Day of Atonement: Gift of God’s Forgiveness
There’s an interesting scene described for us in the letter to the Hebrews: “Then indeed, even the first covenant had ordinances of divine service and the earthly sanctuary. For a tabernacle was prepared: the first part, in which was the lampstand, the table, and the showbread, which is called the sanctuary; and behind the second veil, the part of the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of All, which had the golden censer and the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold, in which were the golden pot that had the manna, Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant; and above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat” (Hebrews 9:1–5, emphasis added).
Now, if you were to compare that picture to how the Holy of Holies normally looked you would see something that was out of place. There, behind the second veil of the Tabernacle, along with the Ark of the Covenant, stands the golden censer. This is the incense burner that was brought into the Holy of Holies but once each year—on the Day of Atonement. Now, though, the letter-writer says that it is permanently there.
Consider these verses from the Revelation given to St. John: “Now when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Revelation 5:8) and “Then another angel, having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand” (Revelation 8:3–4).
The “prayers of the saints,” in other words, are now always before the Mercy Seat of God, the place once upon which the blood of bulls and goats was sprinkled as the yearly payment for the sins of the children of Israel. Always, as in, “not only once each year.” No longer is there a veil between God’s people and His mercy; that veil has been torn in two and the way to the Lord’s grace is left open because, on the ultimate day of atonement, the blood of the Lamb of God was sprinkled and thus were cleansed all the nations.
St. Paul wrote: “For he [God] says: ‘In an acceptable time I have heard you, and in the day of salvation I have helped you.’ Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2).
This is God serving you on your own personal Day of Atonement—which is today! It is He who comes to you to bless you with His mercy. It is He who comes to clothe you with the holiness of Jesus so that you are therefore declared “not guilty.” It is He who takes away not only your sins—they are gone!—but also the death sentence in hell that you earned for breaking every single one of the Lord’s commands.
The way is open. Your prayers, “I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended…But I am heartily sorry for them, and sincerely repent of them; and I pray You of Your boundless mercy, and for the sake of the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Your beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to be gracious and merciful to me, a poor, sinful being,” rise before Him as incense and are heard in your heavenly Father’s ear. Then, into your ears, the voice of the Crucified and Risen One—Jesus Christ, His Son—declares you forgiven through His servant, your pastor.
With Gospel and Sacraments, you are put ever before the Mercy Seat of God. Through them, as through means, your day of atonement comes every day as you are made one with God through Christ Jesus, your Savior.
Jim Braun is pastor of Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Yelm, Washington.