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Posts Tagged ‘biblical reflection’

Biblical wisdom probes inconveniently into our multi-tiered strategies for bailing out.

If you faint in the day of adversity, your strength being small; if you hold back from rescuing those taken away to death, those who go staggering to the slaughter; if you say, “Look, we did not know this”— does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it? And will he not repay all according to their deeds? (Proverbs 24:10–12 NRSV)

Awash in a sea of refugees, newly awake to working-class seething of long standing beyond our earshot, bombarded by raw evidence that racial peace is not the settled shalom we had imagined, it is nice from time to time simply to look away.

The biblical witness follows us to our corners, asking nagging questions.

The wise are toned for the day of adversity, it insists. It is when their memorable work gets done.

Neither does a probing Watcher does accept our pleas of ignorance. He discards the defense that we were busy elsewhere.

Where were you when … ? What did you do in that hour … ?

We might have saved some who were staggering to the slaughter.

Oh, here they are again. Through my window, just across the way.

 

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David’s Community Bible Church

2 July 2017

 

Today we’ll look at one of the Gospel of John’s most beautiful stories. This story is about Jesus’ encounter with someone who truly needed his touch. I’m drawn to this chapter for the combination of tenderness and strength that is so much like Jesus. But I also love it because I, too, am lost without Jesus’ touch. And so, frankly are you. We all share something with this ‘woman taken in adultery’, as she’s often called.

Here’s how the passage reads:

Early in the morning (Jesus) 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.’ (John 8:2–11 ESV)

I want us to talk about three experiences. We’re all familiar with two of them. Most of us have experienced all three.

  • Shame
  • Sin
  • Freedom

Now it’s possible that you’ve never thought about ‘shame’ and ‘sin’ as two different things. But they are different.

In fact, people who study the way cultures work speak of two different kinds of cultures.

Shame cultures (or ‘honor/shame cultures’) are those in which people suffer most from the disapproval and contempt that their actions bring on them. People in shame cultures don’t entirely dismiss the idea of objective righteousness and sin as a falling short of that standard. But what wrenches at their hearts and beats them down is the sense of shame that comes from having failed or having been thought to fail. And what raises them up is being respected …  honored.

Law cultures (‘forensic cultures’) are those in which people speak more easily about sin than about shame. They speak the language of guilt and righteousness and are less comfortable thinking about, talking about, or even feeling shame as the deepest reality in their lives. What raises them up is forgiveness … knowing that their law-breaking is no longer held against them.

In the US, we have traditionally been a law culture. We speak of the rule of law and are given to classifying people as law-abiding or law-breaking. People are either innocent or guilty. We don’t worry as much about what they feel.

Now I wonder if you’ve observed a shift between those of us are, say, 40 years old or older …. and those who are younger than 40. Maybe you think the younger ones among us seem to belong to an honor-shame culture more than to a law culture. If you have that idea in your head, you’re not alone. Many culture-watchers would say that we are in fact undergoing that kind of shift. We’re becoming less like Germans and more like Italians. We’re less concerned about law or righteousness as an objective standard that ought to be upheld no matter what we feel about it … and more concerned about how people feel, whether someone has been humiliated or excluded … or shamed.

One of the things I love about Jesus’ encounter with this woman in John 8 is that he seems to deal with both shame and guilt. As he does so, I think he says that both kinds of culture … both kinds of people … both ends of the spectrum of our experience as human beings are important. Both are redeemable. Most importantly: we can be freed from both shame and sin.

Now I need to take a little detour here for a minute, so bear with me:

If you’re an especially sharp-eyed reader or if you have a Bible that calls your attention to this sort of thing, you may have noticed that this short passage floated around for quite a few years before it found its eventual home in the Gospel of John.  These verses don’t appear in our very earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of John. They do show up in a few manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke. And then, finally, they come to rest in their current location at the beginning of the Gospel of John, where I think they fit so beautifully as a real-life example of Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness.

I want to say just a few words about this in order not to leave anybody hanging:

First of all, this kind of thing is very, very unusual. Our manuscript evidence for the books of the Bible is so solid and indisputable that this kind of uncertainty almost never occurs.

Second, there’s nothing to worry about in this. Most scholars who study this kind of thing say that this passage has all the earmarks of a genuine encounter of Jesus with this woman. It’s hard to say why it had to struggle to find its home here in the Gospel of John.

