"Writing on the Ground"
May 29, 2022 Speaker: Pastor Bob Davis
Passage: John 8:1-11, Jeremiah 17:1-13
May 29, 2022 worship service: https://www.youtube.com/watch?
Click here for Ascension Day commentary referenced in the sermon.
“The Writing On The Ground”
May 29, 2022
Read John 8:1-11
This is the Word of the LORD.
The passage this morning is one of the most well-known passages in John. Jesus’ response, “Let the one without sin be the first to throw” is still employed in modern conversation. It is one of the more hotly debated passages – because it contains both judgment and grace.
Let me remind you where we are in this gospel. John 7 was all about “how do you know?” There were multiple scenes. It began with the Jesus and his brothers, talking about going from Galilee to Jerusalem. Galilee was safer for Jesus because the plot against his life in Jerusalem was well known. Despite that threat and because they did not believe, Jesus’ brothers urged him to go so that he would do his works of power in the big city.
The Festival of the Booths was an annual celebration in Jerusalem. It was the largest of the three major festivals in Jerusalem; so, Jerusalem was crowded. And, as John wrote, the leaders in Jerusalem were laying in wait for Jesus. They were disappointed when they could not find him for the first few days. Even so, Jesus was a topic of conversation – a very divisive topic of conversation – with some people saying he was a good man and others saying he was a deceiver.
In the middle of the festival – probably three or four days in – suddenly Jesus showed up. He began teaching in the temple. The buzz was instant – “look, he’s here.” “What’s he doing here?” The crowd quickly gathered and there was a feel like watching a car chase on television. What were the authorities going to do – they were all here, they were looking, they were watching, and there was a lot of tension. What was going to happen?
Jesus addressed the elephant in the living room right away, “Why are you looking for an opportunity to kill me?” Then, as John noted, “Some of the people in Jerusalem were saying, “Is not this the man whom they are trying to kill? And here he is speaking openly, but they say nothing to him! Can it be that the authorities really know that this man is the Messiah?”
That’s what was happening around Jesus when our text took place. Jesus was in the temple teaching. The scribes and Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery; and they made her stand in front of Jesus. Suddenly.
Put yourself in the place of the woman. Can you imagine? Regardless of whether yours would be sexual sin or greed or pride or stealing or whatever, imagine at your worst possible moment, when you are actively doing something you know you should not be doing, suddenly being dragged out into the open. There is a crowd; all your friends and neighbors are there, staring at you, disgusted, mocking, disdainful. Then you are flung before a judge who will decide your fate – and you know you are guilty.
Beyond that, you know that you are not even the real issue. You are guilty, for sure; but you are being used. No, the person who was with you was not brought forth; but that does not make you any less guilty. The crowd that has dragged you out had not done anything to help you avoid making the bad step. No, they were rather pleased to wait until you had fallen into error to make sure they caught you at your very worst.
Inside, you hope, “Please let me die.” Suddenly the consequences of your choices, your sinful choices, are right in front of you. You know you deserve the condemnation. You know you are likely to get condemnation. And you know that condemnation is going to be horrible – you can see the stones in their hands. At the same time, you wonder if there is any salvation from this predicament. Is grace real?
Grace is real, to be sure. Jesus did not condemn her. But watch the steps carefully. She was not the first one to experience grace in this story.
The woman was dragged before Jesus. The charge was leveled against her. No one denied the truth of what had been alleged. There was no explanation, no mitigating circumstances, no plea for pity or attempt to justify her conduct because she had a hard upbringing, or her parents did not love her enough. No, it was an open and shut case: she was a sinner. Now, Jesus, now what are you going to do?
The plan was to see if Jesus would uphold the law. He had been preaching about the kingdom of God and the hope given to the poor and to sinners. Well, here was a sinner. If he upheld the law, it would make a mockery of his teaching. If, on the other hand, he did not uphold the law, he would stand outside of the Biblical tradition and be revealed as a pretender. For Jesus’ critics, this was a best-case scenario to trap him.
But grace is not trapped by human plotting. Jesus bent down and started writing in the dirt. We do not know what he wrote. There are all sorts of fanciful speculation – whether he wrote her judgment, whether he wrote a judgment against the crowd, or some other Scripture like the Jeremiah 17 language, “those who turn away from you shall be recorded in the earth, for they have forsaken the fountain of living water, the LORD” – we do not know. We do know he bent down and wrote.
