This sermon is part of the sermon series "Wicked". See series.
I once read a book called The Book of Failures. It was filled with all kinds of failures that people have made. For instance, the book introduces Arthur Pedrick, who patented 162 inventions, but not one of them was ever taken up commercially. These inventions include a car that could be driven from the back seat, a golf ball that could be steered in flight, and a plan to irrigate the deserts of the world by sending a constant supply of snowballs from the polar region through a massive network of giant peashooters. I kid you not.
My favorite story in the book was about an elderly lady in South London who called a group of firefighters to rescue her cat from a tree. They arrived with impressive speed and carefully rescued her cat. The lady was so thankful that she invited them in for tea. So they had tea, received another round of thanks from the woman, and drove off, waving goodbye. And as they backed out of her driveway, they drove right over her cat!
But most failures are not funny. They're painful, wounding. They leave scars that throb with pain. A lot of people want to know where God is when we fail morally. If you were to switch that question around and ask, "Where do you want him to be?" most of us would say, "I'd like him to be about a million miles away." But is that what we really want? I don't think so. I think we'd want God to meet us where we are, as a failure, and give us a second chance. But is that who God is when we screw up? Or do we have a God that we really should hope is a million miles away.
Today we come to that very question as we bring our "Wicked" series to an end. We've looked at some of the most pivotal questions related to the reality of our screw-ups and failures—our sin. Today we come to perhaps the most important one of all: Who is God, to me, after I sin? What is going on in his heart and mind, attitude and spirit, when I fall flat on my face? When I cheat? When I lie? When I divorce? When I blow up and lose my temper? When I get a DUI? When I abandon my virtue? When I view porn? When I have an affair? When I hate, gossip, or slander? When I get high? When I betray everything I know to be right and make a mockery of my belief in God? Who is God to me then? How does it play out?
We don't have to guess. Because the Bible tells us through someone named Peter who screwed up beyond belief, and then came face-to-face with Jesus.
A man named Peter
Peter was one of the most intimate, trusted followers of Jesus. Jesus personally called him to come and follow him. Peter spent three years with Jesus by his side, listening and learning from his teaching, witnessing his miracles, watching every move that Jesus made. He was personally mentored, molded, and developed for a life of impact and significance.
Then, on the last night he would ever spend with Peter, Jesus pulled Peter to the side. He told Peter that he was about to be betrayed, turned over to the authorities, and crucified. But on the third day, he would rise again. He told Peter to take heart, to not lose faith as those events began to unfold. The other disciples would need his leadership, his courage, his strength.
And Peter, like any one of us would have, looked Jesus in the eye, and said, "You can count on me. I will never let you down. Others might, but not me. I'm your man. I would lay down my life for you."
But Jesus looked right back at Peter, and said, "Would you really? Before the dawn comes, before the rooster crows in the morning, you will disown me three times." Peter was stunned. He probably resolved even deeper in his heart that he would never, ever, turn away—that he would show Jesus how faithful he could be.
Then it all began to unfold, just like Jesus said it would. In a landslide of events that occurred with blinding intensity and speed, Jesus was betrayed by Judas, Peter fought a guard and cut off his ear, and in the end Jesus was taken to the authorities.
Simon Peter followed along behind, as did another of the disciples. That other disciple was acquainted with the high priest, so he was allowed to enter the courtyard with Jesus. Peter stood outside the gate. Then the other disciple spoke to the woman watching at the gate, and she let Peter in. The woman asked Peter, "Aren't you one of Jesus' disciples?"
"No, he said, "I am not."
The guards and the household servants were standing around a charcoal fire they had made because it was cold. And Peter stood there with them, warming himself ….
As Simon Peter was standing by the fire, they asked him again, "Aren't you one of his disciples?"
"I am not," he said.
But one of the household servants of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, "Didn't I see you out there in the olive grove with Jesus?" Again Peter denied it. And immediately a rooster crowed (John 18:15-18, 25-27).
