Note: This is Part 3 of a series of sermons based on Pastor J.D. Greear’s study, Gospel Revolutions.
Part 1, Gospel Change
Part 2, Gospel Discovery
Part 3, Gospel Acceptance
Part 4, Gospel Approval
Part 5, Gospel Response
Part 6, Gospel Faith (Coming March 11, 2012)
Part 7, Substitute Gospels (Coming March 18, 2012)
Part 8, Gospel Depth (Coming March 25, 2012)
Text: John 8:8-11
From the moment we first set eyes on someone, we start creating an identity for them. You can tell it in the questions that we ask of them. For example, when someone first meets my daughter, one of the questions that everyone will ask is, How old are you?
The questions change with the age of the person. Someone of school age will be asked what grade they are in and perhaps what school they attend. Someone of college age might be asked if they are in college, where, and what their major is. Other young adults will be asked whether or not they are married. All adults can expect to be asked what they do or did for a living. We want to know about children and grandchildren. We’ll ask about where they live.
Some questions are never asked in polite company, but still help to shape how we think of ourselves and how others think of us. What we perceive as another person’s income shapes how we interact with them, whether or not we are conscious about it. Our own knowledge of our actual income also has a significant play in our identity and the way we present ourselves to others.
We have these markers that help us to get to know someone and to allow us to give them an identity, a way to know them. At the same time, because these questions are so culturally grounded in what is appropriate to ask someone of a certain age, we also define ourselves by them. Our answers to these questions build up who we are.
Certainly, our identity has other markers. To certain institutions, we are a three digit credit score. To the government, we are a nine digit social security number. When these are used illegitimately by someone else for their benefit, we call it identity theft, because these numbers determine who we are and how we conduct a wide array of business and official transactions.
This is how strangers and institutions identify us. What do you think? If you added all of these things up, would it give a good photographic portrait of who you are, or would it be more of an approximating caricature that could reasonably capture you the way political cartoons capture famous leaders? Or do your answers to these questions have nothing to do with the “real you?”
To friends and family, the matrix looks completely different. Who we are to them becomes a sum total of our experiences together. What we have actually done and the words we have spoken that make up our history, these in turn shape our identity. This is the stuff that biographies and memoirs are made of, and it reaches closer to identifying who we really are than the sum total of the answers to those earlier questions we were talking about, or certainly to anything attached to our credit score or social security number.
The challenge to this matrix used among friends and families is that we can be something in front of people that isn’t really who we are. We can hide things, do things in secret that friends and family – even close ones – never know. A reader’s letter in a recent Dear Abby talked about the writer’s sister struggling with revelations after their father’s death that he had regularly engaged in homosexual activity. Abby’s assessment was that the sister was struggling with finding out that she didn’t know her father quite as well as she thought she had. If we want to, we can hide ourselves even from our families.
My question for today is this: who are you? What is your identity, your real identity?
God is omniscient, which is a borrowed combo word that means that He knows everything. He is also omnipresent. That means that He is everywhere, all the time. There is nothing you have done that is a secret to Him, because He was right there when you did it. There is nothing you have thought that He did not hear. Because He knows everything, even our innermost thoughts.
So then, when you take the sum total of who you are, who you really are, who God knows you to be, and when you place the whole bundle in front of God’s throne, what is your identity?
The story of the woman caught in the act of adultery is debated, because it is not found in the oldest manuscripts we have of John’s Gospel. Nonetheless, this story speaks volumes to us today in addressing this question of what God sees when we take the sum total of who we are – who we really are – and drop it in front of Him, warts and all, as we say.
This woman had no secrets any longer. Her dark past was now brought in full light for all to see, including Jesus. Not that it would have mattered. If we go back four chapters in John’s Gospel, we find that Jesus already knew everything about the Samaritan woman, her many husbands, and the man she was currently with, all without her having divulged any of it. So the woman caught in adultery in John 8 would not have been safe even if the scribes and Pharisees had had no proof or knowledge of what she had been doing. Even if no one else knew it, the woman in this passage had long worn a big red A on her chest in God’s eyes.
The darkness of this woman’s identity is our identity, too. All of the parts we would not want anyone to ever know are already fully known to God. All of those rough spots we take such care to smooth over and conceal with fancy dress or painstakingly constructed façades are laid bare. He knows us in our worst condition, fully naked. This is how we already stand before God. And the sum total of who we are, of our very identity, brings everything before the Holy God.
So, who are you?
The woman in John 8 knew what was coming. She already imagined what each stone would feel like as it struck her skin and face until she was finally knocked unconscious by the tumult. She already was mentally going through all the things she had left undone, all the goodbyes she would never say, all of the friends she would never laugh with again. She was already counting whether actual death was worth those moments of pleasure she had endured, not that it mattered anymore, for it had seemed so then. There was nothing out of her past that could assuage the darkness that stained her. All of it was dark.
