A sermon for the Ash Wednesday Parish Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey, preached on 26 February 2020 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods
It is, at first sight, a strange choice for an Ash Wednesday Gospel, the story of the woman taken in adultery [John 8.2-11]. The Church has always had difficulty with it, and has sometimes tried to suppress it. That is why it has probably become detached from its original context: the gentleness Jesus displayed towards the woman was at odds with the stern penitential discipline practised by the early Church. Few scholars believe the passage belongs in the fourth Gospel. Some see evidence of Luke’s hand. The story was certainly well-known in the second century. It has always refused to be suppressed. In it I believe we hear the authentic voice of the Saviour.
But why read it on Ash Wednesday? Lent is supposed to be about resisting temptation and – as one book I read recently expressed it rather heartily – putting on spiritual muscle. But that’s just the point. Lent precisely is not meant to be an opportunity for a spiritual workout, a dose of self-improvement. It is not about giving up chocolate or alcohol or sugar in your tea (though these things may become part of how you live Lent). It is about honesty. It is about searing honesty with yourself about yourself, and searing honesty with God about yourself.
That is why Jesus went into the desert for forty days before the start of his earthly ministry. Mark tells us less about it than Matthew or Luke, but as so often with Mark, less is more. Jesus has been baptised by John in the Jordon, and then ‘the Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on him.’ [Mark 1.12-13]
‘The Spirit drove him out into the wilderness.’ Whose Spirit? His Spirit, the Holy Spirit. Why? To discover himself, to learn about himself, to explore the depths of his being, to discover who he was and what he was called to do. The Spirit is always ourselves in the depths of what we are. The Spirit is you at the profoundest level of your being, at the level where you can no longer distinguish between what is you and what is greater than you. In the wilderness Jesus meets himself, discovers himself – and in doing so discovers God’s will for him. And Lent is meant to be our wilderness experience in which we meet ourselves at the profoundest level of our being, discover ourselves, and discover God’s will for us.
It’s a challenge, of course it is. And we duck it all the time. We reduce Lent, if we do anything about it at all, to a short course in self-improvement. Yet if we are open to what we might learn in the study groups, the Lenten reading, the Compline addresses, the Quiet Day and all the rest, there is hope for us still – if only we will be honest.
Which brings us back to the passage. A woman ‘taken in adultery’ is dragged into the Temple. I suspect that means half-clothed and dishevelled. Her accusers are all male, of course, no doubt fuelled-up by that particularly heady mixture of moral indignation and old-fashioned lust. They have forgotten that they have transgressed in bringing a woman into the male Temple precinct, but then what is a little rule-breaking when you have a rule-breaker in your sights? And then they set out to trap Jesus by posing him a catch question: ‘Moses commanded us to stone such women: what say you?’ If Jesus chooses a rigidly correct answer he will appear to the crowd as just a pharisee amongst pharisees. If he argues for leniency, he can be accused of flouting the law.
Jesus’ response is extraordinary. He sits on his haunches and begins to write with his finger in the dust. What on earth was he doing? Well, modern scholars have many suggestions, but there is an ancient tradition – only a tradition, but very old – that Jesus was writing the names of the women’s accusers and, against their names, their most heinous, culpable, secret sins, which they fondly imagined no-one knew.
It makes total sense, especially if Jesus began his list with the eldest accusers. Remember the next few lines: ‘Jesus straightened up and said to them: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And again he bent down and wrote on the ground. And when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest.’
Jesus confronts the woman’s accusers with the truth about themselves, and they cannot bear the truth, and one by one they melt away. And Jesus and the woman are the only ones left. For the first time, Jesus appears to notice her, and he sounds surprised. ‘Woman, where are they? Has no-one condemned you?’ She replies ‘No one, Sir.’ And Jesus responds ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more.’
Jesus is gentle with this sinner, as he is gentle with all sinners who know that they are sinners. The same searing honesty is there: ‘Go, and sin no more’ – but no harsh hypocritical judgement. Meanwhile those who cannot bear the penetrating accusation of his gaze shuffle awkwardly away – no doubt to begin to plot his downfall.
This is what Lent is about: a time of self-discovery, of being utterly honest with ourselves about ourselves. Of being utterly honest about ourselves with God. Remember that ‘God’s strength is made perfect in human weakness.’ If we embark upon this journey, we will not be alone.
Lent, above all other seasons, is about making a journey into ourselves, into our image of ourselves, into the very depth of our being – in order to find God. Have you the courage for that? Have I?