Today's story is about bad intentions, bad decisions, bad actions, and a good God.
A woman, whose name we never learn, is brought face-to-face with who she really is. And in that moment, she learns who God really is.
Let's start with a basic principle for spiritual growth. If you never face the truth about who you are, it's difficult to hear God's truth about who you can become. I'm not suggesting that we work up a biographical profile of every detail of your life, including the baggage and the garbage, and confront you with it on the big screen up here. That would be wrong…maybe a bit fun…but wrong, nonetheless. However you have to face it, whenever God brings you face-to-face with it, there is great opportunity in terrible moments. Confronting the worse in ourselves gives us a great opportunity for change.
When it comes to sin - and we've all sinned - we can deal with it one of two ways. We either cover our sin up or we face up to our sin. Those are the two ways.
We get creative when it comes to covering up. We blame others. How many times have you heard or said, "Well, okay, I did it, but…" Blame. Remember what we said a few months ago? How do you spell blame? B-lame. Or we try to rationalize it. I was feeling stressed. I had a rough childhood. Everybody else is doing it. It's not as bad as what those people are doing. The covering up goes on and on. Some people cover up their sin the good old Christian way. They do good things. If I do more good things than bad, then I'll feel better. The last way we cover up our sin is my method of choice…we try to run from it. Out of sight, out of mind.
We either cover up our sin, or we face up to it. An unbeliever says, "I'm a sinner. I believe Jesus Christ died on the cross for my sins. I need his forgiveness." Or a believer says, "I'm still a sinner. I'm still in need of God's forgiveness. I haven't outgrown my need for the cross. I need Jesus' forgiveness."
Today, we're going to look at what happens to the woman caught in adultery and what we can learn about God's forgiveness.
The place to start is with verses 3-5:
The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, "Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such a woman. So what do you say?"
This was a terrible way to impose one's opinion of morality and how it should be regulated. The offending party or parties were to be taken outside of the city, where huge rocks were thrown at them until they died. What a horrible thing to do. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was stoned. Just terrible. The crowd brought this unnamed woman and said, "The law says we should stone her." She's been caught in the act. The way is clear.
Right off, we can tell there's something hinky going on here. What it is, is
exactly clear. Who's missing from the drama? Deuteronomy 22:22 says,
"If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge evil from Israel."
You know who's missing from the scene. Where's the man?
They were caught in the act. Pretty brutal situation. Where's the man? They could have said he ran off. But they didn't. Since it was an act of adultery, it takes two. So where's the other willing participant?
One of the things we're going to see is how this was a set-up to trap Jesus. Pure and simple, that's what it was. A bunch of people set out to trap Jesus. And an ugly plan, at that.
The religious leaders wanted to put Jesus between a rock and a hard place, almost literally. The law said the woman should be stoned. There had to be two witnesses, not including the aggrieved spouse, and clearly there were. Jewish law said stone her. But the hard place was the Roman government. Whenever they took over a foreign land, they let some local customs and laws stand. But they always reserved the imposition and enforcement of capital punishment for them and them alone. So, if Jesus said to stone her, he'd be up against Roman law. If he said don't stone her, he would show himself weak on Jewish moral law. Religious bureaucrats care more about power, position, and process than the truth. It's who they are and what they do. They think they've set a clever trap for Jesus.
But Jesus always has the right thing to say at the right time. Remember, Jesus' teaching is always right and true. Let's say it together:
JESUS' TEACHING IS ALWAYS RIGHT AND TRUE.
Before we see Jesus' mastery of this situation, we have to address the sin she's committed. It's easy to get caught up in these salacious kinds of sins. As we'll see, it doesn't matter what kind of sin it is, God can forgive it. But when we hear the sin is adultery, it grabs our attention. Probably because, first and foremost, it's a sin that's so prevalent in our society. There are many people struggling with this sin. Maybe you have in the past. Maybe you are right now. If not adultery, perhaps there's temptation.
