Monday, December 20, 2010

The Message of Christmas: Then Neither Do I Condemn You

(I originally wrote this for TBC's Baptist Reflections series and published it on December 23, 2008.)

Jesus’ words seemed to accuse the accusers. If any of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her (John 8:7). So the Pharisees, standing convicted, slunk away, one by one.

But just a minute. Why didn’t Jesus finish what the Pharisees left undone? Why didn’t Jesus carry out the execution of the woman? He would have been fully justified, both by the law and by the standard He had just stated – If any of you is without sin . . . After all, Jesus was the one person on the scene who had no sin of His own.

But He didn’t do it. Then neither do I condemn you, he says. Go now and leave your life of sin.

That may well be the essence of the Christmas message: Then neither do I condemn you.

Did Jesus deny the woman’s sinfulness? No. Did He excuse her sin? No. Did He affirm her sinful lifestyle? No. Quite the contrary. He recognized her sin and challenged her to turn away from it. What do we call that? Redemption.

Jesus chose redemption over condemnation. Earlier in the same gospel, we read, For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him (John 3:17).

Some have said that we Baptists – and evangelical Christians in general – have, in recent years, become better-known for what we are against than what we are for. To me, though, it seems not so much a matter of “against” vs. “for” as a matter of condemnation vs. redemption.

Sometimes we Christians seem to be more comfortable with the law than with grace. We give the impression that we think we keep the law pretty well and that we like to keep the law handy to “lord it over” those who don’t. That probably sounds harsh, but think about it. If this event happened today, in our own community, would we side with Jesus or the Pharisees? I can’t answer for you, and I’m pretty uncomfortable answering for myself. Frankly, I’m afraid I might wind up on the wrong side of this story.

“Hot-button” Christian leaders denounce selected groups of “sinners” and use them to advance a political agenda. And many Christians have fallen right in line behind them. The result has been a spewing of condemnation and hatred in the holy name of Christ . . . the one who was without sin yet refused to condemn sinners.

Have we forgotten the parable that Jesus told about the Pharisee and the tax collector? (Luke 18: 9-14) The Pharisee prayed in the temple, thanking God that he was so much better than other men – like this tax collector. The tax collector, standing at a distance, prayed a much different prayer – God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Jesus tells us that it was the tax collector, not the Pharisee, who went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

Condemnation seeks to destroy and manipulate while puffing oneself up. Redemption seeks to love and restore while confessing one’s own unworthiness.

We Christians like to talk about “hating the sin and loving the sinner,” but this phrase has turned the word “love” upside-down. Christ’s life and example, more than anything else, define “love” for us, and our way of “loving the sinner” often has nothing in common with the love that Christ lived out and exemplified for us.

The message of Christmas is that the holy and righteous God could have condemned us but chose instead to redeem us by sending His Son. Jesus’ first concern was not the sin but the person. His first concern was not to make an example of the sinner but to be an example for the person. His first concern was not the sinner’s past but the person’s future. He saw a humanity struggling to overcome its sinful nature and offered redemption. He saw people who needed His love.

How do we see the people in our community? In our church? In our world? Do we see them in terms of their sin? Or do we see them as people . . . people who Jesus loves enough to redeem? In our everyday interactions with people, do we seek to be redemptive . . . in whatever way that person needs redemption?

Maybe it’s food or shelter for those Jesus described as the “least of these” (Matthew 25: 31-46). Maybe it’s an encouraging word in difficult times. Maybe it’s a listening ear. Or maybe it’s simply acceptance for one whom everyone else has rejected.

This applies to our family relationships, too. Are we so focused on being right or winning an argument that we lose sight of our loved ones and their needs? Might they, too, need a redemptive spirit from us?

So how do we live redemptively? Well, Jesus showed us that redemption must start with a refusal to condemn. Jesus always begins by not condemning and then offers redemption . . . restoration.

Then neither do I condemn you. That, I believe, is the message of Christmas. May it be our message throughout the year, as we share the grace and redemption that only Christ can give.