Our Scapegoat

Sermon, March 31, 2019  Leviticus 16:6-10,20-22;  Mark 12:28-34

The great command is quite clear “Hear, O Israel, the LORD your God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength” and the second is like it, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” 

Yet as we fulfil that command we should take note that the Hebrew does not say Love the LORD your God,” but gives God’s name, which from textual and linguistic study we understand to be ‘Yahweh’ So it actually reads “Love Yahweh, your God, with all” your being.   We are not called to love the idea of God, nor just any god, nor god in general. 

When Moses asked  the burning bush, “Who shall I say sent me.” God replies with a personal name, “Yahweh.” This is not the first time the Name is spoken. In fact God’s people, even during the early stories of Genesis “call upon the name of Yahweh.” Moses was to tell the Hebrews in slavery that their God, the one true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had sent him to set them free. (After the command was given, “Do not use the Name of Yahweh in vain,” scrupulous Hebrews avoided speaking the Name aloud, even when reading scriptures, instead substituting the word Adonai (the LORD) when the Name was read.)

It is critical that we are to worship this God, not any other, for in our day the english word ‘God’ is used by many different religions around us to describe a being who differs dramatically from Yahweh, whom we know clearly from his teachings and actions in the life of the Israelites and the early church.

Some think of God only in the vaguest terms and love a quality, such as power, which is certainly characteristic of our God - but they are often misled. When someone or something powerful comes along they follow it instead.

Others protest that God is so other, so different, so alien that we can’t know God at all, and though they are correct that there is always a mysteriousness to our Lord, they will not, from their worship of their cloud of unknowing, follow Jesus as the truth, the way and the life. 

In this season of Lent I have been summarising the work of God in Jesus Crucified, as he provides salvation- eternal life - to us through faith in the one who is made known and distinguished from all others through these words and deeds.

And so we turn to Leviticus, and the scapegoat.

The scapegoat is a familiar term, used today to describe a common practice of humanity: when things are going wrong, find someone to take all the blame and punishment, so everyone else can go off scot free. Don’t we see this in politics today? Don’t we see it in project management?

In many respect the Salem witch trials were pure scapegoating - seeing problems in the community, find some one person to blame for all the troubles, burn them at the stake and the problem goes away. O wait - the problem is still there? Find another one, and so on.

The human form of scapegoating doesn’t work. That’s why responsible leaders try to prevent it. For often the scapegoat is least responsible for the failures, and those who through corruption, ignorance or malice have contributed to the problems not only escape from responsibility, they also learn nothing from their mistakes.

The Hebrew ritual of Scapegoating is very different, it is a religious practice and as you heard in the reading, the sins of all the people are confessed, the High Priest laying hands on the goat and symbolically transferring the sins of the people onto the innocent goat. The goat then is led out into the wilderness, taking the sins of the people with it. In fact the man that leads the goat away can not return to the city without washing himself and his clothes, so that no uncleanness would return with him to the city.

When God established the rule of justice among the Hebrews there were basically three punishments. It should be noted that the Israelites were living nomadically in the wilderness- living in tents, moving from day to day. Prison was not an option. I think we can agree that canvas tents would make little sense as prisons! So punishments for crimes were either restorative - making restitution for the harm caused, the value of what was lost or destroyed - or capital punishment - or exile.

Each punishment represents a facet of divine justice.  Restorative justice points out that sin is not completely dealt with until the harm has been undone, the wound healed, the loss restored. Capital punishment underscores that the wages of sin is death - because sin causes death, that is why it is sin. You may protest that not all sin causes death - little sins like gossip and slander? And yet is our news not far too populated with stories of young people who have committed suicide over ‘nothing more’ that malicious gossip and slander in school and social media? The wages of sin is death, declares the law, the word of God.

Exile is an important aspect of God’s justice. Capital punishment is not applied, even in the Old Testament, to every crime. But every sin breaks community, damages relationships. Shunning is one way to teach the sinner that lesson.  I know that shunning has a bad name, but in communities who use it in a biblical way, such as the Amish, Shunning is a very clear message that the sinner has damaged the community, and that they will not be allowed to continue to live in peace with the community they are harming. Such exile is effected with clear terms for reconciliation. When the sinner repents, they will be welcomed back. Frankly, I think that at their best the Amish are way better than modern society at this practice - we shun offenders - even lock them away in prisons, but when they have done their time we are loath to welcome them back into our communities, whether or not they have repented and changed their lives. As Christian communities we can do much better. For the record, every parent knows he effectiveness of shunning, as we say to our children, “You go to your room, and don’t come back until you are ready to apologise to your sister!”

