Welcome to Day 13 of the Red Letter Challenge! This past week we were focusing on what it means to be with Jesus and some of us engaged in spiritual practices like reading the Bible, praying, fasting and celebrating. Today we kick off our focus on the second target which Jesus has given us to aim for in life as we follow him, and that is Forgiving.
I don’t know how things go at your house, but every once in a while the remote for our TV in the living room goes missing and then we have to go searching for it. I find that the most likely place for it to be is under the cushions on one of our couches. So I start digging underneath the cushions and I find all kinds of stuff that has been hidden there for a long time.
I find things like coins, bits of food, I once found a set of keys from the previous owners of the couch, and if I am very, very fortunate, I will find the remote.
Life is very much like a couch. We look good on the outside, but there is a whole bunch of junk underneath the cushions. We all have things in our past that we have said, thought or done that we regret and we carry a load of guilt and shame around because of those things. So we keep them hidden. We form coping mechanisms to try to work around the guilt and shame of our past, but those behaviour patterns only tighten the grip of bondage that our hidden past has on our lives. There is a lot going on beneath the cushions of our lives.
What makes it worse is that the hidden bondage that we carry around in our heart has an impact on the life we share as a community of faith. It would be easy for us to form a community that is based on how we look on the outside. But then many people feel like they don’t fit in when they come in knowing that they have stains and blemishes on the inside. If that’s how you feel, let me tell you that you absolutely fit in here at WGLC, because everyone of us here is dealing with hurt and pain deep down.
And what God wants to do today is flip the cushions in your life and mine and say, “You don’t have to live with that crud in your life any longer. Today it is going to be over because I am going to rid you of your past.” To help us get there, we are going to dig into the Bible and look at John 8:2-11. If you have a Bible or a Bible app, I invite you to turn there now.
The Cushions Get Flipped for a Woman
As you do that, you might see a note indicating that this passage was not in many of the earliest manuscripts of the Bible and therefore should not be considered part of John’s Gospel.
Please be aware that Bible scholars are not saying that this event did not happen, because it probably did. What they are saying is that John likely did not record this event, that someone else added it later. However, because it does fit with what we see elsewhere in the Bible regarding who Jesus is, what he said and what he did, it is proper for us to take a deeper look at this passage today.
What we find as we do so is that Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles, and as he often did when he was in Jerusalem, he was teaching people in the Temple Courts.
While Jesus is teaching, the teachers of the law and the Pharisees bring before him a woman who was caught in the act of adultery because they wanted to trap Jesus. Let’s think for a moment about what is going on here. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees are the religious leaders of God’s people, and yet they conspire to set this unholy trap for Jesus because they believe that Jesus is going to undermine their religious system by teaching people that God is loving and gracious. And they are exactly right. Because this is why Jesus came, to show us that our personal religions of human-made rules are worthless and Jesus offers us, instead, a new life, filled with goodness, beauty and truth, through a relationship with God through him. Turning to our passage, we read, They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. (John 8:3-6)
Can you get a sense of how scandalous this situation was? The Pharisees and the teachers of the law likely planned this trap for days, perhaps even weeks, watching and waiting for exactly the right moment, when they could spring it. Finally, their opportunity comes, they catch a couple in the act of adultery, and they bring the woman before Jesus. These are the religious leaders of that society, who knew of a situation where adultery was likely to happen, did nothing to prevent it, and instead allowed it to go ahead so they could use it for their purposes. Then they bring the woman, but not the man, before Jesus. Why is that? Was the man a co-conspirator who enticed the woman to sin in this way? As far as I know, it takes two people to commit adultery, yet they bring only one. This woman was pulled from a bed only moments before, she may or may not have been wearing any clothes, she was likely distraught, weeping and fearful. And to the religious leaders, she is nothing but a useful pawn. They don’t care if she lives or dies.
What they want to do is trap Jesus. If he says that the woman should be stoned, then he will violate the grace which he claims God freely gives. If he says that the woman should not be stoned, then he violates one of the Ten Commandments which God gave to his people centuries before.
