The Lord be exalted

Sermon for the fourth Sunday in Lent
Psalm 40 and John 7:53-8:11

Over this searching season of Lent I’ve had us reading from the psalms—generally lament psalms reflecting experiences of dislocation and disorientation—and now here on this fourth Sunday I’ve selected a psalm that seems rather thoroughly rooted in an experience of having been graciously re-oriented. As you heard those verses read aloud, you might have even supposed that I was trying to press us past the desert themes of Lent and past the challenges of Holy Week and Good Friday, straight to Easter:

I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.

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The psalmist then goes on to write of being given a new song of praise, of the happiness given to those who “make the Lord their trust,” and even of the “delight” he takes in doing God’s will and following God’s law. Happiness and delight… in Lent? Lest you think my Lenten resolve is crumbling, never fear.

At verse 11 the psalmist does something unexpected. After ten verses of thankfulness and steadfastness, he shifts into lament. Listen.

Do not, O Lord, withhold
your mercy from me;
let your steadfast love and your faithfulness
keep me safe for ever.
For evils have encompassed me
without number;
my iniquities have overtaken me,
until I cannot see;
they are more than the hairs of my head,
and my heart fails me.

Rather than following the more conventional psalm pattern in which the writer opens with an expression of need or guilt or pain, and then moves to a cry for help and a proclamation of God’s long-haul faithfulness, here the psalmist has reversed the order. Here in Psalm 40, the first move is to mark God’s goodness in saving the writer from the muck, and only then to confess that he has again landed himself in some kind of deep trouble. Evils “without number” have encompassed him; his own sin has so overtaken him that he can no longer even see; his heart is failing him. And all of this is happening even though he had previously been saved and made secure; had already experienced the near presence of the merciful God. And do you know why this psalm has this shape? Because life is like that.

Alongside of Psalm 40 we also heard the famous story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, in which he makes those extraordinary statements: “Let anyone among you who is without sin throw the first stone” and “Neither do I condemn you: go, and sin no more.” You know the story. Jesus is teaching at the temple when a group of scribes and Pharisees drag before him a woman who has been caught in adultery. “Teacher,” they say, “this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. In the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” As with other incidents in the gospels, it is all staged as a trap, to see if they can trip Jesus up and show him as being less then faithful to the law. Notice, too, that there is no sign of the man who was part of this adulterous affair. Given the warmth and respect with which Jesus treated women, he certainly would not have missed that little detail…

“Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground,” and all the while they continued to press him for a response. Finally, “he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin throw the first stone.’ And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.” Over the centuries there has been all kinds of speculation as to the meaning of his writing on the ground. Was he tracing out words and phrases like “bear false witness” or “covet”; sins also prohibited in the Ten Commandments, but into which even the most righteous Pharisee could easily slide? We can’t possibly know, of course, but what we do know is that “When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders.”

And then comes that great question: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” No, no one has remained to condemn her; no one has been able to stand in the face of his challenge. “And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you: go, and sin no more.’” I imagine that as she left that place she would have been quite resolved that she would never—never—get involved with that man again. I also suspect that she might have been praying words not unlike those with which Psalm 40 begins: you lifted me up out of the pit, you saved my sorry life, God’s name be praised.

Yet do you think for one minute that she never again found herself in a place of sin? We don’t know anything about her, other than there was something in her—need, vulnerability, want, loneliness, something—that had landed her in bed with that man in the first place. Much as she might swear off ever seeing him again, maybe he was no less wounded than she was, and maybe they’d again find themselves tempted to seek solace in each other. Or maybe she’d find herself isolated and alienated in an unforgiving community, looking across the road at the woman who seemed to have such a strong marriage, great family, and full life. Maybe she’d find herself coveting that life, perhaps so jealously that she’d find herself loathing that neighbour woman. Or loathing herself, which would be the first step back into deeper trouble.

While I was away on vacation last month, Helen Kennedy preached a sermon on Matthew 5:21-37, that I’ve since heard called her “Johnny Depp Sermon.” As Helen began to unpack that very challenging gospel text, she admitted that she had “lusted after Johnny Depp for many years,” and then added that she had also experienced “murderous thoughts about a whole host of people, some of whom are in this room.” Of course everyone laughed at these confessions, but maybe because they rang with a level of familiarity for everyone present. Life is like that, too, you see, because our emotions and motivations can be so complex, and our points of weakness and vulnerability so very real. I’d be hard-pressed to find a clergy colleague who had not sat with someone as they agonized over some sexual infidelity, trying to make sense of how she or he had managed to get so far off track.

And so when that woman Jesus had rescued from the crowd again found herself in a place of sin—found herself faltering as surely as we all do—I wonder if she just locked herself into a place of deep shame, believing that the grace once offered her was no longer available. Jesus had told her that he would not condemn her that day, and that she was to go and sin no more… and yet she had.

Still, if that woman Jesus rescued or any one of us takes seriously what this psalmist prays, we have to know that there is yet another horizon beyond the second and third and fourth fall. Knowing what it is to be rescued from the muck and mire and then to fall back into trouble again, this psalmist can write,

As for me, I am poor and needy,
but the Lord takes thought for me.
You are my help and my deliverer;
do not delay, O my God.

And he does give God a bit of a push in that closing line, doesn’t he? “Do not delay, O my God,” or as Eugene Peterson renders it in his translation, “You can do it [Lord]; you’ve got what it takes—but God, don’t put it off.” But even the push—the firm elbow to the divine ribs—is itself an act of faith in the mercy of God.

The decisions we make, they do matter. Jesus strongly challenges people to live with integrity. And yet, seventy times seven is how Jesus audaciously numbered things when Peter asked him about forgiveness, and we do well to remember that whenever we confess the truth about the shape of our own lives, and each time we are tempted look in judgment upon the lives of others. For in truth, the Lord “takes thought” for each and every one of us… even as we stumble the second or seventh or seventieth time, we can be lifted up out of the mire and set firmly on a rock; the Lord be exalted.


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