July 2, 2010

Stones and Sand, Law and Grace

By Brenda BillingyIt all began a few days ago when there was a major argument in our village about who this man, Jesus, really was. He had been teaching marvelous things, even though he was not educated under the Jewish system. And even though I’m not a church-going person, I heard on the street that he publicly attacked some of the Jewish traditions: The law—their precious law—that they hold so dear. His boldness caused some to wonder: Is he a prophet? Is he the Christ? Where did he come from? And how can we get rid of him before he divides the loyalty of the people?

The argument got so heated that Nicodemus (one of their own) had to remind them that they were judging the man without truly knowing or hearing from him. That was not the response they wanted to hear. My story (as I rehearsed it) involves a confession, a commitment, and a command.

2010 1524 page101. A confession from the mouth of a sinner: Guilty. Why? I broke the law.

Now, before I share the full story, I want you to hear it from me personally: I am guilty! That’s the cry of my confession. I broke the law!

It was early in the morning when I was awakened to the noise of voices in my house. Am I dreaming? Did I leave my door open? Or did someone break the lock? Before I could put it all together the noise was now around my bed—a group of men! What was happening? Is this a robbery? Would they kill us? Two strong hands grabbed me by the leg and dragged me off the bed onto the floor. I blacked out for a few seconds; but when I opened my eyes again, I noticed something strange: my partner was calmly getting dressed! The bed-sheet was thrown at me with the command: “Hide your shame! You’re coming with us.”

I was caught! But at the time I didn’t realize that I was caught to be taught!

2. A commitment from the minds of so-called saints: Condemn her! We uphold the law.

The cool breeze hit my warm body as they shoved me through the door into the group of disdaining faces, angry looks, sheepish smiles, judgmental finger pointing—all following behind as I was dragged through the streets. My heart raced. Where were they taking me? And why was I alone?

This felt like a death sentence, and I had no one to defend me. Then I heard the stern voice of an accuser, one of the guardians of the law: “Teacher [how humiliating that the teacher who had stirred up the village was present in the crowd!], this woman was caught in adultery—‘in the very act.’ [How did they know what I was doing? Who tipped them off?] Now in the Law [there they go with that law again!] Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do you say?” They were giving the teacher permission to pronounce my death sentence. And even though I was not a member of the Temple, I had seen what they did to other adulterous women in the past. The couple (both parties) would be stoned (according to the law in Deuteronomy 22:22-24). Questions began to flood my mind: Why were they now going against their own law by accusing me only? Why not my charming partner also?

There was silence as I awaited the verdict. With bowed head my eyes focused on the sand beneath my feet. From this vantage point I could see the teacher quietly stooping down, and with his finger he began writing in the sand. I was hoping he could do something to help, but I guess not. I didn’t deserve help. I was guilty and he was probably writing out my verdict for all to see.

This teacher was getting their attention by using a method that the people were accustomed to. The next few minutes seemed like an eternity, as the crowd kept pressing for a verbal response. I’m not sure why they wanted the teacher to say something, but eventually, as he stood up, I heard his voice—not angry, but strangely calm though stern: “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” I closed my eyes, covered my head, and waited for the first stone of death to be hurled at me.

If stones could talk, I wonder what they would have to say? Would they be satisfied to be used as instruments for murder? Or would they prefer to be known as objects that represent the condition of the human heart?

The commitment was to condemn her; we uphold the law! But then came the command: “Throw the first stone!”

Does that mean that he believed in the law? Maybe—except that the teacher’s tone of voice was implying that only perfect people would be allowed to engage in stoning. Were there any perfect people in the crowd?

As I think about it now, I was not the only adulterer in the crowd that day; therefore, I should not be the only person condemned to die.

“And again He stooped down and wrote on the sand.”

2010 1524 page10Every head leaned forward to read the message, stones in hand. I dared not look. But evidently the sand-writing conflicted with the command for stone-throwing. Whatever he was writing was obviously beginning to expose the sins of the onlookers—from the oldest to the youngest. The silence was broken with a thud! The sounds of stones dropping! But not one was thrown in my direction. Then I heard the quick shuffle of sandals walking away in the sand.

Jesus and I were the only ones left after the crowd vanished. Would he be the one to cast the first stone? With a motion of his hand, he stood up; and with an intensely loving smile he asked the obvious question: “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” To be sure, I looked around, and all I could see was the landscape decorated with abandoned stones.

“No one. No one, Sir.”

Then with the most compassionate tone in his voice, he said, “Neither do I condemn you.”

3. A command—from the heart of a Savior: Forgive her. Grace is greater than the law.

Can I really return home?

He read my thoughts. “Yes, go your way, but, from now on, sin no more.”

Tears of grace stung my eyes as I realized that for the first time I had found someone who knew my sin but loved me despite my sin; someone who was willing to forgive and erase my sins, regarding them as if they’d never been recorded.

For even though there was a confession of my guilt, a commitment to condemnation, and a command to forgive, I knew someone would still have a question—from the logic of the spectator, namely: “Is grace license to disobey the law?”

There was only one way back home: the same way I was dragged to the Temple. This time I held stones in my hand to remind me of saving grace, freedom from the death I deserved.

So what should I do now?

Jesus stooped for me. So then, I can stand for Him! I can’t go back to my old way of living. Adultery would be like spitting in the face of grace and the Giver of grace.

So here’s what I’ll do—Jesus and I: We’ll beat them at their own game. From this day forward, I’ll keep the law to prove to them that I’ve been changed. But I’ll forever treasure His grace to remind me that I’ve been saved.

*This message is based on John 8:1-11.

Brenda Billingy, senior pastor, Metropolitan Seventh-day Adventist Church, Hyattsville, Maryland, U.S.A.