Wednesday, January 10, 2018

A Fresh Start!


            My wife and I have lived in the same house now for almost twenty-five years. We raised two children in this home and made lots of memories. There were many good times and our share of painful times, but God was always present to make this house into our home. Well, after twenty-five years, the old place has become pretty run down. Now that our kids have moved out and can support themselves, my wife and I have decided it’s time that our home got some much-needed attention. If you’ve ever moved or done any kind of major renovation after many years, you quickly realize how much “junk” you manage to accumulate. Well, my wife has started the purging process and she called me the other day wondering what we should do with all the stuff we no longer use or is in the way and just seems to complicate our lives. I told her we should sell it, donate it, or throw it out. I told her that we should start looking at 2018 as A Fresh Start!

            If you’re like me, 2017 had its share of struggle, pain, and sorrow. Maybe you’ve battled your own illness, or your marriage ended, or you lost your job, or you lost someone you love deeply. And maybe through it all, you’ve suffered the greatest loss of all—you’ve lost your faith in God’s goodness. I’m not saying you’ve lost your faith in God (although sometimes it probably feels that way). What I’m saying is that struggling day after day has left you believing that the One we just finished celebrating as Immanuel, God with us, isn’t actually advocating for you. Instead, not only doesn’t it feel like God is not “with you,” it feels like God is against you. What you really want, what you’re longing for, is an advocate; someone you know will be on your side no matter what you’ve done, how many times you’ve done it, or how many things go wrong in your life. Right now it feels like the life is being crushed out of you by life and something needs to change this year. You need A Fresh Start.

Subject Text

John 8:2-11

            2At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. 9At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11“No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

Context

            At this point, Jesus’ earthly ministry is in full swing. Feeding the five thousand captured the interest of the masses while walking on the water captured the belief of disciples. Jesus taught that He was the Bread of life and that He had come down from heaven; come from the Father. He tried to teach the people that the bread is His flesh that it would be given for the life of the world. In somewhat cryptic words, Jesus tells them that unless they eat the bread that is His flesh, they won’t have life. At this teaching, many of those who were following Him around either didn’t understand what Jesus was trying to say or refused to accept it. In any event, they walked away from Jesus and what He was offering. The religious leaders, though, were beginning to get nervous with Jesus’ teaching, especially when Jesus was teaching in the temple courts and the people began believing who He said He was and where He said He came from. Therefore, the religious leaders were constantly looking for ways to kill Him. Nevertheless, Jesus continued to teach that He was the living water and that whoever came to Him would never be thirsty again. While the religious leaders wanted Him dead and out of the way, Jesus wanted to give people A Fresh Start.

Text Analysis

            2At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”

            Jesus’ pattern of teaching in the temple courts continued according to vv. 2-5. And like clockwork, the religious leaders tried to set a trap for Him. Knowing they were outmatched in every way, intellectually, psychologically, morally, and spiritually, they introduced an unwitting participant in their foolish attempt to trick Jesus into saying or doing something they could use against Him. So, according to the text, they “caught” some woman in adultery and dragged her into the temple courts and stood her in front of everyone and demanded Jesus pass judgment over her while reminding Him that the Law states that she should be put to death for her transgression.

Let me ask you something, what’s wrong with this picture? What’s missing? Ok, I’ll give you a hint. The specific Law that the religious leaders are referring to is found in Leviticus 20:10. Here’s what it says: “If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbor—both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death.” So, let me ask you again, what do you see missing from this picture? That’s right—the adulterer! And don’t think for a minute that that little detail was lost on Jesus. I think the one thing that irritated Jesus more than anything else was when religious leaders made it unnecessarily difficult for people to find their way back to God; to be reconciled to God. While the religious leaders seemed to always look for ways to condemn people for their mistakes and in some cases, condemn them to death as in the case of this woman, Jesus was always looking for ways to move people beyond their mistakes to a place where forgiveness provides a second chance—A Fresh Start.

            “Adultery is not a sin one commits in splendid isolation: one wonders why the man was not brought with her. Either he was fleeter of foot than she, and escaped, leaving her to face hostile accusers on her own; or the accusers themselves were sufficiently chauvinistic to focus exclusively on the woman. The inequity of the situation arouses our feelings of compassion, however guilty she herself was. In any case, the…authorities in this case are less interested in ensuring that evenhanded justice be meted out than hoisting Jesus onto the horns of a dilemma…

            “If Jesus disavowed the law of Moses, his credibility would be instantly undermined: he could be dismissed as a lawless person and perhaps be charged in the courts with serious offenses. If he upheld the law of Moses, he would not only be supporting a position that was largely unpopular but one that was probably not carried out in public life, and, worse, which would have been hard to square with his well-known compassion for the broken and disreputable, his quickness to forgive and restore, and his announcement of the life-transforming power bound up with the new birth. It is even possible…that formal agreement with the law of Moses could have been interpreted in such a way as to get him into serious difficulty with the Roman overlord. If in the name of Moses he pronounced the death sentence on this woman, and it was actually carried out, he would have been infringing the exclusive right of the Roman prefect, who alone at this period had the authority to impose capital sentences.”[1]

