Ash Wednesday, John 8,1-12, March 2nd 2022

Ash Wednesday, John 8,1-12, March 2nd 2022

Ash Wednesday Homily, 2022.

John 8:1-11, also Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Sorry we only have a written version of this sermon.

Our Gospel is a beautiful story. I think for many, it shows a very attractive side of Jesus: he’s in control – he won’t be rushed, or bullied; compassionate to the lady; full of courage refusing to be a crowd pleaser; resists the temptation to do the wrong thing;  we see a person given a second chance.

 I think it is a story all are drawn to.  Let’s look at it more closely.

Jesus sat down. Quite possible he is at the southern steps, near the main entrances into the temple courts. It is a very public space where this all happens.

Into this space the scribes and Pharisees bring a woman ”caught in adultery”. When they speak to Jesus they say she has been caught in adultery; and then at the end when it is just Jesus and her, he says – go now and leave your life of sin.

So there is no question it seems of her guilt – she has not been falsely accused – she has committed sin.

The people around Jesus tell him,  that the Law commands she be stoned. What do you say?

It is a trap, as John writes.

What kind of trap. Maybe three ways. Firstly. If Jesus does not agree with them – they think – then that shows they can accuse him of being very light or liberal with the laws of Moses.

2. If he does agree to the stoning, then they can use this to ruin his reputation among sinners and tax collectors, and accuse him of being hardline.

The third way – the Romans only held the right to execute someone – hence why Jesus is later brought before Pilate on Good Friday by the Sanhedrin leaders – and so the trap is, they can go to the Romans and say, ‘here is someone who is against Roman Law’.

Jesus says nothing. This reminds us of his silence before the Sanhedrin, Pilate, Herod, on Good Friday.

He writes in the ground. He is sitting, Jesus sat down to teach, he is teaching. What is he teaching them?

Worth re-reading these verses during this Lent, imaging yourself back into that situation, to be different characters, but each time pause at this point, what is Jesus teaching in the silence.  What could Jesus be teaching you in that silence?

”If any of you are without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he is silent and again he writes.

Whoever is without sin. 

The older ones leave first. What sin do they acknowledge?

Well the religious had come and quoted Moses. The punishment in the law was the death penalty for a woman caught in adultery. But the law does say both the man and woman are guilty. Where is the man?

Did they let him off? Was he someone they knew – it is easier to apply the law for someone you don’t know or don’t like, but for a friend, a colleague, a loved one? Did the man run away? The fact he is not there, shows the law is not being truly applied.

By walking away did they acknowledge they had broken the law, as the woman had. As James reminds us in James 2, we cannot say we keep some parts of the law and not others. We are a law breaker,regardless of which ones we break.

Is the sin, that their motives for bringing this woman forward were all wrong? Their motivation for bringing the woman was not to uphold the Law, or defend marriage, or show God’s holiness, it was to trap Jesus, to find a way to accuse him.

Do they walk away knowing they have sinful wrong motivations…

Or is it even broader. Here the timing of this event may be important. This passage is in between two sets of teaching held during the Feast of Tabernacles, recorded in John 7 and 8. This Feast was usually in Sept or October, and it was held 5 days after the Day of Atonement. The Day of Atonement was when the priests declared that they and the whole nation were sinful, that they have sinned in ways which are unseen or forgotten, as well as ways that were visible and known.

And the Feast of Tabernacles – recalls the time in the desert, and provision. But why were they in the desert for 40 years? They were so long in the desert due to sin. So in a Feast they recall God’s provision, but his provision when the nation was often guilty of sin.

This all seems to happen during a Feast, which is about mercy and grace- God provided even though they sinned, he forgave when he could have done much worse –

Do they walk away, for they acknowledge that while this woman has sinned, they too have sinned, like their ancestors, and fallen short of God’s glorious standard. If they judge her, they too should be judged.

The woman and Jesus are left alone.

‘Has no one condemned you. No one. Neither do I. Now that is sometimes where our minds can end it.

But Jesus goes on to say – ‘go now and leave your life of sin’.

We do not see condemnation. We do not see sin condoned.

Jesus calls on her to repent – to change her lifestyle in its attitudes and actions, to turn around and go in a new direction, God’s direction. She receives mercy. She receives grace.

Think about who was writing on the ground. The Word Made Flesh. The One who declared to Israel ‘be holy as I am holy’ when he gave the law, including the laws about adultery.

The One is speaking to her, calls her to be holy, as he is holy. The One speaking to her, is also THE LORD, who is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love’ as prophet Joel reminds us.

God is there, on those steps, and he shows his grace and mercy.

She does not get what she deserves – she is shown mercy and grace.

The Feast of Tabernacles, was about God’s grace poured out on Israel – people got what they did not deserve. This Jewish woman too receives mercy and grace, during a festival which celebrated mercy and grace.

I want to end with a story, a situation, years ago,  a Christian writer and teacher – called Tony Campolo – found himself in. How perhaps it models grace. Maybe to think if what he does, maybe reflects a bit of what Jesus does…

A Party for a Prostitute.  (By Tony Campolo in “The Kingdom of God is a Party).

These are in Tony Campolo’s words.

