Sunday, November 01, 2015
Sermon: John 8: 1-11 Without Sin?
Growing up, I was a member of the Boys’ Brigade, and looking back, it was the displays that really stand out. Having worked all year, the display was the night when family and friends attended - there was drill (marching), team games, the horse (which I couldn’t get over...), and a sketch of some kind. One sticks out (and hopefully, no pictures survived of this one) - the big idea was that we were members of The Spinster’s Club - all avowed spinsters, attending our regular meeting. A new member joined, and she had to give up all the items belonging to men in the audience. But then the minister came in, and the leader announced that some group member had shamed the group, by being seen with a man. So as the minister prayed, one by one, the guilty group members sneaked off... leaving just the leader and the minister - who were all set to head out on the town together!
It was a bit of fun, but the point behind it comes from our Bible reading today. I’m sure you’ve heard this phrase before, or maybe even used it yourself - let him who is without sin cast the first stone. But what does that mean? And where did it come from?
So far as we’ve toured through John’s gospel, we’ve seen Jesus’ glory in lots of different situations, with lots of different people. And so far, they’ve all been positive. He called John and Andrew and Philip to come and see, to follow him, and they came. He produced gallons of the best wine at a wedding. He confronted religious Nicodemus and converted the (spiritually and physically) thirsty woman at the well. We’ve seen him heal the official’s son (from a distance), and the paralysed man at Bethesda. But not everyone rejoiced at the down to earth God.
The religious people are feeling the pressure, they’re not liking what Jesus is doing, and so they start confronting him, challenging him. And it seems that they don’t care who they hurt as they pursue Jesus. They’re a bit like the church in America which had the sign outside which said: ‘We love hurting people’. Hopefully, they mean that they love people who are hurting, but the Pharisees here look like they really do love to hurt people.
The setting is the temple, during one of the festivals. It’s a busy time of year, like a half term, when everyone has come to Jerusalem, and the city is heaving. Jesus is teaching in the temple, there’s a crowd around him, when suddenly, the scribes and Pharisees appear, bringing a woman caught in adultery. We’re not told, but it seems that she had been caught redhanded, perhaps in a state of undress, and dragged to the centre of the crowd in the temple.
Look at what they say: ‘Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?’ (4-5) These religious men use this sinful woman for their own purposes. They accuse her, and condemn her - an easy target. The moral men look down on her immorality. They accuse and condemn her, but only because by using and abusing her, they can accuse and condemn Jesus.
They look as if they’re concerned for moral purity, for keeping the Law, but actually, they’re concerned with nailing Jesus. Look at verse 6: ‘This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him.’ You see, if he says, don’t stone her, then he has spoken against the Law. If he says to stone her, then he’ll run foul of the Roman government, who had banned Jewish executions.
So they press him for an answer. Which will it be? Which side of the trap will he fall for? Why isn’t he answering? Why is he stooped over, writing on the ground? So they ask, and ask... and then Jesus stands and says that famous line: ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.’ (7)
Jesus doesn’t fall into their trap. Instead, he tells them to consider their own conscience, to reflect on their own life. Yes, at this stage in redemption history, adultery was punishable by death - but had they also done anything deserving death? Were they a perfectly righteous judge, without sin themselves? Plus (as you might have noticed), just as it takes two to tango, it also takes two to commit adultery, yet only the woman had been dragged in.
The woman had been caught redhanded, in order to catch Jesus. But they themselves had been caught out - their own hearts exposed; their own guilt condemned; their own sin revealed. One by one, they slip away. As Psalm 130 puts it, ‘Lord, if you marked our transgressions, O Lord, who could stand?’ As you might have taught your own children, when you point a finger at someone else, there are three fingers pointing back at you.
The supposedly moral people might look down on this woman, but they are also immoral at heart. We like to imagine that there is a league table of sin, and that, so long as we’re higher than some other people, then we’ll be all right. Well, ok, I’ve told the odd lie, but at least I haven’t done ... (fill in the blank). I’m a decent person, never do anyone any harm, and well, I’m better than her at number 23... But the Pharisees that day were confronted by their own sin. James, the brother of Jesus says in his letter that to break just one commandment is to shatter the whole law. As Paul says, the wages of sin is death - all sin, any sin, not just some sins, or other peoples’ sins.
Jesus had been stooping, continuing to write with his finger. But now he stands, looks around, and sees just the woman standing there. ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ Everyone has left. No one is left to condemn. Yet there is one who is sinless, one who could condemn her. The one who is without sin is the one who still stands there. What will he say?
Notice what he says in verse 11. Do you see how the two things go together? ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.’ He doesn’t condemn her - he gives forgiveness. He removes the penalty of death from her, and allows her to live. It’s why Jesus came into the world (3:17) ‘For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ He forgives, he doesn’t condemn - but that doesn’t mean that anything goes; that there’s cheap grace for you to exploit, for you to go out from here and do whatever you feel like and that God will forgive because that’s his job. If Jesus had only said ‘neither do I condemn you’ then you might have thought that.
But he also says: ‘go, and from now on sin no more.’ You’re forgiven, but don’t continue in sin. You’ve been set free, don’t go back to the same slavery. Mercy and grace fit together to forgive us and change us, whoever we are.
Perhaps today, you see yourself in the role of the Pharisee. You see your religion as a way to beat people up and feel superior to them. You measure yourself against other people and always come out on top. You look down on people who sin in different ways to yourself, whose sins might be more obvious. In the words of the insurance advert - go compare - yourself to Jesus. In the light and perfect purity of he who is without sin, you’ll find that you are sinful, that you can’t make the grade by yourself, that you are more sinful than you ever imagined - but that you are more loved than you could ever dare. Flee to Jesus. Find in him the mercy to deal with your sins. As you realise that you deserve the wages of sin - death - marvel that the sinless one died for you to give you the free gift of God - eternal life.
Or maybe you find yourself like this woman. Your sins are obvious, and religious people have seen you as an easy target. You know you don’t deserve anything. You’re waiting for the stones to rain down on you. Don’t run from the sinless one - find in him your forgiveness and your freedom. The sinless one died for your sins to bring you to God, to wash you clean, to give you his life in place of your death. In this moment, confess your sins, receive his forgiveness, and strengthened by his feast, move out resolved to change by his grace, to go and sin no more.
So let’s pause, in silence, before we join in the confession. Be deliberate in your confession, the things that accuse you, that things you want to stop doing, Let’s pray.
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 1st November 2015.