St Michael’s and St Barnabas 17th October 2010
Reading – John 7:53-8:11
It may just be me, but I get the impression there are more and more news stories from around the world about floods. From the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, to the massive devastation in Pakistan, to this reservoir in Hungary collapsing and releasing a deadly wave of toxic sludge. Few of us can be unmoved by the sheer human misery that such events cause, and it is surely right that we continue to pray for those affected long after the headline writers have moved on to other stories.
But this morning I want to talk about another kind of flood, not maybe a literal one, but certainly that one has caused and is causing untold damage all around us. Let me explain. A few generations back society generally accepted the Christian teaching on families and on marriage, and it was thought right and proper that on the whole sex should be practised within the boundaries of marriage. Now it was by no means a golden age, and I am certainly not saying this morning that we all need to do is turn back the clock and everything will be all right. There were however certain norms and standards that were understood, norms and standards which over the past fifty years have been systematically overthrown.
With what result? Well, turn on the TV at almost any time of day and sooner or later there will be an item about sex. Go into most newsagents and you are confronted with row after row of magazines in plastic wrappers. Log onto the web, and if you’re not careful you will find yourself linked into sites that simply exist to purvey and make money from human filth. It’s as if there is a tide of explicit sexuality rising up into almost every corner of our society, into our shops, our living rooms, even our classrooms.
And what has been the churches’ response? For most part, a deafening silence. And there are good reasons for this. For a start it’s a very difficult subject to talk about. We are dealing here with the most precious and most personal of subjects, and it’s very hard to talk about it, especially with a group of people you may not know that well. I’m also aware that there are many people within churches who have had all kinds of painful experiences, and it’s an area where there is so much hurt and shame. And of course it’s not easy to talk about it openly where there are children around, and you have to be sensitive to the needs of the whole congregation.
Yet actually, if for no other reason, we must talk about this subject for the sake of our children. Because all around us a battle is raging for the hearts and souls of our children, and we can’t simply choose to opt out. Advertisers are promoting more and more explicit material at an ever younger audience. The government has put money into promoting homosexuality in primary schools. Our children are wired up to the latest technology, and I’ve already mentioned the material that’s out there. This flood I am talking about is a real one, and it is already sweeping over and causing untold damage to whole generations of children. And as a minister of the gospel I cannot see how saying nothing can be a positive response.
So what should our response be? Let me suggest there are two wrong approaches, and one right one – the approach of Jesus.
The first wrong approach, if I might put it this way, is to go with the flow. You may have seen tabloid headlines or heard news reports about the church splitting over gay clergy. Actually, that isn’t the real issue. The real issue is whether we believe the Bible is the eternal, living word of God or simply a book of its time given to the people of the time. If you hold to the former position, then you will see the Bible as having authority today and providing definitive guidelines for the way we should behave. If you hold onto the latter position, then, yes, you may well see the Bible as still having some value. But you only see it as one source of human wisdom, and you will only accept those parts of its teaching that go along with the values of today.
So, for example, we will take on board what Jesus says about love, because we all agree love is a good thing. But we won’t take on board what the Bible says about sex because that is too restricting and repressive. And once you go down this line of argument, then any relationship between two adults that is equal and consenting is OK, providing it is based on love. After all, what could be more Christian than that?
Well, in case you haven’t gathered, this is not a position I take, for a whole variety of reasons. We worship a God who is not only loving but holy. He didn’t give His commands to repress the people of Israel but to show them the path of life, and how they might best serve and obey Him. And it was for their failure and indeed our failure to follow that path that Jesus died. Jesus didn’t come to this earth to say – as the Beatles did two thousand years later – “All you need is love”. He came saying – “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near”. And Jesus’ demands for obedience, purity and transformation by the Holy Spirit are as applicable today as then. We cannot simply take out of the Bible those parts we happen to agree with. Indeed, if we believe God is unchanging, then what God commanded once to one group of people in the Bible still holds true today for us. The only difference being that Jesus has paid on the cross all the price for our sin and rebellion and wrongdoing, and that there is salvation for all who believe and trust in Him. Amen?
But this doesn’t mean that we should fall into the opposite error and follow the example of the Pharisees. Now the Pharisees get a lot of bad press and rightly so. But we mustn’t forget that they set out with the best of intentions. Their name means “The separated ones” and the reason why they separated themselves from other people was their desire to live by the word of the Lord. Their greatest concern was to obey the Law and the Prophets and their obsession with every minute detail of the law arose out of an admirable wish to live under the rule of God in every part of their lives. However what they ended up with was a list of rules and regulations that acted as big stick to beat other people. “This is what God’s law says. You have broken it. Therefore you are guilty”.
