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Monday, March 22, 2010

What to Do with Sinners? (John 8.1-11)

March 21, 2010
Sermon by: Robert Austell

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There’s a crowd gathering… it could be in the school cafeteria or at the bus stop or at the office party or in the middle of a first century Judean village.  The dynamics are the same: someone is the center of attention and they are about to be humiliated.  You see some of your friends there in the crowd.  You feel a little sorry for whoever that is, but you also feel a sense of relief that it’s not you.  After all, some of these same people have teased you before.  And it’s an easy line to cross – to jump in, to create a safe distance between you and the one being singled out.  After all, you aren’t like them; you don’t want to be confused with them.  Another easy line to cross: you’re a little better than they are.  That’s why you’re safe; that’s why you’re not there where they are.  You didn’t make the mistakes they did.  You have the mental measuring stick out and you take stock: “better than; less than.”  And there you are, stone in hand.

For the last two weeks we looked at Romans 2-3, at a situation in the early church where something similar happened.  Some inside the church were viewing some outside the church and using God’s Law as a spiritual measuring stick to say: “better than; less than.”  But the Apostle Paul confronted them and said, “There is no spiritual difference, no grounds for boasting and judging like that.”

Paul was being consistent with Jesus, who taught that God’s Law was intended for blessing rather than cursing.  His teaching got him in trouble with those who used the Law as a measuring stick.  You heard one example of that in today’s lesson.

If all this theological terminology is confusing, let me offer a visual aid to help understand what is at stake.  Then we’ll consider how Jesus was put to the test on this issue.  The question is this, as simple as I can put it: When it comes to God and us humans, what is the function of the Bible?

Is it a “measuring stick” by which we can see how are doing: better than or less than the next person?

me>you  they<we

Or is it what we’ve seen in recent weeks? …God-given boundaries to hold out to us life, hope, freedom, and the one source of saving righteousness in Jesus Christ?

This kind of teaching got Jesus in trouble and led to a conflict and trap described in John 8.  What is front and center are these same questions about sin and judgment, now with Jesus and the woman both at great risk.  I want to look with you at the situation described in John 8 and then turn the question to us, worded in a different way: What to do with sinners?

A Trap

John 7 describes a tipping point for the Jewish religious teachers.  Jesus had interrupted a ceremony on the last day of the Feast of Booths and basically claimed to be the promised one ushering in the Kingdom of God.  In a nutshell, the priest always stood up on the last day of that annual feast and poured water into a bowl to symbolize God’s promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus jumped up and shouted that HE was the living water people needed, and the time was now.  The Pharisees were outraged, and they specifically blame the crowd’s interest in Jesus on a lack of knowing and observing the Law (v. 49).  And so the Pharisees determine to trap Jesus into answering that very question: Will you hold hard and fast to the Law of God (as we define it) or deny it to remain popular?

In the next chapter (John 8) we find a trap laid for Jesus around this very issue of the Law.  The Pharisees’ hope is that the trap will result either in conclusive evidence that will lead Jesus to religious trial and conviction or perhaps to some major slip-up and him being stoned.

Jesus had come to the Temple area and was teaching early in the morning.  The Pharisees brought in a woman caught in the act of adultery.  Humiliated and perhaps even betrayed, she was dragged out in the middle of the crowd Jesus was teaching.  And the question was put to him: “The Law of Moses says to stone such women; what then do you say?”  Does he defend her and undercut his authority as a teacher and follower of the Law?  Or does he call for her to be killed, and lose his popularity (at least!) with the people.

Turning Things Around

At this point Jesus stooped down and started writing on the ground.  There has been all sorts of speculation as to what he was doing.  Maybe he was buying time.  Maybe he was writing the Ten Commandments down, to remind the gathered crowd that they, too, were sinful.  Maybe he was writing down specific sins – maybe even with names. 

Here’s my best and favorite explanation of what he was doing.  It’s not for sure, but I think it’s possible, and maybe even likely.  Look at Jeremiah 17:13-14.  That was our call to worship and was a scripture well known to Jesus, the Pharisees, and any Jewish person of that time.  It says, “Oh Lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you will be put to shame.  Those who turn away on earth will be written down… [get that? WRITTEN DOWN], because they have forsaken the fountain of living water, even the Lord.”  Remember the previous day, Jesus had stood up at the city-wide religious feast and shouted that HE was the fountain of living water.  That was the thing that prompted this test and trap.  What if he was writing down their sins, not just to remind them of sin, but to call to mind that well-known verse – one already on everyone’s mind from what he had done at the feast.  And the point of that verse is to call out ALL who have sinned! 

Next Jesus stood and said, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”  Look at what he has done here: He upheld the law, excluded any of them from serving as judge, and called them to account for their own sins.  And then – I love this – he stooped down and wrote some more.  Maybe he wrote down some more sins.  Maybe he wrote out the rest of the Scripture from Jeremiah: “Heal me, O Lord, and I will be healed; Save me and I will be saved.”  Judgment of sin is God’s alone; as is salvation! 

And here is the point I really want to bring into focus this morning.  Not only did Jesus demonstrate that the purpose of God’s Law was not for us to engage in “better than, less than” judgment; he also demonstrated the purpose of the Law as a sign pointing to God’s salvation.  The Law reminds us of our need for God’s miraculous intervention – that cry from Jeremiah of “Heal me, O Lord; Save me!”

Jesus underscored this view of the Law when he finally turned to the woman and asked, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?”  She answered, “No one, Lord,” for indeed all her accusers had left.  The only person there who could condemn her was Jesus, and he said, “I do not condemn you, either.”  But he did not leave it at that, for that would fall short of the purpose of the Law.  God’s Word and Law does shine a light on our sin, but not for condemnation, but to draw us to God for salvation and healing.  And so Jesus says, “I do not condemn you, either.  Go. From now on sin no more (literally, don’t keep sinning in this way).”

What to Do with Sinners?

There is so much in this story worth dwelling on.  The best way to get at application concisely is to ask with whom you identify in the story.

The story first challenges us as those with stones in our hands to recognize our own guilt before God’s Law and perfection.  As Paul wrote in Romans 2-3, which we looked at last week, there is no distinction.  There is no “better than, less than” and so no grounds to judge or condemn others as more or less deserving of God’s attention.  If we can grasp that spiritual reality, there is no option but to let go of the stones in our hands.

Second, if we can face that reality and realize that we are not better than, we then realize that we are the woman in the story.  We may have not yet been called out and caught, but we are not right with God on our own.  Jeremiah 17:13-14 then becomes our prayer – “I have turned away, O God; heal me and save me!”

Finally, if we can deal with our own sin and brokenness and recognize that it is Christ himself who has healed and saved us, we can become a part of Christ’s own work.  Remember my favorite mission question?  “What is God doing and how can I be a part?”  Well, through Christ, God is healing and saving one broken person after another.  Can we speak the words of Christ?  Can we say, “Neither do I condemn you… don’t keep sinning in this way.”  And that last not to turn back to an attitude of “better than” (or then we’re right back where we started!) but as an invitation to the joy and hope of following Christ and living according to His Word.

This teaching has great implications for us as a church as well.  Throughout history, starting right at the beginning, the church has been torn apart by a “better than, less than” approach to God’s Word and Law.  What we have seen consistently over the past number of weeks is that God’s Word and Law are two-edged and do not include that kind of approach to Christian faith and practice.  God’s Word and Law shine a light on the human spiritual condition and challenge us all as consistently and pervasively sinful and in need of God’s miraculous intervention and salvation.  And God’s Word and Law reveal God’s plan for that very salvation and the blessing of turning toward Jesus Christ in faith, repentance, and hope.


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