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The Faces of Failure

Peter, Judas, and Pilate demonstrate different ways to fail in faith
This sermon is part of the sermon series "Searching the Soul". See series.

Sermon Five

There was a clip on the sports last night that was painful to watch. College basketball between Memphis and Louisville, championship game—the star freshman for Memphis was fouled with no time left, his team behind by two—75 to 73. And he gets three free throws because he was fouled on a three-point shot attempt. Hits the first, 75-74. Misses the second. Thunk, misses the third. And the young fellow crumbled. They had to help him off the floor. I realized I was wincing. Watching a failure is painful.

This morning you have heard the stories of three failures—Peter, Judas, and Pilate. And they are painful to hear. The consequences were staggering. What's more, none of them would have failed had it not been for Jesus. In fact, you might say that there's a sense in which Jesus brings out the worst in people. Jesus is good and gracious, holy and mighty, but he is surely not safe to have around!

Each of these stories represents a different kind of failure, and every person here is prone to one of these scenarios. We are all descendants of one of these men. So in order to avoid their devastating failures, let us pay close attention to the warnings of Scripture.

The devoted disciple fails by not preparing for weakness.

Turn to Matthew 26:69. Let's begin with Peter there in the courtyard, condemned by simply saying, "I don't know the man!" in oath-laced triplicate. Of these three failure stories, Peter's is the failure of a devoted disciple.

Years ago I heard someone describe how steel tubes were made in the mills of western Pennsylvania. A snake of molten steel is poured out and then spun, until by centrifugal force that steel opens from the inside out, forming a perfect, seamless tube. When asked the secret of the process the operator replied, "It's the temperature of the metal. If it is too hot, it will fly apart; if it is too cold, it will not open as it ought. Unless you catch the molten moment, you cannot make the perfect tube." That phrase, "the molten moment," has stuck with me ever since. Each of these three men faced a molten moment where success and failure hung in the balance. We also have our molten moments.

Peter's had been in the garden when Jesus told him, "Watch and pray that you do not fall into temptation." But Peter, so sure of his devotion, felt he was prepared for any temptation to deny Christ, so he fell asleep.

The molten moment for every devoted disciple of Jesus is when Jesus tells us to attend to the weaknesses of our heart through fervent, unblinkingly honest prayer. Oh, brothers and sisters, we know so little of soul-searching prayer. We are so careless of the times the Lord gives us to look squarely at our hearts' secrets in the mirror of Scripture under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Peter failed because when the test of his devotion came, it was not what he was expecting. Peter thought some authority—a chief priest or Roman soldier—would demand he die for Jesus, so he never saw it coming when a servant girl simply said, "You were with Jesus." It was a nuisance question, really, but at that moment, with Jesus gone and everyone looking at him, Peter suddenly realized how bad he would look, how embarrassed he'd feel if he told the truth. It wasn't fear that snared Peter; it was pride.

Devoted disciples rarely see the attack that fells them. We think we know what to expect and we're think we're ready, but since we did not join the Lord in prayer, we have set no sentinel to guard our soul's most vulnerable place, and there the Enemy strikes. So here's the point:

When we fall to temptation there's no avoiding the bitter aftertaste. First, God will lay bare our failure. "Immediately a rooster crowed. Then Peter remembered." The rooster always crows. You know the feeling, don't you, when the rooster crows? When you realize that you were ambushed by sin and have failed Christ miserably?

And what will failure like that do to the devoted disciple? Such failure will break our hearts. "And he went outside and wept bitterly" (v. 75). Haven't you sat there, with your head in your hands, heavyhearted over what you've done, ashamed, defeated, helpless?

There is a good news side of this failure story because Jesus will not give up on disciples who fail him.

Of course, as with Peter, Jesus knew all along what we were made of; how fickle and sinful our hearts. We were the ones who had to be shown. After he faced his failure, Peter was forgiven and restored, and then he was useful to the Master. Someone has said, "There is no failure so great that a Christian cannot rise from it." Christians do not rise from failures like Peter's by determination, but by receiving the mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Now Judas. It would be more accurate to describe Judas as a follower of Jesus than a disciple; he was never a devoted disciple.

The disillusioned follower fails by demanding of Jesus what Jesus will not do.

What was Judas's problem with Jesus? Did he hate Jesus? Did he think Jesus a fool, or a fraud? No, none of those. Here in 27:1-10 we have the end of Judas's story, where he tries to take back what he has done. Look at verse 3: "When he saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse." It seems he was surprised that Jesus was condemned. What did he think would happen when he betrayed Jesus?

Judas wanted a Messiah who would deliver people from trouble. As one of my friends said, he wanted Jesus to step into a phone booth, rip open his robe, and come out with a big Superman S on his chest.

Many think that by betraying Jesus into the hands of the authorities, Judas thought he was simply forcing Jesus into Superman's phone booth. He was trying to get Jesus to be the kind of Messiah he wanted.

Do you remember Judas's 'molten moment'? It was back in Matthew 26:6-14 when Mary anointed Jesus.

Look what Jesus said in verse 12: "She did it to prepare me for burial." And what's the very next thing that happens in verse 14-15? "Judas went to the chief priests." Judas was simply not interested in a Messiah who would die. He had no place for a Messiah whose main agenda was to save people from sin.

