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Failure. It’s such a dreadful word isn’t it? I don’t know anyone who enjoys failure in any sense of the word and yet each and every one of us has failed at times past and will fail again in the future. There are probably some of you who are here this morning who are in the midst of experiencing what you believe to be some type of failure in your life right now. Failures are common to all people and yet failure is experienced in a variety of ways. Some are crushed beneath the weight of failure and never recover. Others are motivated and mobilized by failure. They use their failures as a launching pad to the future.

I was reading an article called, “Rock Bottom: How Great Leaders Triumph Over Failure,” in Forbes magazine this past week. It’s a great article that describes how hugely successful people like Abraham Lincoln, Steve Jobs, and Nelson Mandela overcame setbacks, immense failures, that they experienced in life. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison before he became the first person to become President by a fully democratic election in South Africa. For 27 years Mandela kept a slip of paper in his pocket that had the words from a poem called “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley inscribed on it. The last lines of the poem read, “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”

We are in the election season in our own country at this time. Just recently Mitt Romney was the topic of conversation as he came after Donald Trump. Trump’s response was, “He was a failed candidate. He failed. He failed horribly. He failed badly.” Mitt Romney did fail in his run for the Presidency, but no politician faced more setbacks than Abraham Lincoln who lost eight elections before becoming President in 1860 only to face the nightmare of the Civil War as his Presidency began. By the time of his inauguration seven states had already seceded. Just one month later the Civil War broke out. Tough times. What could have been crushing times, and yet President Lincoln was quoted as saying that if by the end of his term, “I have lost every other friend on earth, I shall at least have one friend left, and that friend shall be down inside of me.”

Steve Jobs co-founded Apple Computer with his friend when he was just 21 years old. By the time he was 23 he was already a millionaire. When he was 30 years old he was beyond rich, a world-wide success, when it all came crashing down and he was fired by the Board of the billion-dollar company he started. Years later, in a commencement speech he gave to the graduates at Stanford University, Mr. Jobs said, “I was out–and very publicly out. What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating. I was a public failure.”  In the same Stanford commencement address Steve Jobs encouraged the graduates by saying, “You have to trust in something. Your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well worn path.” (Steve Jobs, 2005 Stanford Commencement Address.)

There are many ways to deal with failure. Some people are just plain tough. They’re gunslingers, never-say-die individuals who view failure as a challenge to overcome, yet even for these strong men and women some failures are simply too much to bear. Others draw their inspiration to press on through meaningful lines in a poem, an inner belief in themselves, or the encouragement of others. For every story of the resurrection of a Nelson Mandela from a prison cell to the pinnacle of power there are countless stories of those for whom poetry and prose couldn’t lift them out of the pit of failure. For those of us who have chosen to follow Jesus, to trust Jesus through the deep dark valleys of failure, there is another source of strength and redemption that I want to talk about this morning.

I want to use Simon Peter as our case study this morning because our Scripture, found in John 13:36-38, revolves around Jesus’ discussion with Peter. Let’s read our Scripture and then we’ll see what we can learn.

36 Simon Peter asked him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus replied, “Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later.” 37 Peter asked, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” 38 Then Jesus answered, “Will you really lay down your life for me? I tell you the truth, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times! (John 13:36-38 NIVO)

Jesus had been trying to prepare His disciples for the time He will leave them, but Peter’s mind had been preoccupied with other matters. He didn’t want Jesus to leave. He wouldn’t stand for it. He would do everything in his power to make sure that Jesus remained with him. When Jesus told Peter that he couldn’t follow Him now, but that he would follow Him later, Peter said, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”  Those are bold words aren’t they? “I will lay down my life for you.”  Peter was willing to die for Jesus.

Peter’s boldness is well documented. It’s been preserved in the annals of history. “I will die for you!” Yet, if you read the other Gospels you will quickly learn that Peter wasn’t the only one who spoke with such boldness. Let me show you what I’m talking about. Turn with me to Matthew 26:31-35 and let’s read together.

31 Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: ” ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ 32 But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” 33 Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” 34 “I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” 35 But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same. (Matthew 26:31-35 NIVO)

“And all the other disciples said the same.” Huh? Where did that come from? We’ve always known about what Peter said and about his denial of Jesus, but did you know the rest of the disciples were declaring their allegiance with the same boldness? This isn’t an isolated observation. Turn with me to Mark 14:27-31.

