When Love Comes to Town
The Light of Life
Our text this morning is John 8:1-12. By way of introduction, I will read selected verses from John chapter 7.
Hear the word of the Lord, according to St. John:
…Jesus went about in Galilee. He would not go about in Judea, because the Jews were seeking to kill him. Now the Jews’ Feast of Booths was at hand.
…After his brothers had gone up to the feast, then he also went up, not publicly but in private. The Jews were looking for him at the feast, and saying, “Where is he?” And there was much muttering about him among the people.
About the middle of the feast Jesus went up into the temple and began teaching. The Jews therefore marveled, saying, “How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?”
So, Jesus answered them, “…Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”
Many of the people believed in him. They said, “When the Christ appears, will he do more signs than this man has done?”
The Pharisees heard the crowd muttering these things about him, and the chief priests and the Pharisees sent officers to arrest him.
The officers then came to the chief priests and the Pharisees, who said to them, “Why did you not bring him?” the officers answered, “No one ever spoke like this man!” The Pharisees answered them, “Have you also been deceived? Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed.”
They went each to his own house, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”
Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.
This is the gospel of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
There is high drama in this text. A culture war is raging. Fundamentally different visions for the future, the hope of Israel, are being openly advocated. Irreconcilable truth claims are being publicly proclaimed about God and godliness. All sides are claiming the support of Holy Scripture. Loyalties are clashing. A nation hangs in the balance. Passions are in full flame. Traps are set. People are willing to die for their beliefs. Some are willing to kill.
This gospel story takes place during the middle of a festival, making it all the more familiar to us. It is so lustfully human. Into this drama, God speaks. And there was Light.
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, as we consider your Holy Word this morning, give us light that we may see Jesus and ourselves rightly. We make this prayer in his name and for his glory. Amen.
To better see Jesus in this passage, let’s take a moment to look at the two groups and two people that compose the scene. The two groups are the crowd, on the one hand, and the scribes and Pharisees on the other. The two people are the woman and Jesus.
What do we know about the crowd? At the end of Chapter 7, the Pharisees make clear what they thought: “This crowd,” they said, “that does not know the law is accursed.” The word translated here “this crowd” literally means the “people of the land.” It was a pejorative, a derisive term. It came to mean religiously negligent Jews, who either did not know the scribal laws, or who knowing them were indifferent to keeping them. They were non-practicing Jews. Their number included the poor, the uneducated and common laborers, whose work made it difficult for them to keep the many religious rules governing daily life. The religious leaders had contempt for the crowd. Practicing Jews were to have nothing to do with them.
The Pharisees had the same contempt for Jesus. We hear it in the text: “How is it that this man has learning,” they said, “when he has never studied?”
Unlike the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus treated “the people of the land” with respect and understanding. He was a Jew of the common people. He spoke their familiar dialect, and drew his figures of speech and parables from their common experiences. The crowd was drawn to Jesus not by just what he said but by the way he said it. Mark tells us that the crowds “were all so amazed” by his teaching that they exclaimed ‘‘Whatever is this?’ ‘It is new teaching with authority behind it!’’ (1:27).
The inclusiveness of Jesus drew people to him, as well. He appears unaware of the boundaries that hemmed in ordinary people.
- He was as comfortable with a learned rabbi, like Nicodemus, as with the questionable woman of Samaria.
- With unembarrassed ease he ate with Simon, the Pharisee, and with tax collectors and sinners.
- In a time when society limited social interaction between men and women, Jesus associated with both on equal terms.
- Respectable women, like Martha and Mary, could have kitchen-table conversation with him, and disreputable women sought him out if they knew that he would understand and befriend them.
- He was a loyal Jew, yet he memorialized a Samaritan as his example of love.
- In a Roman centurion he found more faith than he had found in Israel.
Common folk appreciated Jesus’ openheartedness. He welcomed all sorts and conditions of men and women.
The crowd loved Jesus. John records that “a multitude followed him” and that the crowd once sought to “take him by force and to make him king” (6:2,15). Mark tells us “a great multitude from Galilee followed; also from Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea and from beyond the Jordan and from Tyre and Sidon a great multitude, hearing all that he did, came to him” (3:7-8).
Jesus’ popularity rating in Palestine was through the roof. He caught the public imagination. Even after religious leaders had decided to get rid of Jesus, Matthew tells us that he entered Jerusalem in triumph, while “the crowds that went before him and that followed him shouted, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:9). Seeing how the masses embraced Jesus, John tells us that the Pharisees “said to one another, ‘You see that you can do nothing; look, the world has gone after him’” (12:19).
