Sunday, 10 March 2019

Sermon for Ash Wednesday (Rev'd Anne Cunliffe) 6 March 2019

John 8: 1 - 11

I wonder what Jesus is writing in the dust?

In today’s gospel, we have a wonderful example of the mercy of God as Jesus forgives the woman caught in adultery.
Apparently, the story was missing from the earliest manuscripts of John’s gospel - it appeared later.

Some scholars have argued that the delay in accepting the story as part of the gospel reflects the difficulty many people had about Jesus’s response to this situation- about the way in which he readily and without question sets the woman free.

It was a response which was totally at odds with the strict penitential practices of the early church.

It reflects an old problem many people had with Jesus and have with God, there are those who find it impossible to believe in what Graham Greene calls, ‘the awful strangeness of God’s mercy.’

In the gospel story the woman is caught committing adultery - it takes two to do that! The man - he is nowhere to be seen. It seems he is quite happy to exit stage left and leave the woman alone in the hands of the scribes and Pharisees. Let her take the punishment!

These men know the law of Moses states, ‘if a man has intercourse with another’s wife, both of them, the man and the woman shall die; thus purging the evil from Israel.’

Though we might view it differently today, the minute the story begins our judgemental minds start working. Without knowing all the facts we can quickly make wrong assumptions about what has happened and what should happen.

As far as the scribes and Pharisees are concerned there’s no question about what must happen - the law is on their side - the woman must die. Yet they have violated the law by arresting the woman without the man.
In situations like this a kind of ceremony had to be done in order to bring judgement. Part of the ceremony required the priest to stoop down and write the law that had been broken along with names of the accused in the dust. This was often done in the dust on the floor of the Temple. Wherever it was done the marks must not be permanent. 

Jesus would also be familiar, as would the scribes and Pharisees of the words from the 17th chapter of Jeremiah and the 13th verse (pointing to the coming of the Messiah) ‘Lord, you are the hope of Israel, all who forsake you will be put to shame. Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the Lord, the spring of living water.’

I wonder what Jesus is thinking? I wonder whose name or
whose names, he is writing in the dust?

It appears his silence is important in this story – an uncomfortable silence with time for everyone to begin to feel uneasy – could they hear the voice of God inside them awakening them to their sinfulness?

When Jesus speaks his words are few. Jesus does not say the woman is innocent or that adultery is acceptable or no longer an offence against God - he does say, the first person to throw a stone must be sinless! 

Or to put it another way, if we are going to get serious about the law of Moses, we should all find ourselves guilty! One by one the woman’s accusers slip away...

There are no rules which if we observe them we stand right with God; there is only his generosity. There are no conditions, only his love. All are sinners: all may be forgiven.

Jesus is not saying to the woman her adultery does not matter. Of course it matters. It is an offence against love. But neither does he play on her guilt or her great fear. He simply assures her that whatever she has done and for whatever reason, she is not cut off from the love of God. The moment we want God, we have him; the moment we turn to God recognising our sinfulness we are met by his love and forgiveness.

This is what the Christian gospel is all about. It is not about keeping some set of rules, or about denying our real feelings or pretending to be other than we are.

It is about responding to a God who is revealed in the words and actions of Jesus, who brought joy to the poor, the damaged and the sinful because he lived and died to convince them of the certainty of God's unconditional love for each of us.

Has no-one condemned you? Neither do I condemn you. Go in peace and do not sin again.
In those few words, we see the transforming quality of the love of God in Christ.

As the nameless woman encounters Christ she has an amazing experience of his love - she moves through sin, suffering and the threat of death to the promise of new life.

Transformation for her; I like to think too that it began a journey of transformation for all who had witnessed this scene; yes, for all her accusers!

Transformation – seems to be the word I have been given for Lent. A transforming vision of God which Keith pointed us to on Sunday in relation to the Transfiguration of Jesus.

Transforming the lives of others as on our Lenten journey, we support the Water Aid Project, Jars of Change & play our part in transforming the lives of those who have no access to clean water enabling them to have water on tap for the very first time!
Transformation - Wherever we are in our life and faith right now may Lent be for each one of us a season of transformation allowing God to change us and make us whole.