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If at First You Don't Succeed

God turned John Mark's failures into success; he can do the same for us.

"If at first you don't succeed"—you know the rest—"try, try again." Now that's a maxim that we all grew up with. From time to time we are all conscious of failure. Some may recall tragic and terrible failure, when you failed yourself—your best self—or you failed as a father, or as a husband, or as a son, or as a daughter, or as a mother, or as a wife. Maybe you failed some of your friends. Some, too—and there are many failures of this sort—have to come face to face with the fact that they have failed Christ. They have failed as Christians.

If any of you fall into any of those categories, have I got a story for you! It's straight out of the Word of God, beginning at Mark, chapter 14, verse 52, where it declares: "And [John Mark] fled from them naked."

John Mark failed twice.

It's midnight in Jerusalem, and everybody's asleep. All is asleep, except, of course, guilt and hate and sorrow and sickness. The Lord's Supper—the Last Supper—has ended, and the traitor has gone out. Jesus and his disciples have already made their way up to Gethsemane, where Jesus took the chosen three along with him farther on and had them sit and watch and pray. Time passes. The three chosen ones fall asleep. There's commotion: soldiers, Pharisees. Judas Iscariot, the traitor, returns to take Jesus away.

But there is one hiding himself in the bushes, way back there in the shadows of the trees of the garden. It is John Mark. John Mark watches as Jesus is taken captive and led off toward the city. Now, a couple of soldiers apparently spot John Mark hiding back there in the bushes—maybe he has a white robe on because he was hastily dressed—and one of them seizes him. John Mark twists and turns in a moment of panic and flees, leaving his cloak and his robe in the arms of the soldier. John Mark runs away naked.

There's the deep failure. And there's the story for us, because if you look at that, you've got a deserter. You have a quitter; you have a coward. If John Mark had merely had the courage to be taken prisoner, he might have been able to stand by Jesus Christ our Lord in our Lord's hour of trial. Just by his very presence, he might have been able to be an encouragement and a help to our Lord. But that night in his first trial and confronted with his first grand opportunity, Mark failed. He fled naked, stripped not only of his garments but also of his self-respect and his honor.

But there's a word of hope for him, isn't there? It goes like this: "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." And there's a word of warning here for us. The warning is this: Don't write off any of your Christian believers too soon. Don't write them off, because this is not the end of the story for John Mark.

I can think of the man who bought a home, and in the back yard of the home was a tree. It was wintertime—nothing special about this tree; just an ordinary tree. Spring came, and lovely pink buds appeared on the tree. The man thought to himself, Marvelous! I have a blossoming flower tree in my back yard and I shall watch it all summer long. A heavy wind came, and the pink blossoms blew off—scattered all over. The man thought, What a terrible tree! But that's not the end of the story of the tree.

And it wasn't the end of the story of Mark, because we go to a second passage of Scripture: Acts 13:13. It declares in the Word of God that "John Mark, departing from them, returned to Jerusalem." Fifteen years have passed since that time of disrespect and dishonor in the Garden of Gethsemane. Now it's springtime at the harbor of Seleucia, and in the harbor is a small boat. On the small boat stand three men, three men who nobody really notices. Yet these three men are setting off on one of the most memorable journeys of all of history, the beginning of Christian missions in service to Jesus Christ. They journey; they preach. They come to Cyprus and are preaching Jesus Christ.

Then they take a ship to Perga in Pamphylia on the southern shore of Asia Minor. There, just as they were about to depart into that high country, the interior, where there are thieves and brigands and robbers, Mark turns back. Mark quits again! He turns back and leaves them, and from the attitude Paul took later in expressing himself on this, we know there was no good reason why Mark should turn back. It was dangerous country—rough, interior country— toward which they were headed now. They were getting into the dangerous territory of robbers and thieves, and Mark turns back.

Even today that territory looks bleak and wild to the eye of the traveler. Apparently Mark had an ebb in his zeal for Jesus Christ the Lord. His courage had failed him at that point. And in the time of danger, when the elderly Barnabas and the frail Paul could have used him as a minister and helper in going through the mountain passes, that's when John Mark decided to return to Jerusalem.

This is a story for any of us who have tried and have failed, because John Mark had failed. He failed in his first trial in the garden; he failed in his second trial. He had a great opportunity to stand by Barnabas, to stand by Paul, as they went through Asia Minor preaching the gospel on that memorable journey, but he backed out. So much so, that when Paul was going to go on the next great journey, he wouldn't even take John Mark with him. He said, "No way!" Paul had branded John Mark a deserter and quitter.

