Preached at Holy Trinity, Huddersfield
30th October 2016 (10.45am)
Come, Holy Spirit, take hold of these feeble words of mine and let them be for us the words of eternal life spoken by God through the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, His Son, our Lord. Amen.
Guilty. She was guilty, as charged. She knew it. Her accusers knew it. Even Jesus knew it. After all, she had been caught in the very act of committing adultery—in the very act. There was nothing circumstantial about the evidence. The case was cut and dried. She had been found by at least two witnesses in bed with a man who was not her husband. She was guilty, and she didn’t even bother denying it. According to the Law of Moses, the judgement was clear: she was deserving of death. As legal quandaries go, this one was pretty easy.
What happens, though, is nothing short of scandalous. You would think you could trust Judge Jesus to reach the right decision, but no, He lets her off the hook! A woman found brazenly cheating on her husband is let off scot-free, while the good religious folks who are just trying to uphold God’s righteous laws are sent packing with their tails between their legs. What is going on? It doesn’t seem fair. It doesn’t seem right. We could, perhaps, understand it if the woman had showed some kind of contrition or remorse about what she’d done. But she doesn’t.
This story of Jesus’ encounter with a woman caught in adultery brings us right to the beating heart of both the beauty and the scandal of the cross. God says Yes to us in our sin, Yes to us in the disastrous messes we make for ourselves, Yes to us in the condemnation that results from carrying on in our own godless ways. Yes, yes, yes! Guilty, as we may be; suffering the consequences of our own bad choices, as we may be; living under the self-imposed death penalty of being cut off from the God who is the source of our life, as we may be; God shows us in the life, death and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ, that He is for us.
God is for us. This is so important I want you to turn to you neighbour right now and say to them, “God is for you.” God is for you. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done, who we’ve hurt, how many people we’ve hurt, God is for us. Take a look around you. The person you just spoke to is a sinner just like you. In the film Shawshank Redemption, Red (played by Morgan Freeman) calls himself the “Only guilty man in Shawshank.” Here in Church, it’s the other way around. It’s the person who thinks they’re innocent that’s the odd one out. People have sometimes asked me what I think the Church is like and I think the best answer I can give is that it’s like a hospital for sinners. Not one of us in here is healthy, but that’s why we’re here—to be made well by the great Physician of our souls.
The scandal of Jesus’ encounter is all the more apparent as we consider the wider context of the story. The scribes and Pharisees didn’t bring the woman before Jesus because they were struggling to recall what the Law said about the punishment for adultery. They were doing it because they wanted to test Jesus. It says that in v. 6: “They said this to test [Jesus], so that they might have some charge to bring against him.” Jesus was sat in the temple courts, surrounded by people listening to His teaching. By asking Jesus what was to be done with the adulterous woman, they sought to trap Him in His interpretation of Scripture—with dozens of witnesses to boot.
Just a few verses earlier in John 7:38-39, Jesus had incited the anger of the chief priests and Pharisees by claiming to be able to provide the living water promised by God to His people. In doing so, He appeared to be fulfilling the words of Isaiah 55:1-3 in which God says, “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” Such was the audacity of His claim that while some were convinced He was the Messiah, others wanted to seize Him right there and then. The Pharisees’ authority had been challenged. They had to stop Jesus. This adulterous woman was their chance.
The trap the scribes and Pharisees devised was an ingenious one. They challenged Jesus either to publically agree or disagree with Moses, the great lawgiver. As they saw it, Jesus only had two choices. Either He says, “Yes, stone her,” in which case He gets Himself in trouble with the Roman authorities who denied the Jews the right to put anyone to death, or He says, “No, don’t stone her,” in which case He’s accused of contradicting the Law of God. Either way, as the scribes and Pharisees see it, it’s a win-win situation. And by the way, doesn’t it tell you something about Jesus that they seem to assume His proclivity towards being merciful?
Perhaps the best the Pharisees imagined Jesus might do was to say something like, “Well, we all know the Law, but the political situation being what it is, we’re just not able to apply it in as strict a fashion as we’d all like to.” Such an answer would then either be taken as cowardice or an outright denial of His being the Messiah, the Anointed One who would establish the Kingdom of God over against Roman occupation. It’s fair to say, then, that in the situation in which Jesus finds Himself, He is between a rock and a hard place. There is no easy way out. And even Jesus’ clever response that the one without sin cast the first stone is not uttered without great personal cost.
“Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (v. 7). Well, of course, there’s only one sinless person there, and He’s the person saying it! Now, you don’t often see the Gospels giving credit to the Pharisees, but we have to give credit to the Pharisees here because, led by the elders, they acknowledge that if they were to pass judgement on the woman in accordance with the Law, they would, by the Law’s same standard, be condemning themselves. Isaiah 53:6 says, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way.” Ecclesiastes 7:20 says, “Surely there is no one on earth so righteous as to do good without ever sinning.” In light of such texts in their sacred Scripture, which of them would dare pick up a stone?
Kenneth Bailey, who has written a cultural study of the Gospels called Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, helpfully points out that with the pressure now on and a big decision needing to be made, the natural thing for people in the Middle East to do would be to turn to the eldest person there for an answer. What we’re told is that one-by-one, the crowd dispersed, “beginning with the elders” (v. 9). The woman in the story was just a pawn. The scribes and the Pharisees had set out to publically condemn and humiliate Jesus, and instead it is the scribes and the Pharisees who are publically condemned and humiliated.