I like to think of the passage itself as suffering some of the same un-belonging that this woman must have felt as she was dragged into this very public humiliation and then eventually abandoned to the care of Jesus’, her merciful rescuer.

Now let’s talk about an unfortunate woman’s shame.

Jesus challenged the religion and the religious leaders of his time in many ways. But no challenge rose higher than his insistence on showing mercy to those who had been most shoved aside by the mainstream. The Old Testament tells us that ‘the LORD draws near to the broken-hearted’.

Jesus certainly did so. He saw right through appearances. He was no respecter of persons. He recognized the point at which piety and spirituality actually push people away from God rather than drawing them towards Him. He knew the hypocrisies and the half-truths that sometimes seem as though they flourish much better in religious soil than they do in other places.

And no one pushed back against Jesus and his teaching more than the men whom the gospels call ‘the scribes and the Pharisees’. These guys were the custodians of the faith and of the people, as nobody else was.

Now let’s not be too quick to write off these ‘scribes and Pharisees’ as the miserable, rotten people they often sound like. The Pharisees grew out of a movement that had paid a very high price for standing form against all kinds of political and religious compromise back in the day. And the teachers of the Law had studied long and hard to master the deep truths of God. They weren’t lazy bums. They were diligent. They cared. They wanted their children to grow up in a culture that honored God and that walked in the ancient paths.

But, you know, our zeal is never enough. Sometimes we who are closest to the truths of God find ourselves wanting to master God rather than to be mastered by him. We come to place where it’s no longer possible for God to surprise us because we’ve possessed him. We’ve domesticated him. We know all sorts of things about him. But we don’t know Him and are no longer undone by how good and gracious and demanding he is. And then we become an obstacle that stands between God and people who would really like to know Him.

This is what happened to too many of the scribes and Pharisees. So Jesus was not welcome among them. He was a threat.

When the scribes and Pharisees bring this woman to Jesus, verse 6 tells us that they did this ‘to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him’.

So here they come … and here she comes.

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.” John 8:3–4 ESV)

She’s been caught in the very act of adultery. Imagine her shame. Who knows if they even allowed her to throw something over her body, to cover herself up.

There’s a crowd of people with Jesus, listening to his teaching, learning from him, becoming his disciples.

This crowd of religious officials bullies in and they place this woman in the midst of everybody. They text doesn’t even tell us her name. I think it withholds that information intentionally, as a way of signaling that this woman … this human being … had been reduced to a legal case study … She’s an object lesson to them, not a human being who needs redeeming. She has no name.

A few minutes before, she had been in the embrace of her lover. Misguided as her love might have been, maybe she felt loved there, cared for. Maybe she was finally finding some tenderness.

We sometimes collapse this story with others that suggest she was a serial adulterer or even a prostitute. But the text says nothing to suggest that. Likely she was a normal woman, maybe a lonely one, and—dishonest and damaging as her act might have been—she was experiencing some affection.

And then suddenly here she is, in the midst of a crowd … embarrassed … shamed … condemned.

Can you imagine the shame … ?

What are her thoughts: ‘Even if I get out of this alive … and I may not … where do I go from here? I have no more secrets. I’ve lost my dignity. Everybody is staring at me … and scowling.’

Now, before we go any farther, one question hangs over this scene. At least in my mind it does, and maybe in yours too.

Maybe the guy was faster on his feet than the woman was, and got away. Or maybe the hypocrisy of this woman’s accusers is evident in the man’s absence. Maybe they let him go. Maybe he was one of the boys. Maybe they could sweep his cheating on his wife under the rug.

‘But this woman …’, you can almost hear them saying, ‘… we’ll make an example of her, and we’ll trap this Jesus along with her.’

Have you ever felt utterly alone? Abandoned?

This woman, in this terrible, public, shameful moment … certainly feels that way. And, as far as anybody knows, she should. She’s got no one to stand up for her. There’s no fairness in this, no dignity in this, no mercy in this.

Many of us live with shame, so this woman may not seem so different than what we know.

There are two kinds of shame you know:

  • There is shame for something you have done or someone you have been. This kind of shame flows from our own sin. It’s a step beyond regret, and you see it in the eyes of people who know the thing they’ve done or the things they haven’t done and they wonder how it ever got this way. But there’s no going back. You can see it in their eyes.
  • Then there is shame that is bred into us. Some of us feel shame even though it doesn’t flow from some real sin in our lives. If you’ve come from a home with a domineering parent or a family where other dysfunctions ran really deep or suffered abuse at an early age, you may feel that this second kind of shame is far too familiar to you. Everything’s not your fault, but it sure does feel like it is.