27 “You will all fall away,” Jesus told them, “for it is written:” ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ 28 But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” 29 Peter declared, “Even if all fall away, I will not.” 30 “I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “today– yes, tonight– before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times.” 31 But Peter insisted emphatically, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the others said the same. (Mark 14:27-31 NIVO)

All of the guys were speaking with the same conviction, the same boldness as Peter, and why wouldn’t they? They loved Jesus. He was their life. The thought of Him leaving them, of Him dying, was something they would do anything to prevent. Yet, it was Peter who denied Jesus. Peter’s denial that he ever knew Jesus is recorded in all four of the Gospels: Matthew 26:69-75; Mark 14:66-72; Luke 22:54-62; and John 18:15-27. Let’s take a look at Matthew’s account.

69 Now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard, and a servant girl came to him. “You also were with Jesus of Galilee,” she said. 70 But he denied it before them all. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. 71 Then he went out to the gateway, where another girl saw him and said to the people there, “This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.” 72 He denied it again, with an oath: “I don’t know the man!” 73 After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them, for your accent gives you away.” 74 Then he began to call down curses on himself and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man!” Immediately a rooster crowed. 75 Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly. (Matthew 26:69-75 NIVO)

I want you to think about something that struck me this past week. Critics who dismiss God’s Word as nothing more than the invention of man should consider this story about one of Jesus’ closest friends and one of the leader’s of the Early Church. If the Bible was nothing more than the propaganda of Jesus’ followers wouldn’t it make perfect sense to leave out any story that would cast a negative light on the Church’s leaders? To really understand what I’m driving at all you have to do is take a look at American history or the history of your own family. We like to cast our leader’s in a favorable light don’t we? We don’t want to show them warts and all. When we speak about our own families we tell stories about our parents, grandpa, grandma, aunts, and uncles and leave out the parts that might not be for public consumption. The Bible isn’t written that way at all. The men and women of God’s Word lived messy lives, they are examples for us of sinners saved not by their goodness, but solely by the grace of God. Peter is a great example of what I’m talking about.

There are at least two things I’ve noticed which led to Peter’s fall which I think have great relevance for you and me. First of all,

Peter was overconfident.  There’s no doubt in my mind that what Peter said in the Upper Room he meant with all of his heart and yet when a young servant girl pointed out that Peter had been with Jesus, Peter snapped her, “I don’t know what you are talking about.”  Peter had the best of intentions and was full of confidence in the comfortable confines of the Upper Room, but when the heat was on his confidence and willingness withered.

We should learn well from Peter’s denial of Jesus because we are Peter. How many times in the safety of the stained glass sanctuary have we boasted of our love for Jesus only to find ourselves unable to speak out when others mocked and maligned the name of our Savior at work, in the school cafeteria, or out in the streets.  

There’s another lesson for us waiting for us if we will have ears to hear. I’ve heard people talk about Peter’s denial of Jesus in such a way that led me to believe they would have done something different if they had been in his shoes. They are the same people who look down upon those who fall into sin and wag their head as if they can’t understand how something like that would happen. We are all vulnerable to sin’s schemes are we not? We are all sinners who are prone to wander and stray. Those who think they have somehow grown beyond sin’s temptations are most likely to fall and fall hard. Paul wrote to the people of Corinth and said,

12 So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! (1 Corinthians 10:12 NIVO)

Be careful my friends. I would encourage you to be awed by Jesus’ love for you and not to be too impressed by your love for Him. I would also encourage you to be ever mindful of the sin that is always lurking at the door of your heart and mine. Being aware of our vulnerability will prevent us from looking down on others whose sins are written about in the papers and broadcast over the evening news, but even more importantly, it will prevent us from becoming over-confident and finding strength in Christ alone.

Failure to Pray
There is a second thing that I think led to Peter’s downfall and it is the lack of prayer.  Before Peter ever denied that he knew Jesus, he was taken by Jesus into the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. Jesus left some of the disciples in one place, then He took Peter, James, and John with Him further into the Garden. He told them to “keep watch” with Him and then Jesus went a little further and fell to ground in prayer. At some point Jesus got up and went to check on Peter, James, and John. They were sawing logs. If you will turn to Mark 14:37-38 I’ll show you what happened.