            Make no mistake, nowhere in any of the Gospels does it indicate that Jesus doesn’t believe sin is a serious matter. The fact that He came to us and died on the cross because of our sins makes it patently obvious that He knows just how serious sin is. However, if you think about it, if God were only interested in condemning us for our sins, Jesus would have just stayed on His throne and allowed sin to condemn us and destroy us. Instead, Jesus came to us so that sin wouldn’t have to rule or ruin our lives. He came to us to show us a different way; a better way. Sin is still sin and we, as Christians, are still called to be examples of what a life reconciled to God looks like. Our first responsibility, though, is to deal with the sin in our own lives through personal confession and repentance. Thereafter, out of love, we are called to correct, instruct, and admonish, if necessary, our brothers and sisters in Christ who have fallen prey to sin in their lives with the goal that they would be properly reconciled back to God. What we are not responsible for; what we are never called to do is condemn anyone—especially anyone who has not accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior. So, just to be safe, let’s make this simple and agree that condemnation is not in our job description as followers of Christ. That way you can avoid that awkward moment when Jesus has to remind you about the sin in your own life like He’s about to do with the religious leaders.

6They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. 9At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.

            Since the religious leaders could have easily settled this matter without involving Jesus in the first place, and since they didn’t bother to go through the trouble of bringing in both of the offending parties in the case of adultery, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the religious leaders were scheming to trap Jesus. However, Jesus wasn’t about the let a bunch of dishonest, self-righteous, religious leaders get away with abusing this woman, who may very well have been guilty of what she was being charged with, by using her in their foolish scheme to get rid of Him. So, Jesus does something very mysterious in vv. 6-9, he bends down and writes on the ground with His finger. Theologians have speculated for centuries about what Jesus wrote on the ground. Some have speculated that Jesus was just buying time while He figured out how to respond. Let me just say that God probably didn’t need time to figure out what to say. A more plausible hypothesis is that Jesus was writing out the sins of all the woman’s accusers. I like the theatrics of that but I wonder how many accusers there were and, if they are anything like me, would Jesus have had the time to write out all their sins or did He just write out their most egregious ones or the ones related to their own sexuality. It’s interesting to speculate but impossible to know. Finally, the more traditional view is that Jesus was writing down Jeremiah 17:13 which reads, “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.” Now this makes more sense to me especially since Jesus had previously described Himself as the source of “living water” according to John 7:37-39. Nevertheless, we can speculate all we want, we just have no way of knowing what Jesus was writing on the ground. That will be one of the things I would like to ask Him when I see Him.

            In any event, whatever Jesus wrote on the ground didn’t deter her accusers because they kept pressing Jesus for an answer. And that’s when Jesus gave them the answer almost every Christian and non-Christian has used, and unfortunately taken out of context, and abused. Jesus challenged the one among them who was without sin to throw the first stone. And just like that, Jesus turned their little charade back on them. Even the most self-righteous among them wasn’t about to throw the first stone telling everyone watching that he wasn’t a sinner. Everyone knew that only God was without sin. Her accusers were stuck, so one by one they dropped their stones and went away beginning with the oldest ones first.

Why the oldest ones first? This is another one of those things we can only speculate about but allow me to offer my opinion on why the oldest ones left first based on my own life. The older I get and the closer I get to God, the more I realize that if you stacked my sins one on top of the other, they would stretch embarrassingly high. What’s the difference between me and the religious leaders from our Subject Text? The recognition of my sins drives me closer to Jesus while the sins of the religious leaders made them run away from Jesus.

            “What followed was the withdrawal of the sinners, one at a time, the older ones first. Did the older ones leave first because they had more time to accumulate sins of their own? Was it their maturity and sense of impending judgment that made them fleet of foot to escape the embarrassing predicament? Did they recognize that perhaps their sin was greater than the woman’s and Jesus knew that full well? Again, the text does not tell us. But conscience must have played some role in this scene as the accusers left Jesus alone with the woman.

            “Imagine a stage play as you watch in silence—no dialogue, no music. The confident and critical Pharisees, moments ago pointing their fingers at the woman and at Jesus, now silently exit stage right or stage left without another word. Christians are not perfect—just forgiven. And because of the extent of God’s forgiveness to us, we ought to be the least judgmental people in the world.”[2]

10Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11“No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