Just picture that scene for a moment. He kept writing as they kept pestering him for an answer. Then, he straightened up and issued the line most oft quoted, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then he bent down again and began writing again. He affirmed the law verbally, he provided grace in action.
What do I mean? Jesus did not say the law was wrong. He did not prevent anyone from participating in exercising judgment on the woman. What a different story this would have been had one knucklehead in the crowd not worried about his own judgment and started throwing.
And here’s what I meant earlier when I said the woman was not the first one to experience grace in this story. The crowd was. They were all brought up short – convicted of their own hatred of him, convicted of their own failings, and convicted of their own despising of the woman before they dragged her in front of Jesus. Jesus stopped them from doing the worst thing possible, rather than waiting for them to fail and condemning their hypocrisy.
You see, just like with the woman, grace does not erase judgment – it makes judgment abundantly clear. Grace makes us realize just how deeply we have offended the holiness of God. Grace shows us the consequences of our actions. But it does not leave us there. Grace is an invitation to repentance. It is an invitation to seek forgiveness from the one we have offended.
But make no mistake: judgment is real. Jesus did not approve of her conduct, nor did he say it did not matter. After everyone had moved away, he straightened up and talked with her. He was the one without sin – he was the one who could have thrown the first stone. Instead, he addressed her personally and directly. “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” Then, she spoke, and these are the only words we have from her, “No one, sir.” Jesus gives her life, “Neither do I condemn you.” And he restores her to life with a charge, “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again,” or, more properly translated, “do not go on in your sinning ways.”
What do you think? Do you think her life was changed? Do you think she went back to a pattern of sinful living? We do not know, but I do not think so. I think the encounter with Jesus transformed her life.
So what do we do with this story?
First, it means God loves us so much that He does not leave us in our sins. It means that grace and judgment are transformative: we are made aware of our sinfulness, the consequences we deserve, and are given new life as a gift.
Second, it means we do not look upon the sin of others as a way to make ourselves feel better and more holy. We look upon others’ sins in order to encourage them to repentance and life, just as we ourselves need to be encouraged to repentance unto life. Discipline is not meant to lord our holiness over others – it is not our holiness we have to brag about. Our holiness is a holiness that is granted to us – reckoned to us – through the price of the cross; and it is with humility that we receive it, and it is with joy and thankfulness that we bear testimony to it so that others might be relieved from the burden of their sins.
For what it is worth, being Presbyterian is perfectly consistent with this understanding of grace and judgment. As Presbyterians, we have the gift of the Scots Confession, which tells us how we might know we are part of the “true kirk” or true church:
The notes of the true Kirk, therefore, we believe, confess, and avow to be: first, the true preaching of the Word of God, in which God has revealed himself to us, as the writings of the prophets and apostles declare; secondly, the right administration of the sacraments of Christ Jesus, with which must be associated the Word and promise of God to seal and confirm them in our hearts; and lastly, ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered, as God’s Word prescribes, whereby vice is repressed and virtue nourished. (BoC, 3.18)
Discipline is about repressing vice and nourishing virtue. Our life together is about glorifying God, about leading people to repentance and restoration.
Grace and judgment are designed to restore us. How often do we mis-use discipline to destroy someone – either by leaving them alone in their sin as if nothing were wrong or by rejoicing in their condemnation.
Let me illustrate what I mean using two stories about weddings.
First, there is the story of the wedding rehearsal. The bride, who has worked so hard to make things so good, arrives at the rehearsal. The pastor sees that she looks very pale and almost as if she is going to faint. He urges the wedding coordinator to go talk to her. The wedding coordinator sits down with the very frightened bride. “I-do-not-think-I-can-do-this” she gasps between hyperventilating. The wedding coordinator asks, “Do you mean you do not want to or do you mean you do not think you will be able?” (Good clarifying question.) “Not-able…” says the bride.
“Oh,” says the wedding coordinator. “We have this problem a lot. Here, let me give you some help. Take things one step at a time. Do not think of the whole big picture all at once. As we go through the rehearsal, I want you to simply think of things in one step, then another, then another. The first thing we have to do is get you set at the back of the church. So, think, step 1, I just have to get to back of the church and position myself to walk down the aisle. Can you do that?” The bride nods. “Get to the aisle,” she repeats.
