Sermon for 08-29-10: “Salvation, Part 1: Saved From What?”

August 31, 2010

Sermon Text: John 7:53-8:11

The following is the original manuscript.

I was in need of technical support for my blog this week. So I sent an email to the blog provider describing the problem. I was then contacted by someone in tech support who identified himself as a “happiness engineer.” Isn’t that great? Do colleges offer that degree now? Man, I studied the wrong thing in college! I majored in electrical engineering, but happiness engineering sounds like much more fun. I don’t know… that sounds like a degree that that number one party school over in Athens might offer, huh? I’m kidding! But can you imagine the electives? What fun!

What a nice concept. If only we could call a happiness engineer whenever we were feeling unhappy. “My football team lost yet again to that number one party school over in Athens—and I’m not happy about it! Can you help?” “The kids are fussing and fighting again, and I’m trying to hold onto my sanity. Can you help?” “I failed that exam! My grades are suffering, and I have to get the Hope scholarship. I’m not happy. Can you help?” “I can’t believe I’m so busy and stressed out all the time. It’s just overwhelming. I’m not happy. Can you help?” “I’m really struggling in my marriage, and I don’t know how to make it better. I’m not happy. Can you help?” “I think I might have a drinking problem; it’s affecting my work and my family. I’m not happy. Can you help?” “I just got the results from the doctor, and the news isn’t good. I’m not happy. Can you help?”

It’s easy to see how badly we could use a happiness engineer sometimes!

I have found living a Christian life to be very difficult. Have you? One Christian thinker from the last century put it like this: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” Speaking of which, I was in an online debate on Facebook this week with a skeptic who had a problem with the perceived hypocrisy of Christians; we so often fail to live up to what we believe. And I told him, “Listen, Einstein wasn’t a lousy physicist simply because the vast majority of students who take physics fail to understand relativity or quantum mechanics.” In the same way, why not judge Christianity on the basis of its best practitioners—the Desmond Tutus, the Billy Grahams, the Mother Theresas—not its worst?”

He said, “So what are you saying? Christianity is like—I don’t know—communism. It’s perfect in theory—but it fails miserably when put into practice.” And I said, “No way! I’ve found that inasmuch as I put Christian faith into practice, Jesus meets the deepest longings of my heart! Inasmuch as I can live it out, I know—I know deep down in the bottom of my heart—that Jesus is the answer to life’s deepest questions; that Jesus is the solution to the world’s biggest problems.”

To put it as plainly as I possibly can, Jesus is the source of true and lasting happiness. Have you experienced him that way? We don’t need any kind of happiness engineer if we have him! He’s the real thing! He’s the Source!

But there is a very good reason why we Christians have difficulty putting our faith into practice and experiencing more of this kind of happiness. In fact, it’s the reason Christianity exists in the first place. It’s the 800-lb. gorilla in the room that we rarely talk about in polite Methodist company; it makes us deeply uncomfortable. We look away; we make excuses; we justify and evade. We are born into it; we are victimized by it; and we are perpetrators of it. To make matters worse, we have this unseen enemy whose mission is to maintain this destructive status quo. This problem affects our lives as individuals; it affects our institutions; it affects our governments. We can’t imagine the extent to which it robs us of the lasting happiness, joy, and peace that we so desperately crave.

I’m talking, of course, about sin. Today’s scripture is all about Jesus saving us from sin. Jesus said, “‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you…’” There’s a part of me that wants to stop there, with that verse—Ah! Forgiveness! Thank you, Lord! And I think we too often do stop there. We turn this scripture on its head and imagine that the message is, “There, there… Sin is no big deal. We all do it; let him who is without sin, after all, throw the first stone!” How many politicians caught in compromising situations have said, “Let him who is without sin…” It’s as if we’ve absorbed the message of God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness—which we cannot earn; which is offered freely without cost—while ignoring what Jesus says to do next, in response to God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness: “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” Or as the King James puts it, “Go and sin no more.”

