Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sermon: John 12: 1-8 Extravagant Worship

I wonder if you’ve ever had a memorable meal. A dinner that really sticks out in the mind. Now, maybe you can remember every single meal you’ve ever had, but for most of us, you couldn’t remember much about what you had for dinner Tuesday week ago, let alone fifteen years ago. But you might remember some memorable meals. Perhaps you can remember the best steak you’ve ever tasted; or the most delicious dessert (all with no calories, of course).

But sometimes it isn’t the food itself that makes a meal memorable. Something happens, and the meal will be remembered for a long time. A wee while ago I was out for lunch with my mum and dad. Ordered a chicken Maryland, and the plate came out, piled high - bacon, chips, banana fritter, battered pineapple, peas and sweetcorn - it was all there; but no chicken! They’d forgot to put it on the plate. We’ll never forget that it happened! Or perhaps you’ve had a memorable meal when you pulled out a ring and popped the question (and had to answer the question...).

As John sits down to write his gospel, there’s a memorable meal that he includes, and it’s found in our reading today. We’re not told anything about the food, just that Martha served it; but it was unforgettable because of what happened - an act of unashamed, extravagant worship.

The setting is Bethany, the home of siblings Lazarus, Martha and Mary. Lazarus, you might remember, had been dead, but Jesus raised him from the dead. And so the family give a dinner in Jesus’ honour. A time of table fellowship they wouldn’t have thought possible a few days before. Practical Martha cooked up a treat; Lazarus reclined at table - they weren’t sitting at a dining room table the way you might when you go home for your dinner. Instead, they reclined on one arm, with the other used to eat; legs sprawled out behind.

And Mary? Mary does something unforgettable. Let’s watch as John describes the scene. She took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard. The other night at the Christmas Fair there was the guess the weight of the Christmas cake. It was about 6lb 12 oz, but this is one pound of pure nard - a rare and expensive ointment. This is a costly act of worship. Later we’re told that it could have been sold for 300 denarii - a year’s wage.

That’s like going into Boots and asking for the most expensive perfume. In fact, you probably wouldn’t even get close. This would be like flying to Chanel and asking them to make you up your very own perfume. A year’s worth of wages was a huge sum to save up in order to buy this perfume for this costly act of worship.

I wonder are we as deliberate, as thoughtful when it comes to deciding what we’re offering in worship?

This wasn’t just a costly act of worship, this was also unashamed worship. Mary... anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. Now we might not quite ‘get’ what’s going on here. For a single woman to let down her hair, to touch and anoint a single man’s feet; this was shocking in that culture. This wasn’t how you were meant to get on.

But Mary doesn’t care what other people think. She is pouring out her worship as she pours out her ointment, as she anoints the anointed one (the Christ). This is pure devotion, not held back by what other people think. It’s the same attitude that David showed when the ark of the covenant was brought into the city of Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 6. David danced before the Lord with all his might, wearing just an ephod. His wife Michal was raging at how David had behaved in front of his female servants. But David replies, ‘I will make merry before the Lord. I will make myself even more undignified than this.’ (2 Sam 6:21-22). He doesn’t care what other people think. And neither does Mary. Nothing will stop her as she offers this unashamed worship.

Sometimes we can hold back from really worshipping because we’re fearful of what someone else will think or say. They might not like it, but don’t hold back. Be unashamed in your devotion.

And all the more so, because this was a public act of worship. No one could miss what was happening. John says: ‘The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.’ I’m not sure how I’d have coped in the house - I sometimes have to take a deep breath to walk through all the perfume counters in Debenhams in Belfast just to get to the rest of the shop. The candle shops can be overpowering. And the worship offered that day was just as unavoidable. Everyone could smell it. Everyone would smell of it.

Public worship, witnessed by all, missed by none. Are we in the same category? Is the fragrance of our devotion to Christ obvious? Or would people be surprised that you’re here today; that you identify as a Christian?

Extravagant worship is costly, unashamed, and public. It doesn’t go unnoticed, and can sometimes be misunderstood. Criticised, even, by those you would think would know better.

Judas, one of the twelve, speaks up. ‘Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?’ What a waste! A year’s wages poured out in one go - think of the hungry mouths to feed. Think of the hands eager to receive even a fraction of it.

Perhaps you find yourself nodding along. Except we need to be careful of the company we keep. You see, the only hungry mouth Judas was worried about was his own. The only eager hand to receive even a fraction of the money was his own. John tells us (with the benefit of hindsight) that Lazarus didn’t care about the poor. He was a thief, helping himself to what was put into the common money bag. Judas was about to betray Jesus (4), but he already had many times before.

