Several years ago, I started working in a soup kitchen in Troy. The only thing the workers there knew about me before I arrived was that I was a Baptist minister. When I arrived, some people were very scared of me and concerned about what I might think of them. As I got to know the crew, they shared that they believed Baptist ministers were angry men, speaking about hellfire and brimstone saying things like, “You are all sinners. Unless you repent of your sins, you are damned to hell.” We were able to share a good laugh over the anxiousness caused by having a Baptist minister working on the crew. But we also talked about the fact that it is true we are all sinners. I recently saw a list someone complied of all the sins identified in the Bible. The list identified 667 different behaviors that are sinful. I do not know if the list is correct. It really does not matter. It is impossible to deny that sin is part of our lives; it is part of living. And so, “Yes you are all sinners and I am right there with you.”
The eternal consequence of sin is hell, an unchangeable hopeless place. The earthly consequence of sin similarly involves the loss of hope, but unlike hell where hopelessness is unchangeable, on earth hope can be restored. Last week, we began speaking about hope. We recall that people are created for hope. Throughout our life we move from hope to hope. Hope is what excites us and hope is what motivates us. However, in our living day-to-day our sense of hope, our movement from hope to hope, gets disrupted and dims when we sin and when we are on the receiving end of sin. From the list of 667 sins we would find that our hope dims because of adultery, anger, assault, bitterness, deception, falsely accusing, holding a grudge, selfishness, threatening, etc. I think you get the point.
Last week, I spoke with someone last week, we will call her Rose who lost hope. Rose lives alone. Rose’s close friend of many years became angry at her for reasons which are not clear. Since that then, this close friend has stopped talking to Rose, will not return her phone calls, stopped checking in to see if she was all right. Because of this mistreatment, because of this sinful behavior, Rose lost hope and then began believing that everything else in her life was falling apart. Sinful behavior had diminished and nearly extinguished Rose’s sense of hope. Life becomes unbearable without hope.
Hope is central and essential to our lives. God created us to move from hope to hope and therefore only God can provide a means of restoring hope in our lives. And God’s means through which hope is restored is called forgiveness. Forgiveness allows there to be another chance. Forgiveness holds out the possibility, the promise, and the reality that individuals, marriages, families, neighbors, friends, churches, and whole communities can be renewed, can mend what we have broken, can find what appeared to be completely lost, can build a bridge to that which seems permanently severed, can re-member and restored. Forgiveness brings to the comforting fire of hope back to flame and allows us once again to move from hope to hope.
Forgiveness leading the restoration of hope is God’s plan. Forgiveness was central to God’s development of his special relationship with the Hebrew people. We recall from our Old Testament reading today that Aaron, the chief priest of the Hebrew people, was to lead to the atonement of sin among the Hebrew people. He was to “lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task. 22 The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness.” This was the means of forgiving sin between the people and God. This is called Yom Kippur and is still celebrated in the Jewish community today. Yom Kippur is coupled with Teshuva, a time to repentance and forgiveness between and among the people. It is the time to stop the sinful behavior, confess the nature of those behaviors, express regret, commit to stop the behaviors in the future, and to seek forgiveness. God’s plan was for the restoration of hope by having his people turn away from hurtful, harmful, sinful behaviors and to seek forgiveness for the past. Our bulletin today carries an image with the words, “Forgiving the past creates hope for the future.”
When the time was right, God advanced his plan of forgiveness and hope from the Hebrew people alone to all people. He did not extend the practice of laying the sins of the people on a scapegoat and sending the goat into the wilderness. God’s plan was much more personal and much more complete. God sent his son, Jesus, into the world. Jesus came to reveal the character of the invisible God to all the people and lead the people to understand the nature and extent of God’s forgiveness. Jesus also came to take the penalty of all our sins upon himself, freeing us to live new lives restored in hope. Our New Testament reading today gave us a wonderful insight into the power of forgiveness and its relationship to hope.
The story began this way. “2 At dawn he [Jesus] appeared again in the temple courts.” Jesus was in the place of prayer and worship of God. The sanctuary of the Lord is the first place we should want to go when hope is dimmed and the last place we want conflict. That was true then and remains true today. It was to the temple that Jesus went to be with the people and there John wrote, “he [Jesus] sat down to teach them.” This is a wonderful scene.