Whatever its cause, shame is debilitating. It traps us. It becomes a dark story and we live in that story, never quite able to escape its darkness. We long to be free, but the shame is stronger than we are. It keeps us from responding with joy to God’s calling on our lives. It keeps us from reaching out in joy and concern to others, keeps us from focusing on others rather than on our own darkness.

Shame is a cage.  A really frustrating, trapping, debilitating cage.

I bet you know something about shame. I do. Most of us do, sooner or later

But this woman was not only suffering shame. She was also caught in the act of one of the most awful of sins: awful because it involves the shattering of marriage promises by one or by both of the people involved. The Bible understands adultery as sexual relations outside of marriage when at least one of the participants is married. The Germans call it Ehebruch or marriage-breaking, because that’s exactly what it is. This woman was not merely a victim. She was a sinner.

It all adds up for Jesus’ adversaries to being the perfect trap.

They know Jesus is stern with them … and off-the-charts merciful with the weak and the needy. But it’s hard to book a guy for mercy.

But they also know that Jesus honors their Scripture. And they think they can trap him between his own mercy and the Scripture’s severity.

That would be their opening to get rid of this very popular Jesus once and for all:

Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say? (John 8:5 ESV)

It’s worthwhile, when the New Testament quotes the Old Testament, to look back to the verses that are being quoted. Here are the passages from the Law of Moses that are most likely in their minds:

If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death. (Leviticus 20:10 NRSV)

If a man is caught lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman as well as the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel. (Deuteronomy 22:22 NRSV)

So Jesus’ adversaries have a strong point.

What will Jesus’ do?

This is where this passage slows waaaay down … and becomes very mysterious.

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. (John 8:6–9)

What do you think Jesus wrote in the dust? Wouldn’t you love to know?

I have no idea why the gospel writer withheld from us the details about what Jesus wrote.

All kinds of theories have been offered about what those words in the dust might have said.

The truth is, we simply … don’t … know.

And the fact that we don’t know puts our focus back on what we do know: the words of Jesus that were not written in the sand but rather were spoken to this woman’s accusers and recorded in the Gospel of John:

Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.

Now I have a question for every follower of Jesus in this room:

Having known the grace and forgiveness of Jesus, how could we ever entertain a judgmental spirit in our hearts. How could we ever allow un-grace to creep in and poison our relationships? How could forgiveness and restoration ever fail to be our deepest desire when there is sin and shame in those who walk along beside us?

Now Jesus and this anonymous woman are left alone.

Probably for the first time in this whole sad calamity, someone looks her in the eyes and speaks to her. It’s Jesus, of course, who does so.

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.’ (John 8:10–11 ESV)

Is there a more poignant, more moving question anywhere in Scripture than this?: Does no one condemn you?

 Notice that Jesus removes from this woman two terrible burdens:

First, he takes away the terrible burden of her public shame. He restores her to dignity in the sight of other people, for none are left who condemn her.

But then he also speaks as the Incarnate Lord who wields an authority that belongs only to God: to forgive sin.

He assures her that he himself does not condemn her. Yet this does not mean that sin does not matter, that adultery is a trivial thing, that our actions don’t have consequences. Jesus stays very far from that conclusion. Having forgiven her, his last recorded words to her are ‘From now on sin no more.’

Honestly, it’s hard for me to decide which message this amazing passage brings to Christian people most powerfully.

Are we meant to hear in this how utterly unthinkable it is for us, having been forgiven just like this woman by the sheer mercy of Jesus, that we should be judgmental, condemning people? People who classify other human beings as better or worse depending on the kind of sin in which they’ve indulged and forgetting our own?

Is it a message about how we should live towards those who are trapped in shame and even in sin? With mercy, as Jesus addressed this woman?

Are we the scribes and Pharisees, who need to watch Jesus writing in the sand and then hear his biting, liberating words, ‘Is there anyone here without sin? If so, you go first … Go ahead, throw your stones.’

Maybe. And maybe that’s what your heart and mine need to hear this morning.

Or is the main message to us as those who become trapped in shame and sin?

Maybe we’re not the scribes and the Pharisees. Maybe we’re more like this woman, caught in a family-bashing sin, a light shone upon her own personal evil … discovering that in Jesus there is forgiveness and freedom from our shame … and from our sin.

