A sermon for the third Sunday of Epiphany, second in the series “Chosen: Epiphany Encounters.” Given by the Rev. Justin Clemente at New Creation Church (Anglican), Hagerstown, MD on January 24, 2021.
Today we walk through our second Epiphany encounter: the woman caught in adultery. And I want to say first that I know I’m giving the parents here today some homework (again). Parents: I believe in you. Have hard conversations with your kids as they ask questions about this passage.
As we walk through this passage, I want to invite each of us into John 8. To ask us to see ourselves in the narrative. Where am I? Who am I standing with? What does this say about me and my need?
So, with that in mind, let’s take a walk through our passage this morning.
Where does this happen? (v. 2)
First, let’s just start with where this collision with Jesus takes place. Look at verse 2. It takes place in the temple courts – a place where forgiveness is promised and the way home is held forth for the sinner.
So see the set up: we have Lord himself, at the Lord’s temple, with the leaders of his people.
What happens? (vs. 3-5)
Look at verses 3-5. An adulteress is brought to Jesus to render judgment, but not for the purpose upholding the law of God and punishing evil. This is not a trial. It’s a mob.
Why? (v. 6)
Look now at verse 6. The scribes and Pharisees bring this woman to Jesus, not to uphold the law, but to trap Jesus. They bring her in for the purpose of accusing Jesus himself.
First, we have to see that the setup by the Pharisees and scribes is a brilliant trap. If Jesus consents to her stoning, then what has become of Jesus ability to forgive sins? What of his mission to seek and to save that which was lost? Furthermore, the Jews could not themselves carry out the death penalty under Romans, leaving Jesus personally responsible for stirring up trouble. But if he lets her go, what then of his coming to fulfill the law and not abolish it? We’ll come back to how Jesus meets this challenge.
Second, we ought to note right away that the law prescribing death for adultery in Israel (Deuteronomy 22:22-24) says explicitly that man and the woman had to present – no partiality is allowed.
Here’s the first lesson for the church. We live in a time where our cultural is literally inventing new ways to be sexually immoral. What our response? Be careful. As forgiven sinners, we do not respond by ignoring one form of immorality and focusing exclusively on another. So what we do? The simplest and yet the hardest thing: we ourselves repent. We get down on our knees and we say, as George Whitefield did when he saw a criminal on his way to the gallows, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” We have no room for arrogance. So we must not act arrogantly.
What was Jesus writing? (vs. 6 and 8)
Look now at verses 6 and 8. Here we come to what to me is one of the most fascinating incidents in the New Testament. I have always wondered what did Jesus write? Well, I got to do some digging here. When you think that about it, there are numerous instances in the Old Testament where God’s finger writes something. You can probably think of some examples right now. But I think the best educated guess has something to with the Old Testament passage we read this morning. Listen to Jeremiah 17:13 again, “O Lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you shall be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living water.” (By the way, just a chapter earlier, Jesus called himself the source of living water)
So judgment is reversed. The religious leaders come to charge Jesus, but he writes his charge against them: they have forsaken the Lord through their rejection of him. You see, it is dangerous thing to be in the presence of Jesus without a sufficient knowledge of your own sinfulness and need of him. How quickly the tables can turn.
Augustine wrote of this incident, “[Jesus] wrote with his finger on the ground, as if indicating that the names of people like these men were to be written in earth, not in heaven, which is where he told his disciples they should rejoice that their names were written. … [O]r he wrote on the ground to signify that the time had now arrived when his law should be written on soil that would bear fruit and not on sterile stone, as before.” (Harmony of the Gospels, 4.10.17) Augustine is saying here that dust is capable of bearing more fruit than a heart of stone.
Every time we hear the word of Jesus, it is a revelatory moment. Every time we hear a sermon, we are either being hardened or nourished, but we do not leave his presence the same as before. Some people spend a lifetime in church, simply adding layer after layer to a hardened heart, while others find nourishment day-by-day, week-to-week, at the feet of mercy. Which person are you?
What is Jesus’ judgment? (vs. 7 and 9)
Look at verses 7 and 9.
Alright. Stone her, but let the man without sin be the one to start. What an awkward pause that must have been as Jesus bent down to again write in the dust, perhaps writing even the names of the accusers in the dust. Their very sins confronting them now as they held stones of judgment in their hands.
Here’s the problem. All of us want justice and righteousness in the world, but none of us have it in us and we don’t want it when it comes to ourselves. Romans 2:23 sums up the need and condition of every person who is a son of Adam or daughter of Eve: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
Slowly, the meaning of Jesus’ words and actions are felt and understood. The jig is up. They could not snare him and they cannot stone her. All make their way from the site of the would-be stoning.
All, except for Jesus. Here, as Augustine says, is misery met with mercy. She is alone with mercy. Just mercy. Holy mercy. Here is the One who can rightly and completely undo her.
Where does this leave the woman? (vs.10-11)
And he does not.
Jesus demonstrated the heart of God for sinners, not being by permissive about sin, nor by bringing full fury of God’s wrath and hatred for sin, but by offering himself up as the means of complete absolution, forgiveness, and reconciliation. He would absorb her sin. As Rico Tice says, the stone of judgment would fall
Before I go on, let me unpack those first two options for us.
- He’s not permissive about her sin. He doesn’t say to her, you know, I’m just really so glad I even got the chance to meet you. God bless you as you go. I’m sure your sin wasn’t even really sin to begin with. The commandment on adultery probably didn’t even apply your situation. NBD. No big deal. It’s all good!
We need to hear this. Jesus said, “go and sin no more.” We live in a culture that will not tolerate hearing about the shame of sin.
This kind of permissive attitude is an extremely dangerous way to live. Paul actually tells us in Romans 2 that it will increase our condemnation if we do: “Do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5 But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” (Romans 2:4-6)
2. He does not unleash the fury of God’s wrath upon her. He doesn’t say, now where is my stone anyways? “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17)
Church, what Jesus did for you, he desires to do for others. As Gregory the Great said, why do you think the Lord delays his coming? Is not that he may find fewer to condemn?” Is that your heart, too?
The longer we’re in the Christian life, the temptation becomes to throw stones rather than offer bread. To become the elder brother, rather than remain the prodigal brought home by grace, to become the Pharisee rather than publican, the nine ungrateful lepers rather than the one continually grateful leper.
As we end, let’s look at the woman’s response. Jesus asks her, “Has no one condemned you?” What does she say? “No one, Lord.” I would argue that the sum of Christian faith is found in those three words.
- She owns her sin. She does not say, What do you mean? I’ve had a hard life. I’ve been used by others. I was looking for love. It wasn’t my fault. The rules don’t apply to me. Her words of agreement are her confession of sin. Some of you may know the anecdote from G.K. Chesterton’s life. He responded to a news article that asked the question, “what is wrong with the world?” with his simple, direct answer, “dear sirs: I am.”
- She addresses Jesus as Lord – kyrie. She turns to him. She stays. You have to wonder, what kept her there? She knows he has the authority to forgive her.
The story ends with our Lord’s powerful words: “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” That’s authentic Christian faith. We cannot embrace Christ while coddling sin. We must repent, turn from our sin and turn to him, placing all our trust in Christ alone.
So here, in this Epiphany moment, Jesus bypasses the temple – and makes his pronouncement: case dismissed. As the woman was alone with mercy, so Jesus is just a powerfully present today to redeem and forgive. Come to him!
So we give all the glory to the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit, now and always. Amen.