Today we hear about the Day of Atonement, and the scapegoat.
The scapegoat is a problematic animal in the Bible. The Hebrew language does not literally say, “scapegoat.” Instead, it uses the word, “Azazel.” We do not know for certain what “Azazel” means. There are theories.
One of the worst theories is that Azazel is the name of a demon. But then we have a goat being led out into the wilderness as a sacrifice to somehow appease an unclean spirit. This is extremely unlikely for a number of reasons that I don’t need to go into right now. An alternate version of the theory says that satan will be made to carry our sins at some point, but that is equally repulsive. We have one sacrificial Victim, and He has accomplished all for us.
I think the best bet for the meaning of the word “Azazel” may be that it stands for Christ. The full phrase in verse eight reads, “Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the Lord (Yahweh) and the other lot for Azazel.” Here the word Azazel seems to stand parallel to the name of God. So it seems likely to be a personal name standing on equal footing with the Name of the Lord. The Hebrew word “Azazel” may then mean, “Remover of sin,” which is a wonderful description of Christ’s work.
The common translation, “scape goat” that I used in the Reading simply means the goat that escapes. Usually today we speak of a scapegoat as someone who takes the blame for something. That fits the text as well, since this goat had all the sins of the people of Israel placed upon it. All the iniquity and guilt and blame went on the goat, and then it was sent away from the camp of the people, into the wilderness.
How wonderful this picture is. The Lord does not simply kill the sacrificial goat. He has two goats, one to die and have its blood sprinkled on the mercy seat on the Ark of the Covenant and upon the Altar. We clearly see that Christ is the Lamb of God, or in this case, the Goat who sheds His Blood in death to atone for the sins of the people. That is, He pays for and covers our sins with His Blood, so that God does not see the sins anymore. His wrath is turned away, and He is at peace with us.
But there is also that other goat. He is not killed. Instead He is sent away into the wilderness, presumably to die, although that is not explicitly stated. In the same way Christ was sent out of the city of God’s people, Jerusalem. He was sent away from God’s presence, forsaken by His own Father.
Why? To take away the sins. In most graphic fashion, the scapegoat transports the sins. Aaron placed his hands on the goat and confessed the sins of Israel. All trespasses and iniquities went onto that goat.
Now, you cannot ordinarily put sins onto an animal. The action in itself did not do anything. If you have a goat and decide to put your sins on the goat, that will do nothing at all.
But Moses and Aaron and Israel had a specific promise from the Lord. They were told that the sins really went onto that goat. All who believed the promise had their sins removed from them. In so believing, they were really putting their faith in the future Goat that God would provide, the Remover of sin who would hang on the Cross. That was the promise that made all the sacrificial promises do what God said.
In a similar way, we have sacraments in which the elements themselves do nothing if they were separated from the promise of Christ. Bread and wine by themselves give no forgiveness of sins. Water by itself only makes you wet. But when combined with Christ’s institution and Word, these physical elements give forgiveness, life, and salvation to all who believe the promise.
Today I tell you: Christ is your Scapegoat. He has carried your sins away. He has transported and removed them from you, as far as the east is from the west. In God’s sight, no sin remains in you. That is the promise of the Lord Yahweh to you.
However, sins are not removed in every way imaginable. You still commit sin, so not all sin has been taken away from your person. Yet God does not see them. He, the righteous Judge, is satisfied. In the future, all will be removed, even the original sin that stains your human nature. May that Day come quickly.
On the Cross, also, all sin was not removed in every way. Those without faith do not receive forgiveness, just as there was no remission for those who did not trust the promise of God in the Old Testament, no matter how many animals they slaughtered.
Yet Christ has paid the price fully. All the punishment was suffered. All the guilt fell on Him. You need not wonder whether He failed to atone for some of your sins. All the sins of all the world for all time were paid for by Christ on the Cross.
There are some temptations for us here. Sometimes, we are tempted to not believe the promise. At other times, we are tempted to focus too much on our own faith.
If an Israelite looked at the goat walking out into the wilderness, he might think, “Is that really how my sins get forgiven? This looks silly. Surely something more dramatic is necessary.”
This is the same as when a Christian today says, “Does that splashing of water on a person really give salvation? It looks so silly. Surely something more amazing should happen to save a person.”
Or, “Is this bread and wine really give eternal life? Surely something more exciting and satisfying is required to give such great gifts.”
Or this one: “The Pastor said I am forgiven, but I didn’t really feel it. Maybe I need something more to get forgiveness.”
God chooses to come in humble ways. Even Christ when He came on earth did not look amazing and dramatic most of the time. The Cross, far from looking exciting and satisfying, was depressing and gloomy. As far as we can tell, nobody felt forgiven that dark day.
So God supplies for you visible signs to seal His promises of forgiveness. Absolution, the Eucharist, and Holy Baptism give everything Christ earned on the Cross. But we need to trust His promise and not rely on our senses that try to mislead us.
Just because we are Lutherans does not mean that we are immune to this. We have our moments of doubt. We have times when we look away from God’s promises and pay attention to other things to seek assurance of salvation.
Guard yourself against such thoughts. But also, when they happen, confess your sins and receive God’s Absolution.
The other temptation, to focus on our own faith, is also dangerous. Our faith may seem strong to us, and then we may get an over-inflated sense of our own worth and status before God. Faith in itself is not powerful. It is only as good as the object to which it clings in trust. Because our faith is in Christ and Him crucified, our faith receives eternal life.
But if we realistically evaluate our faith, we find weakness and variability. One day our faith is strong, the next we waver like grass in the wind. God allows us to be weak. We are not always mighty fortresses of faith. Instead, our sinful flesh often undermines our ability to believe.
When we come to the signs provided by the Lord, we may wonder if we are able to receive them rightly. An Israelite might say, “Well, the goat carried my sins away, I guess, but I’m not sure I really benefited because I’m so weak.” This is like a person today who says, “I was baptized years ago, but my faith is not what it used to be. Maybe I should get re-baptized.” Or you might think, “My faith is pretty weak today. I’d better not take the Lord’s Supper.”
These thoughts are bad because they rest the validity of the sacraments upon the quality of your faith. As long as you have some faith, these gifts from God give what they say. You need not be as faith-filled as Abraham or Moses or Paul or other great saints (who, by the way, had their own weak days just like you and me). We struggle, but God’s promise is sure.
If you think, “I’m not good enough for the gifts of God,” then Bravo! You had the right idea. You are never good enough. Your faith is not perfect, nor will be in this life. You are not worthy. You are a weak sinner.
That is why God gives you the visible signs. The Israelite could say, “There go my sins out of the camp on that goat! Praise God!” The visible goat gave them the reassurance that their sins were truly gone in God’s eyes. In the same way, He gives preaching, Baptism, Absolution, and the Sacrament of the Altar for your reassurance.
Trust these promises of God, all of which point to Christ and the Cross. Have faith that in these things the Blood of Christ has washed you clean. Believe that your sins were carried away to the Cross by your Scapegoat, Jesus Christ. Remember that God has accepted His work on your behalf, and therefore declared you innocent.
In the Name of this gracious God, Amen.
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