Overcoming shame - John 8:1-11
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
1973 was certainly an eventful year in my life. It was the year I became a Christian. It was the year I came to Hull University. It was also the year I met my future wife, Heather and romance was in the air for young Tinker. So yes, by all accounts 1973 was most eventful.
It was also an eventful year for Rebecca Thompson but for far darker reasons. It was the year of her first fall from Fremont Canyon Bridge in Wyoming. I say first fall because 19 years later it was to be followed by a second fall from the same bridge. The difference being that the first fall broke her heart whilst the second fall broke her neck. Let me explain why.
Rebecca was exactly my age, 18, when she and her sister were abducted by a pair of thugs near a department store in their local town only to be driven forty miles to Fremont Canyon Bridge, which stands 112 feet above the fast flowing North Platte River.
The men brutally beat and raped Rebecca. Somehow she managed to persuade them not to do the same to her sister Amy. Then both were taken by the men and thrown off the bridge into the narrow gorge. Tragically, Amy died as she landed on a rock near the river, but Rebecca slammed into a ledge and was ricocheted into the water. With her hip fractured in several places she struggled ashore. To protect her body from the cold, she wedged herself between two rocks and waited until dawn. But the dawn never really came. Oh, yes, the sun came up and she was found. The doctors treated her wounds. The courts even imprisoned her attackers. Life continued alright, if you can call it a life, but dawn never came because the blackness of her experience continued to haunt her. That is why in 1992 she returned to the same bridge. Against her boyfriend's pleadings she drove at 70 miles per hour to the North Platte River. With her two year old daughter and boyfriend at her side, she sat at the edge of the Freemont Canyon Bridge and simply wept. The boyfriend not wanting the child to see her mother cry, started to carry the toddler to the car and that is when he heard Rebecca's body hit the water.
Why did she do it? That was the question on everyone's lips.
Some said it was fear. She had testified against the men, pointing them out in the courtroom and as she did so one of the murderers taunted her by smirking and sliding his finger across his throat. On the day of her death, the two had been up for parole. So maybe she was simply afraid of a second encounter? Perhaps that's why she did it?
Or was it guilt? Some seemed to think so. Despite Rebecca's attractive smile and warm personality, friends said that she struggled with the ugly fact that she had survived while her little sister had not and she could not live with that.
Or perhaps it was shame? You see, everyone she knew and thousands she didn't had heard of the humiliating details of her ordeal. She had been violated. She had been beaten and she had been shamed and she could not outrun the memory.
The canyons of shame do run deep. There are gorges of never ending guilt. The searing memories of what happened to you keep pulling you back to the bridge of sorrows only to be shamed over and over again as the events are played back in agonising slow motion in your mind.
If it had been your fault, then at least you could apologise. If you had made a mistake then some form of restitution might be possible. But like Rebecca you were a victim and so you feel helpless. Such shame is so hard to deal with isn't it? It may be private like the young student who came to see me because of years of sexual abuse by his own father. It may be public, branded by the divorce you didn't want. It is very difficult, if not nigh impossible, to go through this broken world of ours without at some point feeling the crippling burden of shame. Am I not right?
Well, this morning we come across an woman in the pages of Scripture who knew only too well the agony of shame as she is subject to public disgrace. There she is in John chapter 8 standing in the centre of a circle. The men you see surrounding her, delighting in her discomfort are the religious leaders- teachers of the law and Pharisees they are called, the self-appointed guardians of moral conduct. The other man you see, dressed simply, writing with his finger in the dirt, well, that is Jesus. And he is the one who will make all the difference in the world. Jesus has just been teaching. The woman has just been cheating and the religious leaders are out to get them both.
In fact what we have here is a threefold story; a story of shame; a story of abuse; but also a story of grace.
First, a story of shame vv 1- 4. 'Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery.'
Let's just pause there for a moment and try and imagine that. 'Caught in an act of adultery' says the writer. That was when the doors burst open. The covers jerked back. 'This is not your husband.' Shout the fearsome looking men, as they bare down on the frightened woman. 'Put on some clothes we know how to deal with the likes you.' And they do. So she is dragged from the moment of private passion in the bedroom in order to be made into a public spectacle in the streets. Heads poke from behind drawn curtains. Dogs bark. Neighbours stare. And the woman clutches a thin robe to hide her nakedness, but nothing can hide her shame. From this moment on her life will never be the same again. When she goes to the shops women will point and whisper. When she walks down the street heads will turn. When her name is mentioned people will remember this moment. And so she is paraded through the town until they reach the temple and there she is hurled before Jesus, hoping, praying that this is nothing but a nightmare and soon she will wake from it. But she knows she won't. It is dawn and she has been caught.
Now there is no mistaking that what the woman did was shameful. But that is not the only act which is on trial is it? For if what the woman did was shameful, I tell you, what the religious leaders were doing was plain despicable. Hence, this also being a story of abuse. Look again very carefully at v3, 'The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. 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.'
You see, these people were the official interpreters of the law. Adultery was a capital offence under the Mosaic command. And as such the charge could only be brought if there were at least two witnesses to the act. They knew this. So here is the question: how likely is it that two people going to be eyewitnesses to adultery? Not very! The odds are that we are not dealing with a coincidence. That causes us to wonder how long did the men peer through the window before they barged in, most of the night? After all she is taken at dawn.
Then what of the man? Why isn't he standing before the crowd? Was it simply that he managed to slip out quickly and leg it? Or is there something more sinister going on? You have to admit it is rather convenient that this case just 'happens' to come up when Jesus is in Jerusalem and drawing big crowds at the Temple and the Pharisees have for ages been looking for a pretext to get rid of him. It could well be that what we have here is what MI6 call, 'a honey trap.' This is a form of entrapment, a set up. But in this case we do not have a deliberately contrived event to trap the woman as such. No, she is only the bait, the real catch is Jesus. That certainly was their motive according to v 6.
