Linden Heights Baptist Church
February 9th, 2013
8 1 but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. 9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
This week Valentine’s Day approaches. I hope if you have not already you will plan to join us next Saturday for our Valentine dinner. I was talking with a man who was thinking about going into pastoral ministry a few weeks ago. He was thinking about the ministry of preaching and how he would arrange his preaching if he was given the opportunity to be a pastor. He talked about Christmas time…and how he would approach Easter. He gave some thought to how he would want to begin each year thinking about the church. And he said when it comes to February I would preach about love the whole month long. Valentine’s Day is a feast day in many traditions of the church (Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox) that celebrates courtly…romantic love. The meaning and celebration of Valentine’s Day has sometimes widened. It is common to offer expressions of appreciation and love to friends and family and not only Romantic love. I remember as a child we would bring Valentine’s Cards to school…but they needed to be addressed to every member of the class. This isn’t exactly resonate with romantic love. I read this morning from the Song of Songs a passage. The lover describes his beloved as a locked garden. And the beloved is invited in to enjoy the garden. It is a locked garden, an indication that one of the inherent aspects to the power and depth of romantic love is its exclusive characteristic.
For some, perhaps some present today, your bond of romantic love is strong healthy and thriving. If that is the case you understand and can celebrate with the singers in the Song of Songs. In fact you probably do not need me or anyone else to remind you of the goodness of such a relationship. You probably do not even need me to remind you that this is a gift from God, not something that you have created by yourselves. However there are, no doubt, many people present today for whom romantic love, the ardor and power, are not experienced in the present to the extent one might want. And for those who feel such absence, holidays like Valentine’s day can be deeply alienating. I do not just mean the person who is single. In fact sometimes the person who is single can be quite at peace. It may be that one is married and yet there are pains and strains that leave one feeling especially the absence of romantic love. In such absence it can be difficult to imagine that there is a balm….but sometimes appearances are misleading.
I cannot remember missing Sunday services. As most of you know my father is a minister, and so we were always at church on Sundays. Now throughout the year we would periodically have a Sunday where we were not at our home church. But when my father was not taking part in the leadership of a service we were still in a place of worship on Sunday mornings. I can only think of one time when we were not in church on Sunday. We went to Muir woods in Northern California. It is the home of some of the tallest trees in the world the red wood trees. Some of the trunks of these trees are so big that you can drive a car through a hole carved in the trunk. I can remember looking up into the sky and it seemed like these trees stretched forever into the sky. Some years ago I was looking through a national geographic magazine and there was an article about these red wood trees that they did not know previously. They found that way up high in these trees there is a second forest floor. Where the trunks fork or in some of the broad limbs organic material collects that becomes soil. These trees are very old and researchers have found that there is soil three feet deep in some places. Ferns grow in the soil and in fact there are small trees that grow. Scientists were unaware of this second forest floor until the 1990’s because they had never climbed to the top of the trees.
In life there are times where we find things that we do not expect. Life has a way of bringing surprises. This is true in tree biology. This is true in human biology. This is true in our relationships with others and this is true in our relationship with God. As we look at this passage today many will recognize a familiar passage. “He who is without sin throw the first stone.” I don’t know about you but I like to quote this passage…especially when encircled.
A DIFFERENT CONCERN WITH REGARDS THIS PASSAGE
Think about the crowd gathered this day. There was a woman who had been caught in the very act of adultery. There is no mention of the man. Men and women were not treated equally in the first century, though under the Jewish law the punishment would have been equal we only find the woman brought before a crowd of religious teachers. She has been brought specifically to Jesus. Just in the chapter prior to this Jesus had said to the crowd who ever is thirsty come to me and I will give you living water. The scribes and teachers have a test case they wanted to bring to Jesus. Jesus was infamous for being a friend to those on the margins of respectability…this is perhaps too polite…he was known for being among the party-ers…the prostitutes…the Roman…sell-outs. They brought this woman to Jesus to see what he would do. Would he be faithful to the law?
They asked him, “you know what is stated in the law…what do you say?” As we know in the story those who had crowded around will end up departing with a very different viewpoint. In encountering Jesus they are changed. And I hope that as we come to this story that we too will be challenged. How do we understand this passage? Whenever we come to the Bible we come with a background. We have been shaped in certain ways by our experiences. These experiences can block our vision of things. We understand words because of their context–the way we have used the words before. “Are you free on Friday?” can mean a wide variety of things depending on who is asking the question. It might that one is being asked if one is free to work…or it might be an inquiry if one is interested in going on a date? Very different implications from the very same words. Our understanding of words is shaped by our own experiences…but also the questions we bring to particular texts.
I suspect that the questions brought by Christians from an earlier generation will be surprising to you. We ask a different set of questions. In verse 7 when they kept on questioning, Jesus asked them, “Who among you is without sin cast the first stone.” For a group of early interpreters of the Bible this was a particularly striking and perplexing passage. We, I think, can almost skim over these words because we are in a hurry to be on the side of mercy. The penalty after all seems to be way to harsh to us. Our issue is with the actual law such that we do not pause to think about the strange way Jesus approaches this crowds question.
