This year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, falls on October 9th. Millions of Jewish people will attend synagogue services where songs and prayers about sin and forgiveness will focus their attention on spiritual matters that might not otherwise have been on their radar.
I want to tell you about three pieces of Yom Kippur liturgy that remind me of the wonderful, life-transforming message of the gospel. I hope you’ll find them inspiring, not only for your own spiritual life, but also as a prompt to pray that God will use them to soften hearts during this season.
One of my favorite parts of the Yom Kippur service is called Mi Chamoka (pronounced me kha mow kah), which comes from the song of Moses in Exodus 15:11. It is often sung by a choir a cappella. I can close my eyes and imagine the voices I have heard each and every year echoing throughout the sanctuary: “Who is like you, O Lord?” The answer to that question is apparent: there is no one like our God.
If there is no one like our God, then what is He like? That is the question I pray that people will focus on as they hear this song—because the song, like the Scripture, answers it this way:
God is holy; He is awesome in power, doing wonders.
Few people want to know what God is truly like because that knowledge might require us to invite Him to make claims on us that we would rather avoid. But what is so wonderful about the song of Moses is that we learn that God is a forgiving God. On Yom Kippur my people need to know that God is holy, but He is also willing to forgive sin.
The second piece of Yom Kippur liturgy that I love is called Avinu Malkenu (pronounced ah vee new mall kay new), which means “Our Father and our King.” If we know God is a forgiving God, then we will want to come to Him, as the one who love us as a father, and who has the right to rule over us. This song reminds us that God’s very nature encourages us to confess our sin, repent, and receive His forgiveness.
Here is an excerpt:
Avinu Malkeinu [our Father, our King], we have sinned before you!
Avinu Malkeinu, in Your abundant mercy, cleanse us of our guilt before You.
Avinu Malkeinu, bring us back to You in perfect repentance.
Our Father, our King, be gracious unto us and answer us although we have no merits of our own. Deal with us in righteousness and lovingkindness and save us.
I close my eyes and can hear the haunting words and melody of this penitent prayer.
To experience God’s forgiveness is so amazing, so life changing. Yet many people either don’t allow themselves to admit their need, or else struggle to really believe it is possible. Why should God forgive me? I surely don’t deserve it.
The psalmist says as far as east is from the west, so far has God removed his sins. Now if it were as far as north is from the south, there are two such points: the North and South Poles. But there is no point where east and west meet. God removes our sins to where no one can ever find them.
But how? How does God forgive us? The Hebrew Bible is quite specific that on Yom Kippur sacrifices were to be offered on the altar. Leviticus 16 gives elaborate instructions for the priests, that are then choreographed before the entire community. The scapegoat becomes a symbol of the transfer of the sin of the nation onto an innocent animal.
Today there is no temple and no sacrifice . . . and there is no “Plan B.”
So how can we have this promised forgiveness? The third Yom Kippur prayer that I love so well was added to the liturgy by Rabbi Eliezer around the seventh century. It is not necessarily recited in the synagogue, but it is included in the Machzor, the special prayer book for the day: “Our righteous Messiah has turned away from us, we have acted foolishly and there is no one to justify us. Our iniquities and the yoke of our transgressions he bears and he is pierced for our transgressions. He carries our sins on his shoulder, to find forgiveness for our iniquities. By his wounds we are healed.”
I know a man who was ordained as a rabbi. One year at a Yom Kippur service, he asked God to show him who the Messiah was. He was stunned to find himself reading this prayer from the Machzor. God had answered his prayer and pointed him to Jesus. He believed and trusted Jesus as his Messiah right there in the synagogue.
This year, please pray for the Jewish people, that during this High Holiday season, many might seek after God, just as this rabbi did. I know how much God would love to answer that prayer.
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