The Scribes and Pharisees
The scribes and Pharisees had an opposite response to Jesus. Whereas the crowd flocked to Jesus, the scribes and Pharisees feared him. They were gravely concerned that the Jewish people would de-identify as Jews and be subsumed by the surrounding Greek culture. They saw their rigorous religious practices as Israel’s last line of defense against cultural assimilation; they were fighting for the survival of their people.
For the scribes and Pharisees, religion required more than genuine faith and high ethics; it required distinctive customs, habits, clothing and diet that would make a Jew different from all others, unmistakably a Jew.
Then comes Jesus, a widely popular teacher, disregarding their complex rules and regulations.
Mark records Jesus telling the multitude: “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them” (7:15). The Pharisees were outraged! Let his ideas catch on, let a deep faith in God and right living become the essence of religion, then what would distinguish a godly Jew from a godly Gentile? They feared that Jesus’ teaching could lead to the conclusion that “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value, [and] the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love,” as the Apostle Paul would later write to the Galatian Christians (5:6).
Jesus’ teaching troubled the scribes and Pharisees, but his actions scared them even more.
- He called the nation to repentance.
- He cleansed the temple of its abuses.
- He opened the gates of salvation to common, despised folk.
- He gathered disciples.
- He sent them on mission.
- He ushered in a new age of righteousness.
Indeed, Jesus was launching a movement. Hear his words of inauguration: “No one pours newwine into oldwineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins ” (Mark 2:22).
Both Jesus and the Pharisees wanted right living but they were digging from opposite ends of the tunnel. The Pharisees were mainly focused on externally imposed rules and regulations, but Jesus, always concerned with individual persons, thought in terms of inward transformation:
“A good tree cannot bear bad fruit,” Jesus said, “and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit” (Matthew 7: 18).
Far from making bad people good, rules and regulations externally imposed commonly lead to only external conformity, the outside prim and proper, while the inside remains all wrong.
“Blind Pharisees!” Jesus declared.“First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, and then the outside also will be clean” (Matthew 23: 26).
Their aims were fundamentally different. Jesus was content with nothing less than transformed life within. What was first with the Pharisees, a people faithfully observing all sorts of rules and regulations, was not first with him:
“First clean the inside of the cup and the plate.”
Jesus pondered deeply the meaning of the law and with all the devotion of a truePharisee he wanted it fulfilled. But for Jesus, the law could only be satisfied by an inward transformation, a spiritual rebirth.
Let’s now consider the woman. We get Jesus’ compassion for the poor, illiterate “people of the land” who did not keep the scribal laws, but how could he be a friend with notorious tax collectors and shameful sinners?
According to our text, this woman was “caught in the act of adultery.” The law called for both the adulterous man and woman to be put to death, but here no mention is made of the woman’s paramour. Only she is snatched from the bed in whatever state of undress she may have been, paraded through the streets, dragged into the temple, and thrust before Jesus. We know nothing of her back-story—the circumstances that led her into this precarious liaison.
The few facts that we do have are charged with emotion. The Jews were seeking to kill Jesus. In making a grand display of this woman’s sin, the scribes and Pharisees intended to entrap Jesus. Puffed up with self-righteousness and emboldened by an airtight case, they demanded a verdict from Jesus, hoping either to debunk his ministry of mercy, if he sided with the law’s death penalty, or, alternatively, to expose him as a law-breaker, if he refused to apply the law.
And what of the woman? How did the scribes and Pharisees see her? With “eyes filled with adulteries”, these men saw her as being so deliciously low, the perfect bait for their trap. She was guilty, and they wanted her blood, so they could discredit Jesus.
The truth about this gospel story is hidden in an irony. May God grant us light to see.
We sympathize with this woman. After all, who would want their private sins put on public display? Or, perhaps your secrets are well hidden, like those of the scribes and Pharisees, and not at risk of exposure.
That’s what a friend of mine thought, until recently. Panicked, he called me. He had received a disturbing email from someone who had his password and who had included his password in the email. It read, in part, “I’m going to cut to the chase. You don’t know anything about me whereas I now know a whole lot about you.” The sender claimed that he had been able to break into my friend’s computer using some kind of malware and had been watching my friend’s screen and had taken over his webcam. He also claimed that by doing so he had been able to put together a video of my friend watching pornography. Then the sender threatened to send the video to all my friend’s contacts if my friend didn’t pay a nifty sum in bitcoin.
The threat of shame and disgrace horrified my friend. He later learned that this was a scam, but at the time it seemed so very real.