The trap has been set, and all these men watch intently for Jesus to step into it. What he did instead must have been infuriating to them. We read, But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. (John 8:6) Can you imagine how angry they must have been? But Jesus is showing us that we don’t always need to respond to a situation in the heat of a moment. Often the best thing that we can do is pause and reflect, taking some time to consider what is going on around us and in us instead of simply reacting.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, President Kennedy would sometimes doodle on White House stationary during meetings convened to deal with the crisis. By taking a step back and considering other factors, like the challenges faced by Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union, and other possible courses of action instead of sending American troops to invade Cuba, as was being recommended to him, Kennedy was able to lead the United States through a course of action that averted a nuclear catastrophe. How many harsh words could remain unsaid and regrettable actions remain undone if we simply take a moment to stop and pray?
Jesus Flips the Cushions for the Woman’s Accusers
They kept on badgering Jesus with questions and he kept ignoring them. Finally, …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.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. (John 8:7-8)
None of us knows what Jesus was writing on the ground that day. Various Bible scholars have speculated on what it was. One theory that I find interesting is that Jesus was writing the names of the men that surrounded him, and beside each name he was writing their sins. Whatever it was that Jesus wrote, as he did that, one by one, the men leave. This passage tells us that the older men left first. Some may think that it is because the older men were wiser. Perhaps it was because they had a longer list of sins beside their name. Those men flipped the cushions on the woman, and then Jesus flipped the cushions on the men.
Eventually, …only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:9-11)
The only person who could have thrown a stone at the woman chose not to, and we find the reason why earlier in John’s Gospel. Perhaps the most famous verse in the Bible is John 3:16, which says, For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16) But we often stop at the end of that verse and ignore the next one, which is also very important. It tells us, For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:17) Jesus didn’t come to condemn that woman, or us, he came to save her and us and set us all free.
The Way of God is Jesus
It is interesting to me that John, chapter 8, both begins and ends with an attempted stoning. At the start of the chapter, it is this woman caught in adultery who is on the verge of dying under a deluge of rocks thrown in condemnation. At the end of the chapter, it is Jesus. And this is the way of humanity. If someone violates a belief or a rule that is important to us, we reject them, toss them out of our life and stone them in our heart. But that is not the way of God. Yes, God has given us rules, but they are not tasks that we accomplish in order to earn his favour and our salvation. They are boundaries that mark off the perimeter of the rich, full, abundant life that he wants to give to us. God gave us those commandments, not to enslave us, but because he loves us and he wants us to live in freedom and enjoy life with him.
The way of God is to send Jesus to take care of our sin for us. Jesus dealt with all our sin by coming into this world, becoming one of us and standing our place to take the punishment that we deserve so we could be set free. Was that woman a sinner? Yes, she was. And so are we. But Jesus has taken the rocks that we deserve and let all those blows fall on him instead of us, so that us broken, flawed sinners could live as beloved children of God in the freedom of his forgiveness.
We tend to think that we need to clean up our lives before we come to Jesus. And yet here is this disheveled, distraught, barely dressed woman who thirty minutes prior was committing adultery. At that time, coming to Jesus was likely the furthest thing from her mind, and here she was, and Jesus didn’t condemn her, he set her free.
If we can get over the hump of bringing ourselves and our sin to Jesus, then we often face a second, and perhaps more tragic hurdle. And that is that we often listen to the lies and accusations of humanity’s great enemy, Satan, far more than we listen to the truth of the Gospel that says Jesus came to save us and make all things right between us and him. As a result, we carry around guilt and shame for things which God has already forgiven us for. As one of my professors would sometimes say, “It’s like we give our sins to Jesus and he throws them in a garbage truck and hauls them away. But then we chase after the garbage truck and try to catch it to get our sins back.” The things we do are so unnecessary and even ridiculous in God’s eyes. And yet we do what we do because we don’t fully understand God and his grace for us.
