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The Day of Atonement

Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. (Isa. 55:7, RSV)

Today is Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Judaism; Yom Kippur, a day of fasting and prayer, began at sundown on Tuesday. The name means Day of Atonement. Its central themes are repentance and atonement. In Jewish theology, atonement means that transgression has been forgiven or pardoned. In the synagogue on Yom Kippur, the scroll of Jonah is read. God had condemned the pagan people of Nineveh for their sinfulness, but when Jonah preached God’s message to them, the people repented and God forgave their unrighteousness and canceled the decreed destruction.

Since we all fall short and transgress against God and others, we all have a need for forgiveness, just as we all need to forgive others. Atonement means our sins no longer separate us from God; we have been reconciled to God. The route to forgiveness is repentance. The change of mind and behavior, in Jewish thought, must produce confession and, if the sin harmed another, restitution. Only then, and through the rites of Yom Kippur, could atonement be accomplished.

Repentance is key in Christian theology, too; it is central to the Christian Gospel. John the Baptist came preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand, (Matt. 3:2),” a message repeated by Jesus at the outset of his ministry: “Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ (Matt. 4:17)”, Christian understanding of atonement goes beyond the Jewish, because of the life, death, and resurrection of God’s Son. Christ’s sacrifice means that God’s forgiveness is freely given; through repentance, we accept that forgiveness, not needing the religious rites of Yom Kippur.

The Greek word translated as repentance in the New Testament is metanoia, which literally means a change of mind, but the full meaning is somewhat more. This kind of repentance is not just about regret or guilt or shame; it implies making a decision to turn around, to face a new direction. In early Christian writing, metanoia was used to express a change in thinking that leads to a change in way of living. This fundamental change includes a resolve to avoid the sin in the future; the turning is 180°, not 360°. We both turn away from the sin and turn toward God.

God’s mercy is everlasting and has no limits. We never need to fear that forgiveness is not offered, regardless of what we have done or failed to do. Every day, we fall short of God’s ideals, but “the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.” (Lam. 3:22-23) We can start each day, not just Yom Kippur, afresh and forgiven and beloved.

Prayer: Loving God, we give you thanks that in your mercy, you forgive us even before we ask. Teach us to repent of our transgressions and lead us into a life closer to you. In the name of our Savior. Amen.

Bill Mankin

Ministry and Mission Coach

Wyoming Cluster

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