37 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Simon,” he said to Peter, “are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? 38 Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” (Mark 14:37-38 NIVO)

“Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” Are those not the truest words you’ve heard all week?! How often do we have the best of intentions, but lack the follow through? It’s what Jesus said before this sentence that is so vitally important for you and me. Jesus said, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.”  We have to “watch.” We have to keep our eyes open. We have to be aware of what’s going on around us and within us. Along with “watching” we must pray. We need to seek the Lord’s Sovereign hand to strengthen us, to alert us, and to preserve us from the many temptations that seek to overtake us on a daily basis. Peter slept and Peter slipped. You and I need to watch and pray so we don’t fall into temptation.

I find it really interesting that Jesus prayed for Peter when Peter wouldn’t take time to pray for himself. You may be wondering what I’m talking about. Let me tell you. In Luke’s account of Jesus’ conversation with Peter, he tells us in Luke 22:31-34.

31 “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. 32 But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” 33 But he replied, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.” 34 Jesus answered, “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.” (Luke 22:31-34 NIVO)

There’s several sermons in this Scripture, but I want to focus on Jesus’ prayer for Peter. Jesus told Peter, “Satan has asked to sift you as wheat.” Jesus told Peter that He prayed for him that his “faith may not fail.” Jesus knew about Peter’s trial before Peter ever thought of denying Jesus.  Some would question Jesus’ statement that He had prayed that Peter’s faith may not fail and say it was a failed prayer. I disagree. Peter denied Jesus, he failed the test, but Peter would not be defined by his failure. Now, before we begin to think that Peter was the “comeback kid,” that he pulled himself up by his bootstraps, and regrouped I want to assure you he did none of those things. Peter wept like a baby when he realized what he had done.

Peter wouldn’t be defined by his failure, by his denial of Jesus because Jesus reached out to him and restored him.  Let me tell how you how it happened. After Jesus’ resurrection Peter said, “I’m going fishing.” Some of the other disciples went with him. They had been out on the water all night, but hadn’t caught a thing. Early in the morning Jesus was standing on the shore, but the disciples didn’t recognize Him. When Peter realized it was Jesus he jumped in the water and swam to shore. Just like Peter huh?! Jesus cooked some fish, broke bread, and turned to Peter. Turn to John 21:15-19 and let’s read together.

15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” 16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” 17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!” (John 21:15-19 NIVO)

There’s an interesting thing going on that you can’t see in your English Bible. The first two times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” He uses the Greek word, “??????” (agapao) and Peter answers, “Lord, you know I love you.” Peter uses the Greek word, “?????” (phileo). “Agape” love is the kind of love God has for us, the kind of love that is defined in John 3:16 when we read, “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son…”  Peter uses the Greek word for “love” that describes the kind of love we have for our buddies. The last time Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” Jesus used Peter’s word, “?????,” and it crushed Peter. There’s different ideas about why Peter was crushed, but I believe Peter was crushed because Peter couldn’t honestly say he loved Jesus with the highest form of love.

Jesus then told Peter what would take place in his future. Peter had said that he was willing to die for Jesus back in the Upper Room and his opportunity would come one day. Church tradition tells us that Peter was crucified under Emperor Nero’s persecution in 64 A.D. Church tradition also says that Peter was allowed to be crucified upside down because he didn’t feel that he was worthy to be crucified in the same manner as his Lord. Before he would die the Lord would use Peter to be the main speaker at the birth of the Church at Pentecost, the leader of the Early Church, and the author of two letters in our New Testament. Peter failed. He denied he even knew Jesus. It wouldn’t be the last time Peter would fail, but failure didn’t define Peter–His identity was in Christ alone.  

There’s not one of us here this morning who has not failed, but there are some of us here this morning who have allowed our failures to define us. The enemy has used your failure to convince you that you are a failure, not that you’ve failed, but that you are a failure. Your failure has become so deeply ingrained in your heart and mind that you’ve been questioning how God could love someone like you…a miserable failure. I don’t know your story, but I know His. The greatest gift that has ever been given in the history of the world was given because of our failure. Our sin separated from God, but God sent His Son to redeem you, restore you to Himself, and claim you as His very own. God loves failures. He loves to lift us out of the pit of failure and set us on a path of life and purpose for His glory. Won’t you invite Him in?

Mike Hays
March 13, 2016

Failure Does Not Define Me!
John 13:36-38
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