How could you enforce any law if the standard? Anyone who has had the responsibility to enforce the law realizes that the enforcing of such a law goes beyond themselves. We of course want upstanding citizens but they have to enforce the law whether they like the law. The law is something beyond the enforcement of the law. What did Jesus mean by this question? One approach is to suggest that Jesus’ question is with regards to their own part in the law. Adultery was punishable by death but only so long as the witnesses were not malicious. In Deuteronomy there were provisions about who could be a witness. This interpretative approach suggests that these Pharisees are in fact a category of malicious witnesses. They are not interested in fulfilling the law but in catching Jesus in a bind. The punishment for a malicious witness was the same as adultery. Some interpreters then see that Jesus is challenging them in the law. Jesus is asked if he condemns her and he simply says that he was in no position to condemn her. Jesus is then not in a position to condemn her….so he tells her to go and sin no more.
I doubt that these are the pressing questions that you bring to the text. There are different issues that strike us today. We live in a different social time. We think these religious leaders are applying a barbaric system of punishment. There is no way we would accept their finding. We have a much different view of sexual behavior. Our society is much more permissive; not any more permissive than first century Greeks. For us the question isn’t how could Jesus possibly set aside the law. Our question is how could you possibly execute someone for adultery. Both of these approaches see Jesus as being lenient. I want to suggest that either way you get to this conclusion, whether you see as Jesus as the great lawyer who manages to get her off on a technicality or if we see Jesus as standing in someway pulling back the law being more lenient, we still are confronted with Jesus last words to this woman.
THE GOSPEL IN MINIATURE
Jesus said to her in verse 11, “From now on [Jesus said to her] do not sin again.” How would you apply this in your life? Instead of a great act of mercy this seems like an incredible burden. I am sure at the moment this was of course a welcome intervention. We would all be happy and thankful. We might even be willing to say at that moment I will never sin again. And yet as we think about our life this doesn’t seem like a liberating word but a constricting word. I want to suggest a third way to interpret this passage. We find In John’s retelling of this event, the gospel in miniature. This interaction is not about how to enforce the law or how to address sexual ethics, it is a wider question. How do we recognize our need and what do we do about it?
In John chapter 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” This is the gospel. Do you recall what comes next in verse 17? Sometimes we memorize 16 but not 17. In verse 17 we find for the son of man did not come into the world to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him. The son of man came not to condemn the world but to save the world. This woman caught in adultery is brought before Jesus and the religious leaders want Jesus to condemn her. She is guilty. Jesus did not come to condemn but to deliver. Now before we can understand God’s work of deliverance through God the son. We need to understand our need of deliverance. We sometimes mistakenly think that we are not very condemning. What this is often more instructive is that we are not pressured by a specific issue. If you have been the victim of crime or if a loved one has been hurt you realize there must be something done. For there to be reconciliation there needs to be some accounting for a transgression. If you have ever been in the painful position of having two people for whom you care deeply who are at odds with each other over wrongs done, you have seen first hand the complicated way sin takes hold and continues to rip apart efforts to bring healing.
In Romans we find the purpose of the law. In verse 26 and following we find the role of the law. God created the world. We are all supposed to be obedient to God. But instead we have turned God’s good gifts and twisted them in ways that hurt us. Paul in chapter one of Romans uses sexual license. But Paul does not simply stop there he goes on to say and you are without excuse for you have all done the same thing. He doesn’t mean that all have become like the libertine Romans but we have turned God’s good gifts in directions that bring pain and suffering. The law confronts us with the reality that we stand before God condemned. We too need Jesus. We are in our sin brought to Jesus. But Jesus did not come to condemn us but to deliver us. The final turn in this passage is the “go and sin no more.” Normally when we dwell on this part of the passage it seems quite heavy. Sin no more. The reason we find this so heavy oppressive even. We realize that there is a reason that we find sin attractive. It is not that we aspire to things we think will bring destruction. It is that we live in a world where there is so much hurt that we reach for that which seems to bring some measure of fleeting happiness. Consider this unnamed woman caught in an adulterous affair. We do not know the circumstances of what may have brought her to such a decision. But I do not think we will be taking too much liberty with the text to speculate that there was great pain and unhappiness in her marriage. She probably had all sorts of pain around her. As she left Jesus, were all these problems solved? Sure I should trust more faithfully but there are all these problems that truly hurt.
LIVING BY PROMISE
This saying of Jesus, “go and sin no more,” shouldn’t be seen simply as a command. Go and sin no more. As if she would be able to do this for the rest of her life. I believe we are meant to see in this command a word of promise. When we come to Jesus not only does he free us from our sin but he places us in a direction where we will be without sin. There is no question in the wider witness of scripture that as we seek to be faithful we are pilgrims on a journey. There will be failures of judgment before us. But where we are headed is the Kingdom of God where we will no longer be enticed. We won’t be pulled in ways that bring our own destruction and hurt others.
Would you pay 12 dollars to go to heaven or would you rather go to the movies? Heaven is often seen as a better alternative. When you think about your life when have you found the greatest satisfaction? It is not simply a place with a great view. It is not simply a place of great comfort and softness. It is those points and places of life where we are truly significant. The places where we are happiest are the places where we are wanted and needed. This is the reign of God where we are wanted and where we are needed. The good news of the gospel is that we are invited to be on the road to such a place. This is good news thanks be to God. Amen.