He wanted a Messiah who would defeat enemies, make people rich and healthy, and solve everyone's problems. Judas represents the failure of the disillusioned follower.

There are lots of people who believe in Jesus just as Judas did. They believe in a Jesus who will fix messes and solve problems for them. And when he doesn't come through, they get angry.

I recall a young woman who came here a few times years ago. She said she wanted to be a Christian, but she had some very clear demands of Jesus, and he didn't come through for her. First she walked away from Jesus, and then—sadly—when life crashed in on her, she committed suicide.

There is a point of no return for disillusioned followers. In verses 1-10 we read of Judas' tragic effort to undo what he had done. It isn't hard to see why some people, reading what Judas did, conclude that he repented and eventually was forgiven by God. In verse 3 it says, "He was seized with remorse." Verse four says he confessed: "I have sinned for I have betrayed innocent blood." Verse 5 says he returned the money. What more could he do?

Judas got it half right—he saw and confessed his sin sincerely, but he found no forgiveness or peace, as evidenced by the fact that "he went away and hanged himself" (v. 5). You see, he needed Jesus to do for him what he had never wanted Jesus to do before—forgive sin. Judas, by his doubt and anger and sin, had cauterized his own heart so that there was no capacity for faith in Christ left. Having never believed in Jesus as a Savior for sinners, Judas was left with nowhere to turn when he needed a Savior but hell.

Oh, my friend, if Jesus has been a great disappointment to you, it is because you have expected of him what he did not come to do. Jesus came into this world to save sinners and to reconcile rebellious people to the God who loves them. That is why you and I so desperately need him. To demand of Jesus that he become something else will not show him to be a failure, but you. Before it is too late, before you pass the point of no return like Judas did, ask Christ to do for you what you need most—forgive your sin and reconcile you to God.

The put-upon decision maker fails by trying to wash his hands of responsibility.

Now we turn our attention to the third failure story—Pilate. Here is a man thrust unsuspectingly into the Jesus story. A Roman governor, utterly unschooled in the things of God, called upon to judge the Son of God. Pilate represents the failure of the put-upon decision maker.

There are lots of people who find their lives suddenly tangled up with Jesus. Her brother comes home from college talking about Jesus, and her life's equilibrium is suddenly upset because now she has to decide. A man having nothing else to do in a hotel room, casually picks up the Bible and reads about Jesus. And now he can no longer ignore Christ. He has to make a decision. Or the woman I talked to who was so enamored with Christian things till I said, "You know, one of these days you have to make a decision about whether or not you are going to trust your life to Jesus." And she grew distressed and angry. Like Pilate, that unexpected intrusion of Jesus into your life is your molten moment.

As Matthew relates this story in verses 11-26, the striking thing about Pilate is that everything he says, until he renders his verdict, is a question. I counted seven questions. Here is a man trying to figure out the truth, and then trying to figure out a solution to his terrible dilemma.

Like Pilate, people are entitled to ask the tough questions about Jesus. Before someone can make a wise decision about Jesus, they must find out if he is the King, if he is faultless, if he is someone who must be reckoned with (as Pilate's wife insisted).

Adding to Pilate's troubles was the tremendous pressure put upon him by the chief priests, the elders, and the crowd. His whole career was suddenly on the line, and he knew it. Both the sin of man and the wiles of Satan were trying to fix Pilate's verdict. He was between a rock and a hard place! He tried everything he could think of to wiggle free—especially this ingenious alternative of pitting the obviously innocent and good Jesus versus Barabbas, a terrorist and murderer, as dangerous to the Jews as he was to the Romans. But the wicked crowd would not bite. Then there's that unsettling message from his wife in verse 19: "Don't have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him."

As with Pilate, when someone is forced to make a decision about Jesus, there are always powerful pressures in play. It isn't easy to decide for Jesus. There is often the prospect of a high price to pay. Satan is whispering lies in the ear. The things and people of this world pull hard. Yet the one thing you cannot do when faced with Jesus is cop out. That is failure.

It is ridiculous to think that a judge can wash his hands of responsibility. Pilate evaded nothing by washing his hands. He only fooled himself. However reluctantly, he passed judgment against Jesus.

No one who is confronted with a decision about Jesus Christ can wash their responsibilities away. No one can get away with saying what Pilate said, "I am innocent of this man's blood. It is your responsibility, not mine." To wash one's hands of Jesus is a failure of eternal consequence.

A pastor friend was telling us about a prayer walk his church put together last year using a kind of evangelical variations on the Stations of the Cross. At one station, people read Pilate's story and then were to wash their hands in a basin of water and dry them with a towel. What they didn't know was that the water was treated with a chemical that would turn their hands—and the towel—red. Again and again startled participants broke into tears to realize that we cannot wash our hands of Jesus without being guilty of his death.

If you find yourself put upon to decide about Christ do not fail! Ask your questions. Sort out the truth. But do not bow to the pressures to deny him. Be a fair judge of Jesus.

Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.

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Sermon Outline:


I. The devoted disciple fails by not preparing for weakness.

II. The disillusioned follower fails by demanding of Jesus what Jesus will not do.

III. The put-upon decision maker fails by trying to wash his hands of responsibility.