Christ does not intend for you or me to ‘go it alone’ with sin. On the other hand, Satan delights to get a man or a woman alone with their sin, because he who is alone with his sin is utterly alone. We, as a community of Christians, routinely relate to one another as believers and as devout people, but rarely, if ever, do we relate to each other as the undevout, as sinners. We end up concealing our sins from ourselves and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Consequently, we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners, desperate sinners!
James instructs us: “Confess your faults to another” (James 5:16).
Have you made little progress with habitual or private sin? When you pray, do you practice a form of self-absolution, never honestly dealing with the truth of your sin?
The Christian discipline of confession before a brother or sister is bulwark against secret, habitual sin. When you confess your sin, regularly and discreetly, to God through Christ in the presence of a brother or sister, then you will experience the weight, the gravity of your sin. Confession before a brother or sister will bring your sin into the light.
Jesus said, “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God” (John 3:20-21).
This, my friends, is the mystery of the gospel: the misery of the sinner and the mercy of God! This is the glory of the gospel: the misery of the sinner and the mercy of God!
As the scribes and Pharisees pressed Jesus for judgment against the woman, he scribbled in the dirt. The finger of God that had written the law on tablets of stone was now writing in the dirt--words that caused the accusers to peal away, one by one, returning to the dark corners of their unrepentant sins. An early manuscript has Jesus writing in the dirt the sins of each accuser, perhaps their own lustful desires and sexual failures.
Do you see the irony? The men who dragged this woman from her bed thought that they were leading her to her deserved slaughter. But it is they, the hard-hearted, self-righteous accusers, who shrink back into the dark of their private sins, and it is the woman whose sin is exposed who is left standing alone before Jesus, the Light of the world.
- Alone before Jesus who did not come to condemn, but to save;
- Alone before Jesus who did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance;
- Alone before Jesus who came to seek and to save the lost;
- Alone before Jesus who came searching the mountains for the one lost sheep.
The woman is alone before the one man who is without sin, the only man in the entire world who could rightly judge her. Jesus rises from the ground. He looks into her eyes. What she saw in the face of God must have taken her breath away: he loves me; he cares for me; he came for me. Notwithstanding her failures and messiness, or what the scribes and Pharisees may have said about her, in eyes of Christ she saw her true identity: I am the beloved of God.
I am here today to tell you that God loves you. He cares for you. Christ came for you.Notwithstanding what you think of yourself or what others may say about you, this is the truth of the gospel: You are the beloved of God.
And then Jesus spoke: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, Lord.” “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”
Could she possibly believe what she was hearing--heaven is more concerned about me, a sinner, than it is about ninety-nine law-abiding, scrupulous sons of Israel.
Of all his sheep, the shepherd cares most “for the one that has wandered off,” Jesus said. “And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish” (Matthew 18:12-14). This is new teaching, indeed, and with the authority of the heart of God behind it!
The woman saw in the face of Jesus a confident faith in her possibilities. She could believe his word to her, “sin no more”, because he believed it about her. Jesus believed that the prodigal could come home, that Zacchaeus could become a true son of Abraham, that this woman could leave her life of sin, and that you can walk in the light as he is in the light, because he knows that what God calls you to do, God, himself, will enable you to do.
Jesus forgave the woman’s sins and transformed her life from within. The Great Physician was for this woman the double cure: he saved from wrath, and made her pure.
There is another irony in this gospel story. The scribes and Pharisees demanded a response, a verdict from Jesus. But He came to save not to condemn. Therefore, Jesus did not give the response that the scribes and Pharisees required of him. But, in an ironic twist, God required their response to Jesus.
We each must give our answer to God about Jesus. No one else can give your answer for you. What is your response to Jesus?
If you have never given your response to Jesus, publicly, then I encourage you to take that step today, for Jesus tells us that if we confess him before men then he, too, will confess us before his Father in heaven, but if we resist the prompting of the Holy Spirit and do not confess him before men, then he, too, will deny us before God. Come, please, and share with our ministers your response to Jesus.
And you, who did once profess Jesus as Lord, how are you doing? Are you now making your way on your own steam, doing your best to be a good person? Has sin got a hold on you or your thoughts?
If so, then hear afresh the hymn of the Church about Jesus: “He breaks the power of canceled sin; He sets the prisoner free; His grace can make the foulest clean; His blood availed for me!” You come, too. Join me here in prayer at the alter. Confess your failures to the one person in the entire world who has the authority to say to repentant sinners, “Neither, do I condemn you. Go from here and sin no more.”
Let us pray. Oh God, our loving Father, we hear your Spirit calling. We hear, even now, Jesus speaking to us through his word: “I am the light of the world! Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Amen. Come. Come now.