Maybe that’s the main message for us this morning.

We have fine pastors and trusted elders in this congregation, and I know that if you’ve been trapped in that cage and would like to begin your break from it this morning, any of us would be delighted to talk with you about that.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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If there is a passage in the entirety of Isaiah’s massive volume that more precisely captures the book’s trajectory than does its fourth chapter, it is hard to imagine what that passage would be.

In that day the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and honor of the survivors of Israel. And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning. Then the Lord will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over her assemblies a cloud by day, and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night; for over all the glory there will be a canopy. There will be a booth for shade by day from the heat, and for a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain. (Isaiah 4:2–6 ESV)

The brief oracle reckons with Zion’s filth and Jerusalem’s bloodstains without allowing this scrutiny to eclipse the beauty and glory that shall be hers.

The key to understanding how this paradox can stand occurs at the core of this brief prophetic declaration. Rarely does a future perfect deliver itself of more consequence:

… when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning.

This is where the drama of collapse and rebirth becomes white hot. YHWH’s great expectations for his people are a future upon which he will insist with the most redemptive zeal. Yet Zion will not achieve her final destiny without the burning cleansing that is YHWH’s judgement. There’s no other way to get there from here.

The Hebrew משפט requires in each instance that the English translator choose ‘justice’ or ‘judgement’. The nuance is important each time the decision has to be made, and to some extend this linguistic necessity veils a most crucial fact: Zion will become full of justice only when she has survived the fulness of judgement.

For the student of this massive scroll, it can almost be said that chapter four says everything that must be said. The rest is commentary.

 

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The early verses of Isaiah’s fiftieth chapter are pregnant with enigma and resistant to simple theodicy.

Thus says the Lord: ‘Where is your mother’s certificate of divorce, with which I sent her away? Or which of my creditors is it to whom I have sold you? Behold, for your iniquities you were sold, and for your transgressions your mother was sent away. Why, when I came, was there no man; why, when I called, was there no one to answer? Is my hand shortened, that it cannot redeem? Or have I no power to deliver? Behold, by my rebuke I dry up the sea, I make the rivers a desert; their fish stink for lack of water and die of thirst. I clothe the heavens with blackness and make sackcloth their covering.’ (Isaiah 50:1–3 ESV)

On the one hand, the passage contains elements of that familiar prophetic explanation of national calamity. ‘It was for your iniquities that you were sold, and for your transgressions that your mother was sent away.’ (more…)

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We often think of religious leaders as unable to change. We think they believe they know it all, have the answers already, cannot alter their presumably doctrinaire convictions.

So refreshing, then, this priestly cameo in one of Luke’s summary reports of growth in the early, Jerusalem-based Jesus Movement.

And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:7 ESV)

Luke seems not to be going anywhere with this observation. He has no agenda on this front. There is no subsequent re-take on priestly influence at the core. After this, Jerusalem’s priests are largely left alone to live their lives unobserved. (more…)

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Even if one did not know that the discourse of Isaiah will pivot repeatedly on the Hebrew word אמן—used of faithfulness, reliability, truthful sturdiness, and belief—the italicized exclamation that follows might hint at the direction to come.

How the faithful (נאמן) city has become a whore, she who was full of justice!

Righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers. Your silver has become dross, your best wine mixed with water. Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not bring justice to the fatherless, and the widow’s cause does not come to them. (Isaiah 1:21–23 ESV)

The book’s prefatory first chapter, after all, serves like a thematically dense prelude to a theatrical work, much as a pit orchestra might touch on all the themes soon to be broached by the actors on the stage. It soberly teases the reader with topics that will shape the core of the book’s sustained argument. Nothing lies nearer to that core’s core than justice. (more…)

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The famous rhetorical question of the eighth Psalm is widely mis-gauged:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? (Psalms 8:3–4 ESV)

The assumption behind the question is too often thought to be that human beings are too measly and pathetic to warrant such divine attention. In fact, the context suggests just the opposite: there is some intrinsic glory—albeit a veiled glory—in human beings that holds YHWH’s gaze:

Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas (Psalms 8:5–8 ESV)

Next to the massive dimensions of the moon and the stars, humans are manifestly small creatures. One might not expect YHWH to find them fascinating and worthy of his care. Yet in spite of their humble bearing, we read that YHWH is mindful of them, cares for them, indeed has exalted them over the rest of creation. (more…)

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