            As this scene has been unfolding, who have you been focused on? The religious leaders? Jesus? How about the people watching? I don’t know about you but I almost forgot about the woman who has been standing center-stage during this entire time! Let’s take some time to think about her and what must have been going through her mind. Let’s assume for the moment that the charges against her were true—she is an adulteress. She’s a woman caught in a sexual related sin in a predominantly patriarchal and strictly moralistic culture. In case you that doesn’t paint a clear enough picture for you, this woman was in serious trouble with no one to defend her. On top of that, she was merely a tool the religious leaders were using to indict the person they were really after—Jesus. They couldn’t have cared less about this woman. Here in America anyway, adultery hardly raises an eyebrow, unless of course, it involves some prominent pastor somewhere and then it’s front-page news. Otherwise, it’s really hard to comprehend just how much trouble she was in. You’ll have to take my word for it, she had no hope. Except in this case. In this case, she was actually standing right next to Hope. Jesus was her hope and in vv. 10-11, He gives her what only He is able to give—A Fresh Start! I’m not sure how long this entire encounter took, but let’s guess that it all transpired in thirty minutes. It’s not really important but I want to try and put some context around the magnitude of the event. Let’s assume it was thirty minutes. In thirty minutes, this woman went from being condemned to die to receiving the gift of new life—A Fresh Start!

            I’ve never talked to anyone who has used the verse of not casting the first stone, properly or improperly, who doesn’t know that Jesus does not condemn the woman for her sin of adultery. However, very few people want to focus on the last thing Jesus said to her. He said, “Go now and leave your life of sin.” This is where the cheap grace that is beloved by so many Christians and preached in so many of our churches hits a brick wall. You see, grace is the forgiveness of sins, not the license to keep sinning. Jesus knew nothing of cheap grace. The grace He gives us cost Him His life. Was her forgiveness conditioned on her leaving her life of sin? Technically, it’s not a conditional clause—‘If you leave your life of sin, then I won’t condemn you.’ What’s important is that Jesus demanded that she leave her life of sin and failure to do so would have been tantamount to thumbing her nose at God. I am convinced that you can’t thumb your nose at God’s grace and then hide behind the technicality of whether or not your forgiveness is conditional on turning away from the sin in your life. Again, forgiveness is not a license to keep on sinning! Forgiveness is a second chance; A Fresh Start at a life of obedience to God.

            “No one had accused the woman, and Jesus kindly said that he would not condemn her either. But there was more—she was not simply free to go her way. Jesus didn’t just free her from the Pharisees, he wanted to free her from her sin, so he added, ‘Go and sin no more.’ Jesus didn’t condemn her but he didn’t ignore or condone her behavior.”[3]

Application

            Let’s take a minute to think about the woman from our Subject Text from a different perspective. I don’t mean let’s think about her particular sin or what the Bible says about adultery or whether or not she deserves judgment and punishment. Let’s think about her for a minute just as a human being. Was it the first time she committed adultery? Was it the tenth time? She knew what the consequences were of getting caught yet there was something about her life that drove her to do something in spite of the potentially high personal cost. And now she is about to face that personal cost because she just got caught. Some people might say that this has to be the low point in her life—and maybe it is. But what if the low point in her life is going home every day to an abusive husband and this is her way of being loved by someone. What if the low point in her life is being childless and this is how she medicates herself against the cultural shame of having no children. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying she didn’t do anything wrong. What I want you to focus on is the possible pain and brokenness in her life that brought her to this point, because that’s what Jesus was pressing in on. Jesus not only knew her sin that was now exposed for everyone to see, He knew and recognized the brokenness that led her down the path to this point. Would condemnation have restored her or healed her brokenness? Probably not. At that very critical point in her life, with all the baggage she was carrying to the place of facing death, what did she need more than anything else? She needed someone who understood and recognized her pain and brokenness and would give her another chance. She needed someone who was on her side. She needed Immanuel; she needed God to be “with her.” She needed God to advocate for her. She needed A Fresh Start and Jesus gave it to her!

            I know for many of you, 2017 has been a year to forget with one heartache after another and one mistake after another. You went through your first divorce or maybe even your third. You cheated on a test and failed a class and won’t graduate on time. You got caught stealing from your employer and got fired. You got arrested, again, because the drugs just won’t let you out of their grip. You had an abortion, maybe again. Your wife found your stash of pornography and has threatened to take your children and leave. You are desperately in debt because you are always sure that the next sports bet you place will be the big winner. You’ve slept with your newest boyfriend after you promised yourself you wouldn’t do that again after you slept with your last boyfriend and the one before that and the one before that. Whatever your story, I desperately want you to know that I recognize your pain and brokenness and I’m not interested in your condemnation. I’m pretty sure there’s nothing I can say that would punch you in the gut any harder than you’ve punched yourself already. I want you to know that you can have another chance. There is a place you can take your pain and brokenness and receive love and forgiveness in return. You can take all the garbage of your life from 2017 and dump it right at the feet of Jesus and He will give you A Fresh Start for 2018!




(Audio version; Music--"Simple Gospel" by: United Pursuit and "You Are Faithful" by: Carrollton. Music coordination by Meagan Seredinski)


[1] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John—The Pillar New Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991), 334-335.
[2] Kenneth O. Gangel, John—Holman New Testament Commentary, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2000), 159-160.
[3] Bruce Barton, Philip Comfort, Grant Osborne, Linda K. Taylor, and Dave Veerman, Life Application New Testament Commentary, (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001), 409.