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Masterpiece Week 4: The Art of Gentleness – Sermon Notes

Masterpiece: The Art of Gentleness

Pastor Rick Henderson
June 24-25, 2023

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I missed you all over the past couple of weeks. I took a little time away to refresh. Heather and I joined some friends on a tour of Croatia. And because we were so close, we did a quick 24-hour jaunt into Venice. In that hurried visit, Heather and I toured a palace that was gigantic room after gigantic room of the most stunning paintings I’d ever seen.

Not only was I captivated, but I was also overwhelmed. I had to sit down and give myself time to drink it in. I only had hours. It would probably take years to really see and drink in these works of art. Our church is in the 3rd week of a new message series called Masterpiece. It’s inspired by something that the Apostle Paul once wrote about the Christian life.

EPHESIANS 2:10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

It is accurate to translate this as “we are God’s masterpiece.” He is the master artist, and we are his prized works of art. If you are in Jesus, if you’ve trusted him by faith, your life, and my life are living works of art. Throughout this series, this is our anthem.

SERIES THESIS: We are good works of ART created to do the art of good WORKS.

This is the art of good works that we will focus on today. Are you ready?

The art of GENTLENESS

I’ve got to tell you, I wish that God would give me two lifetimes. I’m 45 years old, and I feel like just now, I’m starting to understand what this means. I wish that I had another lifetime so that I could actually do what I’m just starting to understand. Does anybody else ever feel that way?

Just like in that palace, where I had to sit so that I could take in the beauty—today, we all are going to begin by trying to first just behold the master artist at work. The first thing we’re going to do is try to drink in as much of the truth, goodness, and beauty of Jesus as we possibly can. And after we do that, we all get to take our next steps of following him, living out what it means to be his good works of art, doing the art of good works. We’re going to start by reading a brief encounter in John 8.

JOHN 8:2-11

I’d love for you to grab a Bible and turn there. John is the 4th book in the New Testament. The first half of the Bible is the Old Testament, that’s everything before Jesus. The second half begins with Jesus. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. John might have been Jesus’ closest friend. This is the biography that he wrote about Jesus. If you’re looking at John 8 right now, you probably see this at the top.

[The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53–8:11. A few manuscripts include these verses, wholly or in part, after John 7:36, John 21:25, Luke 21:38 or Luke 24:53.]

Why is that there? The oldest manuscripts, some of the best ancient manuscripts of the New Testament, don’t include the verses we are about to read. It seems most likely that these verses were not originally written and included by John. For some folks, that feels disruptive, like we are messing with the Bible. I don’t think we should feel that way. The most informed and trustworthy scholars basically say this: It’s very unlikely that John originally included this section. But this has all the marks of a real, historical encounter that actually happened. This was most likely communicated orally from the very beginning and was eventually inserted. So, let’s read this with confidence.

JOHN 8:2-11 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

What we just read is probably the most brilliant, cunning trap used against Jesus. It’s not just cunning. It’s cringy. It’s gross. This handful of religious leaders caught a woman in adultery. Quite literally, she was caught in the act. She was most likely set up. These guys were watching and waiting so that they could exploit her. There’s nothing about this that isn’t rotten and abusive. Not to mention, it takes two to tango. But she is the only one brought before Jesus. It just goes to show that double standards regarding sex are nothing new. A recurring theme of human history is that women are frequently shamed while men’s behavior is ignored. That’s the cringy part.

The cunning part is that these men were correct. God, through Moses, issued a law for how his people were to live. That law came with blessings and consequences. Some violations of that law came with a death penalty. Adultery was a violation that came with the death penalty. And it applied equally to both men and women.

Let’s just get real with each other. That’s unsettling. It’s heavy. Who can live up to a standard like that? That doesn’t feel gentle. Who can truly meet the requirements of a law like that? Well, the answer is that no one can. Jewish leaders understood this from the very beginning. That was the whole point. From the moment this law was handed down, Jewish leaders began to teach on the Mosaic Law. They issued commentaries, applications, and very strict guidelines on how it was to be implemented. We know what those were because it was written down in what’s called Mishnah. Let me give you some examples.

  • One Mishnah records that a court that executed more than one person every 7 years is a destructive court. Some scholars believe it’s actually supposed to read any court that executes more than one person every 70 years is a destructive court.
  • Each capital case had 23 judges. They had to be unanimous in agreement, or the accused was acquitted.
  • If they came to a guilty verdict too quickly, the accused was acquitted.
  • Witnesses had to be in complete agreement on every detail. If they disagreed in the slightest, even if they disagreed on irrelevant details, the accused was acquitted.
  • For someone to be found guilty, there always had to be at least 2 witnesses. But the witnesses had to present before the act took place, AND they had the warn the person that what they were about to do was a capital offense. Otherwise, the accused was acquitted.