Suddenly, noise and harsh words intrude that sacred space. “3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery.” The women had sinned. She had engaged in adultery by having sexual relations with a man who was not here spouse. Adultery is listed in the top 10 of the 667 sins in the Bible. Adultery represents a violation of God’s design for marriage that a husband and wife are to cleave together; there is not to be three or more people in a marriage. On a human level, adultery was and is a serious breach of trust. This woman’s sin, no doubt committed in private, was now on public display. Now that her sin was publicly exposed she could see her relationship with God, her husband, her family, neighbors, and friends was ruined.
John wrote, “They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’” This woman was in a desperate situation and now found herself threatened with death. This woman’s fate, her life, was in the hands of Jesus. Things must have seemed quite hopeless for her. A person without hope is already crushed and, in many ways, is experiencing death.
John’s next two words are most important, “But Jesus.” These words, “But Jesus,” signals to the reader that but for Jesus, the situation was completely hopeless. “But Jesus,” was a signal that something unexpected, something not of human thought and human origin was about to take place. “But Jesus,” was sign that hope was still present.
“But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.” We do not know what Jesus wrote. Whatever Jesus wrote did not break the fixation the crowd of religious people had in demanding an answer from Jesus as to the fate of this woman. The crowd, really a mob, was only interested in trying to use the situation to steal the hope other people were placing in Jesus.
“7 When they kept on questioning him [Jesus], he straightened up and said to them [the religious leaders], ‘Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.” “But Jesus,” reminded the mob that we are all sinners and are all subject to the weight and consequence of sin. Sounds like that scary Baptist minister coming out of Jesus, “You are all sinners. Unless you repent of your sins, you are damned to hell.” “But Jesus,” made the point to the mob that on another day, another moment in time, they could be standing alone, accused and hopeless because of their sin.
John wrote that upon hearing Jesus’ words the mob began to break up and people “began to go away one at a time [with] the older ones first.” It was unfortunate the mob left because they did not see firsthand the rest of the story. There was another “But Jesus,” moment in which Jesus showed how hope can be restored.
John wrote, the mob “began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.” “But for Jesus,” the woman was alone. Physical death did not seem likely, however, the woman remained hopeless before God, her husband, her family, and her neighbors. Her very private sin was still very public.
John wrote, “10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? [Where is the mob?] Has no one condemned you?” Jesus’ questions are, of course, not seeking information. They never are. Questions from Jesus are always confession seeking. They seek the person receiving the question to speak aloud what is going on in their life, in their heart, and in their thoughts. Jesus questions get people to engage in open conversation with him. They are designed to help us speak in an authentic manner and this is important when we pray. What does it mean to be authentic in prayer? We need to be real with God. We need to think about God as being as close to us as the woman was to Jesus. We need to honest about our feelings and our failings. We need to approach God just as we are and to seek direction on honoring him with our lives. In this scene, Jesus wants to woman to talk to him authentically about her circumstances. To reflect on the most important moment of her life. “Is there no longer anyone here to condemn you?” 11 “‘No one, sir,’ she said.”
I can imagine the seconds of silence now ticked away between this woman and Jesus. Each second feeling longer and weightier than the last. Finally, Jesus broke the silence, “Then neither do I condemn you.” Jesus had forgiven the woman of her sin, restoring her before God, and renewing hope.
Jesus instructed the woman on how to live again with hope. Jesus said, “Go now and leave your life of sin.” This was the hope the woman needed. I can well imagine the woman who entered the temple with tears of terror and regret now leaving the temple with tears of joy and relief fueled by hope. Hope is the confident expectation of a future filled with promise and meaning because it is secured by God. The forgiveness the woman received gave her the courage to face life ahead knowing she was accepted by God. God’s forgiveness gives hope.
God’s forgiveness of us empowers us to forgive others and restore hope. Forgiveness must be at the heart of our relationships with one another because it is at the heart of our relationship with God. When I perform a wedding ceremony I issue a pastoral charge to the couple upon them from Scripture just before they share their vows. I share with them these words, “Come now and ‘…clothe yourselves with compassion, with kindness, with humility, with gentleness and with patience. Bear with each other and forgive any grievances that may arise. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Col 3). We love and we forgive because we hope. We hope because God has forgiven us.
Forgiveness does not make the past disappear. Forgiveness allows the past to be the past. Forgiveness allows the future to be lived with hope. Because Jesus died for you, because he forgave your sins, you will not go to hell. Because Jesus forgave you, you have the power to forgive one another. You and I have the power of hope. Let us then use it and forgive and the Lord has forgiven us. Let us pray.