He was one of the twelve; he was with Jesus; he had a position of responsibility; but he was a thief. His time with Jesus didn’t lead to worship and wonder; he grew in selfishness and cynicism. Now for us gathered in church today, we need to face up to the same challenge. As we listen to Jesus, as we hear of all the amazing things he did, are we hardened to it all, and only watching out for how we can prosper ourselves? Or are we moved to worship?

Jesus speaks up in Mary’s defence. You will always have the poor with you. Now that doesn’t mean what one of our old teachers tried to say - there’s always going to be poor people, so don’t bother helping... It means we can and should be helping, and can do so all the time. But Jesus wouldn’t always be around. This anointing was done to prepare Jesus for burial, something which would happen in less than a week, that very Passover.

You see, Jesus is worthy of this costly, unashamed, public, extravagant worship. This Jesus who raised Lazarus from the dead would himself go to the place of the dead, crucified for us, dying the death we deserved, to give us hope. When we see his glory, then the only right response is to worship him with all that we have. To welcome him in.

As we begin this Advent season, as we’re reminded that Jesus is coming - will you receive him in? Will you make him Lord of your life, Lord of your home?

Nuala is going to come and share a poem she has found helpful and challenging on this theme of welcoming Jesus in. Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 29th November 2015.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Book Review: Waterloo

I've always been interested in history. It probably traces back to a leaflet produced by Banbridge District Council many years ago called 'Historic Dromore.' The sheer number of historical features in the wee town I lived in blew my mind - the cathedral, the high cross, the Norman motte and bailey (the best preserved example in Ulster), the stocks, the town hall, the gallows street, the castle; all these gave me an interest in the past. Yet for all my interest, there are some periods where I don't really know very much. I knew of Waterloo, but I couldn't have told you much about it, even having been driven on a bus near the battleground on the way from Charleroi airport into Brussels. I probably knew more about the Abba song than the battle.

I was vaguely aware of the Fermanagh connection to Waterloo, the Inniskilling Dragoons having fought there. So when the 200th anniversary of the battle came on 18th June 2015 and I spotted Bernard Cornwell's new book on Waterloo, I knew I had to read it and start to understand it. I'm so glad that I did.

Cornwell is probably best known for his fictional Sharpe books, which were adapted for television. His previous grounding in fiction helps him to tell a gripping factual tale, with lots of drama, excitement, and personal interest. An epic story of an epic battle, or rather three battles, as the subtitle summarises: 'The history of four days, three armies and three battles.'

Drawing on many firsthand accounts of private soldiers, official records, and observations, Cornwell weaves the material together to keep track of the Prussians, the French and the British through the phases of the battles, in a way that the very amateur historian can follow. Technical language is explained and the objectives of each section and force are described clearly. The full complement of maps (at the start of each chapter) helps to place the action and build up the entire battlefield.

For some, the story of Waterloo is the story of the mighty generals, the clash of Napolean Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington. While Cornwell keeps us up to date with their movements, he also provides enough detail of the experiences and difficulties of the ordinary solider in the armies.

I really enjoyed the book, as it helped to fill in a gap in my historical knowledge. The book managed to do it in a way that was accessible, exciting, and engaging, and for this reason I'd definitely recommend it. If you'd like to know what all the hype about Waterloo was, then this is the book to read.

Waterloo is available from Amazon and for the Kindle.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Book Review: A Meal With Jesus

If you know me at all, you'll know I like my food. This book sounds like a perfect one for me, and it really was. Tim Chester has written a great book on the theology and practice of hospitality - 'A Meal with Jesus: Discovering grace, community and mission around the table.'

Through the book, Chester follows the meals mentioned in Luke's gospel, echoing the complaint that the Son of Man came eating and drinking. And when you think of it, there are so many meals in Luke, and each adds to the story and mission of Jesus. There's the enacted grace of the party in Levi's house; the anointing of Jesus in Simon the Pharisee's house; the feeding of the five thousand; the rush to get the seats of honour at the banquet in Luke 14; the Lord's last supper and then the meals in Emmaus and Jerusalem on the first resurrection day.

The chapters follow the meals above (although, the astute may have realised that there are a few more as well - as Chester quotes someone saying, 'In Luke's Gospel Jesus is either going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal.') The circumstances and events of the meals are discovered and explained, and the practical meaning is examined and applied. Throughout, there's a focus on mission, with the challenge to come and receive from Christ and then to go and share that grace and hospitality with others.

All in all, this book is like a six course feast (with an aperitif to set the scene). Each course follows perfectly from the last, and grace is on every plate, with lashings of extra grace. Reading it is like reading a menu - the reader's hunger is stirred, the desire to enjoy these good things is intensified; except that in the reading, the 'eater' is also satisfied. Hungry souls will find fulfillment because Christ is served up in this fine feast.

