By the Rev.
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, November 24, 1996
Isaiah 63:7-9 I will recount
the gracious deeds of the Lord
John 8:1-11 The woman caught in the act of adultery
True Christian Religion #43.2 God's love for all
I will recount the
gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord,
because of all the Lord has done for us . . . according to the
abundance of his steadfast love. (Isaiah 63:7)
This season has
always been a time of year when it is easy to recount the gracious
deeds of the Lord. As long as we humans have been dependent on
seedtime and harvest for our food, the fall has been a time of
plenty. When the Pilgrims celebrated the first Thanksgiving in the
fall of 1621, they had already endured a long, cold, and hungry
winter. They were thankful to God for a plentiful harvest during
their first growing season--a harvest that would see them through
the next winter more comfortably. Through many ages and cultures,
including our own, autumn and harvest have been a time of
celebration and of thankfulness to God.
industrialized countries, those of us who live in the cities and
their surrounding towns do not feel as directly dependent on the
seasons and the harvest for our daily bread as our rural brothers
and sisters do. We have built up a complex system of national and
international food shipping that enables us to smooth out
hardships caused by bad harvests in different areas of the
country. If crops fail in one area, we simply ship food from other
areas. The worst effect we are likely to feel is higher prices at
the supermarket checkout stand.
This system has
given those of us in the better-off parts of the world a security
and freedom from hunger that is certainly something to be thankful
for. We still do face the challenge of extending this kind of
security to all the world's people instead of only the more
fortunate. We also face the challenge of not becoming complacent
in our own technological success and forgetting that the source of
all our plenty and of our life is still the Lord. No matter how
wonderful the advances we have made, we still cannot make a single
seed grow by our own effort. The life of all plants and animals is
a gift from God--and we still depend on that gift for our daily
bread. If we think about it for only a moment, we will realize
that we still have many things to be thankful to the Lord for.
Palestine, the prophet Isaiah was reminding his people of this
when he spoke the words of our first reading. He was recalling the
Lord's saving actions throughout Israel's history. He said:
I will recount the gracious
deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord, because of
all the Lord has done for us, and the great favor to the house
of Israel that he has shown them according to his mercy,
according to the abundance of his steadfast love . . . In his
love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and
carried them all the days of old. (Isaiah 63:7, 9)
We also have
many things to be thankful for in the history of our nation. We
can be thankful to God for putting the spirit of freedom and
justice into many of the founders of this country, and keeping
that flame alive through the generations since then. Though our
country does have its shortcomings, we still enjoy many benefits
from the democratic form of government that we have chosen. We
have strayed from the spirit of God's love and wisdom in some
areas, but we have also followed God's spirit in our society's
emphasis on learning, honest work, personal freedom, and helping
those less fortunate than ourselves.
All of these
good qualities in us are gifts from God--gifts for which we can
and should be thankful. Yet the Lord gives us an even deeper and
more wonderful gift than these. Our reading from the Gospel of
John gives a sense of what that gift is. While Jesus was teaching
at the temple, some scribes and Pharisees brought before him a
woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. "The law of
Moses," they said, "commands us to stone such
women." They wanted to know what Jesus would say about this.
The answer to
this question would not necessarily be obvious to us from reading
some of Jesus' other statements about marriage, adultery, and
divorce. In some ways, Jesus was even more strict about these
things than the law of Moses. One time, when the Pharisees asked
him about divorce, Jesus told them:
It was because you were so
hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but
from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever
divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another,
commits adultery. (Matt. 19:8, 9)
place, he says that any man who even looks at a woman
lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
caught in the act of adultery had gone against these stringent
views on divorce and adultery. We might think that Jesus would
have strong words for her.
But that is not
what happened. Instead, Jesus used a kind of spiritual aikido to
turn the scribes' and Pharisees' question back on themselves. At
first, he seemed to ignore them, bending down and writing on the
ground with his finger. They thought they really had him this
time. He couldn't answer their question! They badgered him until
he finally answered. When he did, his words put them off balance.
"Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to
throw a stone at her." Not one of them could claim never to
have sinned. Beginning with the elders, they went away one by one
until only Jesus and the woman were left standing alone.
said, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?"
