Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ash Wednesday 2013

John 8:1-11

Here we are, once again, at the start of Lent. And I wonder what your expectations of Lent are. Perhaps you see it as an austere season, even a severe season. Perhaps you see it as an endurance test. Perhaps you see it as a strange observance belonging to another time. Perhaps you have no idea what Lent is all about.

Might I suggest that Lent is a season of intimacy with the God who created you and who has good plans for your life?

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. And God drew out the land from the waters of the sea. And God drew out the dustling from the dust of the ground, impressing it with God’s own stamp and seal, and breathing God’s own life into it. And God drew out all kinds of trees from the ground. And God placed the dustling he had drawn out from the ground in a garden, to take care of the ground and of the trees that grew from the ground: to help the ground to fulfil God’s intention for it, and to help that which sprang forth from the ground to fulfil God’s intention for it too.

And God took the dustling and drew out male and female; the woman to correspond to the man, two parts of one whole; the woman to be a deliverer for the man just as God would declare himself to be a deliver to humanity.

And God said, walk with me. But the serpent said, “God is hiding himself from you, is keeping all that you could be from you: don’t settle for that!” And the dustling was deceived, and tried to take what had already been given – a share in God’s identity. This catastrophic event broke the connection between God and the dustling; between male and female within the dustling; between the dustling and the ground from which we were taken, and the plants that also sprang up from the ground. A breaking down so total that in time – not straight away, but over time – the life-breath would depart from dustlings and dustlings would return to dust.

And yet, God sets clear limits on the consequences. The serpent is cursed, to eat dust. The ground is cursed. But the dustling is not cursed. Death will come as a release, not as the final word on the matter. And from the woman would come life; a son who would avenge her, crushing the serpent’s head.

All these things should look on with us as we turn our eyes to Jesus in the temple. He has been here since celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles, the annual act of remembering that God had drawn his people out of slavery in Egypt and met with them in the wilderness, where he had provided living water from the rock, and had shaped a broken rabble into a nation to be a light to the nations. Jesus is causing quite a stir, and while the people are drawn to him, the chief priests and the Pharisees are increasingly hardening their hearts towards him.

It is early in the morning, and Jesus is sitting in the temple courts, teaching, when he is rudely interrupted. The self-righteous drag a woman before him, a woman caught in the act of adultery. It is a trap. The Law of Moses commands that such a woman be stoned, they say: will Jesus set aside the Law?

Of course, they care little for the Law. The Law commands that both parties guilty of adultery, the man and the woman, be put to death. This woman is not suspected of promiscuity; she is, allegedly, caught in the act of adultery. If these men were concerned about the Law, they would be bringing the man before Jesus too. The woman is merely a pawn: entrapped. For how would a gang of men happen to be at hand if not waiting? And if entrapped, possibly raped – in which case, the Law might require only the death of the man. But there is no man brought for judgement. Or rather, the man being accused is Jesus. God who said, ‘Do not commit adultery’ also said, ‘Do not bring false testimony against your neighbour’ – and in seeking to entrap Jesus, they are playing one commandment off against another.

Jesus ignores them. Instead, he writes on the ground with his finger – a common teaching tool. Perhaps he is going back to his teaching, bringing to mind his interrupted train of thought. The more the religious thugs demand a response, the more he carries on ignoring them, refusing to be drawn into their game – their game of pretending to be more righteous than the woman; their game of pretending to be more righteous than Jesus.

Until at last, the trap springs shut: but Jesus has sidestepped it, and rescued the woman with him; the fowlers caught in their own snare. “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Jesus was without sin. And yet he chose to so fully identify with sinners that he sides with those who do not dare throw the first stone. He chose to identify with the very men seeking to trap him, as well as with the woman who happened to find herself caught up in their hatred. He chose not to stone the woman, but to crush the serpent’s head. He chose to point his finger not in accusation, but to point towards freedom.

This is a story about creation, un-creation, and new creation. We are all dustlings, drawn from the ground, sharing a common humanity, made for unity, made to fight for one another not against one another. Stoning someone to death is the ultimate act of un-creation: taking stones from the ground to return a dustling to dust. Jesus is not looking for un-creation, but new creation. He is stirring something in the dust, writing a new story. Yes, the woman was entrapped, but it is likely that something about how she lived her life made her vulnerable to such a trap: perhaps she would not dare to speak out the truth of this situation, because her accusers held some other secret over her. Jesus does not condemn her, but neither does he say it does not matter. It matters greatly; enough to put his own life on the line. “Go now and leave your life of sin” he tells her...and not only her, but those still close enough to overhear.

The season of Lent is an invitation to reacquaint ourselves with dust...

To rediscover our connectedness within God’s creation, where we have become disconnected...

To see our fellow dustlings with solidarity and compassion, where we have viewed them with suspicion and contempt, where we have viewed ourselves as above others...

To allow Jesus to draw patterns in the dust, our lives not set in stone but something altogether more dynamic, able to adapt.

It is a season to humble ourselves, but also to learn to love ourselves in yet another year of our decaying dustiness, our frailty and wretchedness; and to love our dusty neighbour as ourselves; as we are made new, not by our own efforts but by the One who loves us.

This Lent, may you find yourself in the dust at Jesus’ feet;

and may you wait there:

wait while he ignores the accusations brought against you, brought against him;

wait until the voices fall silent and the accusers turn away;

wait, until transformed by his grace, you are set free to go, and leave your life of sin...

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