A Meal with Jesus is available from The Good Book Company.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Book Review: Faker

The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector takes up just seven verses in our Bibles. It's a memorable short story with a sting in the tale - the two men are at prayer, but the end result is surprising. Only one is justified before God, and not the one you would have thought at the start. The parable forms the basis of a new book from the pen of Nicholas T McDonald, published by The Good Book Company: Faker - How to live for real when you're tempted to fake it.

Aimed at young people, I found this to be a great book for more than just the target age group. The writing is engaging, honest and refreshing, as Nicholas opens up about his own failings when trying to fake it. He explores the ways in which we all try to fake it, especially in our social media saturated world, by projecting the best image of ourselves to a watching world. His stories are hilarious (and also instantly recognisable), as the perils of projecting perfection are exposed.

False hopes are shown for what they are, and throughout, there's a clear passion to explain the good news of Jesus Christ in a way that is easily understood and applied to the life of teenagers. The substitutionary atonement is front and centre, and brilliantly explained. There's even a final chapter on prayer which opens up the Lord's Prayer in a fresh way.

I really enjoyed the book, and I reckon that young people definitely will. The chapters are short, accessible and engaging. The gospel is clearly explained. The truth is presented in a way that gently but helpfully confronts. It's well worth buying for your teenagers or youth group - but not just for them. Read it yourself, and appreciate afresh the glory of the gospel.

Faker is available from The Good Book Company, who supplied a review copy of the book.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Sermon: John 9: 1-41 Was blind, but now I see

I wonder if you’ve ever heard yourself saying this: ‘I couldn’t see it for looking at it.’ You go into a room, you’re looking for something and you can’t see it. It mustn’t be there. It’s lost. And then someone else comes into the room and it’s right in front of you. You couldn’t see it for looking at it - you saw it, but you didn’t really see it. It’s as if you were blind, you just couldn’t see it.

That experience is a bit like what’s happening in our Bible reading this morning. Now, perhaps, you’re slightly puzzled, because you’re thinking, Gary, you’ve got it all wrong. John 9 is all about the healing of this man blind from birth; it’s all about someone who couldn’t see, and then he’s able to see - and he’s so excited about it, he tells just about everyone he meets. You’re right. The man’s journey from being blind to seeing is there. It shows the power and glory of Jesus, but at the same time, in the same events, there are people who can see yet are becoming blind. They can’t see Jesus for looking at him. They can’t see who he is, even though they can see what he has done.

Look with me at verse 39. You see, this verse is the key to the chapter, this is the point of it, this is what it’s all about. When we get this, then we can see how the story unfolds. ‘Jesus said, ‘For judgement I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.’

This morning is going to be like a sight test. It’s like the man who was asked had his eyes ever been checked, and he replied no, they’ve always been blue. Whether you should have gone to Specsavers or some other optician, they test your eyesight, and record if your eyesight is getting worse or better. Here in John 9, as you seeing Jesus more clearly, or are you becoming blind?

In verse 1, there’s no doubt where the man fits in. He is a man blind from birth. I’ve had two family members who lost their sight, both in their elderly years, but this man has never seen anything. Doesn’t know what his parents look like. Has never seen the sky, or trees, or flowers. His is a sad case, but the disciples aren’t interested in pity. Rather, they start the blame game. Whose fault is this? Some people reckon that health and wealth follows goodness, and that sickness is therefore punishment for some terrible disease. That’s what Job’s comforters are known for - they blamed Job for all his suffering. The disciples were of the same mould. ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’

Perhaps you find yourself asking the same question when something bad happens to you, or someone you love. What have I done, to deserve this? Why me? But the disciples are asking the wrong question, and seeing the situation in the wrong way. Look at Jesus’ answer: ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.’

This man has endured so many years of blindness so that the works of God might be displayed in him. The disciples saw blame, but Jesus sees the opportunity to work, to show his glory. Jesus says that he is the light of the world, and proves it by shining in this man’s life. In verses 6-7 the miracle is described - the spit, the mud, the sending, the washing, and the seeing.

Those who do not see may see. The man born blind can now see, and what he sees is a crowd of inquisitive people. They recognise him, or at least they think they do. They’ve seen him begging, that poor man, born blind, but this man sees. ‘I am the man’ he says. How? He tells the story of how he came to see. Jesus, mud, sent, wash, sight. Amazing, wonderful, so the crowd take him to the Pharisees.