She said, "No one, sir." Then Jesus replied,
"Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on, do
not sin again."
For the moment,
we will pass by the last thing Jesus said, and focus on the most
amazing part of this story. For all of Jesus' strictness on
adultery and divorce, when the event occurred--when a woman who
was caught in the act of adultery was brought before him--he did
not condemn her for what she had done. Instead, he pointed out to
her accusers what is stated more plainly elsewhere in the Bible.
We have all sinned and gone astray. Not a single one of us is
faultless. Yet the Lord does not condemn us. Instead, the Lord
forgives us and continues to love us, just as he forgave the woman
caught in adultery and continued to love her, saving her from
those who wished to kill her.
This is the
deepest and most wonderful gift of God to each one of us. Whatever
we may do, whatever choices we may make, good or bad, the Lord
continues to love us just the same as if we were pure and perfect.
Swedenborg puts this very plainly:
God's love goes forth and
reaches, not only to good people and good things, but also to
bad people and bad things. So it goes not only to the people and
things that are in heaven, but also to the ones that are in
hell--not only to Michael and Gabriel, but also to the devil and
Satan. (True Christian Religion #43.2)
Yes, God loves
even the devil and Satan! Now, if God's love reaches even to the
devil and Satan (which, for Swedenborg, means all of hell
together), then no matter how awful we think we have been, and no
matter what terrible thoughts and feelings we may sometimes have,
God continues to love us just the same. God's love is
unconditional. It is a free gift that is always ours for the
receiving, regardless of who or what we are.
This gift runs
far deeper than a plentiful harvest; it is a blessing greater than
material security, political stability, and even social harmony.
As wonderful as these things are, God's unconditional love is
still more wonderful. It is our spiritual life-blood within that
enables us to keep going through good times and bad. It is an
enduring foundation that we can always rest our life upon. It is a
steady rock that can save us from all that is wrong within us if
we will only turn toward it--toward the love that comes from God.
understand and believe this, then we know that the issue is not
whether God loves us. That is a given. Rather, the issue is
whether we will accept God's love into our lives. Jesus did not
condemn the woman caught in adultery. He continued to love her.
But that was not the end of the story. "Go your way," he
said, "and from now on do not sin again." Why? Why,
after forgiving her, did Jesus still want her to stop doing
something he said was wrong?
points us toward an answer to this question in the continuation of
the passage we read from True Christian Religion:
God is everywhere, and is the
same from eternity to eternity. The Lord says also:
He makes the sun to rise on the
good and on the evil, and sends rain on the just and on the
unjust (Matt. 5:45).
But the reason why evil people
and things continue to be evil has to do with the people and
objects themselves. They do not receive the love of God as it
is--and as it is deep within them--but as they themselves are.
It is the same as the way thorns and thistles receive the heat
of the sun and the rain from the sky. (True Christian
God does make
the sun to rise on the good and on the evil, and sends the rain on
the just and the unjust. But the evil and the unjust are like the
thorns and thistles. The sun and rain they receive is exactly the
same as the sun and rain that falls on flowers and fruit trees.
However, the thorns and thistles take that sun and rain and turn
it into something that gives pain instead of pleasure.
It is the same
with us when we do not receive the love of God as it is deep
within us, but instead turn it into thorns and thistles of
self-centeredness and disregard for the feelings of others. When
we turn God's love only toward ourselves, and not toward other
people, then spiritually we become thorn bushes instead of fruit
gift is unconditional love for us. Whatever we feel, whatever we
think, whatever we do, God still loves us. Even if we become a
thorn bush, God still loves us. That is exactly the relationship
we have with God if we do not live in the spirit of thanksgiving.
God loves us, but we do not appreciate it, so God's love cannot
transform our lives.
When we do
appreciate God's love, then the spirit of thanksgiving can be
within us as well as around us. When we are truly thankful for the
love God shows us, then we will not keep that love to ourselves,
but will show it to the people around us, just as Jesus showed
love and compassion--not condemnation--to the woman caught in
gift is always there for us. The question is, will we accept it?
Will we live in the spirit of thanksgiving? Amen.
Music: Forever and a Day
© 1999 by Bruce DeBoer