Ash Wednesday 2016 Sermon: “Neither Do I Condemn You”

February 11, 2016


Sermon Text: John 7:53-8:11

I preached the following sermon at Hampton United Methodist on February 10, 2016.

If you were here on Sunday, you heard me speculate about how Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning would handle it if he lost yet another Super Bowl. Of course, if you watched or heard about the game, you know than Manning’s team won, so it didn’t matter. He finally got his second Super Bowl ring, so his legacy is secure. Meanwhile, a lot of sports writers and fans have been criticizing the way that the other Super Bowl quarterback, Cam Newton, has dealt with the defeat.

There’s a certain script that losing quarterbacks are supposed to follow in press conferences following losses like this one: you go out and you give credit to the other team for the victory; you accept for you role in the loss; you express great optimism about the future, that you’ll be back next year, etc. You’re supposed to project calm. You’re supposed to be even-keeled. You’re supposed to be a good sport.

More than anything, you’re supposed to lie and deceive… If not through the words you say, then through the words you don’t say—and the manner in which you say anything at all. The postgame press conference, in other words, is like being an actor on stage in which you’re awarded for hiding the fact that you’re angry, heartbroken, bitter—for hiding the fact that this loss is eating you up inside. For acting like you’re O.K. when you’re most assuredly not O.K.

That’s the script that the losing Super Bowl quarterback is handed; that’s the role he’s supposed to play; and Cam Newton was unwilling to play it. And he’s been roundly criticized because of it.

But to his credit, at least he was honest! And if we’re honest with ourselves—even those of us who’ve criticized Cam Newton—if we’re honest, we know that we’re not so different from him. We’ve been there ourselves. We’ve been sore losers. We’ve lost our temper. We’ve handled things without grace. So who are we to get on our high horse and judge him?

Especially when we consider the alarming fact that Jesus himself doesn’t give anyone credit for how well they “play-act,” for how well they put up a front, for how well they disguise what’s really going on in their hearts. In fact, Jesus only seems to care about what’s in the heart. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.”[1]

This is why he can say things like, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.”[2] Jesus isn’t saying that getting angry is as morally wrong as murder; of course not. But he rightly sees that anger is on the same spectrum as murder; the same “heart condition” gives rise to both. That’s also why he can say, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”[3] Again, it’s not that lust is as morally wrong as adultery, but lust is on the same spectrum as adultery; and the same “heart condition” gives rise to both.

Elsewhere in the gospels, when Jesus is asked why he and his disciples don’t wash their hands in a ceremonial way before eating—the way the Pharisees taught people to do—he says, and I’m paraphrasing, “You don’t get it. It’s not what comes from the outside and goes inside the body that makes someone unclean. It’s what comes out of a person—because what comes out of a person—that exactly represents the condition of someone’s heart.

And it’s this heart condition, which all of us sinful human beings share, that needs to be healed.

And the first step in healing it, Jesus knows, is to recognize that it’s a problem! And I think that’s the main thing that Jesus wants to get these scribe and Pharisees in today’s scripture to understand. I mean, what they are doing here, with this woman caught in adultery, is so incredibly evil—and they can’t even see it that way! Because they’re not paying attention to what’s inside their own hearts! First of all, notice they tell Jesus that this woman was “caught” in adultery. That means she was caught in the act.

Now let me say a word about this. Under the Law of Moses, adultery is a capital crime. The law didn’t discriminate against women: both the man and the woman were to be stoned to death. In reality, people were only rarely executed because of adultery. Not because it didn’t happen often enough, but because any capital crime required not one but two eyewitnesses in order to convict. God built this merciful safeguard into the law. So in the case of adultery, the couple would have to be caught in the act—by at least two other people, which—just use your imagination—is unlikely to happen. So chances are, these scribes and Pharisees didn’t just happen to find this woman committing adultery, which just happened to near the place where Jesus is teaching and preaching, so they could just happen to ask Jesus what he thought about it.

No, chances are this woman was set up; is was entrapment; and since it takes two people to commit adultery, it’s worth asking what happened to the other party to the adultery. Where’s the man? He was probably working for the scribes and Pharisees. Maybe he was already having an adulterous relationship with this woman; they agreed to hook up at a certain place and time; and he agreed to “let the woman be caught” in order to help the Pharisees to set this trap for Jesus. Meanwhile, of course, he gets to go scot-free.

So these religious leaders care so little about this woman, who, like them, is made in God’s image, that they are willing risk her life in order to set this trap for Jesus. They can’t look into their own hearts and see how wrong that is on so many levels! They can’t see that this deadly game they’re playing is as much against God’s law the act of adultery! It is hypocritical to the extreme—especially when you consider that Jesus knows that some of this woman’s accusers are guilty of adultery themselves!