In the sacrificial system God gave to Israel all three types of punishment are transformed into means of atonement.  Some sacrifices, such as grain and oil offerings, can represent restoration - repaying for what has been stolen, or destroyed by sin. (These ‘thank offerings’ also represent a ‘rent’ owed to God for his provision of land, and of course gratitude to the Provider)

The sacrifice of animals represents the seriousness of sin, as punishable by death. But instead of the sinner dying, God provides a substitute life: an ox, or a sheep or a goat, perhaps.

And in the case of the scapegoat, God represents the punishment of exile. In this exercise, the priest lays hands on the goat, and confesses aloud all the sins of the people, their rebellions and wickedness. And the implication is that the sins are transferred onto the goat who then takes all that sin out of the city, away to a solitary place. 

Let’s spend a little time here. How does this sacrifice work? Is sin a substance, like dirt that can be wiped off onto the goat? No, materially this thing can have no effect. Psychologically, the people are called to own their misdeeds, and recognise that this act is addressing their sins. Being reminded that their sin of breaking fellowship with God and each other should result in their own exile could be a potent psychological motivator to better conduct. But the implication is that God does something unseen and inexplicable- he actually moves sin out of the sinner’s soul and onto this scapegoat. 

We are now moving to the Cross of Christ. Jesus, like the scapegoat, is sentenced within the city, the sins of the people, the priests and the government are laid on him - if you will the cross is like a physical manifestation of the burden laid on his shoulders, as he carries the sins committed against him out of the city, into that solitary place where the trash is dumped and the criminals executed.   

Are their any analogies to this in our modern life? I know we mostly send our garbage outside the city and dump it in landfills. Doesn’t solve the garbage problem, but it’s what we do. (I’ve always wondered what happens to the scapegoat after it is released in the wilderness. What happens to all that sin it’s carrying?)

On the Cross, Jesus represents all three types of sacrifice - he is the gift of value, fully committing himself to repay and restore the harm and loss of sin.  He is the atoning sacrifice who lays down his life, rather than exact the punishment of death that we deserve ('Could it be that you would really rather die than live without us?' - Michael Card).  He is the scapegoat, who carries sin outside of the community, but in this case the sin dies with the scapegoat.

AS I thought about this, because of the health of one of our congregation my thoughts went to dialysis. In dialysis, a clean fluid runs through permeable tubes past the patient’s blood, and absorbs the toxins, poisons and waste matter that the kidneys would normally filter out. There is a transfer from one to the other.  What happens to the dirty fluid? As far as I know it is labelled as a bio hazard, taken away, and, I expect, incinerated at whatever temperatures are required to destroy every molecule. Now- why not simply do that while it’s in the patients blood? Obviously, because the patient would die from the cure!

Now hear this: Jesus is the true scapegoat. I know you’ll wonder, how can a simple prayer of confession transfer my sins to Jesus? Frankly, your confession can’t do the job. But God, who receives your confession knows how to make it happen, and your sins can be drawn from your soul, transferred to God on the cross, two thousand years ago, and be destroyed there, in the death of Jesus. 

Jesus died, not as a hapless goat chosen by lot, but as a willing volunteer. I can’t say he was without reservation: he knew the suffering he would endure, and would have avoided it if there was any other way. But he chose the cross over his own life to save you from eternal hell, and to deliver you unto eternal life. He invites each of us to receive his gift, to let him save and lead us into eternal holiness.

Maybe you have asked God for forgiveness before - be assured that he has forgiven you. But something more is available to you from Jesus - draw near to the cross and he can absorb sin. Not just free you from the guilt, but purify you from unrighteousness - from the power of sin to make you do what you did not want to do, and its power to keep you from doing what is right. Spend time with Jesus and let him purify you, shape your character, impress upon you his own likeness. 

This is what the LORD God, Yahweh, has done, It is this God, our Saviour that we love with all our heart, soul mind and strength. He invites us to come to him - to acknowledge our sin, and let Jesus take from us its guilt and power. You can’t do this by your power, but you can receive it from God your Saviour. You can receive it simply by asking   Let us pray.