“Step 2,” says the coordinator, “Focus your attention on the chancel area. Do not look at the people, just look straight ahead.” “Chancel?” asks the bride. “Chancel, altar, however you can remember it.” This was not a time for a theological discussion of our architectural design. For your benefit, though, in the Reformed tradition (like Presbyterians) we do not have an altar because Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice is not being repeated. We have a chancel area and a communion table. But the bride-to-be was not going to remember any of that, so the wedding coordinator said, “Just look down beyond pastor and see the communion table. Can you do that?” The bride nods. “Look at the altar.” “Whatever.”
Stage 3,” says the coordinator. “The fun part. You get to the front of the church. You turn and you look at him.” “Him?” asks the bride. “Yes, him. Your fiancée,” says the wedding coordinator, “Just look at him. Can you do that?” The bride nods. “Him.” They repeated the steps and the bride seemed to calm down.
The next day, the wedding takes place. Sure enough, the bride was nervous, but she made it through. Everything was beautiful.
The pastor went home that day and his wife asked him about what happened. He gave her a puzzled look and said, “Well, I think everything is ok.” His wife asked him, “What makes you unsure?” “Well,” said the pastor. “I confess I was a little concerned. It was really odd. As the bride came in, she was beautiful, to be sure. But all the way during the processional, she was very, VERY intense. I could see she was saying something to herself, but could not figure out what. When she finally got to the front, I heard what she was saying, and I almost stopped the whole thing.”
“Why? What could she have been saying?”
She kept repeating, “I’ll-alter-him.” (Aisle. Altar. Him.)
How often do we sit in judgment of others and not know what they are really saying or the whole story? There is an element of humility that comes with being human. We are not God. We do not get to play God. We are simply witnesses to the love we have received from God. As 1 Corinthians 13 points out:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Friends, grace and judgment are expressions of God’s love.
The second wedding story is one that makes the rounds on the internet every so often. Plans have been made, the colors and the flowers and the dresses and the decorations and the invitations – all of these things have been worked out in meticulous detail.
The day finally comes. The guests arrived in their finest. The organist begins and it just sets the scene. You know sometimes things come together to look just like they are supposed to look? This is one of those times. You can see people in the pews nudging one another, noticing one detail after another that is just perfect.
The groom comes out. There is joy on his face. He is a sight to behold. Looking at him reminds the people in the pews of the best times in their own lives; the times when they felt that tremendous joy.
There is a pause and then the organ begins the familiar chords. Everyone rises and turns to look. However, instead of oohs, and ahhs, there are gasps and rustling and murmuring. People gawk. The bride is staggering. Her dress – once white – is in tatters. It is torn. It is dirty. Her makeup is askew and running. She looks ashamed. She looks angry and hurt. She is not what anyone expected. Yet she does not look as the people turn their heads. She does not hear as they mock and ridicule her. She gathers her feet and, finally, finally, finally looks up at her groom. She fears his look, but he is smiling. He is inviting her forward.
Obviously, this is a story about Christ and the Church, His bride.
The end of that story is that when she arrives at the front, she looks exactly how everyone originally expected her to look – and better. The groom turns and presents her: spotless, gleaming, his glory revealed in her.
The good news is not that Jesus loves us just as we are; rather, the good news is that Jesus loves us so much that he redeems us to be who God created us to be. The woman was redeemed because she received grace when she was deserving of the stoning. But so was everyone else who was going to participate. So are you and I. When we fight in the church in order that “I am right and you are wrong,” we have to look to see the stones in our hands.
Grace and judgment go hand in hand. Usually, we think of judgment as an expression of God’s holiness – which it is – and grace as an expression of God’s love – which it is. However, judgment also is an expression of God’s love – God does not simply let us go to self-destruction, he acts to purify us. And grace is an expression of God’s holiness – Jesus’ blood shed on the cross and his death fully paid for my sins, your sins – even the sins of the crowd and the woman caught in adultery.
Jesus’ bodily – physical body, that is – ascension into heaven shows us that God’s promises to redeem creation are true, too. Everything stained will be cleaned. Everything broken will be bound up. God’s good creation will be restored. Because the Risen Lord Jesus Christ sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, it means that God’s material creation will be found perfected and perfect in the kingdom of God.
What was Jesus doing when he bent down and was scratching his finger in the dirt? I suspect Jesus was writing on the ground, “I love you.” Amen? Amen.