The solution is not to do more to try to pay for our forgiveness. That won’t solve our problem. Nor will burying our sin deeper and hoping that the truth will not come out, because it always does. The solution is to flip our own cushions over and show all the garbage in our lives to Jesus so he can clean it all up and take it away. He already knows about it and he has already paid the full cost for it all to be forgiven. Flipping the cushions in our own life means that we don’t have to carry the burden of our guilt anymore. Flipping the cushions means that we don’t have to hide the shameful things of our past anymore. That’s who we were then, but that’s not who we are now. Flipping the cushions means that we are able to fully embrace the good things Jesus has for us in the future because we are no longer bound by our past. We have let it go.
When I was about 16 or 17 years old, I got a ticket for illegal conveyance of alcohol. That’s what happens when you get stopped and there is an opened bottle of booze in the back of your pickup truck. I was driving, but one of the people who was with me said that they take care of the ticket. I don’t know what happened, but the ticket didn’t get taken care of. Now, you have to understand that I grew up in a farming community centered around a small town of 1,500 people. We didn’t have Netflix back in that day, and one of the things that people used to do for entertainment back then, was go to court to see who was in trouble with the local authorities. And then the local paper would print a summary of what happened in court so you could get twice the entertainment value. A month or so after I got this ticket, some of my friends came back from court (why they were there, who knows), and they said to me, “Did you know that your name was read out in court today?”
Immediately, I was filled with shame because I knew that my ticket, which had been a secret up until that point, was now public knowledge. I also knew that I would have to tell my Dad, and I would have to do it soon before he heard about it from someone else or read it in the local paper. That was a conversation that I was not looking forward to. But I did talk with him, and he told me to go get the ticket from my friend and give it to him. He took it to the local magistrate and I never heard anything more about it. As I think about that situation now, I think that what my Dad did was pay my fine and the late payment penalty for me. I was guilty of breaking the law, and yet I was free because of what my Dad had done for me.
Reconciled to be a Reconciler
We live in a very divisive time. Not only is there a war in Ukraine which has divided the world into pro-Ukraine and pro-Russia camps, but our society is also sharply divided over issues such as vaccines, public health mandates, trucker protests, etc. These divisions run right through workplaces, neighbourhoods, friendships, families and churches.
When I was at the Canadian Lutheran Bible Institute in Camrose in January, the president of CLBI, Dean Rostad, shared something he learned while taking a sociology class. The instructor said that many people think that the pandemic will be over in 2022, and then we can celebrate and go back to normal. But this instructor also said that the pandemic was like a flood, (We had a major flood in the Lower Mainland in November, so we know what that is like.) After a flood recedes, that’s when you see the damage that has been done. This instructor was saying that that is what is going to happen when the Covid-19 pandemic is over, we are going to see the damage done by the pandemic and it is going to take another two years to repair that damage before our world can get back to normal and we can celebrate. I think that the instructor is correct, and I suspect that there is going to be a lot of damage, a lot of healing and reconciliation that will need to be done.
In a few moments, we are going to have a special time of confession and forgiveness, and receiving Holy Communion is part of that. But the forgiveness that Jesus gives is not only for the relationship that we have with him. It is also for the relationships that we have with others. As you flip the cushions in your life and receive Jesus’ free and full forgiveness, I ask you to reflect not only on what that means for you. I am also asking you to consider what it means for others. In 2 Corinthians 5:18-19, God’s Word tells us, All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Cor. 5:18-19)
As your pastor, I am asking, even begging you to be fully reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. And I am also asking you to take a stand and be a person of reconciliation. Please understand, I am not asking you to try to achieve reconciliation by compromising on truth. We sometimes see that happen in the world around us. As followers of Jesus, we know that truth is a person, and that person is Jesus. It is Jesus and his love and grace that we want to represent in this world. Amen.
This sermon is based on one written by Zach Zehnder which is available at redletterchallenge.com. This sermon was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church on March 20, 2022. For more info, please go to wglc.org.