Here’s the point. They took the Mosaic Law extremely seriously, and yet they made it almost impossible to execute anyone because they understood what the law was intending to communicate—every person’s sin is so deep and so pervasive that our only hope is a savior, a messiah who will fix this for us. God’s law is not harsh. It tells us the hard truth. It’s good. And believe it or not, it served a purpose that was nothing less than stunningly gentle.

Let’s read what the Apostle Paul wrote about the law.

Galatians 3:24 So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith.

The law was like a tutor, a caretaker, an advocate that was 100% about pointing humanity to Jesus. The heaviness of God’s law should do two things: 1) expose how morally broken we are and 2) inspire awe for how Jesus fulfilled and carried it for us.

But still, some might be thinking, OK. OK. OK. But why would God have such a narrow, restrictive policy for sex? Shouldn’t people be free to pursue sexuality in the way they believe is best for them? I can understand why so many people are drawn to that way of thinking. But this is where we must be grown-ups—if we stop to think about that for just 2 minutes, we see that approach is empty and devastatingly harmful.

Whatever you believe, whatever your approach to life, it’s inescapable that there are moral boundaries for sex that we don’t get to make up for ourselves. When people do whatever they want to do sexually, precious people end up broken and abused. The #metoo movement demonstrates that. The deep hurts from sexual abuse scandals in government, Hollywood, and religious institutions show us that. Are we just pretending those things are wrong, or are they really wrong? We know there are moral boundaries that no one should ever cross. The heart of our problem is when moral boundaries get in the way of what we want or what we believe we need.

Let’s get back to this trap that was set for Jesus. It was indisputable, this woman was guilty. If Jesus disagreed with the Mosaic law, or if he disregarded it—he would lose credibility with everyone. But, if he agreed that she should be executed, the people would turn their backs on him. Who wants to follow a leader who kills you when you mess up? Not only would the crowds turn on him, but Rome also didn’t allow Israel to execute anyone. Only Rome did that. Jesus is in an impossible situation.

JOHN 8:6B-7 But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Let’s make sure we slow down enough to see the gentle genius of Jesus. They are chaotically yapping at him. The anxiety of the crowd was growing thick. The tension was off the charts. And yet, Jesus was restrained, almost unaffected. He quietly scribbled in the dust.

Christians have speculated for centuries about what Jesus wrote. Nobody knows. I’d love to know, there’s just no way to know. What we do know, and what those religious leaders knew, is that the Mosaic law was given by God to Moses. In Deuteronomy 5, Moses said that God himself chiseled the stone tablets that contained the 10 Commandments. It was written by the finger of God. Now Jesus, finger in the dirt, writes something. Could this be Jesus flexing on these guys? Is this a not-so-subtle way of saying, “You don’t need to tell me about the law. I’m the God who wrote it.”

He didn’t contradict the law. He didn’t pretend that she didn’t break the law. He helped everyone get really honest in a hurry about what it took to be eligible to condemn another person. I don’t think Jesus was trying to communicate that someone must be morally perfect to honestly address the wrongdoing of another person. I’ve got bad news. You still must go to jury duty.

The a-ha moment was that they were just as guilty, maybe more guilty than she was. If they condemned her, they would also have to condemn themselves. They’re now caught in their own trap.

JOHN 8:8-9 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.

What was it that the older ones realized that it took the young bucks a few extra minutes to figure out? It’s tough to have to learn this in front of people. They realized that they weren’t morally superior. So, they checked out. Let’s make a couple of observations.

There are superior MORALS, not morally superior PEOPLE.

It is false that everyone’s moral ideas are equally valid. Just because they may feel true to me, that doesn’t make my moral assumptions true. Just because they may feel true to you, that doesn’t make your moral assumptions true. The only moral statements and boundaries that count are the ones that are true. There are superior morals. There are no morally superior people. Because we all fall short of the standard. We are all far more guilty and sinful than we can bare to admit. But in Jesus, we are more loved, forgiven, and accepted than we could ever dare hope.

Here’s the second observation. This observation may introduce a common concept in an uncommon way.

Gospel confrontation

I’m talking about having to get honest with someone about their wrongdoing, but doing from a disposition of knowing the gospel, understanding the implications of the gospel, and doing confrontation in a way that is motivated by the gospel.

Gospel confrontation APPEALS to someone’s dignity and never ASSAULTS it.

Think about it. Jesus could have destroyed those dudes. He could have utterly humiliated them. But instead of relating to them on their actual level of grotesque hypocrisy, he appealed to their dignity. He engaged them as the leaders they should have been, not as the kind of leaders they actually were.

There are times when we have to shine a spotlight on wrongdoing. That is an appropriate, good thing. But it’s always preferable if the light can come on for someone instead of the spotlight of exposure to be thrust on them. Wouldn’t you want that for yourself? I want that for me. Even though they didn’t deserve it, Jesus appealed to their dignity, he responded with gentleness, and he flipped to the moment. Instead of simply exposing them, he helped them to become self-aware. So, they dropped their stones. Sadly, they walked away from Jesus.

It's easy to read this encounter and see it as Jesus being gentler with the woman than with the men. In truth, he was incomprehensibly gentle with both. And yet, she was the only one who chose to receive it.