Mark was a man who had put his hand to the plow and turned backward and went backward. That's the last we see of Mark for some time—the man who had failed, the person who had not made it. Men will forgive almost anything, but they are reluctant to forgive cowardice. And that's apparently what Mark became marked with: not fit to go into the dangerous journeys anymore.

But, John Mark, there is a word of hope for you. "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." And there's also a word of warning here for us: Don't write off Christian people. Be open to what God can do with them. Try trusting in God concerning their difficulties before you dismiss them or relegate them to a category of "not worthy of your trust and your love," because this is not the whole story of Mark—oh no, not by a long shot—just as it wasn't the whole story of that tree in the back yard.

The spring winds came and blew the blossoms away. Summer passed, and one day the owner of that home looked out in the back yard and noticed large growths on that tree, about the size of a large nut. They were green. He said, "My goodness! What is this?" He went out, took one off the tree, took a bite out of it, and said, "Blecch !What a horrible and bitter flavor!" He threw it away and said to himself, When winter comes I shall cut down that tree. But it's not the end of the story of the tree. It wasn't the end of the story of Mark.

Ten more years passed. Where is Mark now? Is he the one who was utterly discouraged by his failures? Is he the one who was embittered by the uncompromising and rather staunch and rigid view of Paul not wanting to have anything more to do with him on a journey in the name of Jesus Christ?

John Mark has later success.

The answer is found in the greeting at the end of Peter's first letter, where Peter says, "The church which is at Babylon greets you and salutes you, and so does my son, Mark" (1 Pet. 5:13) That tells you what happened to Mark, the failure, the quitter, the coward. Mark had failed by himself. Mark had failed dismally with Paul. But given one more chance, he not only made a comeback and succeeded as a companion of Peter, there's something very touching that happens.

Peter himself knew of failure, knew of what it meant to deny Jesus Christ the Lord and go out and weep the bitter tears of remorse. Peter sympathizes, and embraces and supports Mark in his trial. Just as Jesus said to Peter, "Go and feed my sheep," and Peter made a grand actualization of that command, so Mark is given the opportunity. Jesus Christ in his mercy and kindness touches Mark and changes his life. No wonder then, that Peter took a particular interest in Mark.

This really is a sermon for us, all right, because what about Paul? What about Paul, who wanted nothing more to do with him? It's the sunset of Paul's life now. He's in the cold, damp Mamertine prison. He writes a letter to Timothy, probably through the hands of Luke, and he says, "Timothy, come before winter. And bring my cloak and the parchments with you, Timothy. But there is one I want you to bring along with you, Timothy." Just as Jesus Christ had his chosen three, now in the hour of his death, in the sunset, the shadows of his life, Paul wants three with him also.

He has Luke and he will have Timothy. Who is the third man Paul wants with him? Is it Epaphroditus? Is it Titus? Is it any of that glorious company of friends of Paul when he's alone and he says "Demas has forsaken me because he has loved the world"? Paul wants a third man. And who is this third man? Who is this friend to be? Well it's none of Paul's other friends. It's in the message that Paul wrote. This was the man whom he desired to have at his side in the last great hour when he's about to face the mouth of the lion (2 Timothy 4:11): "Take Mark"—Mark!—"and bring him with you, for he is profitable to me in the ministry."

In that last great hour when Paul is about to face the mouth of the lion, he wants Mark—Mark, who had fled naked when he ought to have stood by Jesus Christ, stripped not only of his garment but of his self-respect; Mark, who had left Jesus in the hands of his enemies; Mark, who had left Paul and Barnabas to climb alone the rugged mountains, to ford the swollen streams by themselves, and to face the mobs of Antioch, Lystra, and Iconium. He wants Mark, who went back to Jerusalem. Mark he wants—the quitter and the coward—"for he is profitable to me in the ministry."

So Mark passes from the New Testament records. He had failed in two trials, two examinations, but now he passes magna cum laude. This is a story for us, because it tells us that it takes more than one defeat to make a failure. Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times. It tells us that great people like Mark are ordinary people like us with extraordinary amounts of determination.

There was a young captain in the regular army in the Oregon territory in 1854, and he had fallen into some bad habits. He missed his wife; he missed his baby back in Missouri. He was the quartermaster, the paymaster. On the day when he was to distribute the pay, he was intoxicated. His superior officer, rather a martinet, a very strict man, said, "All right. You have two options. One is to resign your commission and the other is to go before a court-martial." This individual resigned his commission. The young captain, after having resigned his commission, went to New York and fell penniless on the shores there.

