Reformation Day 2011

October 30, 2011




John 8:1-12

(1) but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.

(2) Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them.

(3) The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst

(4) they said to him, "Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery.

(5) Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?"

(6) 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.

(7) 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."

(8) And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground.

(9) 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.

(10) Jesus stood up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?"

(11) She said, "No one, Lord." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more."]]

(12) 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."

Amen. The word of God. Thanks be to God.


Old Jack and old John, two elders on the session of the First Church of Sheboygen, were always at odds with each other. They were constantly at each others' throat especially at church meetings. When one of them said "yea," the other would certainly say "nay." So, one day old Jack dies and arrives at the pearly gate. He notices that St. Peter asks everyone a question, before they enter. When it was his turn, St. Peter said: "Hi Jack, to see if you qualify for heaven, I need to ask you to spell Jesus for me." "That's easy," says Jack, "J-E-S-U-S." Peter said: "Great, you're in, but could you do me a small favor and take over here for a while; I just need to check on something. I'll be back." Of course, Jack did not mind and he began asking everyone in line to spell Jesus. Just then, old John came through the line. "What are you doing here?" asked old John. Said Jack; "I am just filling in for St. Peter asking everybody to spell a word before they can pass through." "O yeah, what's the word?" asked John. After thinking for a moment Jack said: "spell Albuquerque! You turkey"

I guess that Jack was not in a forgiving mood. Today is Reformation Day. Today we remember that on 31 October 1517, Martin Luther wrote to Albrecht, Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg, protesting the sale of indulgences. He enclosed in his letter a copy of his "Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences," which came to be known as The 95 Theses. He also nailed those same 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenburg Germany. Luther objected to the sale of “indulgences.” An indulgence was forgiveness of sins. Johann Tetzel was the super-salesman of indulgences in Germany. Tetzel supposedly said, "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs." In other words, you can buy your way out of your sins and into heaven. Luther was outraged by this. He insisted forgiveness of sins comes from God alone.

That brings us to John 8. Jesus was in the temple in Jerusalem and by this time he is a famous rabbi, for we are told in v2 that “ All the people came to him.” They want to hear what he had to say. So, “he sat down and taught them.”

Then Jesus was confronted with an incident. The scribes and the Pharisees brought forth a woman and forced her to stand there before that gathering, and they said to Jesus, “Rabbi, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. The Law of Moses commands us to stone such women. So what do you say?"

You wonder what happened to the man here. The last time I checked it takes at least two people to commit adultery, and Mosiac law commanded that both the man and the woman be stoned to death, but somehow the man has vanished.

Also, there is another problem. Jesus was not a court of law. He was not authorized by the Jewish authorities to pass sentence on this woman. But he was a rabbi, a teacher of the law, and thus he could give his interpretation of the law, and that is what they are asking for.

Now in v6, we have an editorial note by the writer of the gospel that scribes and pharisees brought this case before Jesus “to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him.” We wonder how the writer knows that, how does he know their motives? In any case, Jesus did not immediately respond to their question. He was already sitting on the ground, so he bent over and began to write on the ground. What did he write? We do not know. Some have supposed he was writing down the sins of the accusers. In any case, they kept after him for an opinion. “You claim to be a rabbi, a teacher of the law,” so they said, “OK give us an opinion on the law.”

There was no question that the woman was guilty. She had been caught in the very act. There was no question about what the law said, execution was the penalty. But what was Jesus going to say?

Finally, in v7, he replies, "Let him who is without sin among you throw the first stone." The Jewish method of execution was by throwing stones at a person until that person was dead, and the witnesses against the person were supposed to throw the first stone. But notice that what Jesus said was not an opinion on the law at all. Rather Jesus comments on human sinfulness. In Reformation theology, this is called the doctrine of Total Depravity—which has an ugly sound to it. Total Depravity says that every human being, without exception, is a sinner, and a slave to sin, and is unable to follow God and unable to even choose to accept salvation. Thus no one deserves to go to heaven, no one is saved on their own merits.

What Jesus did in John 8 was to make his audience aware of their own sinfulness. Given the perversity of people, I am surprised he was able to do this. I would have thought that there would have been some numbskulls in the group who would have said, “I am not a sinner,” and grabbed a rock.

But Jesus had the presence of God about him and he moved his audience to think about themselves and their own relationship with God and to realize their own sinfulness, so that they were ashamed of their accusations against the woman, and they all gradually backed away and disappeared down the alley. In V10, Jesus said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She replied, "No one, Lord." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more."

Again, this is straight Reformation Theology. The woman has broken the law. She is guilty. She does not deserve forgiveness. Jesus forgives her anyway. Now we might ask, how can Jesus do this sort of thing? Where did he get the authority to do this? V12 responds to that question. Jesus said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." Jesus is God incarnate. He can free us from our sins.

But the first thing we need to understand is the same thing that the scribes and Pharisees needed to understand. We are all sinners. Romans 3:10-11: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.”