I often officiate funerals for non-church members—people whose families request a clergyperson. I actually like doing this. It’s an opportunity to proclaim the gospel to a captive audience—many of whom wouldn’t normally darken a church door. The last few funerals I’ve done have been weird… It’s like the husbands or wives couldn’t even articulate what their late loved ones’ religious beliefs were—like, I don’t know, it never came up in conversation! How is that possible? I mean, they knew their spouses were born into nominally Christian families; they knew they had been baptized at some point; they knew they had at one time in their lives some denominational affiliation, although they never went to church now. They knew they had some vague belief in God.

But bothered me—and it scared me a little. Because I thought, “How does that happen? How do we imagine that that’s O.K.—that the the God who created us and sustains us doesn’t expect any more of us? that the God in whom the vast majority of people say they believe makes no demands on us? Am I guilty of giving people that impression? How badly has the church let these people down if it has led them to believe that God is O.K. with that kind of empty faith! What happened to “Go, and sin no more”? If our lives so rarely reflect the love of Jesus Christ, at what point do we ask ourselves, “Are we really Christians at all? Are we really even saved?”

One reason I’m doing this sermon series on salvation is because I want you to know one of two things: that you are in a saving relationship with God through Christ and why—or that you are not in saving relationship with God through Christ and why. But if you are not in a saving relationship with God through Christ, I want you to know that you can be! That God is freely offering that gift to you. If we are living and breathing right now, we still have an opportunity to say, “yes,” to God’s gift of salvation—which is free and available to everyone.

It’s been said so many times it’s a cliché, but it’s true: This gift of salvation is free, but it isn’t cheap.

I want us to notice something in today’s scripture. In a literal sort of way, Jesus saves this woman caught in adultery from the consequences of her sin. Jesus rescues her from death. Jesus literally intervenes so that she will not be killed. But notice what happens at the end of John Chapter 8: The wrath that Jesus turns away from this woman is now directed at Jesus himself! In verse 59: “So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.” Were they the same stones with which these men were going to stone this woman?

Isn’t that the very meaning of the cross? God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, suffers death in order to save us from our sin. Through the cross Jesus saves us from consequences of our sin. And if we are in Christ, even though we die, we do not die as condemned sinners—but as beloved children of God who will be raised to new life. We have a future that outlives death. We die with hope. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

There is no condemnation! There is no condemnation for you and me if we’re in Christ Jesus!

Do you believe in Jesus? There is no condemnation! Do you believe that Jesus loves you, that Jesus died for you, that Jesus forgives your sins? There is no condemnation! Do you believe that you are you a beloved child of God worth more than you can imagine? There is no condemnation! Do you need to be afraid? Do you need to be afraid of the future? Do you need to be afraid of what happens on the other side of death? Why? [Because there is no condemnation.] Amen! Hallelujah!

I saw one of the most beautiful things that I’ve ever seen last Thursday—this service for Jackie Hollingsworth. Some of you went to it and know what I’m about to describe. Jackie has battled cancer for a long time; her fight is nearing an end; which in many ways is heartbreaking. I do a pretty good job holding it together emotionally when I’m dealing with death and dying. I can keep a professional distance. But listen… This was so incredibly moving. Jackie sat in the balcony of the sanctuary with her family—to minimize her exposure to germs and illness. And we her friends, brothers and sisters in Christ, sat down below, on the other side of the sanctuary, so she could see the 300 or so who had gathered there for her. We sang her favorite hymns—including “Have thine own way, Lord, have thine own way. Thou art the potter, I am the clay.” Loved ones offered words of testimony and prayed prayers. And Jackie sang with gusto and smiled and laughed and prayed along with us.

I may have been on the verge of crying but it wasn’t sad for her! And I thought, “This is where the rubber meets the road of Christian faith. This is what it’s all about. Will we have a faith that will withstand the prospect of our own death? That we can face our own death with confidence and hope?

This is what I want for everyone here!

One more thing: We were singing and celebrating this beautiful life, reminding Jackie—as if she needed reminding—just how special she was; what she meant to us. I wish we could all have the experience of being reminded how much we mean to people in our lives. But I thought of another scripture. After Jesus tells a story of God’s love for us, he says, “I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

There is rejoicing in heaven! God loves you so much and is so happy to have you in God’s family that he he and his angels are throwing a party in heaven! That’s how much God loves you. That’s salvation! That’s what I want all of us to have!

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