JOHN 8:10-11 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

Jesus’ refusal to condemn was not a commentary on the insignificance of sin. Rather, it shows how significant and extravagant his forgiveness is.

Jesus would rather be CONDEMNED than CONDEMN.

He didn’t decline to condemn her because there was no penalty or cost. He didn’t condemn her because he opted to pay for it himself. That’s the gentleness of Jesus. How do you respond to that?

JOHN 8:11b Go now and leave your life of sin.”

In the same way that Jesus appealed to the dignity of the men who launched this trap, he also appealed to the dignity of this woman. He treated her like she was a responsible human being—not as a helpless victim, though she was victimized by abusive men. Jesus related to her as a full person, as a woman with agency. You made choices. Your decisions come with moral guilt. Leave it behind you. Turn away from it. The singular word that captures that is repentance.

How are you going to respond to Jesus right now? Do you need to repent? Is there something that you need to walk away from? Every sin comes with a cost. Every single one. Is the Holy Spirit of God telling you right now that today is the day to turn your back on something? Would you do that? I’m not a prophet, but I will make a prediction. If God is calling you to repent, if you feel the call to turn away from something and turn to Jesus, but you chose to stiffen and resist. There is going to be a day in the future when you remember this moment. If you harden yourself, there is going to be a day that you look back at this gentle call from Jesus to repent, and you will regret that you didn’t accept.

If I’m talking to you, and you know I’m talking to you, maybe you are not a follower of Jesus, and today is the day for you to walk across the line of faith and trust him. If I’m talking to you right now, you may be a long-time follower of Jesus. But a combination of fear, pride, or shame keeps you from getting honest about a sin you’re stuck in. Don’t let this moment pass you by. Would you trust and turn to him?

So, if she leaves her life of sin, if you and I turn our backs on sin—what does it look like to go forward? Moving forward is nothing other than trusting Jesus and following the way of Jesus. That is going to look like gentleness. The Apostle Paul kept writing this down in letters and sending them out to congregations. The trajectory of the Christian life is gentleness. 

EPHESIANS 4:1-6 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

How many times did he hammer home unity and oneness? Of course, we’re going to be gentle with each other. Let’s keep adding on. This is how he wrote about it to a church in a town called Colossae.

COLOSSIANS 3:12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.

Gentleness, while a distinct thing, cannot be disentangled from kindness, humility, and patience. Gentleness never shows up alone. It always comes with friends: kindness, humility, and patience. So how should we think about it exactly? It would be unfortunate to spend all this time talking about gentleness but never actually define it.

The way that gentleness is defined and deployed biblically, it’s always an inner disposition that’s expressed in two directions. Gentleness is expressed vertically, from me to God. Gentleness is expressed horizontally, from me to others.

GENTLENESS (me to God): not holding back any of myself so that I can be maximally yielded to Jesus.

This is one way that we see how gentleness is anchored to humility. We recognize that we are not the authority, so we humbly trust and follow the one who is the authority.

GENTLENESS (me to others): holding back my strength so that I can be maximally tender with others.

This requires wisdom because some people need more tenderness than others. I think that is something that we all understand on one level, but how do we see it? How do we get it down into our bones? I saw this video of a dad, and I thought it was awesome. It captures this perfectly. Check it out.

What a great dad. He held his strength back with both his son and daughter. But he did so differently so that he could give them the exact level of tenderness they needed. That’s gentleness. That’s strength. In every relationship, in every encounter with people, in every situation, let’s be that good work of art and do that art of good works.

Do you know anyone who could benefit from gentleness? Do you think we have enough gentleness right now, or could we use more? If asked the people in my life if I should crank down or crank up the gentleness they get from me, what do you think they would say? If you asked the people in your life if you should crank down or crank up the gentleness they get from you, what do you think they would say? Is there anything that I could experience, is there anything that you could experience that could talk us out of accepting Jesus’ call to gentleness?

You’ve heard me say this more than a few times over the past year.

Leadership is a DESTINATION of discipleship.

Following Jesus always leads us to use our influence to serve the best interest of others. Where do you want to unleash gentleness?

  • We need Christlike, gentle leaders in the HOME.
  • We need Christlike, gentle leaders in COMMUNITY SPACES.
  • We need Christlike, gentle leaders in GOVERNMENT.
  • We need Christlike, gentle leaders in the SCHOOLS.
  • We need Christlike, gentle leaders in the MARKETPLACE.
  • We need Christlike, gentle leaders in HEALTHCARE.
  • We need Christlike, gentle PASTORS.

I don’t know if you know this, but more churches close every year in the United States than are planted. As our population increases, the number of churches is decreasing. Maybe God is calling you to be a pastor. Maybe God is calling your kids to pastor.

  • We need Christlike, gentle leaders everywhere in the CHURCH.

I do know this; he is calling this church to the art of gentleness. Let’s be his good works of art who say yes to doing the art of good works.