prayer, worship or will. God sent us into exile because unholiness cannot dwell in the presence of Holiness.

God provided a way for sinful humanity to be brought back into a harmonious relationship with Him. Atonement is always the action of God and never the action of humans.

God made us “at one” with Him through the sacrifice of atonement. But, it wasn’t through all these Old Testament sacrifices that this atonement happened. These bloody sacrifices did not really take away the guilt of the people. They emphasized their guilt! The Scriptures stress this: “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). So, if it was impossible for all this animal blood to actually take away sins, then why shed it?

Every time another innocent animal was killed because of the intentional or accidental sin of a person, that was a reminder that the innocent died for the guilt of someone else. All those sacrifices of atonement pointed ahead to real sacrifice of atonement – Jesus Christ. Jesus had no guilt, yet He was stricken, smitten, and afflicted for the sins of others.

Two goats — one which was the sacrifice to wash away the sins of the people with its blood, and the other which bore the sins of all the people upon its innocent back. In our journey to the cross this Lenten season, we learn that Jesus is the fulfillment of both goats! Jesus Christ is both the Sacrifice and the Sin-bearer. Isaiah tells us that surely He has borne our sins and carried our sorrows. The Suffering Servant is the Sin-bearer: He who knew no sin became sin for us as He took upon Himself the sins of the whole world. In His Baptism, Jesus took up all of the sins and carried them out into the wilderness to Satan. This Scapegoat went into the wilderness, but He came back alive. This was only the beginning of His sin-bearing journey. Christ’s journey as our Sin-bearer continued throughout His earthly journey until today, on Good Friday, it has come to the cross. Christ carried all of our sins to Calvary, and here we see Him lifted up.

When we look upon that tree what do we see? We should see our sin, for He has carried them to this hill. We should see the One who became our sin and hangs naked, as our shame is uncovered. We should see our sin carried by our Sin-bearer. But we also see that He is the other goat as well.

We see the sacrifice, as well. Jesus is the sacrificial goat who is stricken by God, smitten by Him, and afflicted for us. He is the one whose blood is shed for you, for the forgiveness of your sin. “Despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we esteemed Him not. ... But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” Isaiah shows us both goats. 700 years before Christ is born, Isaiah shows us Jesus!

The journey that began in the wilderness with the children of Israel, the journey that was more clearly defined by the Day of Atonement and the two goats, this journey is fulfilled in Christ Jesus for He is the fulfillment of the Day of Atonement. Jesus is THE atonement! Our Lenten journey has brought us to Jesus, as we knew it would. Even now, as we look upon the tree, we see the two goats of the Day of Atonement fulfilled in the one Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

The Sin-bearer is raised high and lifted up upon the tree. The blood of the Sacrifice is sprinkled upon all the nations. Christ Jesus pours out His blood to atone for the sins of mankind. The Lamb without blemish or spot cleanses us from every spot and stain. It is our sin that has brought the precious Lamb of God to the cross, for where else could the Sin-bearer go? It is our guilt and shame that Jesus reveals upon the tree of the cross; and then He atones, pays the price, and we are redeemed. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned — every one — to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” Jesus bore that sin. He shed His blood, and He declared, “IT IS FINISHED!”

When our Lord and Savior hung His head in death, an amazing thing happened. The sky went dark, and the earth shook. The rocks split, and curtain of the temple — the barrier to the Most Holy Place — tore in two from top to bottom. The Most Holy Place was revealed. Jesus, the Sin-bearer and the Sacrifice, took His very own blood through the curtain into the Most Holy Place and poured it out upon the Mercy Seat. Indeed, it is finished, and we are atoned for. The greatest and last High Priest has gone into the Most Holy Place — not with the blood of a goat, but with His own blood; and this blood cleanses and brings atonement to the world.

It is finished! The journey that began so long ago has come to this place, and it is finished. The Lamb of God — Sin-bearer and Sacrifice — fulfills and gives meaning to our journey as we have traveled with Him from our exile in the wilderness of sin to the cross. The instrument of torture and death has become a life-giving tree as Christ Jesus has paid the price. This goat won humanity’s salvation through His death in the wilderness and His blood atoning for all people. Amen.