It was Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), the year was 1982 and I was in Syracuse, New York. I was leading the Liberated Wailing Wall at the time, and we were looking for a place to worship on this, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.
Synagogues do not take up weekly offerings, but most require those attending High Holiday services to purchase advance tickets. Thankfully, the student group Hillel” at the University of Syracuse was sponsoring a free service on campus. Being college-aged Jewish kids, I figured we would blend in easily enough.
I will never forget that morning’s service. I found myself reciting the words of the liturgy with all my heart: “Forgive Thy people on this holy day, O Thou who art exalted and holy. We have sinned against Thee, our God; Forgive us, our Creator.” Next we read Psalm 130, one of my favorites, which concludes: “O Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord there is kindness; with Him there is great saving power. It is He who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.” This was meaningful to me as a believer, and I was moved to hear some 500 other people in the auditorium recite the scriptures and prayers.
The rabbi then proceeded to make some prepared remarks. To the utter astonishment of our team, he announced, “This year it is not Israel but the Lord who needs to be forgiven. This Yom Kippur we must find it in our hearts to forgive God for allowing the massacre at Sabra and Shatila.”
He was referring to two Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and the mass murder that a Lebanese militia group had perpetrated. The event was deeply troubling on many levels. Yet it could not justify that rabbi’s arrogance in suggesting that the Almighty needed the forgiveness of those who had come, presumably, to reflect on their own sin. What right had this religious leader to overlook his own sins and blame God for the sins of others? I was barely able to restrain myself from interrupting the service. Perhaps our team had blended in outwardly, but I had never felt more out of place in a synagogue.
Fast-forward one year. The Liberated Wailing Wall was in Toledo, Ohio. I knew a Jewish believer whose mother was secretary to the rabbi at a large Conservative congregation. He managed to secure tickets for all of us to the Kol Nidre service. (This service takes place the evening before the day of Yom Kippur.) After my friend had given us the tickets, his mom realized who they were for, and mentioned it to the rabbi. We knew nothing of this when we walked into the service.
As if on cue, every head turned to look as we walked in and found our seats. Apparently, word of our coming had traveled quickly through the congregation. We got past the stares and occasional sideways glances and settled into the service. Again, the liturgy and prayers were meaningful. Then came the rabbi’s sermon. He described how Moses came down from Mt. Sinai to find the Israelites engaged in revelry and debauchery. Moses’ response was to break the tablets of stone that contained the Ten Commandments. The rabbi explained that Moses did this so as not to mix the holy (commandments) and the profane (behavior of the people).
He then warned that such a mixture of the holy and profane was taking place right in their midst on this holy day, as Jews for Jesus had come, not only into town, but into their very synagogue. Then with a great deal of emotion and a tone of disapprobation he announced, “They even wear T-shirts that say Jesus made them kosher!” He paused, that the people might fully experience this outrage. Instead, they burst into good-natured laughter. Many turned and looked at us with smiles, and we couldn’t help joining in their laughter. The rabbi was momentarily flummoxed, but once he realized that he had inadvertently broken the tension between us, he changed the subject. The service continued with no further incident.
Blending in on Yom Kippur can be a challenge. But the purpose of the day is not to blend in, or break the tension over not blending in. It is not a day to point a finger at God, or anyone else for that matter. It is the day God established to call the entire Jewish people into account, a day in which our own sinfulness is spotlighted by the piercing gaze of the Holy One, blessed be He. We cannot “blend in,” as our sin sticks out in stark relief to His holiness.
To emphasize this, the Scriptures commanded that the Day of Atonement was to be a solemn festival marked by self-denial during which time we were to afflict our souls, (Leviticus 16:31; 23:32; Numbers 29:7). This year, Yom Kippur falls on October 9th, and I wonder how many of our Jewish people are truly prepared to take such a serious look at their own lives.
The reality of sin and judgment is not a welcomed discussion in the Jewish community, or in any other community for that matter. So many are like the rabbi in Syracuse, blaming God for the evil in our world and the suffering in our lives. Instead of being grateful for the countless evils from which God has spared us, we often act as though God owes us an explanation, if not an apology, for everything that happens—as though God exists to suit us and cater to our needs, and must be called into account if, in our estimation, He fails to do so. Talk about mixing the holy and the profane!
Most people today think little of sin because they think little of God’s holiness. We need to stop seeing our relationship with God as a means of improving our self-esteem, and realize that it is about esteeming Him. Yes, God wants us to enjoy who we are, but that cannot happen until we appreciate who He is, and understand our need to repent and be forgiven. The reality of God’s judgment does not depend on whether or not we think about it. It is as real and inevitable as His holiness demands. Until we embrace that inexorable inevitability, we cannot enjoy the blessedness of forgiveness.
The unpleasant reality of judgment is so very central to our ability to understand who God is, and how He wants to relate to us. It is the bad news that puts the Good News into a meaningful context. Without pointed judgment, forgiveness is impotent. Yet the good news of the Yom Kippur liturgy from Psalm 130:4 points people in the right direction: “But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared.”
Being religious doesn’t make people more sensitive to sin. In fact, it can desensitize us. Recently, a well-known pastor and Bible teacher toured the country trying to persuade people that because of Jesus, God is not angry. It was an obvious poke at the great American sermon from Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” God does not need us to make Him more palatable to sinners. Rather, we need to find sin less palatable as we consider His holiness.
Yom Kippur is a type of the final “Day of Judgment,” a reminder that God, the Holy One of Israel, is going to judge sin, and that judgment will be fierce and it will be final. Yes God is loving and forgiving but He hates sin, He is angry about sin and He intends to judge sin with an unyielding wrath. The knowledge of that truth ought to propel us out of our comfort zone so that we can offer God’s means of atonement and extend His gracious offer of forgiveness.
We can become so callous to the world around us, so comfortable with our own sin, that we begin to feel we can just blend in, as though God were grading on a curve. We can find ourselves thinking, “I’m not any worse than the guy in the pew next to me, and I might well be a little better.” We temporize God’s holiness, shield our hearts from His searching gaze, find any device to break the tension between His righteousness and our sin. We can forget the word that tells us: “And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13).
In the end, there can be no blending in. As we approach this biblical Holy Day of Atonement, let us pray that Jewish people the world over will truly consider both the judgment and the forgiveness of which this day speaks. May many find the only true atonement, which is offered in the Messiah Jesus. And may we who already know Him live lives of repentance and holiness, fearing no one but God. Let us cling to Him who is both our judge and our advocate—despite the disapprobation of others—so that we can boldly speak of His wrath and judgment, the only adequate context from which to proclaim His forgiveness and grace.