St Barnabas and St Michael’s 2nd December 2012
I want you to think for a moment of a time when you found yourself locked in somewhere. You know the sort of situation. You popped into the toilet just for a moment, went to unlock the door and discovered the key wouldn’t budge. Or the lift made a strange grinding noise and you were suddenly stuck between floors. Most of us, one time or another, have found ourselves locked in somewhere. What was your reaction? How did you feel? What did you try and do?
Being trapped is a horrible experience, and I can only begin to imagine what it must have been like for the victims of the recent flooding. All you can do is sit and wait for someone to come and rescue you. You may be cross that you ended up in the situation. You may want to blame someone else for what has happened. You may be feeling utterly helpless. But there’s little positive action you can take until the emergency services turn up.
Paul in our reading this morning is also talking about being trapped. But he’s not talking about being trapped in a physical sense, like being locked in the toilet, or cut off by flood water. He’s talking about being trapped in a struggle between his heart and his mind, between the things he knows he should do and the things he finds that he wants to do.
I wonder if you can relate to Paul’s experience? It’s a frightening thought, but in less than a month’s time it will be the start of a New Year. And as with every New Year, many of us will make certain resolutions about what we will do differently in 2013. We might decide, for example, to give up smoking, or to lose weight, or to start saving. After all, we really want this year to be different, to be a fresh, new start. But somehow within a few weeks most of us will find that we aren’t actually sticking that closely to our resolutions any more. Our good intentions and our firm promises don’t seem to be a match for the old habits and persistent desires that just won’t go away.
Why is this? Paul explains that inside each of us there is tension between the good we know we should do and the things we actually end up doing. On the one hand, there is “God’s law” – the still small voice of conscience that tells us to do the right thing. And on the other there is the “law of sin” – the desires that make us do the things we don’t actually want to do. And even though we probably don’t use Paul’s language, we all know what he’s talking about. Who of us hasn’t woken up the morning after a party and thought, “I really shouldn’t have said or done that”? Or wondered why we keep getting into trouble for doing the same old things?
But what Paul says next may surprise a few people. After all, many think organised religion is a kind of stick that God uses to beat people, and to make them feel guilty. The popular image of the church is a place where the Pharisees are still in charge and there is little sign of forgiveness and grace. And even though as believers we may protest and say our church isn’t like that, somehow this image remains as strong and as powerful as ever.
So let’s all take some time to appreciate what Paul says at the beginning of chapter 8: Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Are you struggling to do the right thing this morning? Do you feel trapped by the things you have said and done? Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Recently I went to a Chinese restaurant in town, and I was rather puzzled by the sign I found at the entrance which read: “Please use the other side of the door”. Clearly if I was on the other side of the door, then I wouldn’t be standing where I was standing. The message of Advent, so to speak, is that Jesus has come from the other side, from God Himself, to set us free. On our own we cannot break free from the constant struggles inside ourselves. Our wrongdoing acts as a barrier that stops us from getting through to God to receive His help and His mercy. But God has sent Jesus to tear down that barrier and deal with our struggle against sin once and for all. We no longer have to feel trapped, or go round blaming other people for the mess we are in. We can give ourselves to Jesus to let Him sort everything out. And because He loves us so deeply and passionately, that is what He will do for us.
In our gospel reading the Pharisees bring a woman caught in the act of adultery to Jesus. I wonder how this woman felt as she was dragged through the streets of Jerusalem to the temple? No doubt there were people jeering at her, and others wagging their fingers. She probably couldn’t see what difference the opinion of another religious teacher could make, and a male one at that. She knew that religion was all about guilt and condemnation, and she could only accept whatever punishment they decided to give her.
And yet, this fellow Jesus was somehow different. He didn’t immediately agree with the Pharisees, that this woman deserved stoning to death. In fact, He seemed at first to be completely ignoring their angry questions. He was more interested in writing something on the ground, although what, the woman couldn’t quite make out. And then He straightened up, looked straight at the Pharisees and said: If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to cast a stone at her.
Now Jesus of course wasn’t saying that the Pharisees were also guilty of adultery. But what He was challenging them to look into their own hearts. “If you think religion is a big stick to beat others, then think again. Think about the desires of your own hearts, the thoughts, the attitudes only God sees. Then if you still think you are superior, go ahead”. And one by one the Pharisees melted away, the older ones first. Because Jesus was making the point we all have this inner struggle between the good we know we should do and the things we actually do. That’s why none of us have the right to sit in judgement over another, without first recognising our own sin and shortcomings.