And so with sneers on their proud faces the religious leaders entice Jesus-v5 'The law of Moses commands that we stone such women. (Actually men as well, but that is conveniently ignored). What do you say?'
And so they hope to impale Jesus on the horns of a particularly nasty dilemma. If in line with his practice so far he shows mercy to the morally destitute and weak, then he will be accused as a law breaker himself. If however, he upholds the law and signals that the woman should be stoned to death then that could bring him into conflict with the Roman authorities who have abrogated to themselves the right to carry out the death penalty. Either way Jesus looks like he is finished.
But what about the woman? Well, what about her? She is immaterial. She is merely a pawn in their game. Who cares about her? And so she just stands there with her eyes fixed to the ground, too ashamed to look up. Her sweaty hair dangles. Her tears drip hot with hurt. Her lips are tight, her jaw is clenched. She knows she has been framed so there is no point in looking around for help; all she will see is indifference at best and contempt at worst. And maybe you know that feeling only too well yourself. Perhaps there was a time when you had been manipulated by people you trusted, so adding resentment to your shame. You too have looked around for help when you have needed it most and have found none, even within the church. Yes, there is such a thing as religious abuse I have met many who have been subject to it, when they have been used as a means to an end to satisfy the power and egos of a church leadership, with the result that they find it very difficult to trust anyone again. So is there no one to turn to? Is there no kindness you can call on to ease your burden however slight? Well, yes there is. And he stands there in the middle of the circle with all eyes upon him. And that someone is of course, Jesus who transforms this dire episode into a story of grace, v6b 'But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.'
Now we might well expect Jesus to stand up and denounce the religious leaders as hypocrites. But he doesn't. Instead he does something much more subtle and more devastatingly effective. He simply stoops down and starts writing with his finger on the ground. Have you ever wondered why? Was it just a delaying tactic designed to give him time to find a way out? I don't think so. It is very specific that Jesus wrote on the ground with his finger. What is the significance of that? Well let us ask where else in the Bible do we find God writing with his finger? Well, in Dt 9:10 we read Moses saying this: 'The Lord gave me two stone tablets inscribed by the finger of God. On them were all the commandments The Lord proclaimed to you on the mountain out of the fire.' The 10 commandments where written by the finger of God. It is not Moses who in the law commanded certain things to be done, it was God. And so here we have Jesus engaging in an act of profound symbolism. By writing on the ground with his finger he is making a statement. And the statement is this: He is the one who gave the law at Sinai. As the law's author he is its rightful interpreter. As the judge he will make a proper judgement on these matters and no one is going to tell him what to do.
Alright, they want to uphold the law, fine, but let them go the whole hog; they can't be selective, harshly applying it to the woman and avoiding the law's searching gaze themselves. And so Jesus stands up and looks around at them and says 'If any of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.' And he goes back to writing in the dirt with his finger. In saying this Jesus is in fact upholding the law at this point because in Dt 17:7 the witnesses to a crime must be the first to throw stones and must not be participants in the crime themselves. But that is precisely what has happened. When Jesus speaks about 'having no sin' he is thinking of this particular sin. And so these men had committed this sin on at least one count if not two. First, by watching the act and so voyeuristically participating in it. But secondly if this has been contrived, which seems to be the direction in which the evidence points, then they are authors of adultery. Don't you find it distasteful when our tabloids which fulminate against adultery by some of our politicians or celebrities at the same time carry pictures designed to incite lust or pay vast sums of money to get the low down on someone's sex life to titillate its readership? They are being modern day Pharisees. These people standing here are not the interpreters of the law they are its transgressors. It is they as much as the woman who is on trial before Jesus.
And obviously what he says hits home, for one by one, beginning with the oldest, the crowd slowly melts away leaving the woman all alone with Jesus.
Now what is going to happen? A rebuke? A tongue lashing? More humiliation? No. Not from the one who will not break a bruised reed or snuff out a smoldering wick. 'Woman, where are they?' he asks. 'Has no one condemned you?' She answers. 'No one sir.' Then the judge pronounces his verdict: 'Neither do I condemn you. Go and leave your life of sin.'
And of course this is why Jesus came into the world in the first place, we read of it in John 3: 17 'For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.' How? Well, remember where this little exchange is taking place. It is at the Temple. This is the place where God's law is read. This is the place where God and man meet. This is the place where sacrifice is provided for sin promising forgiveness and a fresh start. But in Jesus all that the Temple symbolizes becomes a reality. Jesus is the new temple, for it is when we come to Jesus that we come face to face with God. Jesus offers himself as a sacrifice for sin on the altar of the cross. For it is there that he is publicly stripped naked and strung up as a shameful spectacle for all to see. It was upon him that the guilt of the woman's adultery was to be placed and all our adulteries and crimes were to be placed. And in that wonderful exchange, as he takes to himself our shame and punishment, he offers to us his robe of righteousness to cover all our failings and shame. Jesus does not ignore our sin any more than he ignored this woman's, he deals with it, so that a new life can be lived as recipients of his grace.
Have you ever wondered how God reacts when you fail? Well, you read it here, ' I do not judge you guilty.' How can he when he has taken that guilt to himself? So here are the words to recite over and over again when the memory of shame rises to mock and condemn you- 'Not guilty.' The judge has delivered his verdict. The jailer has unlocked the prison door and thrown away the key. You are free to get on with your life, walking with him.
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