Caught in the Act

It is a tragic epithet on the gravestone of a woman named Grace, whose life was lived out in Texas during the 19th century, when life was hard and death came early. There is no date of birth, no date of death, just the names of two husbands and these words: Sleeps, but rests not. Loved, but was loved not. Tried to please, but pleased not. Died as she lived – alone.

And I wonder how many Graces there are out there who live lives of quiet suffering, alone and lost in a world that has dismissed them, that has sucked the life out of them and cast them aside.

Turn with me to the first verse of John 8:
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. What do you say about her?” 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 with his finger on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus looked 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 do not sin again.”

Two scenes were taking place during this night:

Out on the Mount of Olives Jesus was spending the night in prayer. His thoughts were on God, he was concerned with doing the will of the Father.

Across the Kidron Valley in the city of Jerusalem, Jewish leaders were setting a trap. They were setting up a woman by orchestrating an affair. She was not innocent, but she was a pawn, bait for the trap. They waited until the moment, peering through the window, and bursting into her bedroom they caught her in the act, clutched in the embrace of a man who was not her husband. In humiliation they dragged her from the room, leaving the man to skulk away, ashamed but irrelevant to their purposes. They brought her to the temple and waited for the morning to come. Their thoughts were not on God, their concern was with their plan and successfully ending the career and life of this so-called Messiah.

As dawn broke, Jesus made his way across the valley to the eastern gate of Jerusalem, and from there he walked through the streets of Jerusalem that were just now awakening with the sounds of a new morning. He arrived at the temple courts and sat down in a corner to teach the crowds who began to gather. They huddled close, they listened intently – his teaching captured their hearts. It was unlike anything they had ever heard, certainly not like anything the teachers of the law and the Pharisees taught. When they taught, the burden grew heavier, they felt distant from God and unworthy to seek his love. But when Jesus taught, they felt as though their thirst was quenched with living water, their hearts were lifted, and God desired to have them near.

And so they gathered, crowding in around this teacher who seemed to have the words of life.

Suddenly a commotion arose as the Pharisees and the teachers pushed their way through the crowd dragging a half naked woman behind them. In their hands were stones, in their hearts was murder. And when they came to Jesus, they threw her in a heap at Jesus’ feet and began to make their accusations.

“This woman was caught in the act of adultery.” Witnesses stepped forward and said, “That is the woman – I saw her in the act” – and they spit on her in contempt. The woman began to weep – she has no alibi, no denial – she is as guilty as she looks. And then the leader of the group sprang the trap, “In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?” And with a smug look of satisfaction he looked at Jesus and waited for an answer. He knew he had him. It didn’t matter what he said. If he agreed with the accusation, they would stone the woman as Jesus watched and he would lose his credibility as a teacher – heartlessly condemning this woman to death. If he defended the woman, they would accuse him of breaking the Law and they would stone him and the woman together. Either way, Jesus was finished.

They stood ready with their stones – they smelled blood, they were ready to finally have done with this teacher who was humiliating them before the people with his pious talk of being the Son of God.

Slowly, Jesus bent down and began to write in the dirt with his finger. One of the great mysteries of the New Testament is what Jesus wrote that morning. If you think about it, this is the same finger that etched the commandment on the stone tablets at Sinai, the same finger that wrote on Belshazzar’s wall. He now writes in the sand on the ground of the temple court while everyone watches, holding their breath. The Pharisees continue to question, demanding an answer. “What do you say? Innocent or guilty? Let us have your answer.”

I’m sorry if you’ve heard the story before, because you know what happens next. You don’t get to experience the surprise of hearing Jesus utter the most incredible words, and see the response that would leave you speechless.

Jesus paused, arose and spoke, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And then he stooped back down and continued to write.

The young looked at the old, the old looked in their hearts. And they were the first to turn and leave. The younger pause to think, and then they too, drop their stones and turn and walk away. The only sound is the thud of rocks and the shuffle of feet. Jesus and the woman are alone.

Finally, Jesus looks up and seems surprised that she is still there. “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, Lord,” she said. And then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go now, but sin no more.”

This woman had been cast out, left for dead. Her fate was sealed, she was a lost cause. Except for those five words. “Neither do I condemn you.” Suddenly, hope beyond hope, she has been given a second chance. The only one who had the right to condemn her, acquits her. “Neither do I condemn you.”

