Sermon Text: John 11:47-51
If you were last week, the holiday we looked at (because, remember, each time we gather we are focusing on a holiday and connecting it with our Savior’s passion) was Town Hall Meeting Day. On that day, residents of Vermont gather at 40 different town halls to elect local officials, ratify budgets, work on issues, etc. Only two of you had any idea such a holiday exists. Surely you didn’t have a Town Hall Meeting Day party at school or invite friends to your home to celebrate it. It is as obscure of a holiday as you can find. And while we will get back to major holidays, esp. during Holy Week, I want to focus on another one none of us celebrate. But it is a beautiful holiday, and one that, probably more than any other holiday we have looked at or will look at, takes us directly back to all that our Savior did for us during Lent.
The holiday? Yom Kippur. You’ve likely heard those two words. But do you have any no idea what they mean? Yom Kippur is the Hebrew name. In English, it’s called the Great Day of Atonement. Maybe you’ve read about it in the Old Testament. This holiday may be new or unknown to us, but it wasn’t new or unknown to God’s Old Testament people.
A little history for you… On Yom Kippur, the high priest would go into the Most Holy Place of the Temple or Tabernacle. He would offer a sacrifice for his own sins. Then he would come out and take two goats. One goat was sacrificed as a sin offering. The other was called the scapegoat. The priest would lay his hands on the scapegoat and confess all the sins of the people. Then the scapegoat would be sent off into the wilderness. It would go outside the city/camp and die.
You may not know about Yom Kippur, but you do know what a scapegoat is. The kicker who misses the game winning field, the worker who screws up on the project, the classmate who takes the punishment though many students were rowdy – that person is the scapegoat and accepts blame. But in all these scenarios, the scapegoat at least did something wrong. God’s scapegoat, the Yom Kippur scapegoat, did nothing wrong. It was simply chosen to accept the blame for other people.
Keeping that in mind, listen to our text. This discussion among the religious leaders took place right after Jesus did his most prominent miracle to date. In a town only a few miles from Jerusalem, he raised Lazarus from the dead. This news spread like wildfire. The chief priests and Pharisees knew that the legend of Jesus – his fame and notoriety – would only grow. Something needed to be done or soon they would be out of a job. And with all this unrest and upheaval, they feared that the heavy-handed Romans would put the smack down and be even more oppressive. What should they do?
One of them, the high priest Caiaphas, had an answer. They needed a scapegoat. They needed someone on whom to pin all this. They needed someone to pay the price so they would be spared. One man would die, and all the rest would go free. This sounds horrible, right? This sounds totally unfair, doesn’t it? In a way, yes. Kids, if your sibling made the mess in the kitchen but you are the one who loses phone privileges, wouldn’t you rant and rave, yell and scream, and call a special session of Congress to express your outrage about this miscarriage of justice? Adults, if you get fired even though someone else at work caused the issue, wouldn’t that stick in your craw for years? Being a scapegoat – one who is blamed though you didn’t do anything wrong – that might be one of the worst situations to be in. And we hate it when that happens.
But Jesus accepted it. Just as that goat on Yom Kippur didn’t make a fuss and went were it was lead, so did Jesus. Each Wednesday we read the passion history. Not once in those readings will you hear, “Jesus defended himself against their accusations”, “Jesus called them out as liars”, or “Jesus could not let this stand, so he did something about it.” Why not?
Because Jesus knew he was the scapegoat. He knew that Yom Kippur had its fulfillment in him. He knew he was the one on whom the sins of the people were laid, though he did nothing wrong. He knew he was the one who’d be lead out of the city to Calvary. And he knew he was the one who would die for the good of the people. Jesus knew he was the scapegoat. He knew Caiaphas was indeed correct, that it was better for him, one man, to die than to have everyone perish. He knew this had to happen, and this is exactly what he did. He took on the mantle of the scapegoat and did the job perfectly.
I know we don’t celebrate Yom Kippur any more, at least not as a day on the calendar and a time to get together with family and friends. But we actually do celebrate it. When? All the time. We celebrate Yom Kippur every single time we are in this place. For every time we are, we talk about what Jesus did for us. We celebrate Yom Kippur when we go to God in prayer – here, at home, at work, in the car, wherever. We can talk openly to God and know that our loving Father will hear us, because someone took our place on the cross to pay for our sins and make our relationship with God a reality. We celebrate Yom Kippur at a funeral (Jesus died that our loved one might live on in heaven), at a wedding (as a bride and groom come together as one, so we are one with our Savior who took our place to win our forgiveness), and on Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, and every other church holiday. At the center of all those times, at the center of all those events, at the center of all those celebration is Jesus. He is the one who took the blame. He is the one who died. He is the scapegoat. And he is the one who by his work forgave us and made us part of God’s family, now and always.
Like I said, I don’t expect you to celebrate the holiday from last week – Town Hall Meeting Day. That would be kind of dumb. I am not going to say, “Make sure to celebrate Yom Kippur!” And I don’t have to say that because you, as a Christian, as a child of God, as his son or daughter, are always celebrating Yom Kippur. You live in the grace of the one who took your place. You live with the peace of knowing he took all your blame. And you lie with the hope, the sure solid confidence, that because of all that, the Lord will always be your Lord, and in time you will meet him face to face in glory.
But I do ask you to do one thing. As we get closer and closer to the culmination of things, as we get closer and closer to Holy Week, keep Yom Kippur in mind. When we hear on Good Friday how Jesus was mistreated, when we imagine the scene in our minds (with horror), and when we see the unfairness of it all, remember why it had to be that way. Jesus had to be the scapegoat. But because he was, because he took our place and took all the blame, you can (and I pray, will) rejoice in the results. You will never be shunned. You will never be blamed. You will never be sent away. Why not? Because you are part of the family – God’s family – and you are because of your brother, because of the scapegoat. Amen.