The same is true of us. Our best works together cannot mend the curse of the smallest white lie we have ever spoken, much less any of the much darker thoughts or deeds that lay buried in our past. We are as cursed as that woman. We are as doomed as that woman. We are each as guilty in the eyes of God as that woman was guilty in the eyes of the scribes and of the Pharisees.
Here’s the truth of it: who we are is not worth being when it comes to standing in the presence of God. Who we actually, really are is worth nothing in the shadow of His glory. Indeed, Isaiah’s dirty rags might be an improvement to what we offer out of the best of what we have. The Gospel asks us to accept this truth: our old identity isn’t worth keeping.
For when the truth is told, our identity is worthless in the Kingdom of God. It is sin stained, mud-raked, ash-ridden muck. That’s our identity. And all it will gain us before God is a one way ticket to the outer darkness, that place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
That’s where the woman was headed, the leaders were sure of it. They just wanted Jesus to admit it. But Jesus didn’t do it. He chose to scribble in the sand instead. When they pressed the point that the law demanded that she die, Jesus stood up and and challenged them, suggesting that the man from among them who had no sins before God should be the one to cast that first stone. Only one there could meet His challenge, and He wasn’t into throwing stones that day.
What stopped Jesus, the Holy God in humanity’s flesh from following the very law that He had written into stone tablets for Moses? I think it is this: when God looked at the woman while He was bending over scribbling in the sand, He didn’t just see another sin-stained, broken, almost-art. He chose instead to see His own reflection in a woman who was ready to change her life and be better than she had been. If only the past could be removed.
This is the miracle of salvation. We are broken and bruised and of no account before God. But God chooses in Christ to see not the stains and the brokenness and the ruin, but the reflection of Himself. Hebrews tells us that God knows all our weaknesses, was tempted just like we are tempted, yet remained sinless, and through His own body provides salvation for us so that, as Hebrews 10:19 says, “we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus.”
When God looks at us, He doesn’t look at a sinner. He looks at the robe washed white in the blood of the Lamb. The Gospel message is that our identity is Christ. He allows us to trade all of that heap of who we once were for this new identity: His own. If only we will accept it.
Who are you? You should rightly say, “I am in Christ. He is my identity.” Paul wrote to the Corinthians in his first letter, “30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.‘”2
The old identity we had is not worth having. But we can replace it with the identity of Christ. If we will accept the Gospel, His righteousness can be declared to be our righteousness. His sinlessness can be credited as our sinlessness. His holiness can be credited as our holiness. When we bathe in that fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel’s veins, God sees us as He sees His own Son. Our old identity is swept away, and we are made instead into a new creation that is being shaped into the likeness of Christ.
Jesus stood up from the sand and looked around. “Does no one condemn you?” “No one, Lord.” “Then neither do I condemn you.” For He was on a forward march to Jerusalem, arrest, trial, denial, suffering, cross, death, separation, agony, and ultimate victory for the very woman who stared back at Him still trying to figure out why her body had not been pelted with a barrage of stones. For Jesus chose to see her not in view of her own ability to keep the law, which never existed, but in His own ability to keep and fulfill it. That is the same way He looks on us.
But Jesus admonishes her, too. “Go, and from now on sin no more.” This was it. It was her opportunity to change her life. It was time to bring all the glory to God for the freedom He had given her when it had been His right to cast the first stone. But in her new, free identity she was not free to return to her old life, her old ways, her old identity. Neither can we.
Once we are found to be in Christ, we are not free to cling to our old selves. We must let them go and transform into the wonderful creature God wants to make of us. It will look nothing like our old identity. We are new, free, unbound, unburdened by the depths of sin. But we are not our own. We are bought at a price. We are slaves of the Most High God. We are obligated to Him and to His Kingdom out of the loving forgiveness He has bestowed upon us.
These three things we must accept in order to live in the Gospel. Our old identity is not one worth keeping. Graciously, God provides a new one for us: His own. In this new identity of ours that is in fact God’s own identity, we must fully accept that we are God’s. We must transform and allow God to work in our lives and in our circumstances to change us into the people that He wants us to be.
This is the Gospel. God accepts you unconditionally because He chooses to see you as Christ. We must accept that Christ is our identity. Our old one, in the mercy of God, is cast aside so this new one can be ours. And can be ours to wear proudly, to wear boldly, to wear confidently, to wear eternally, to wear right now.
Who are you?
There is a song that came out last year that I have been listening to repeatedly. If you listen to Spirit FM, you hear it. They play it pretty regularly in their rotation. It is the song “Remind Me Who I Am” by Jason Gray. The first verse and chorus say this:
When I lose my way,
And I forget my name
Remind me who I am
In the mirror all I see
Is who I don’t wanna be
Remind me who I am
In the loneliest places
When I can’t remember what grace is
Tell me, once again
Who I am to You, who I am to You
Tell me, lest I forget
Who I am to You, that I belong to You
Let me remind you who you are. You are Christ. In the Gospel, this is your identity. You are His body, He is your head. You are Christ. Accept this truth and find life. Paul said, “To live is Christ.” For as many days as God has ordained for each of us, let us live Christ.