Now when we hear of the Pharisees, we almost want to boo them, like the pantomime villain. But these guys took religion very seriously. They were the people who were supposed to know all about God, the people who saw things clearly. And they saw how the Sabbath law had been broken. You see, they were good at observing the law, and good at spotting when others broke it. They heard the story - mud, washed, see. And they’re not convinced. How could he be from God if he breaks the Sabbath by producing something, by working to make mud? Others seem to be more open, ‘How can a man who is a sinner do such things?’

The Pharisees are divided, so they ask the blind man (!) what he thinks about Jesus: ‘He is a prophet.’ For being blind (or at least used to be blind), he’s doing a good job of seeing. Better than the people who can see, anyway. The Pharisees don’t believe that he really was blind from birth, so they question his parents. They know he was born blind, but they’re afraid of answering any more questions - they fear the Jews. They don’t want to see the truth before them.

Whenever we were growing up and suspected of doing something wrong, my granny had a phrase at the ready: ‘Tell the truth and shame the devil.’ The Pharisees have a similar phrase, which we see in verse 24. A second time they interview him and they say, ‘Give glory to God. We know this man is a sinner.’ And the man gives glory to God as he gives his simple testimony, a line that John Newton put in his hymn Amazing Grace: ‘One thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see.’

Again they ask how, and he’s getting annoyed, getting sarky, ‘I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?’ They’ve heard the testimony. They’ve seen the evidence of God’s work, power and glory, but they refuse to see. They can’t see it for looking at it. They revile him, they abuse him, they lecture him. But look at the man’s simple faith: ‘If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.’ (33)

And that’s the final straw. They cast him out, with those stinging words: ‘You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?’ They see, but they are becoming blind. At the same time, the one who started blind is seeing more clearly. Jesus finds him, and asks ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ Who’s that, the man replies. ‘You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.’ Do you see his response? ‘Lord, I believe’ and he worshipped him.

This is why Jesus came into the world ‘that those who do not see may see’ - this man was blind, but by the end of the day he could see. Imagine looking into his parents’ faces for the very first time. But he was also brought from spiritual blindness to spiritual sight - he saw Jesus for who he was, not just this miracle worker, not just this prophet, but the Son of Man, his Lord, who he believed and worshipped. John gives us this sight test today - have you noticed any improvement from earlier on? Are you seeing Jesus more clearly? His power, his glory, his grace? Are you moving from not seeing him at all to seeing and delighting in him? Are you better able to focus on him? Is your vision of him a bit less fuzzy than it used to be? Praise God - and keep looking at the light of the world.

But sometimes people get bad news when they have their eyes tested. Stronger glasses are needed as their sight worsens; macular degeneration is detected and blindness is approaching. Could that be some of us today? That’s like the Pharisees - they thought they could see so clearly, yet they were becoming blind. They couldn’t see Jesus for looking at him; they wouldn’t recognise him as Lord. They thought that his light was darkness. And they didn’t even realise. That’s where the passage ends. ‘Are we also blind?’ they ask. They thought they had 20-20 vision, but instead they are guilty, unable to see their sin; unable to recognise the Saviour right in front of their face.

The famous hymnwriter Fanny Crosby was only able to see for the first six weeks of her life. Despite being blind, she wrote many of the hymns we sing today - To God be the glory; Blessed assurance; and Safe in the arms of Jesus. A preacher once said to her, ‘I think it is a great pity that the Master did not give you sight when he showered so many other gifts upon you.’ She replied. ‘"Do you know that if at birth I had been able to make one petition, it would have been that I was born blind? Because when I get to heaven, the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my Saviour."

She who was blind had the gift of sight - to see Jesus for who he was, her Saviour. And when she died and went to heaven, his would be the first face she ever saw. May we also be brought to see the Saviour, with our spiritual eyes, so that we too can share that same testimony: ‘Was blind, but now I see.’

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 22nd November 2015.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Sermon: John 11: 1-44 Resurrection and Life

On this Remembrance Sunday, we honour those who served and gave their lives for the cause of peace and freedom. It is estimated that 17 million people lost their lives in WW1, and around 60 million died through WW2. Yet we also remember those who have died since, through war and terrorism. The sheer scale of loss is unimaginable, yet behind those numbers lie the human stories - sons, husbands, fathers, daughters, wives, mothers, sisters and brothers.

Each death brings the pain of loss, the weight of sorrow, the sense of hopelessness in the face of death. And sometimes, death can even bring out some questions about God. Does he really love us - and if he does, why did he let this happen? Does he not care? Why did he not do something to prevent it?