Jesus doesn’t take any pleasure in condemning and humiliating His opponents, but nevertheless, nobody likes being shamed out in the open. Minutes earlier, the crowd of scribes and Pharisees were baying for the woman’s blood; now, their anger is directed squarely against Jesus. Minutes earlier, we were expecting the woman’s brutal death; now, for what He has done for this woman, we are left expecting the unrestrained rage of the powers of sin and death to be unleashed against Jesus. Jesus becomes, if you like, a lightning conductor, taking into Himself and absorbing the full force of the storm. An adulterous woman goes free and Jesus has a big red ‘X’ painted on His back.
The Judge is judged in our place. The sinless one endures God’s judgement on sin, which we rightly deserve. In Jesus, the holy love of God entered the realm of judgement and death and in so doing, broke sin’s power forever. As Scottish theologian Tom Smail writes, “Jesus on the cross takes the whole situation of humanity, justly condemned to death as a consequence of its sinning, and transforms it by opening it up again to the God from whom it has been alienated.” In the perfect obedience of His own humanity, Jesus takes not only our sin, but also the whole of sinful humanity with Him to the cross. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:14, “one died for all, and therefore all died.”
The woman caught in adultery didn’t escape death when she met Jesus that fateful day in the temple courts; instead, she died along with every other sinner the day Jesus was nailed to the cross. This is God’s No to sin, God’s No to the way we’re living without Him, God’s No to what our self-will is doing to well being of His good creation. No, no, no! And this is the greatest scandal of all: God’s loud, clear and unreserved No falls on the One who has only ever heard God’s resounding, gracious and loving Yes. The consequences of sin are real—the events of Good Friday leave us in no doubt about that—but only God’s righteous Judge endures God’s righteous judgement.
God hates sin. God does not sit passively watching us destroy the world, one another and ourselves with sin, injustice and oppression. That’s why, when the woman is left all alone with Jesus, He doesn’t say, “Hey, don’t worry about it; it’s no big deal” or “I love you just the way you are, don’t change a thing.” No. Rather, He says to the woman, “I’m not going to condemn you; but leave here and stop sinning.” Jesus doesn’t condone her sin or excuse her actions, just as He doesn’t explicitly forgive her sins. What Jesus does is offer her a new ending to the story, a path to a future that honours God’s will, and an opportunity of life lived in all its fullness.
In His costly demonstration of unexpected love, Jesus has already done everything necessary to accomplish the woman’s forgiveness. All she has to do is accept Jesus’ representation on her behalf and take hold of the new life offered her—something we Christians call repentance. God doesn’t love some ideal ‘us’. He loves the real ‘us’—exactly as we are. But He loves us too much to leave us as we are. Sin is sin. And not only does it deserve death, but it is itself death—it alienates us from the light and life of God. And so God says No to sin and evil in the world because He says Yes to the world: God’s No is an expression of God’s Yes. God hates sin because He loves us and hates what sin does to us.
And if we are to hear God’s Yes, we must be prepared to hear God’s No. Only as we know sin as sin will we know grace as grace. If we are to know God’s love for sinners like us, we must also know His loathing for our sin. God says, “I hate your adultery. I hate your lusting after porn. I hate your use of sex, even within marriage, as glorified means of self-gratification.” God says, “I hate your self-righteousness. I hate your use of people as pawns. I hate your hypocrisy, seeing only the sins of others and never your own.” We don’t want to hear this, of course we don’t. But we must. If we want to hear the deafening roar of God’s Yes to us, we must also brace ourselves for His resolute No to our sin.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus collapses the distinctions between different kinds of sins. He says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28). Here He says, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (v. 7). We would do well to remember this before we start throwing stones (physical or otherwise) at other people. What is God’s No to adultery is also God’s No to any sexually degrading thought, word or deed. And so it is with every sin. “Vengeance is mine,” declares the Lord (Deuteronomy 32:35). Jesus is our Judge. There will be a day when each of us, like the woman, will be left all alone with Jesus to give an account of ourselves before Him. Just as we entrust ourselves to His mercy, let us also entrust each other to His mercy—for such is the meaning of our prayer, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”
So then, we come back to God’s Yes and God’s No. God’s Yes to you is God’s Yes to every other sinner. God’s outrageous grace says Yes to the adulterer, Yes to the paedophile, and Yes to the terrorist. If we can’t handle that, the simple fact is that we have no business hanging around with Jesus, for as Christians we have to eat with anyone Jesus drags in the door. In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God shows us beyond any shadow of a doubt that He loves us—all of us—and that He is for us. God’s desire is, and always has been, to be God-With-Us. And such is God’s determination to be God-With-Us, that God gives His only Son to be with us, even in our sin and in our death.
But God’s love for us is too strong to leave us there. God’s judgement is not the opposite of His love; it is the consequence of it. It is because God loves us that He hates the sin that denies and disfigures His love. Jesus may not condemn us, but He neither does He condone our sin or excuse our actions. “Go your way,” He says to us, “and from now on do not sin again.” Don’t think that God is soft because He let the adulterous woman off the hook. He’s not. As far as sin goes, He operates a zero-tolerance policy. There is no more definitive evidence of that than the cross—there is God’s No to sin writ large.
We can come to God—in all our sin, in all our shame, in all our disgrace—in the confidence that God says Yes to us just as we are. God loves us. We never come to God without this prior assurance; His No would be too frightening otherwise. But as is so often the case, the words “I love you,” spoken by someone we have hurt can convict us more powerfully than any condemnation. Similarly, God’s Yes is able to expose our sin in such a profound way that it serves the effect of a No. And God does say No. But He says No in order to say Yes. Yes is the first word and Yes is the last word. “I love you,” God says. “You are a sinner, and I hate your sin. But I love you and I can’t stop loving you, and I will die to take away your sin.” Can you hear what God’s saying? He’s saying, Yes! Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!
MP3 Audio Recording available on the Holy Trinity Huddersfield website: