Amazing grace! How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see.
That is probably the most recognized and beloved hymn around the world. It was written by John Newton. Newton was a sea captain and slave trader; a cruel and despicable man who obeyed no rules but his own. God reached the heart of John Newton during a voyage from Africa to England, when a fierce storm threatened to sink his ship.
Although he became one of the great evangelical preachers of the 18th century, he never forgot from where he had come. He wrote the inscription etched on his tombstone:
John Newton, clerk, once an infidel and Libertine, a servant of slavers in Africa was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the Faith he had long laboured to destroy.
Rebecca’s story is a little different. Rebecca Thompson was 18 years old when she and her 11-year old little sister were abducted by a pair of criminals near a store in Casper, Wyoming. They drove the girls 40 miles southwest to the Fremont Canyon Bridge, a one-lane, steel beamed structure rising 112 feet above the North Platte River.
The men brutally beat and raped Rebecca. She somehow convinced them not to do the same to her sister Amy. Both were thrown over the bridge into the narrow gorge. Amy died when she landed on a rock near the river, but Rebecca slammed into a ledge and was ricocheted into deeper water.
With a hip fractured in five places, she struggled to the shore. To protect her body from the cold, she wedged herself between two rocks and waited until dawn.
Dawn never really came for Rebecca. Oh, the sun came up and she was found. The physicians treated her broken bones and wounds and the courts imprisoned her attackers. Life continued, but dawn never came.
The blackness of her night of horrors lingered. She was never able to climb out of the canyon. So in September 1992, 19 years later, she returned to the bridge.
Against her boyfriends’s pleadings, she drove to the North Platte River. With her 2-year old daughter and boyfriend at her side, she sat on the edge of the Fremont Canyon Bridge and wept. Through her tears, she retold the story. The boyfriend didn’t want the child to see her mother cry, so he carried the toddler back to the car.
That’s when he heard her body hit the water.
What eclipsed the dawn for a new beginning from Rebecca’s world? Was it fear? Perhaps. She had testified against the two men, pointing them out in the courtroom. One of the murderers taunted her by smirking and sliding his finger across his throat. On the day of her death, the two were up for parole. Perhaps the fear of a second encounter was too great.
Was it anger? Anger at the rapists? Anger at the parole board? Anger at herself? Or anger at God?
Was it guilt? Some thought so. Despite Rebecca’s attractive smile and appealing personality, friends say she struggled with the ugly fact that she survived and her little sister did not.
Was it shame? Everyone she knew and thousands she didn’t heard the humiliating details of her tragedy. The stigma was tattooed deeper with the newspaper ink of every headline. She had been raped. She had been violated. She had been shamed. And try as she might to outlive and outrun the memory…she never could.
Canyons of shame run deep. Gorges of never-ending guilt. Walls of unanswered why. Try as you might to outrun yesterday’s tragedies, their tentacles are longer than your hope. They draw you back to then bridge of sorrows to experience shame and guilt again and again.
Sometimes our shame is private. Pushed over the edge by an abusive boyfriend. Molested by a relative. Seduced by a compromising superior. No one else knows. But you know and that’s enough.
Sometimes it’s public. Infected by a disease you never expected. Marked by a handicap you didn’t create. Branded by a lifestyle you don’t understand. And whether it’s actually in their eyes or just in your imagination, you have to deal with it.
Whether private or public, shame and guilt are always painful. And unless we deal with it, it becomes permanent. Unless we get help, the dawn will never come.
I know you’re not surprised when I say there are Rebecca Thompsons in every city and Fremont Canyon Bridges in every town. And there are many Rebecca Thompsons in the Bible. So many, in fact, that it almost seems that the pages of scripture are stitched together with their stories.
There is one woman whose story embodies them all. A story of failure. A story of abuse. A story of shame and guilt. And a story of amazing grace.
This story is found in John 8:3-11. The scribes and Pharisees, the legal experts of the day, brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before a group in the temple and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”
The legal authorities were trying to trap Jesus. The airtight case they thought they had was this: adultery was a serious offense, punishable by stoning. If Jesus said this woman ought to be stoned, he would have lost all credibility he had obtained for love and acceptance as the friend of sinners. Also, he would have come into conflict with the Roman authorities because the Jews had no power to pass or carry out the death sentence on anyone. If he pardoned the woman, it could be said that he was teaching people to break the law of Moses and that he was condoning adultery. They thought they had Jesus. Not one of them even remotely anticipated how Jesus would solve this dilemma.
The first thing everyone asks as, “What about the man!” Some commentators suggest that perhaps the scribes and Pharisees knew the man – he might have been one of them – so they let him go. We have no way of knowing. But we do know that the story indicates that a double standard existed. (No surprise there!)
The other thing everyone wonders is, “What was Jesus writing on the ground?” Our passage says: “Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.”
What he wrote is confined to eternal mystery.
What we do know is that those famous, heart-piercing words, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” stabbed them in their consciences! They are stunned and speechless. He didn’t let the woman go as they expected. In fact, he completely upheld the law of Moses. He said, in effect, “Yes, she must be stoned. Now let us appoint a qualified executioner. Which one of you is qualified? Are you? Or you? All it takes is one sinless person and we can carry out the penalty of the law.”
Adultery, as we constantly see in the headlines, is no minor matter. It is a very serious sin. It destroys relationships that have been bonded by the sacrament of marriage and commitment. It involves the worst and most sordid kind of lies. It involves betrayal. It hurts spouses and partners, it injures children, and it brings spiritual and emotional damage to those who engage in it.
Jesus is very clear in upholding God’s injunction against adultery. He’s not winking at sin. Sexual sin is no minor faux pas that God merely overlooks. It is a serious, damaging sin, and we see that clearly when we examine what Jesus says to this woman and her accusers.
But that’s not all Jesus does. He also pierced the hearts and consciences of the woman’s accusers. He says to them, in effect, “You accuse this woman of sin, and you are right. But you are no better than she is. Your hearts are filled with murder and hatred.” Her life meant nothing to these men. They were willing to exploit this woman and her sin, even to see her stoned to death, in order to get to Jesus. Jesus read their hearts and what he saw was worse than her sin.
The young men looked at the older men. The older men looked at their hearts. One by one they leave until no one was left but Jesus and the woman.
Jesus looked up from his writing and asks the woman where her accusers are. Did no one stay to condemn her? “No one,” she replies.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” says Jesus. “Go and leave you life of sin.”
If you ever wondered how God reacts when we fail, frame these words. Better yet, invite Jesus to journey with you back to the Fremont Canyon Bridge of your world. Let him stand beside you as you retell the events of the darkest night of your soul.
And listen carefully. He’s speaking, “Neither do I condemn you.” And watch. Watch carefully. He’s writing. He’s leaving a message. Not in the dirt, but on the cross (we’re on the Easter journey). Amazing grace!