Those are the questions that were spoken around the village of Bethany in our Bible reading. Does God love? Does God care? Is God powerless to help? The chapter opens with an ill man. Lazarus is ill, near death, and so his sisters send an urgent message to Jesus. ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ They remind Jesus that he loves Lazarus, and urge him to come. We’re told in verse 5 that Jesus loves the family, but his love leads him to do something very strange. Look at it with me. ‘Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.’

It’s because Jesus loves that he waits where he is. It doesn’t sound like the loving thing to do. Imagine the sisters, frantically watching Lazarus get sicker and still no sign of Jesus. Where is he? Why has he not come? Does he not love us? Jesus loves them, and he allows them to go through the grief, the sorrow, the heartbrokenness, the sadness - because through their pain, they will see God’s glory all the more. Does Jesus love us? Yes - even though we might not think it.

But does he really care? Jesus had waited two days, then travelled to Bethany, and by the time he arrives, Lazarus has been dead four days. His funeral has finished, and the days of mourning are in full swing. And did you notice that both Martha and Mary said the very same thing to Jesus when he arrived? Verse 21 and 32. ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ You could have helped, but you dillydallied. Don’t you care?

In verse 33, we see the care and compassion of Jesus up close and personal. When he sees Mary weeping, and the crowd weeping, then he is deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. So much so that we get the shortest verse in the whole Bible - John 11:35 ‘Jesus wept.’

Even though Jesus knows what he’s about to do, he cares for those in need. He is troubled by the things that trouble us. Some of the people watching recognise that care: ‘See how he loved him.’ Yet other people bring up the last of our questions - he might love us and he might care for us, but is he powerless to help?

Verse 37: ‘But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?’ Throughout the autumn we’ve been working through John’s Gospel, seeing the amazing things Jesus did, watching as he met with people and brought about change. He made water out of wine; made the lame walk; healed the official’s son by his word 25 miles away; and even made a blind man see (as we’ll see in two week’s time). Was Jesus powerless to help in this instance?

It’s the same question the two sisters asked. Don’t you care, can’t you help? Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. Do you see what they’re saying? Before Lazarus died, you could have helped him, but you’re too late now.

He might have been able to stop Lazarus from dying, but is Jesus powerless against death itself? Can he give us sympathy but that’s about it? Is he all right to tackle some things, but others are too much even for him?

We’ve looked at how Jesus answered Mary, with compassion, his tears flowing with hers. But it’s with Martha that Jesus shows that he is the answer to the power of death. You see, Martha went a wee bit farther than Mary. She says the same, but then she goes on to say: ‘But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.’ Along with the accusation comes a little bit of faith, a mustard seed.

Jesus tells her that her brother will rise again. So she jumps on the Jewish hope of resurrection on the last day. She looks ahead to the end of time, to an event away in the future. It’s what the Jews believed, and it’s what we have affirmed as well - that on the last day there will be the resurrection of the body, the judgement, and eternal life.

But look at what Jesus says. She sees resurrection away in the future. Jesus says: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.’

Jesus is saying that he gives life, new life, resurrection life in the here and now. To receive Jesus is to receive life, and to have to promise of life eternal. Everyone thought that Jesus was powerless to help, but Jesus says that he has overcome the power of death, and he spells out what it means for all who believe in him. Even though he dies, yet shall he live. Death will come, but it does not have the final say; it is not the last word. Jesus brings resurrection, being raised in a new and perfect body, because he himself would rise from death.

But it’s one thing to say it. It’s another thing to demonstrate it. When Jesus gets to the tomb in verse 38, he tells them to roll the stone away. Practical Martha steps in - ‘Lord, by this time there will be an odour, for he has been dead four days.’ But look at how Jesus replies. It’s all about faith: ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?’

The stone is rolled away. Jesus shouts with a loud voice ‘Lazarus, come out’, and (to make absolutely clear) John tells us ‘The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth.’ This was a dead man walking. Jesus has the power over death because he is the resurrection and the life.

When we’re faced with death, it brings all sorts of questions. Does God love me? Does God care? Is God powerless to help? The answer to each comes in the Lord Jesus, because he has demonstrated his love, his care and his power by surrendering to death, the death of the cross, dying for our sins, to bring us to God; and by rising from death, the firstfruits of resurrection life, to never die again.

Lazarus came out of the tomb that day, but Lazarus would one day die. Indeed, the chief priests plotted to kill Lazarus (12:10) because of his witness to Jesus’ power. But Jesus will never die. As he says in Rev 1:19 ‘Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.’ Jesus loves you. Jesus cares for you. And Jesus has power over death. Will you trust with your death, as well as your life? Jesus says: ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?’

This sermon was preached on Remembrance Sunday 8th November 2015 in Aghavea Parish Church.

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.