(Delivered on Thursday of Lent 1 - March 9, 2017)
I thought that would get your attention. I also thought about telling that classic joke on this text. You know the one. Jesus says, “Let him who is without sin throw the first stone.” Then silence. All of a sudden, Jesus feels the whoosh of a stone whizzing past Him, from behind Him, and, smack, it hits the woman right between the eyes. Jesus turns to see who threw the stone…and says, “Aw, Mom!”
What do we do with actual, real sin? The scribes and Pharisees surely did not know. They thought it was a trivial matter to be used to entrap Jesus, not a matter of eternal life and death for this woman. Or for the man involved. Have you ever wondered how they caught her in the act? I mean, which of them…was…with her? Or which of them was the peeping Tom? So often we play fast and loose with the seriousness of sin.
But Jesus senses the coming trap. Would He be the fulfiller of the Law or the forgiver of sins? If He said, “Yes, stone her,” they could counter punch with, “But what about that forgiveness You keep preaching? Hmm?” And if He said, “No, don’t stone her,” then they could push back with, “Aha, so You did not come to fulfill the Law after all, but rather destroy it.”
Without saying a word, Jesus bends down. He writes in the dirt. What He wrote, we don’t know. Was it the applicable statute from the Levitical law code? Was it the woman’s crime against God and humanity? Who knows? But it is a good rabbinic tactic to imitate at a contentious voters or elders meeting. A little purposeful pause—always lessens the tension.
Then Jesus says the famous words: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” Sounds a bit like, “Judge not, lest you be judged.” Perhaps it’s closer to: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:3). Then bending down again and more writing in the dirt. Would-be accusers end up leaving. They too are real sinners with real sins after all.
What do we do with actual, real sin? It’s one thing to confess our sins in a general way at the beginning of the Divine Service. It’s quite another thing to go to the pastor, kneel at the rail, bare your soul, and admit the very real details of those specific sins that you have done. It’s one thing to talk and sing about Jesus’ wonderful forgiveness of sins won on the cross—especially during Lent—in a general, I-have-my-theological-terms-down-pat sort of way. It’s quite another thing to have that healing forgiveness spoken and applied directly to you. “Yes, that very real sin that you did, that you just confessed—that horrible thought, that mean-spirited word, that hurtful deed—that has been forgiven, put away from you as far as the east is from the west.” Sometimes we’re not so sure God could forgive that real sin.
But He can, and He does! Just ask the adulterous woman. Oh, she knew she had sinned. We all do, really. She knew she deserved the stones hurled at her. We all do. But notice her faith and her confession. Jesus speaks to her in a one-on-one pastoral care session: “Has no one condemned you?” She does not excuse herself. She simply confesses: “No one, Lord.” It’s a confession of sins and a confession of faith wrapped up in three little words—or two in the Greek.
St. Augustine said it this way: “‘No one’—that is confession of sins. ‘Lord’—that is pardon of what she deserved. ‘No one, Lord. I acknowledge both things. I know who you are; I know who I am. It is to you I am confessing. You see, I have heard the words, “Confess to the Lord, for he is good.” I know my confession, I know your mercy.’” (ACCS, IVa, 277).
You see, this Jesus is both just and merciful. He condemns the real sin, though not the sinner. He is “Good and upright” and “therefore he instructs sinners in the way” (Ps. 25:8). He suffers your sins—yes, your very real sins—for you, thus fulfilling God’s Law. He is also “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ps. 86:15).
So rejoice—yes, even during Lent. Rejoice that Jesus hangs out with real sinners. Rejoice that He is both the fulfiller of the Law and the forgiver of sins. Rejoice that He tells you what He told the adulteress: “Neither do I condemn you; now go, and sin no more.” Amen.