Summer in the City guest service - John 8:1-11
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
At some time or other I guess that we all ponder the question: ‘If only’ ‘If only I had worked harder for that exam then my prospects would be brighter’; ‘If only I had not said that cruel word, she would still be with me.’; ‘If only I had taken that opportunity to mend that relationship, it would still be intact’- ‘If only’. It is around middle age especially that we can be overwhelmed by such thoughts particularly when they touch on relationships which are dear to us. This is well captured by the song ‘The Cat’s in the Cradle’.
‘My child arrived just the other day; He came into the world in the usual way, But there were planes to catch, and bills to pay, He learned to walk while I was away. And he was talkin’ before I knew it and as he grew, He'd say, "I'm gonna be like you, Dad. You know I'm gonna be like you." And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon, Little Boy Blue and the man in the moon. "When you comin' home, Dad?" "I don't know when, but we'll get together then; you know we'll have a good time then." My son turned ten just the other day. He said, "Thanks for the ball, Dad, come on, let's play. Can you teach me to throw?" I said, "No, not today, I got a lot to do." He said, "That's okay." And he walked away but his smile never dimmed. It said, "I'm gonna be like him, yeah, You know I'm gonna be like him. And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon, Little Boy Blue and the man in the moon. He came from college just the other day; So much like a man I just had to say, "Son, I'm proud of you, can you sit for a while?" He shook his head and he said with a smile, "What I'd really like, Dad, is to borrow the car keys. See you later, can I have them please?" I've long since retired, my son's moved away. I called him up just the other day, I said, "I'd like to see you, if you don't mind. He said, "I'd love to, Dad, if I can find the time. You see, my new job's a hassle, and the kids have the flu, But it's sure nice talkin' to you, Dad, It's been nice talkin' to you." And as I hung up the phone It occurred to me, He'd grown up just like me, My boy was just like me. And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon, Little Boy Blue and the man in the moon, "When you comin' home, Son?" "I don't know when, but we'll get together then, Dad. We're gonna have a good time then, we're gonna have a good time then."
The plain fact is, we all long for second chances, the sad fact is, we are not always granted them. That was the tragedy of the man who recorded that song, Harry Chapin. His wife actually wrote the lyrics and asked him one day when he was going to slow down his frantic pace of life and give some time to his children. His answer: ‘At the end of this busy summer, I’ll take some time to be with them then.’ That summer ironically and tragically, Harry Chapin was killed in a car accident. How we long for second chances especially when it comes to relationships that matter.
Well, tonight I want to tell you about the God who specializes in second chances, the God who is able to deal with our regrets of the past in order to restore us in hope for the future- the God whose face we see in Jesus Christ. And we discover him one morning giving a second chance to someone to whom most people would not have even given a first chance and we read all about it in John chapter 8.
You can imagine the scene. It’s dawn. The early morning sun stretches a golden blanket across the streets of the city. A cockerel crows his early morning recital. A dog barks to welcome the day. Maybe a peddler shuffles down the street, carrying his wares on his back. And in the midst of all this daily routine a 30 year old carpenter speaks in the courtyard of one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the magnificent Temple of Jerusalem. Jesus sits surrounded by a horseshoe of listeners. Some nod their heads in agreement and open their hearts in obedience. They have accepted the Teacher as their teacher and are now learning to accept him as their Lord. Others are curious, wanting to believe, yet wary of the one whose claims so stretch the boundaries of belief. And it has to be admitted that Jesus has been making the most astounding claims- that he and God the Father are one, that he does only what he sees his Father God doing, that ‘before Abraham was’, he said, ‘I am’ taking to himself the precious holy name of God so sacred to the Jews. Had it been nothing but talk they could have dismissed him, even killed him as a blasphemer, but he walked the walk- he forgave sins as only God could, he restored the sight of the birth, he raised people from the dead and so claiming to be ‘The resurrection and the life’. Well, whether cautious or convinced, they listened, and how they listened! That is why they rose so early. There was something about his words that was more comforting than sleep. We don’t know his topic that morning. Perhaps, it was prayer. Maybe, kindness or anxiety, or the need to be born again to enter into his kingdom. But whatever it was, it was soon interrupted when people burst into the courtyard. Determined, they erupt out of a narrow street and march toward Jesus. The listeners scramble to get out of the way. The crowd parts before them like the Red Sea before Moses. For this is a mob with a mission, worse still, a lynch mob, a gang made up of religious leaders, the Vicars and curates of their day- v3 ‘the teachers of the law and Pharisees.’
And struggling to keep her balance on the crest of this angry wave is a scantily clad woman- v3 again, ‘The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery.’ Notice that word-‘Caught in an act of adultery’. That was when the doors burst open and the covers jerked back. ‘This is not your husband’, shout the fearsome looking men, as they bear down on the terrified woman. 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, 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.
Only moments before she had been in bed with a man who was not her husband. Was this how she made her living? Maybe. Maybe not. Perhaps her husband was gone, her heart was lonely, the stranger’s touch was warm, and before she knew it, she had done it. We don’t know. But we do know that a door was jerked open and she was yanked from her bed. She barely had time to cover her body before she was dragged into the street by men the age of her father.
"We found this woman in bed with a man!" cries the leader. "The law says to stone her. What do
you say?" Cocky with borrowed courage, they smirk as they watch the mouse reach for the cheese.
The woman however, searches the faces, hungry for a compassionate glance. But she finds none. Instead, she sees nothing but accusation. She sees squinty eyes. Tight lips. Gritted teeth. Stares that sentence without seeing. Cold, stony hearts that condemn without feeling.
