Ash Wednesday

Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews

It’s early in the morning when Jesus makes his way back to the temple. Already in the outer court, the Court of the Women, people were gathering in twos and threes, exchanging greetings, swapping hushed yet urgent commentary on the previous day’s events. Only yesterday, in this very place, the sacred space at the heart of the festival, Jesus had stood up and cried out ‘let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.’ The crowds had been intrigued and perplexed, the Pharisees scandalized and incensed. To hear such words on Jesus’ lips – words that are an almost direct quotation of God’s words to his people in Isaiah (55.1-3) – adds to their lengthening tally of his wrongs, his blasphemy, his hold over the people.


Jesus spends the night after this encounter on the Mount of Olives, praying. The Pharisees spend it plotting. And as morning dawns, their plot unfolds. As Jesus is teaching the crowds they become aware of a sudden commotion, as a woman, half-dressed, is half-dragged, half-shoved into their midst. The crowd recoils, puts distance between itself and this public spectacle of shame and humiliation.


So she stands alone. Where her partner in crime is, we are not told. The law demanded that both should be stoned. But the Pharisees here are not really interested in the law. They are interested in trapping Jesus, and this woman is simply a means to that end. She has no purpose for them other than that. She’s a pawn in their game as they toy with Jesus. Useable, dispensable, their contempt for her is almost casual. Yet this is deadly business. The woman’s heart hammers in her chest. Her breathing is jagged, panicked. Her life is at stake.


How pleased they must have been with this set up, this trap designed to discredit Jesus. If he sides with Moses, and answers yes, that she should be stoned, there’ll be a commotion volatile enough to bring the Roman soldiers stationed nearby running. Later on in John’s Gospel we’re told that the Romans had taken away the Jews’ right to put anyone to death. And while religiously-sanctioned killings may still have happened, no one was foolish enough to attempt it under the watchful eye of the imperial guard. For Jesus to side with Moses will lead to almost guaranteed arrest.


The alternative is to challenge Moses’ authority, or at least to soften it, to make the sorts of accommodations to time and context that will keep the peace and prevent arrest. If Jesus chooses Moses he’ll be arrested. If he accommodates himself to Roman rule he’ll be discredited. Either way, the Pharisees win. Or so they think.


The Pharisees wait, expectant, one or two already gleeful, savouring the anticipation of victory over this jumped-up charlatan from the sticks. The crowd settles in for another show. Some want instruction. Most want entertainment.


The woman is still alone, sin and shame clearing a space all around her. She awaits the words that will pronounce her sentence, but they do not come. The Pharisees grow restive, pestering for an answer. But Jesus doesn’t look at them, doesn’t look up from his finger tracing letters in the dust.


Finally he straightens, looks at the woman, who will not meet his eyes, looks at the Pharisees whose gazes taunt him, dare him. “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” he says, and returns to his writing.

One by one, stones thud to the ground, dropped as the accusers melt away. The crowd disperses too, the spectacle they’d hoped for failing to materialize, and their complicity exposing them as voyeurs. Only the woman and Jesus remain.


Her shoulders, tensed against the impact of unseen stones, drop as she finally looks at Jesus. ‘Woman,’ he says, ‘where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ It’s the first time anyone has spoken to her throughout this whole episode.


He sees her sin (there was surely no question of that), sees too her shame, her fear, her mistrust, her disgrace – and something else: the faint glimmer of hope. He knows that the woman is now publicly humiliated and shamed; she has dishonoured her family; her husband’s unlikely to have her back; her lover will have scarpered, unwilling to share her guilt. She is still alone.


Then ‘Go and sin no more’, says Jesus. The only one qualified to cast a stone doesn’t. He refuses to condemn. But neither does he condone. Instead, a new path is offered to this woman with nowhere to go, no one to turn to. Jesus offers her a new life and restored relationship. Sin and shame need not mark her forever.


The woman offers us one model of what it is that we’re doing today. ‘Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ’, the priest says, as the ashes press into our foreheads, marking us as mortal. Few of us, probably none of us, would choose what happened to her, hauled into the centre of a crowd, our sin made public, as we stand exposed, frightened, accused, waiting for judgement to be pronounced.


Yet there is a public declaration to the ashing. To be so marked is to acknowledge that we are sinners, and while we do it in a generalized way, none of us required to confess out loud our particular faults and sins, there is, in this woman, an example to follow. And that example is to name our sin before Christ. She didn’t have the ability to hide her sin, to keep it to herself while putting on a good front for the neighbours. Her sin was named for her. And Jesus does not condemn. Today, Ash Wednesday, we are invited into that uncomfortable spotlight, that space in the centre of the crowds where we are seen for all that we are; where we are looked at by Jesus, and learn to see ourselves through his eyes.


For Jesus does not just see sin and shame. He sees too her fear, her isolation, her powerlessness before the law interpreted by powerful men. He looks, and he doesn’t just see ‘adulteress’, but ‘child of God’. And when he speaks, it is to restore this identity: ‘go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’ He tells her that her sin does not define her. She can turn away from it, from all that obscures her identity as a child of God. Alone before Jesus, seen for all she is, she expected a death sentence. But Jesus speaks words of life.


The woman is not the only one who faces up to her sin in this episode. Face to face with Jesus, the Pharisees also find that they are seen for who they are. Jesus looks beyond the outwardly respectable, pious faces they put on, and into their hearts. ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin cast the first stone’, says Jesus. And they turn their backs and slink away.


And here is another invitation to turn away from sin. If we shrink from standing in the spotlight with the woman, the shadows of the crowd are no safer, it turns out. As the Pharisees have brandished the woman’s sin for all to see, so Jesus turns the focus back to them. The stones they carry, that inviting heft of cold justice and self-righteousness and power have to be laid down when faced with the presence of Jesus.


We’re accustomed to giving things up for Lent. And I wonder whether this passage might help us to look at that a bit differently. Less as an opportunity for seeing what we can do without, or how we can impress God by our self-denial, and more as an invitation to lay things down to make more room for Christ. What if his invitation to us this Lent is to drop the stones we carry? The things we use to defend ourselves and threaten others? How might there be more room for Christ if we laid down our judgementalism, our quickness to condemn, our desire to be right all the time, our unkindness, our gossip, our habits of speech and behaviour that diminish God’s image in us and deny it in others? Most of these things have their root in fear and insecurity – that we are not loved, not valued, not seen. But before Jesus we are. If we let him look at us, really look at us, we will learn that we don’t need to walk around with rocks in our pockets.


So before you devise too many great Lenten schemes of discipline and self-denial, just let Jesus look at you. Let him see you as you really are, like everyone else a muddle of goodness and sin, of beauty and brokenness. And when you dare to raise your eyes to meet Jesus’ gaze, you will find love looking at you back. And let him say to you what he says to the woman. ‘Neither do I condemn you.’ Or in the words of our liturgy, ‘turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.’