If you’ve ever wondered how God reacts when you fail, frame those words and hang them on your wall. That is the recurring chorus of grace throughout the scriptures.
“At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” (Rom. 5:6)
“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21)
“But, because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved.” (Eph. 2:4-5)
“Having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:7)

How does God feel about you? He made you with his own hands, it is his breath that he breathed into you giving you life. How does God feel about you? Moms, how did you feel about that baby that came into your life after nine months of carrying them and ten hours of labor? Dads, how did you feel when the nurse handed you that baby and said, “Say hello to your daughter”?

It’s a ridiculous question. God loves you more than you could ever know. He cherishes you. Have you disobeyed him? More than you’d like to admit. Have you disappointed him? At times. Has he ever quit loving you? Not a chance.

This woman that the Pharisees dragged before Jesus, had made some bad choices in her life. I doubt this was the first time she had been in another man’s bed. When they were looking for a woman to fit the bill, her name probably came to everyone’s mind. When the Pharisees accused Jesus of being a friend of tax collectors and sinners – she’s exactly who they were thinking of. She was a sinner – everyone knew it – she knew it. And when they dragged her before Jesus, without a doubt, the law condemned her.

And when that moment comes for you to stand before the judgment seat, you too would stand condemned under the law. Paul wrote, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.” (Rom. 3:20) Like the Pharisees who stood with stones in hand ready to administer justice, Satan will stand accusing you, demanding justice, because you are a sinner and stand condemned by your sin.

But the one who stood between the crowd and this woman is the same one who stands between you and Satan’s accusations. The finger that wrote in the sand that morning is the same finger that wrote your name in the Book of Life. And the one who said, “Neither do I condemn you” to the woman is the same one who says to you, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1)

Satan doesn’t like that. There were some Pharisees that didn’t like that. And the truth is, there are some Christians who don’t like that. Rules are rules and there are consequences for breaking the rules. Grace is a slippery slope and once you start forgiving people for breaking rules where do you stop?

Now understand, this isn’t cheap grace; that is, grace that we bestow on ourselves, that dismisses sin as insignificant or irrelevant, that ignores the cross and the price that was paid. Cheap grace is no grace at all. The grace of God is costly; costly because it cost him everything. He doesn’t dismiss sin as insignificant or irrelevant – he looked at the ugliness and wickedness of sin, and sent his son to the cross to pay the price of redeeming us from that life of sin.

And so, when Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you” he knew the price that he would pay for that forgiveness he had just bestowed on this broken woman. And when he then says, “Go and sin no more,” he isn’t pushing her back under the law, but fully releasing her from the grip of sin.

It’s exactly what Paul will later write to the Galatians, “It is for freedom that Christ has set you free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Gal. 5:1)

Grace is never a license to live however we please, but the freedom to live how God designed us to live. The grace of God doesn’t dismiss sin flippantly, but looks into the face of sin and says, “You no longer rule my life.”

Jesus could have preached a sermon to her on the evils of adultery and immorality. He could have given her a ten page list of all the behaviors that she should avoid that got her where she was in the first place. He could have given her a disapproving look and told her “I’m so disappointed in you” and shamed her into a better life. But he didn’t. Shame never draws us closer to God. More rules will never create a life that is pleasing to God. The Jews proved that with the Law. They compounded the Law so as to create a straightjacket – thinking that if they made a rule for every possibility of life that they could perfectly keep the Law. But the Law – any law – is incapable of producing a righteous life. It will make for self-righteousness, for moral arrogance, for joyless legalism, but it will never bring a person closer to God. Only grace can do that.

So, when Jesus told the woman, “Go and sin no more,” he was setting her on the only real path to God. He was literally rewriting the script of her life, and if you could find the gravestone where her body was laid I suspect it would have written on it, “He set me free.”

Illustration – Mercy not justice
During the Civil War, a young soldier, standing guard duty, exhausted from battle, fell asleep at his post. During wartime, that is a crime punishable by death. The court marshal was swift and efficient, the witnesses gave their testimony, the prosecution rested. The presiding general asked if there was any statement from the accused before his sentencing. At that moment, a woman stood and asked the general to be heard. She was the mother of the young man and she began to beg the general for the life of her son. The general replied, “Ma’am, justice demands his death.” And the mother cried, “Sir, I’m not asking for justice, I’m asking for mercy.”

The Pharisees didn’t think they needed grace, they were certain they could earn God’s approval. They thought the forgiveness that Jesus gave that woman was inappropriate.
What do you think? Do you think Jesus’ forgiveness was appropriate? You would if you needed it. And you do.

None of us will be asking for justice, but mercy.