The she looks down and sees the rocks in their hands — the rocks of self-righteousness intended to stone the lust out of her. The men squeeze them so tightly that their fingertips are white. They squeeze them as if the rocks were the throat of the preacher they hate- and that is what brought them out this morning- verse 6 ‘They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.’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 overlooked). 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. He cheeks are burning with shame. She knows she is guilty 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 seriously fallen and in turning for help you have received nothing but rejection? Maybe it is the voice of your conscience rather than the voice of men which accuses you for what you have knowingly done wrong? So you find it very hard to live with yourself and those painful memories. So is there no one to turn to? Is there no kindness you can call on to ease your burden however slight? Is there no one who will offer you a second chance? Well yes, there is. And there you see him standing in the middle of the circle with all eyes upon him. And that someone is, of course, Jesus 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 i (that is this particular 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. He could have asked why they didn’t bring the man, but he didn’t. He could have asked why they were suddenly blowing the dust off an old command that had sat on the shelves for centuries. But he didn’t. What he did do was both subtle and devastatingly effective. He simply stoops down and starts writing with his finger on the ground. Why? The author is very specific that Jesus wrote on the ground with his finger. What is the significance of that? Well we have to go to somewhere else in the Bible to find the answer, to another time when God wrote something with his finger. 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.’ So the 10 commandments were 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: As God 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 push him into doing something he has no intention of doing. You do not mess with Jesus.
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. Now tell me, is there any man there that morning or here this evening who has not undressed another woman in his mind and gone to bed with her in his heart? Is there a woman standing in that circle or sitting in a pew who has not at some point wished to know the tenderness of another man who seemed to show more understanding than her husband, wondering ‘If only?’ For God is concerned with attitudes as well as actions, thoughts as well as deeds. And in this sense we all stand condemned before the bar of God’s throne. As we point one finger accusingly at another for failing us and so refusing to forgive them, there are three fingers pointing back at ourselves- and we know it.
And that is when the unthinkable happened. Someone perhaps cleared his throat as if to speak, but no one spoke. Feet shuffled uncomfortably. Eyes dropped. Then thud…thud…thud…rocks fell to the ground. And they walked away. Beginning with the greyest beard and ending with the blackest, they turned and left. They came as one, but they left one by one-v9.
Jesus told the woman to look up and look around. "Is there no one to condemn you?” She saw no one, only rocks — each one a miniature tombstone to mark the burial place of man’s arrogance. "Is there no one to condemn you?" he asks. There is still one who can, she thinks. And she turns to look at him. The question is: what does he want? What will he do?
Maybe she expected him to scold her. Perhaps she expected him to walk away from her. No one really knows but we do know this: What she got, she never expected. She got a pardon and a command-v 11. The pardon: "Then neither do I condemn you." The command: "Go and sin no more." So the woman turns and walks into anonymity. She’s never seen or heard from again. But we can be confident of one thing: On that morning in Jerusalem, she encountered the heart of God in Jesus- the God who gives second chances.
You see, what that woman experienced that day was but a taste of what all of us can experience on the last day because of what happened one special day, a day we know as ‘Good Friday.’ Just imagine what she would have said if she were to be transported a few chapters later to chapter 19 which is the account of the crucifixion. As she stood at the foot of the cross do you know what she would have said? "That’s him," she would whisper. "That’s him." She would recognize his hands. The only hands that held no stones that day were his. And on this day they still hold no stones, they held out nothing but forgiveness and love as they were pierced for her sins and ours. She would recognize his voice. It’s raspier and weaker, but the words are the same, "Father, forgive them…" And she would recognize his eyes. How could she ever forget those eyes? Clear and tear-filled. Eyes that saw her not as she was, but as she was intended to be – a restored child of God.
Do you know what is one of the most wonderful words you will ever find in the Bible? It is the word ‘mercy.’ How does God show his mercy? Well, through the prophet Jeremiah (31:31) he puts it like this: ‘I will remember their sins no more.’ Do you know what that means? It means that God doesn’t just forgive, he forgets. The memory hard drive is erased. He destroys the evidence. He burns the microfilm. He doesn’t remember my mistakes and acts of rebellion of which there are many. For all the things he does do, this is one thing he refuses to do. He refuses to keep a list of my wrongs. When I ask for forgiveness he doesn’t pull out a clipboard and say, "But I’ve already forgiven you for that five hundred and sixteen times." He doesn’t remember. “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us." "I will be merciful toward their iniquities." "Even if you are stained as red as crimson, I can make you white as wool." That is what God has said and so that is what God means. This doesn’t mean God turns a blind eye to our sin anymore than he turned a blind eye or condoned this woman’s sin. He doesn’t ignore it, he deals with it. And he deals with it by taking the overwhelming weight of our sin upon himself at the cross only to bury it deep down in a tomb. So when Jesus was raised to life he was raised with a transformed resurrected body-our vile sin which had clung to it that dark day was no more- and that is the case with anyone who surrenders their life to him. What you hauntingly remember he willingly forgets.
There is no one here tonight, myself included, who have not got things in their past of which they are deeply ashamed- something said or done which has hurt somebody. Of course the one we have offended the most is the one who lovingly made us and is unfailingly kind to us- God. That is the relationship above all others which needs to get mended- now. It cannot be done from our side- we don’t have the resources nor the inclination to do it- but God has both as we see it in Jesus on the cross. So here then, is the second chance you and I desperately need. The chance to have the past put behind us and a glorious future opened up to us- one enjoying the presence and friendship of God for ever. And as with any second chance being offered all we have to do is gratefully take it. And we have an opportunity to do that just now as we speak to God in prayer.
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