Yom Kippur

Today is the day of our visitation. Barclay, later in his Apology, reminds us that while the day of our own visitation lasts there is never a time that God is not near us and his Spirit is not wrestling with us to turn us inward, to turn us around. To personalize and paraphrase, Barclay said:” If we will merely stand still, and forego our evil thoughts, the Lord will be near to help us.” That Friends is good news.





“Yom Kippur” Matthew 22: 1-14

English is often not very helpful for us where it is used to translate Semitic religious ideas. But in this instance English gets it right. The word for today is Atonement: at – one – ment, to have relationship restored, to be at one with another. Atonement is not something that is done by you or for you, it is the state of a relationship. This past week people of the Jewish faith celebrated Yom Kippur, that is The Day of Atonement. It is a solemn day of prayer and fasting. It is a day in which, according to Jewish tradition, God is open to hear the Nation’s confession and repentance and offer forgiveness which restores atonement with God. Most Jewish days runs from star shine to star shine. Yom Kippur begins just before sun down with a special service that has its roots in years of Jewish persecution. At various times in Jewish history Jews were forced to convert to either Christianity or Islam on pain of death. After the time of danger had passed many of these forced converts desired to return to the Jewish community. Because of the seriousness with which Judaism views verbal promises for one to have sworn fealty to another religion was a complicated problem. So, just before Yom Kippur begins there is a special prayer service called “All Vows”. It is designed to absolve them of the vows they made under duress that effect their relationship with God. The prayers of this evening’s worship have no effect on vows or promises that are made and broken with people. Such vows between people remain in effect and if broken forgiveness and absolution must be sought from the persons affected –not first from God. This evidently informed the Matthew 18 directive we get from Jesus – transgressions between persons remain un-forgiven until forgiveness is sought directly.

Yom Kippur is a full fast day of communal worship in which there are no breaks for meals. The daytime services of Yom Kippur emphasize the two major themes of forgiveness from sin and repentance. In the morning Leviticus 16 is the prescribed text. It describes the ritual in which two identical goats are symbolic sacrifices. Reform Jews focus on the restoration of covenant relationship and use Deuteronomy 29 and 30. Isaiah 57 and 58 is an additional reading in which the prophet criticizes as empty and superficial the religious rituals of the ancient Israelites when the are not accompanied by acts of righteousness, charity and morality. There is a section of prayers called ‘the Confession’. In these prayers the community recites an alliteration of transgressions from the beginning to the end of the Jewish alphabet. The sins listed run from sins committed by hard-heartedness, through speech, improper thoughts, deceit, insincere confession, disrespect, coercion and many others. “For all these, God of pardon, pardon us, forgive us, atone for us.”: the people pray again and again. According to traditional Judaism God immediately forgives sins that affect no one else other than our relationship with God. For sins that affect and harm others we must first apologize and seek forgiveness from those whom we have hurt. Only then are the prayers of Yom Kippur considered effective in absolving the people of sins. Repentance is the process by which we recognize our sins, feel regret for having committed them, resolve to not do them again – and make restitution for any harm we may have caused.

The day of fasting and prayer concludes with a service the name of which means “closing.” It ends with the blast of a ram’s horn. The closing refers to the closing of the gates of heaven and the end of God’s willingness to hear the prayers of the Jewish Nation. For most of the service, the doors of the Ark where the Torahs are kept remain open, symbolizing God’s willingness to entertain prayers for forgiveness and repentance and pleas for absolution and atonement. As the sun begins to set on a long day of spiritual accounting during which most people are expected to stand throughout this quite long prayer service there is a spiritual urgency that motivates the prayers of the faithful. For as soon as the stars come out and the blast on the ram’s horn sounds the opportunity for atonement is gone.

A Rabbi’s story: There was a man who had one son. The son was the joy of the man’s life. When the child got older he decided to move overseas. The man was greatly saddened by the fact that an ocean would be separating him from his son. While overseas the son got married and had children. The father greatly desired to see his son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren. The father constantly wrote requesting his son to come. However, each time the invitation was extended, the son replied that for some reason or another a visit just was not foreseeable any time in the near future. Since this was the case, and the father’s desire to see his son increased over time, the father wrote to his son that since it was difficult for the son to make the trip, he would make the long journey to see the son and his family.

From the time that the father decided to make this trip, he was busy with all sorts of preparations, and his excitement grew as the date of his departure drew closer. Finally the day arrived. He embarked the ship loaded with packages and gifts for his son and his family. Each day, the father did not cease to think about the fact that he would soon be seeing his son. From time to time, he would go on deck to see if they were nearing dry land. One morning, when he looked out, he saw the coastline, and his heart skipped a beat – he would soon be seeing his son! As the ship moved into the port, he scanned the people standing around, hoping to catch a glimpse of his son. However, he could not find him. He had no choice but to wait until he disembarked from the ship, and then search for his son.

One can only imagine how distraught the father was when his son was nowhere to be found. However, the father immediately gave his son the benefit of the doubt. He assumed that his son must have been so busy preparing for his imminent arrival that he was not able to meet him at the port. In order not to waste precious time, the father rushed to the train station so he would not miss the next train to the town where his son lived. Throughout his train ride, he was sure that his son would be there to meet him at the station. His excitement was building with each mile. When the train arrived at the station, he ran off the train, not wanting to miss his son. His disappointment with not finding his son there was greater than before. However, now his thoughts were not so much focused on the fact that his son might be busy with preparations. Instead, he started worrying: Did his son get into an accident, was everything all right?