Adultery is so destructive. Years ago, almost two decades now, a couple, in their thirties, came to talk to me about a marital problem. While out of town at a business convention - hello temptation - he had a casual hook-up with a woman he met at the convention. His wife found out. Shocked and hurt, she in turn had a one-night stand with a casual acquaintance. I knew this couple was a long way from a healthy relationship. Or a life-changing faith. The most heartbreaking part of the story is they had two small children. They were desperate to put their marriage back together. Adultery is so destructive.
Consider our situation here at Covenant Church. Some of you have been devoted followers of Jesus for as long as you can remember. Some of you came to Christ later in life. Some of you are still exploring and questioning. No one here is perfect. No one here has a monopoly on moral purity. Truth be told, there's a real possibility someone in this sanctuary has committed the sin we're talking about. The Bible says, the wages of sin is death. We know that. So without Jesus Christ, that's where we'd be. That's why, every time we worship together, we praise God for His forgiveness. Can you give me an "Amen?" Praise god that Jesus Christ came into the world to save lost sinners. We are under grace. We are not under the law, that condemns, but we are under grace.
We all know the destructive power of adultery. Families are wrecked. Self-esteem is undermined. Adultery causes emotional and spiritual harm. But it's not only about personal relationships. Adultery harms our relationship with God. Remember, He forbids it. It is a form of idolatry and an offense to God. If you ever find yourself in a compromising situation, do whatever you can to flee from the temptation of adultery.
There's something we need to understand. It will get overlooked if we narrowly focus on the forgiveness. This is also a story of serious sin. The woman is dealing with serious sin. It's not that she was somehow tricked by the religious leaders who were after Jesus. She could only be part of their scheme…unknowingly…because she fell into sin. We all have some sin or another we're dealing with. While our sin might be different from hers, when it comes to sin, we are more like her than we are different from her. I hope that makes sense to you. Because if it doesn't, you won't understand the rest of this passage.
Let's now look at verses 6-7:
This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her."
What's the first big question people ask about verse 6? Right…what did Jesus write? Here are the top speculations:
He didn't write anything. He was simply doodling to let things cool off a bit.
He wrote Deuteronomy 22:22, to indicate he knew the law as well as they did.
Jesus was acting like he hadn't heard them, forcing them to call for her death again.
The most intriguing theory is Jesus was writing other people's sins on the ground.
Whatever Jesus wrote, this was a horrible situation with people behaving horribly.
So after Jesus challenges the mob to act as individuals - let him who is without sin cast the first stone - we read in verses 8 and 9:
And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.
Put yourself in the place of the woman. Jesus is going to clearly communicate to her three things that we all need to know in order to rest in the joy of God's forgiveness. What do I mean by that? A lot of people have God's forgiveness but they're not enjoying God's forgiveness. They're still suffering over past sins. They're revisiting past sins. They're burdened by the guilt. What we see happening in Jesus' forgiveness of the woman caught in adultery is the gift of freedom from shame and sorrow over the past.
We see the first gift in verses eight and nine. "But when they heard it, they went away one by one." What do you think Jesus pointed out to her? What was the purpose of the challenge to throw the first stone? Jesus was showing her she was not alone. Yes, she sinned. Her sin was serious and hurtful. But she wasn't alone. Jesus obliterated the sanctimony of the crowd. Remember, sanctimony is acting like one is morally superior to others. We know that's not true. And Jesus exposes it here. As I like to say, we excuse in ourselves things we condemn in others. Jesus won't let the mob get away with it here. Everyone has sinned. We all sin and fall short of the glory of God.
The first gift from this story is the recognition that we are not alone. So don't let others condemn you. Their opinion doesn't matter. Don't let others look down on you. Don't let others try to make you feel guilty. Don't let others shame you. They're not better than you or different from you; they're just like you. We all sin. Sin is one thing we all have in common.
We'll end here. Next week, we'll pick things up with the second gift from the story of the woman caught in adultery.
Jesus Christ, I don't deserve and I can't earn forgiveness. I admit it. I am lost on my own. I need your forgiveness. I need the power of your grace. Help me in my time of need. In your name I pray. Amen.