I wonder what images we conjure up when we hear the word ‘God’, perhaps we think we are very sophisticated and are beyond childish images, that we think of God as loving and forgiving, but look carefully enough at what your imagination assembles when you hear that word, and you will soon see the images we had of God as children.
In my school, there was a ferocious deputy headmaster (it was always the deputy who was the ferocious one). One year, when we got back from the summer holiday, we noticed that CCTV cameras had been set up all around the school. It was rumoured that in Mr Curry’s office was a cupboard and in it was a bank of monitors, and he would sit in front of them, observing the life of the school in minute detail, ready to pounce on tiniest breaking of the rules. Perhaps you have similar memories of teachers, and perhaps those memories still tinge our mental image of God. As it has been said, ‘If God created man in his image, we have more than returned the compliment’.
Seasons like Lent, seasons of fasting and sorrow for sin, of penitence and abstinence perhaps reinforce these images: that God is a big brother character, sitting in front of a vast network of CCTV screens, observing our every action, our every misdemeanour, our every sin, and taking careful note until the moment he will strike in judgement.
Perhaps that was the image of God help by the men who in our Gospel reading had caught woman in the act of adultery. After all, if God is the great observer, who tots up his creatures faults, perhaps we should do the same and poke around to find out who is naughty and who is nice.
What we find in our reading is remarkable though, because Jesus doesn’t step in an say “God isn’t like that. He doesn’t keep a record of our wrongs. God is forgiving!” If Jesus had just said that, it would possibly have given the impression that God was indifferent to sin. Instead, Jesus bends down and writes something in the dirt on the ground: perhaps he is writing the ten commandments, perhaps he is writing the sins of the men in the crowd. What he show us though is that God does see us. He sees every one of us from the outrageously sinful to the inwardly sinful, and his love is wounded by inward sins of heart and mind every bit as much as it is wounded by the obvious and outward.
Jesus reminds the men in the crowd that none of us escapes God’s gaze. And then he turns to the woman, the wounded, ill treated sinful woman, and he reminds her that none of us escapes God’s love. A love seen in a stranger who as God in the flesh was without sin, yet refused to condemn her. But in refusing to condemn her he doesn’t gloss over her wrongdoing. God loves her, but he loves her too much to leave her where she is. ‘Go’ he says, ‘and sin no more’. Leave the way of life which is causing you and others harm, and follow God.
This is the power repentance and confession. Can’t God just forgive us, and that’s it. Do we really need to go through public displays of contrition? Yes, because in doing these things we remind ourselves that forgiveness doesn’t mean much if our lives aren’t transformed.
That is the message of Lent. Yes, receive God’s forgiveness, and then go, and sin no more.