But give them credit: The trap that they set for Jesus is ingenious! When they ask Jesus if it’s right to stone this woman for adultery, he could answer one of two ways. If Jesus answers “no,” then they could accuse him of being a heretic for not believing in the Bible—and go to the Romans and get permission to have him killed. If he answers “yes,” then, after the crowd stones the woman, they can go to the Romans and complain that Jesus is teaching the people to break Roman law—because under Roman law, only the Roman government could carry out executions. Remember, during Jesus’ trial, that’s why the high priest and his minions had to convince Pontius Pilate to crucify Jesus.

So it looks like a no-win situation for Jesus. Except he’s Jesus. And he answers in a way that both saves the woman’s life and makes a devastating point about her accusers’ own sins. There’s been a lot of speculation over the centuries about what exactly Jesus is writing in the dirt. It’s hard to resist speculating: John mentions it twice. One intriguing theory is that he’s writing out the words of Jeremiah 17:13, which says that the names of people who’ve turned away from the Lord will be “written in the earth”: then maybe he writes their names next to it. Or maybe he’s drawing arrows to the men standing there, and listing their serious sins—maybe even identifying which ones had themselves committed adultery. Who knows?

What we know for sure is that when he says, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her,” they get the message. And one by one they walk off—likely feeling ashamed and embarrassed.

Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.

That’s one of the many sayings of Jesus that has become a figure of speech in the English language. And we use it figuratively all the time—usually when someone is acting in a hypocritical way. Who are we to throw stones at Cam Newton when we ourselves do the same thing. And that’s O.K. I get it. But let’s keep in mind that Jesus wasn’t speaking figuratively at all. Jesus was talking about actual physical stones being thrown at someone—in order to kill them.

I emphasize this point because, if we only interpret this statement figuratively, if we forget that Jesus is talking about actual stones, then we can water down or misinterpret Jesus’ meaning: Jesus is not saying that this woman isn’t guilty of a serious sin, or even that she doesn’t deserve death. She is and does. Jesus agrees with the Law of Moses. It’s just that the men who intend to cast stones are also sinners who deserve death for their sins. We all do. As Paul reminds us, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and the “wages of sin is”—what? “Death.”

Yet notice what Jesus does: 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. And 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.”

I wonder: Were these the same stones that the men in today’s scripture were going to use to stone this woman? If so, please notice that they’re now aimed at Jesus instead. Jesus planned it that way. And on the cross, Jesus is going to make sure that these stones hit their target—to rescue us from the death penalty that we deserve. To save us from our sins. To prevent us from suffering the consequences of our sin.

Jesus’ words and actions in John 8 point forward to the cross.

And it’s because of the cross that Jesus can speak some of the sweetest words ever uttered in the gospel: “Has no one condemned you… Neither do I condemn you.” As Paul writes, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

If you believe that, will you say, “Amen”?

Remember I said earlier that we can at least appreciate that Cam Newton was being honest in his post-Super Bowl press conference?

Well, we are gathered here this evening, on Ash Wednesday, to be honest. We are gathered here to say we have nothing to hide. We are gathered here to say that we are losers because of our sin. The ashes that we will all receive on our foreheads this evening are a sign that we recognize this truth, that our sins deserve judgment, death, and hell. But as we remember this, we also remember today’s scripture.

As one preacher said, “Each one of us comes to God like this woman, guilty, ashamed, naked, and exposed. But Christ clothes us with the cloak of His righteousness, covering our nakedness and shame, and says to us, ‘Neither do I condemn you.’”[4] Amen.

[1] Matthew 23:27 ESV

[2] Matthew 5:21-22a ESV

[3] Matthew 5:27-28 ESV

[4] R.C. Sproul, John (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2009), 153.

3 Responses to “Ash Wednesday 2016 Sermon: “Neither Do I Condemn You””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Amen! And yet…. And yet…. There is one caveat, which I’ve mentioned before and I believe you basically agree. That is, with John the Baptist, he was doing what God had called him to do. He wasn’t “suffering for his sins.” The difference is, not that we should despair and give up when we sin (God knew about it and planned around it), but we realize that things could have gone “better” for us had we obeyed. King David is, of course, the premier example. God “had a plan” (part of which was bringing Solomon into the world), but “the baby that is born to you will die, and the sword will never depart from your house.”

    This recognition is MOTIVATIONAL. We want “God’s best for us,” not just “what God has worked around.” On the one hand, it is all within God’s sovereignty. On the other hand, God’s sovereignty “foreknew” what our free choices would be, what our “heart” was going to be like. We don’t know the future–what we should know, and keep in mind, is that in some sense we do have some “say-so” in how things go for us in this life–we can obey or disobey, and know that how God has “planned things” takes that into account–for better or for worse.

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