But that’s not quite the end of the story. After all the Pharisees have left, and it’s just Jesus and the woman (with presumably quite a few people looking on), there’s this wonderful conservation which is quite important for us to understand. “Woman, where are they? Has no-one condemned you?” “No-one, sir” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you”, Jesus declared. What an amazing turn of events! This woman knew she had done wrong. She had been caught in the act. She expected to be punished. And yet Jesus said, Then neither do I condemn you. It’s a stunning reminder that although we do things which deserve punishment, yet Jesus comes to give us life, to offer us a fresh start, a new beginning.
So what happens next? Does Jesus simply say, “Run along now, and try to be a good girl”. Or “If you can’t be good, at least try to be careful?” No, He says, Go now and leave your life of sin. Jesus may not condemn the woman, but He does not condone what she has done. She can’t simply run back to her man and carry on as if nothing has happened. Jesus is expecting her to make a radical break with the past, to change her habits and her attitudes. From now on, her life has to be different.
And I guess this is the rub for many people. Yes, you may know Jesus came to die on a cross for your sins. You may realise Jesus has come to give you a fresh start and a new beginning. But leave your life of sin? How is that possible? You may have been struggling with the same old issues for years and years and years. What possible difference could believing in Jesus actually make to your life?
Paul’s answer is to remind us of the wonderful gift of the Holy Spirit that Jesus gives to all who believe and trust in Him.
Now imagine for a moment that you are trapped in a house that is on fire and you can’t get out. You would of course be profoundly grateful for the fireman who came and broke the door down. But you wouldn’t expect the fireman to say, “Right, off you go. The exit’s over there”. No, you’d want the fireman to lead you out through the smoke and flames to a place of safety, and if he was at all professional, that’s what he would do.
In the Old Testament God makes this promise through the prophet Isaiah: When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; when you pass through the rivers they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze (Is 43:2). And again, God isn’t just talking about literal floods or fires. He is talking about the promise of the Holy Spirit to be right there with us to guide us through whatever situation we face to a place of safety.
Yes, we may still struggle on the inside, we may sometimes even feel trapped. But Jesus promises to be with us. The law of sin and death, as Paul calls it, no longer has the last word. It will still try to harm and destroy. But the gift of the Spirit means we now belong to Jesus and nothing can destroy this bond. And although the process will never be complete in this lifetime, bit by bit we can learn to leave our old ways behind.
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Why? …because through Christ the law of the Spirit of life has set me free from the law of sin and death. Now we may find the way Paul writes difficult to understand, but it’s so important to grasp what he’s saying. So many people feel condemned by the wrong things they have done. Or they have decided they can never change, so what’s the point of trying? Actually we can give all our struggles, all our shortcomings to Jesus.
You see, when Jesus died on the cross, He didn’t only die in some vague, general sense for the sins of the world. Or the sins of good people. Or the sins of respectable people. He died for your sins. He paid the price for the things you have done wrong. And the amazing thing is, when you put your trust in Jesus, the Holy Spirit applies Jesus’ victory on the cross to your life. God no longer sees you as a miserable offender who deserves to be hit with the big stick called religion. He sees you as His precious child who has been saved once and for all by His Son, Jesus. He counts you as right with Him. That’s what it means to be saved and rescued by Jesus, to know that you are free and right with God, and to have the assurance of His Holy Spirit living in your heart.
Now I could go on and unpack in greater detail what life in the Spirit looks like. There’s so much in this passage I could easily preach another couple of sermons from it. But I think it’s really important to stop at this point and ask: do you know yourself to be saved? Can you point a time or a date in your life when Jesus came and mounted a rescue operation in your life? If you have, then what have you experienced of the Holy Spirit leading and guiding you through the floods and storms of your life? Is your walk with Jesus the reality of knowing His presence day by day? If not, you may need to reflect on what it means for you to use Paul’s words, live in accordance with the Spirit. Spend some time reflecting on the promises given to you in God’s word. Learn to develop a hunger for Jesus in worship, prayer and praise.
And if all I’ve said about being saved this morning is something new, if you know you are struggling with some big issue in your life, perhaps an issue nobody else knows anything about, don’t go away this morning without taking some action. Jesus says in the book of Revelation: Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. Jesus loves you. Jesus wants to rescue you. Take time to think about the story of the woman caught in adultery. Imagine Jesus saying to you: Then neither do I condemn you… go now and leave your life of sin.
This morning there’s the possibility of a fresh start with Jesus. Take it, take hold of Him. Jesus really is only a prayer away, and there is no better thing anyone of us can do than turn to Him in faith. Will you take the opportunity this morning to put your trust in Him, to receive His Holy Spirit and enter into new life?
Let us pray…