He had flown into Hawaii. He was suffering from jet lag. Awake super early, he went out looking for a place where he could eat…

‘’Up a side street I found a little place that was still open. I went in, took a seat on one of the stools at the counter, and waited to be served. This was one of those sleazy places that deserves the name “greasy spoon.”

The big guy behind the counter came over and asked me, “What d’ya want?’

I told him, “A cup of coffee and a donut.”

He poured a cup of coffee, wiped his grimy hand on his smudged apron, then grabbed a donut off the shelf behind him.

As I sat there munching on my donut and sipping my coffee at three-thirty in the morning the door of the diner suddenly swung open, and to my discomfort, in marched eight or nine provocative and boisterous prostitutes.

It was a small place and they sat on either side of me. Their talk was loud and crude. I felt completely out of place and was just about to make my getaway when I overheard the woman sitting beside me say, “Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m going to be thirty-nine.”

Her “friend” responded in a nasty tone, “So what do you want from me? A birthday party? What do you want? Ya want me to get you a cake and sing ‘Happy Birthday’?”

“Come on!” said the woman next to me. “Why do you have to be so mean? I was just telling you, that’s all. Why do you have to put me down? I was just telling you it was my birthday. I don’t want anything from you. I mean, why should you give me a birthday party? I’ve never had a birthday party my whole life. Why should I have one now?”

When I heard that, I made a decision. I sat and waited until the women had left. Then I called over the big guy behind the counter and I asked him, “Do they come in here every night?”
“Yeah!” he answered.

“The one right next to me, does she come here every night?”

“Yeah!” he said. “That’s Agnes. Yeah, she comes in here every night. Why d’ya wanna know?”

“Because I heard her say that tomorrow is her birthday,” I told him. “What do you think about us throwing a birthday party for her–right here–tomorrow night?”

A smile slowly crossed his face and he answered: “That’s great! I like it! That’s a great idea!” Calling to his wife who did the cooking in the back room, he shouted, “Hey! Come out here! This guy’s got a great idea. Tomorrow’s Agnes’s birthday. This guy wants to throw a birthday party for her–right here–tomorrow night!”

His wife came out of the back room all bright and smiley. She said, “That’s wonderful! You know Agnes is one of those people who is really nice and kind, and nobody ever does anything nice and kind for her.”

“Look,” I told them, “if it’s okay with you, I’ll get back here tomorrow morning about two-thirty and decorate the place. I’ll even get a birthday cake.”

“No way,” said Harry (that was his name). “The birthday cake’s my thing. I’ll make the cake.”

At two-thirty the next morning I was back at the diner. I had picked up some paper decorations at the store and had made a sign out of big pieces of cardboard that read, “Happy Birthday, Agnes!” I decorated the diner from one end to the other.

The woman who did the cooking must have gotten the word out on the street, because by 3:15 every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place. It was wall-to-wall prostitutes…and me!

At 3:30 on the dot, the door of the diner swung open and in came Agnes and her friend. I had everybody ready (after all, I was kind of the MC of the affair) and when they came in we all screamed, “Happy Birthday!”

Never have I seen a person . . .so stunned. . .so shaken. Her mouth fell open. Her legs seemed to buckle a bit. Her friend grabbed her arm to steady her. As she was led to one of the stools along the counter we all sang “Happy Birthday” to her. As we came to the end of our singing, her eyes moistened. Then, when the birthday cake with all the candles lit on it was carried out, she lost it and just openly cried.

Harry gruffly mumbled, “Blow out the candles, Agnes! Come on! Blow out the candles!” And, after an endless few seconds, she did. Then he handed her a knife and told her, “Cut the cake, Agnes. Yo, Agnes, we all want some cake.”

Agnes looked down at the cake. Then without taking her eyes off it, she slowly and softly said, “Look, Harry, is it all right with you if I. . .I mean is it okay if I kind of. . .what I want to ask you is. . .is it okay if I keep the cake a little while? I mean is it all right if we don’t eat it right away?”

Harry shrugged and answered, “Sure! It’s okay. If you want to keep the cake, keep the cake. Take it home if you want to.”

“Can I?” she asked. Then looking at me she said, “I live just down the street a couple of doors. I want to take the cake home and show it to my mother, okay? I’ll be right back. Honest!”

She got off the stool, picked up the cake, and carrying it like it was a treasure, walked slowly toward the door. As we all stood there motionless, she left.

When the door closed there was a stunned silence in the place. Not knowing what else to do, I broke the silence by saying, “What do you say we pray?’

Looking back on it now it seems more than strange for a sociologist to be leading a prayer meeting with a bunch of prostitutes in a diner at Honolulu at three-thirty in the morning. But it just felt like the right thing to do. I prayed for Agnes. I prayed for her salvation. I prayed that her life would be changed and that God would be good to her.

When I finished, Harry leaned over the counter, and said, “Hey! You never told me you were a preacher. What kind of church do you belong to?”

In one of those moments when just the right words came, I answered, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at three-thirty in the morning.”

Harry waited a moment, then he answered, “No you don’t. There’s no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. I’d join a church like that!” ”

Maybe that is the type of God we worship, the God Jesus shows us, on those steps, in the silence, in the words, in the way he acts to the woman.  Maybe that is the type of church he’d like, and the type of church we’d like to be part of…