And even as they were going round pointing out other peoples’ faults they were blind to their own shortcomings and sins. 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?” Well, actually that isn’t quite what the law says. Leviticus 20:10: If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife – with the wife of his neighbour – both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death. Or again Deuteronomy 22:22: If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from Israel. Now it may just me, but I struggle to find any mention of the man who was involved with the woman in this story. If you can find him anywhere, let me know. In other words, it looks very much as if the Pharisees – who were an exclusively male group – were using this teaching specifically to repress women, as sadly others have done with countless proof texts down the ages.
Over the centuries there have been put forward all kinds of theories as to what Jesus actually wrote in the sand. The short answer is, we don’t know. But this hasn’t stopped every kind of speculation. So here for what it’s worth is what I think Jesus wrote – the very commands in the Law of Moses I mentioned just now. And as Jesus began to write, I am sure those who read his words could not help thinking back to his earlier teaching on the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:27-28: You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. At least this would explain why, when Jesus said: If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her, the Pharisees melted away. Jesus had reminded them of their own guilt and their sin, and that they too had broken the law. And He was making the point that if you go round simply saying “The Bible says”, sooner or later you too will be caught out by your own shortcoming and hypocrisy.
It’s not without good reason that the writer to the Hebrews describes the word of God as sharper than any double-edged sword. (Heb 4:12). As the old Jewish proverb goes, when you point one finger at others, there are three pointing back at yourself. We have to recognise the plank in our own eye before we start removing the specks in others.
So how should we respond to this ever rising flood of sexuality all around us? This is where I want to take some time to look at Jesus’ words at the end of our reading: Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin”. Because they contain two important principles which are just so important if we are to have any hope of addressing this subject adequately.
First of all, Jesus accepts the woman for who she is. After all, this woman didn’t need to be told she was a sinner. She was well aware of the shame in her own life, and the mess she had made of her relationships. But neither, we should note, did she need to hear someone say that they loved her. Too many people in her past had claimed to love her, and their claims had only led to heartache and disappointment. No, what she needed to hear were those words then neither do I condemn you, that here was someone who knew all about her, but still was prepared to offer her a fresh start and a new beginning.
But there is also a challenge in Jesus’ words. Go now and leave your life of sin or if we wish to be more accurate Go now and sin no more. Because, although Jesus loves the woman for who she is, He loves her too much to leave her as she is. Do you see the difference? He has shown her free and unmerited grace and favour, but she needs to respond with a desire to follow Him and obey His commands. And that has to involve a new life marked by sexual purity and a willingness to give Jesus not just her heart and mind, but also her deepest longings and desires.
If there are people here this morning who can in any way equate with the situation of this unnamed woman, then I urge you to take time to reflect on these words of Jesus, because they are also words to you. You may well have some secret shame in your life, or a relationship that has gone wrong, and you may wonder if you can ever be set free from what has happened. Jesus says to you this morning: Neither do I condemn you. And He says this not just as a wise teacher who wrote in the sand all those years ago, but someone who died for you – yes, you – and paid the price for all your sin and shortcoming. His deepest desire is that you come to him openly and honestly with whatever load you bear, and find the release that only He can bring. And in return He promises to fill your life with the Holy Spirit and help you leave your life of sin. It may be a difficult step to take; you may have all kinds of fears. But if you are willing, you will find in Jesus a power that will change and transform your life for good.
For in the end this passage is all about the wonderful, unmerited and undeserved grace of God. And even if you cannot apply Jesus’ words to your own life this morning, please don’t think these are words you can simply ignore. Because the way Jesus deals with this woman caught in adultery challenges all of us to think how much grace we show to the broken, the hurt and the downright confused. After all, the church community was never meant to be built up out of people who are already perfect, or even the people we happen to like. It was meant to be built up by people who like Jesus show love and compassion and acceptance to all whom they meet, and to be a community of grace where healing and a fresh start is possible.
Paul writes these words in 1 Cor 6:9-11: Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
Is that your testimony? Have you known the grace of Jesus touching and transforming your life? And if it is, what are you doing to make that grace known in world that at times seems to be drowning in sin? Let’s not be silent. Let’s not join in, or simply stand on the sidelines criticising. Let’s get out there with the lifeline of the gospel, in order that others too will discover Jesus who sanctifies, who justifies and who gives the Holy Spirit to all who hear His call to leave their life of sin.