(continued…) It is often said by those in Alcoholics Anonymous, “You may not be able to save the alcoholic, but you can try and save yourself.” They say that when it comes to alcohol addiction, you cannot expect, or allow, the alcoholic to define the limits. You must set your own limits. And we all have limits. We may love someone and be willing to do almost anything to help them; but sometimes for your sake, or for the sake of others that you love, or even for the alcoholic’s own sake, you simply have to set the limits. You would do almost anything, but not quite everything, even for love. You have your limits.
Yet, the Bible says God is different. There appears to be no limit to the love of God. The entire Old Testament is the story of God trying everything– kindness, firmness, grace, judgment, blessings, and punishments– God will try everything, but he will not give up on his people.
Then in the New Testament there is yet another attempt by God to win us over, and this is His most astonishing attempt. God sent his own Son, Jesus Christ, and then even allowed that Son to die on the cross, for us. Jim was right to fear for the safety of his children. That was a reasonable limit on his patience with Sue. But Jesus put no such limits upon himself, making it clear time and again that he had no concern for his own safety. He would do whatever was necessary to win our salvation, even going to the cross and to the grave for us. Our behavior angers God and tries God’s patience, just like Sue’s behavior tried the patience of her husband Jim and made him angry. But with God, as long as life endures, there is no limit to his grace. God will not turn away anyone who turns to him. The time for repentance is now, says the Bible, and God’s limitless offer of grace is made for us in this earthly life only. We have no basis in God’s Word to presume upon any more. But to all who look to God now, there is no limit on his love and forgiveness and grace.
At the same time, the God who loves and forgives, also has commands and expectations, and Matthew 5:29-32 is one of the most harshly demanding. In verse 32 Jesus says, “Anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” In verses 29-30 Jesus says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. ” These are tough verses. What are we to make of these words? If you divorced and remarried, or married to someone who had been married before, what do these words of Jesus say to you? Should Jim stay with Sue until in a drunken stupor she leaves the stove on and burns the house down with her and the kids in it? And if we were to take Jesus’ words on gouging out eyes and cutting off hands literally, would there be any Christian anywhere with their eyes and hands intact?
Christians have always read these words in the larger context of God’s forgiveness, and the new beginnings granted with such forgiveness. This does not bless the sin, it does not remove the challenge, and it leaves in place the high mark toward which we must always strive. But despite even our best intentions and most diligent efforts, people get overwhelmed, people mess up, our loved ones disappoint us, we disappoint them, we have our weaknesses, we get trapped, addicted, distant, and estranged– and we sin. We sin with our minds, with our tongues, with our eyes, with our hands, and in our relationships. And Jesus says to us what he said to the woman caught in adultery in John chapter 8. He said to her first of all, “I do not condemn you.” Then he said, “Go and sin no more.” Forgiveness, and no condemnation, — but then again, the command and the challenge.
The harsh words and commands of Jesus, and in the rest of the Bible, must be read in the context of God’s grace; but then, they must still be read and obeyed. The law and the gospel, the grace and command, the love and the expectations, all go back and forth in our lives as long as we live. We cannot let go of either side of the relationship.
The words of Jesus on divorce and remarriage seem clear and final. But the God of the Bible grants forgiveness and new beginnings even after some of the biggest sins by some of the Bible’s greatest men and women of faith. David, for example, after his adulterous affair with Bathsheba, was harshly condemned by the prophet Nathan, punished severely by God, and came to a sincere repentance; but was then granted a new beginning. No eyes were gouged out, no hands were cut off, and no one was stoned to death. David and Bathsheba got married, and their son, Solomon was God’s choice to be the next king of Israel. And while today’s attitudes toward God’s law regarding sex and marriage and divorce have become far too casual, we must still, always and every day, hear both parts of God’s Word. Again, as Jesus said to the sinful woman in John chapter eight; first of all he said, “I do not condemn you;” and then he said, “Go and sin no more.”
We must never ignore or take lightly God’s clear commands and warnings. This is, after all, God we are talking about here, and God will not be mocked. But at the same time we can, in faith, look to Him, and rest in his grace and forgiveness, that amazing grace which, in this life, has no limit, and is always granting us a fresh start and a new beginning.
John 8:3-11 — Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to (Jesus) a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her in the midst, they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?” This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear.
So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?”
She said, “No one, Lord.”
And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”
Galatians 6:6-8 — Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.
A PRAYER OF CONFESSION by Martin Luther: Dear Lord God, I cannot count the sins that I have done and am still doing. I have forgotten most of them and no longer feel any guilt. Whatever is in me apart from your grace, is sin and condemned. Thus, I must altogether despair of myself, my works, and my powers. I know not what else to do but to pray for your mercy… My joy and comfort is that you grant this poor sinner the forgiveness of all my sins out of your pure grace. I give you thanks. Amen.