With a heart full of worry and anxiety, the father hailed a cab to take him to his son’s house. During the ride, he started imagining the warm reception awaiting him at the house. However, this dream was shattered as well. When the father arrived at the house, he found all the curtains drawn, and only a faint light could made out in one of the rooms of the house. Again the father started worrying. Was everyone healthy, did anything bad happen? His hands trembled as he knocked on the door. He knocked and waited for an answer, but there was none. He knocked again, this time harder, yet there was still no answer. Finally after knocking for a third time, he heard a faint “Who’s there?” coming from the house. The father immediately recognized the voice – it was his son who he longed to see. His excitement was unbounded knowing that the only thing that separated him from seeing his son was a door. The father responded “It is me, your father who traveled from afar to see you! Please, open the door!”

After a moment of silence, the son answered “Father, I’m already in bed, and it’s a little difficult for me to come to the door right now. Would it be a great trouble if you could stay at the hotel across the street tonight? I will pick you up first thing in the morning.” When the father heard this, he was despondent and infuriated. He thought “For years I have greatly desired to see my son. I had hoped that he would honor me and come visit me. However, that did not happen, and I had to go visit him. I had no doubt that he would be there with his children waiting for me at the port, yet he did not do this either. I thought that perhaps he had a reason that prevented him from greeting me at the port, but he would definitely be at the train station. He wasn’t there. I finally come to his house only to find it dark. I knock on the door, only to find that my son is too lazy to even let me inside! After all this, I should wait for HIM at a hotel? I most certainly will NOT do this! ” The father hailed the first taxi he could find, and went to the train station. He caught the first train back to the port, and immediately got on a ship headed back to his home, without even seeing his son.

The next morning, the son awoke. His heart was filled with remorse and regret for how he had treated his father the night before. He quickly got dressed, and ran to the hotel to find his father. The way the son felt upon discovering that his father was not there cannot be described. To call it anguish, remorse, or pain would only be an understatement.

Throughout the whole year, God waits for the people of the nation of Israel to return to him with a complete heart. God sees that we do not run to repent. Therefore, during this time of the year, God comes to us. God comes to us, but we will not even open the door for Him. Our passing up this opportunity causes God anguish, just as the father was anguished when his son did not come to meet him. On Yom Kippur God is knocking on the doors of our heart, greatly desiring to be let in. Hopefully, we, unlike the son of the story, will at least do this, so we will not have to regret our mistake later.

There is some good new for us as Christians. We too believe that God stands ready to forgive the sincerely repentant and restore us to a right relationship. We too understand that transgressions among and between us need first to be resolved. For us God is always ready to hear a prayer of confession and repentance from one who is sincere.

Our Gospel reading for today, the puzzling story of the wedding banquet that included the destruction of a city that refused to respond to the King’s invitation as well as the detail of the one who was rounded up to attend rather than invited and because he didn’t wear the proper wedding apparel was bound hand and foot and thrown into the dark place of ‘wailing and grinding of teeth’ should help us understand Jesus’ Jewishness. It is the story of the terror attached to ignoring the implications of the missing the opportunity presented us by the Day of Atonement. The required garment was a purified heart and mind that reflected one’s confession, repentance, forgiveness and at-one-ment with God.

As Friends we have an interesting parallel to the urgency of the prayers before the closing. We believe that the Holy Spirit, like the proverbial hound of heaven, pursues us, challenges us, convicts us of our brokenness and sin. But that notion of God’s mercy and grace is accompanied with the idea that, at some point because of our reluctance to respond, the Holy Spirit gives up on us. Edward Burrough in his rejection of predestination said it this way: “ And we believe that unto all people upon the face of the whole earth, is a time and day of visitation given, that they may return and be saved by Christ Jesus, who is given of the Father to call the worst of men to repentance; and the most unglodly of sinners are convinced by him of their ungodly deeds, that they might believe, and be converted and saved… And we believe herein is the love of God manifested to all mankind; and that none are shut out by him before they are born into the world but unto all men is a Visitation given and they that do perish, it is because they do not believe in Christ; and destruction is on a man’s self…”.

Robert Barclay in the section of his Apology about Universal Redemption wrote that “Christ’s desire to gather lost men and women and redeem them from their corrupt and degraded condition was as natural as the love and concern of a hen for her brood. But he warned, grounding his views in Luke 19 and Jesus’ lamentation over Jerusalem, that the wicked are cut off from salvation once their day of visitation has expired. Jerusalem was to be destroyed “because you did not recognize God’s moment when it came”. He offered that it was after God’s very genuine offers of mercy and salvation have been rejected that men’s hearts are hardened. What are we saying? That within individuals, Christ guides and moves as well as judges and offers atonement. And each of us are not first called to obedience but rather to openness to that movement of Christ’s spirit within. The call inward isn’t to watch our spiritual development except as preparation for joining the ranks of Christ’s people in a world wide mission of restoration and such world atonement begins with the atonement of each of us. Where our inner experience and the world sweeping kingdom intersect is in our own day of visitation that is a time of judgment, a time of call and a time of promise.

Today is the day of our visitation. Barclay, later in his Apology, reminds us that while the day of our own visitation lasts there is never a time that God is not near us and his Spirit is not wrestling with us to turn us inward, to turn us around. To personalize and paraphrase, Barclay said:” If we will merely stand still, and forego our evil thoughts, the Lord will be near to help us.” That Friends is good news.

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