I suppose most of us have read, at least occasionally, Dear Abby. Dear Abby is an advice column founded in 1956 by Pauline Phillips under the pen name Abigail Van Buren and carried on today by her daughter, Jeanne Phillips. One of the most famous letters that Dear Abby ever received was from a lady named Rose. She wrote: “Dear Abby, I am 44 and would like to meet a man my age with no bad habits.” Abby answered: “Dear Rose: So would I.” Abby’s answer is right on target. There are no perfect people. That is what Jesus said in John 8. You are accusing this woman, but you do the same thing or worse.

We have all made mistakes--said things we should not have said, done things we should not have done. One of the biggest mistakes I ever heard about was the careless baker who started the great fire of London. It began on a Sunday in the inauspicious year of 1666. Thomas Farriner had a bakery on Pudding Lane in London. He lived upstairs over the bakery. He thought he put out the fires in his ovens before he went to bed. Huge mistake. The fire that broke out in his bakery swept through central London and gutted the city. It consumed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, including St. Paul's Cathedral.

Most of our mistakes are not that spectacular, we say the wrong thing and feel guilty about it afterwards. In our anguish we say, “I’ll never do that again!” How many times have we said that? “Never again,” but then we do it again, that same ugly sin. It just keeps coming back and we cannot seem to get past it.

This is the one common thread that we all share, people of all tribes and nations, races and tongues, we are sinners. In the responsive reading from Romans 3 today, Paul puts it in plain language, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” It was that way even in Eden, where Adam and Eve sinned. It’s been that way for all descendants of Adam and Eve: for the prophets and the people of times past; for pastors and parishioners today. We are all in the same briar patch. Who is the sinner? It is not them. It is us.

But there is some good news also. It is in the passage we read from John 8. God is willing to forgive. Jesus forgave the woman. Jesus will forgive us.

But there’s a problem. We forget. It is not a pleasant thing to be reminded that our very nature is flawed. Paul’s words, “All have sinned,” burn. Nobody likes to hear that. So, like memories of a bad dream, people ignore it. This is called selective amnesia. Further along in John 8, down in v31 and 32, Jesus is teaching his disciples and he said to them, "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."

But his disciples are insulted. They denied that they needed anybody to free them. “We are children of Abraham,” they say. “We have never been enslaved. We do not need to be set free.”

Talk about short memories. Jesus could have replied, “Have you ever heard of the Exodus? You know, the parting of the Red Sea? Pharaoh’s army chasing our ancestors through the desert?” That event was the foundation of Judaism. Moses lead them out of slavery in Egypt. But now, all of a sudden, they have amnesia. And what about the Roman legions parading up and down Palestine. What about the Roman Procurator, Pontius Pilate? How could any Jew ever forget that?

Nevertheless, the disciples forgot. Maybe they just did not want to remember. They do not want to admit that they were and still are slaves. And we are slaves, that is what Paul tells us in Romans, slaves to sin.

There are two fundamental mistakes that we make as we confront our sinfulness. The first is selective amnesia—to forget that the woman to be stoned, that sinner, is just like us, needing God’s forgiveness. We forget that we are slaves to sin needing to be freed.

The second mistake is that we think we can solve the problem ourselves. We believe that somehow, by jumping through religious hoops, we can earn God’s favor. That has been the corporate problem of the church for centuries. The church sold forgiveness. Or the church prescribed ritualistic prayers and pilgrimages. The church said, go to Rome or to Jerusalem or to Lourdes. The church offered everything except the truth that makes people free.

The Reformation that we celebrate today is critical. We do not look back with nostalgia to the events of some 500 years ago. Celebrating the Reformation is important because it points us to the awesome truth of the gospel. While we were sinners, Christ died to give us a relationship with God. That is the answer to that ugly phrase “Total Depravity.” Christ is the answer.

If you follow the news about biblical antiquities, you know that about ten years ago, the Discovery Channel and the Biblical Archaeology Society combined to air an episode on TV regarding a 2000 year old ossury. An ossury is a chalk box that contained the bones of the dead. On this particular box, an Aramaic inscription was cut into one side. It reads, in English, "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." This ossury caused a lot of excitement, because it could be the first and only archeological evidence of Jesus of Nazareth, but in 2003, the Israeli Antiquities Authority announced that the inscription was a forgery. The owner of the ossuary is Oded Golan, an Israeli engineer and antiquities collector. In December 2004, Golan was charged with 44 counts of forgery, fraud and deception, including forgery of the Ossuary inscription. On October 3, 2010 court proceedings for the trial of Golan concluded, however, as far as I know, right now a judgment has not been rendered.

So what is the truth about the James Ossury Box? I do not know. We may never know. And that is all right because that is not the kind of truth Jesus was talking about.

The truth is that we are sinners. We all know that. No one would even argue about that. We need forgiveness. Jesus came to offer that forgiveness and set us free. That is what the Reformation was about. Romans 3:24, We “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”


If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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