For Jewish people, the Day of Atonement (which begins this Friday at sundown) is the holiest day of the year. It is the day when the books are opened in heaven and God determines who gets their name written in the Book of Life and who doesn’t. It is a day to fast, to contemplate, to pray, to ask forgiveness, to make atonement for wrongs done to others and to God. But what is atonement? And how does one get it?
I find myself thinking of Charles Dickens’ novel, “A Tale of Two Cities.” It tells the story of how Sydney Carton, a man who has lived a largely sinful and selfish life, chooses to sacrifice himself to save Charles Darnay, a good man who has been falsely imprisoned and sentenced to death. Carton, who looks strikingly similar to Darnay, takes Darnay’s place in prison and is killed in his stead, without the authorities ever realizing it. Carton achieves atonement for his own sins–his life of selfishness and debauchery. And a good man gets freedom. It’s a wonderful ending to a wonderful book.
But it doesn’t even come close to the Story that God wrote.
In God’s story, the evil man is rightfully imprisoned and sentenced to death. He is wasting away in prison, just waiting for his life to end at the gallows. But a good man comes along–a man who has done nothing wrong, a man who is beautiful and upright and compassionate and loving–and this man offers to take the place of the evil man in prison. He offers to go to the gallows for him.
What?! What the heck? What kind of story is this? The good man dies and the wicked man gets off scot-free? Yep. That’s the Story. That’s our story–yours and mine. Jesus, the beautiful, wonderful, perfect Son of the Most High God switches places with me–the ugly, disfigured, debaucherous, disgusting prisoner who deserves every ounce of punishment that is being meted out against me. That, my friends, is atonement of the highest order.
In the Bible, it says, “While we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. One will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6-8). In “A Tale of Two Cities” Carton dares to die for a good man–Darnay. But Jesus does so much more than that. He dies for the wicked man.
As we approach Yom Kippur, I am sitting in awe of the idea that this bright, beautiful Jesus that I have come to know was willing to trade places with me, a disgusting sinner. And that now, because of his love, I am no longer that vile, worthless, ugly creature–now I am a new creation, endowed with the same beauty that He possesses. I could never have made atonement for myself. I was too far gone, my sins too grievous before a God who is totally holy and perfect. But God showed His incredible love for me by becoming a man and making atonement for me–dying in my place, bearing my shame, and placing His life inside me.
While I may fast and pray this Yom Kippur, it won’t be as a way to gain atonement for myself. I know that my name is written in God’s Book of Life–because of Jesus–who He is and what He’s done. If I fast, it will be in prayer–that many Jewish people and non-Jewish people will come to know the Love that sacrifices itself and the beautiful relationship with our incredible Creator that is available for each of us–if we’ll accept His offer of atonement and new life.