Time passed—ten years now—and in 1864 an army officer steps into the Willard Hotel in Washington. He is holding a small boy by the hand. Rather indifferently, the clerk spins the register around to him and says, "Please sign." He signs and whirls the register back to the clerk. The clerk is astonished, for on the register is written the name: Ulysses S. Grant and son. Ten years before, dismissed from the army for intoxication; now a lieutenant general and supreme commander of the Armies of the Union.

Some people, when they face the indictment of their weaknesses and failures and are rebuked as severely as Paul did John Mark, often will refuse to yield. They become ensconced in a bitterness and resentment that will take them further off into dishonor. But with Mark it was the reverse. Instead of being angry with Paul, instead of defiantly abandoning the purposes and ways of God, he sees the fault with himself and not with God or God's people. Mark resolves in his heart that he will show Paul he can make a man out of himself yet.

"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."

John Mark turned his life around with help

Mark recovered. He recovered because he had determination. Great people like Mark are ordinary people like us with extraordinary amounts of determination.

Mark had that, but he didn't do it alone. He had the help of his friends just as we need the help of our friends. Peter was there. And that can make all the difference in the world. It really can sometimes when you have someone draw alongside of you and stand by with support and sympathy in your failure. Peter was the one who did that for Mark.

Long ago an ambassador to Germany, Andrew White, who was the president of Cornell University and later taught at the University of Michigan, had a student who was impudent—a smart aleck, always mouthing off to him in the classroom. But White endeavored to support him, to stand by him, to encourage him. And he won the student's friendship. That student however, was later expelled from college because he was connected, indirectly, with a tragic happening in which another student was killed. That student came to President White and said, "I thank you for what you've tried to do for me, and I tell you this: I will make a man out of myself yet." He had the support. He had the help.

Later on in the Civil War, which was just breaking out, he enlisted. Then came Gettysburg, and there was a brigadier general at Gettysburg, a brigadier general who had just been awarded that office due to gallantry and bravery and fidelity. A command was given this brigadier general to attack the Confederate Army. It was an impossible command; it was a hopeless command; and it was a mistaken command. Yet this brigadier general led a gallant charge into impossible odds and fell with nobility and bravery in the Confederate lines. That offficer's name was General E. J. Farnsworth, the same student who had been expelled from the university yet encouraged and supported by Dr. White. Farnsworth had made good his promise that he would make a man out of himself yet.

No matter what the mistakes, no matter what the failures or blunders, there is the possibility of noble and honorable success if the will and the purpose are there with just a little help from our friends, and you have a friend who sticks closer than a brother—Jesus Christ the Lord.

What is marvelous about this account of Mark and his failures and his regaining of the virtue of nobility in his life is not the account of his determination. That is not really the greatest. Nor is it his resolve. Nor is it the sympathy and kindness given him by Peter. That is not it, either. Nor is it the forgiveness of Paul. But what is of supreme importance here is the love and grace of God given in Jesus Christ the Lord. Oh, the depth of the riches of the love of God for you!

As long as there is the grace of God, you do not fail until you pronounce your own failure. As long as there is the grace of God in Jesus Christ, there is still time for another battle. And as long as there is the grace of God in Jesus Christ, remember this story of Mark and take heart and take hope. Lift up your hearts, because the deserter, the quitter, the coward, one of the worst failures on the pages of biblical history is left in the light of the golden text of Paul which reads: "Take Mark and bring him with you, for he is profitable to me in the ministry." That is the end of the story with Mark, but we still have the story of the tree to wind up.

It is to say this: as long as there is the grace of God in Jesus Christ the Lord, as long as this grace of God is operative in yielded Christian lives, then don't write off your Christian brother or your Christian sister. Don't do that.

That man wanted to cut down the tree in his back yard, but that tree took little notice of him. That tree did notice the graciousness and abundant provision of God the Father. And that tree continued determinedly to draw water from the ground and to gain sympathy and warmth from the sun. In the late fall, that tree produced crisp, red, delicious apples. Yes, it really did.

Some of us see Christians with their early pink blossoms of happiness and think they should be that way forever. Or we see nut-sized green apples of bitterness in their lives and we're sure they'll never bear the fruit of joy. Could it be that we forget some of the best fruit is still to come?

Some of the best fruit is still to come in our lives and in the life of our church, especially if the tree has that perspective in Jesus Christ the risen Lord that says, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."

R. Geoffrey Brown

(c) R. Geoffrey Brown

Preaching Today Tape #37


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Sermon Outline:


I. John Mark failed twice

II. John Mark has later success

III. John Mark turned his life around with help