No matter what you may have done or experienced, I can't imagine a more complete failure than that. It wasn't just a moral failure; it was a complete spiritual breakdown. Everything his life had been about, everything that he had committed himself to, pledged himself to, was renounced. He had been a disciple, one of the chosen twelve. He had walked and talked, laughed and celebrated with Jesus for three years.
He had gone public with his commitment, even saying that if it ever came down to it, he would be the last man standing. Jesus had designated him to be a leader, a foundation that he would build upon, someone that would make a difference for the kingdom of God. Jesus gave him a new name—it was Simon, but Jesus said, "You are now Peter"—a name which meant "the rock." Jesus was saying, "I can build on you."
But in a single night, even with Jesus warning him, he denied even knowing him—not once, but three times. And the rooster crowed. All of his words came back to him, all of his bravado, all of his posturing, all of his spiritual confidence. Some rock.
Peter's encounter with Jesus
I don't think that any of us can imagine the depth of heartache, guilt, and fear that Peter felt at that moment. Have you ever done something that you knew was wrong, knew you shouldn't have done, even vowed you wouldn't do? It's one of the sickest feelings in human existence. And Peter felt it. He had totally, utterly screwed up. He had dropped about as far off of God's dream team as anybody could.
After that night, everything else Jesus predicted began to happen, too. Jesus was crucified. He was buried. And on the third day, when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb on that very first Easter Sunday morning, she found that the stone had been rolled away. Then news came: people were starting to see Jesus alive and well.
But where did that leave Peter? What would happen when he saw Jesus now? He knew he deserved complete rejection, even eternal damnation. But he longed for forgiveness. He hoped that somehow, someway he could still be accepted and loved. He hoped for a second chance. Then he probably thought to himself, There's no way. Not after what I've done. How could there be anything worse, more contemptible, than what I did.
So what did Peter do? The same thing most of us do in that situation: he gave up. Jesus was through with him, so he was going to have to be through with Jesus. Have you been there? Are you there now? Do you feel like you can't have anything to do with God?
So Peter went back to what he was doing before he met Jesus. He went fishing. That's what he was doing when he first met Jesus.
It was an interesting first meeting. Peter wasn't catching much, so Jesus, who Peter had just met, said, "Take me out with you." Peter was seasoned at his trade, and he had been out all day. The fish weren't biting. But Jesus said, "Try again. This time, let me show you where." So Peter humored him, and when they got out on the water, Jesus said, "Throw your nets over here." Peter followed his instruction, and the nets couldn't even hold all the fish they caught.
Aware that he was in the presence of someone related to God, Peter said, "Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!" While this was true—Peter was, like all of us, a moral failure and a man of sin—Jesus didn't go away. Jesus simply said, "Peter, I want you to follow me." So he did.
But now Peter had abandoned Jesus, and he knew that Jesus would never want anything else to do with him, so he went back to what he knew: fishing. Some of the other disciples went along with him. But then something unexpected happened:
At dawn the disciples saw Jesus standing on the beach, but they couldn't see who he was. He called out, "Friends, have you caught any fish?"
"No," they replied.
Then he said, "Throw out your net on the right-hand side of the boat, and you'll get plenty of fish!" So they did, and they couldn't draw in the net because there were so many fish in it.
Then [John]...said to Peter, "It is the Lord!" When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he...jumped into the water, and swam ashore. The others stayed with the boat and pulled the loaded net to the shore, for they were only out about three hundred feet. When they got there, they saw that a charcoal fire was burning and fish were frying over it, and there was bread." (John 21:4-9).
This was almost an exact repeat of the first time Jesus and Peter ever met. Peter is fishing, not catching anything, then this stranger comes and says, "Try the other side of the boat." Peter obeys, and a miracle occurs. The net becomes filled with fish. Was Jesus saying that there could be a new beginning? Jesus had already reached out and touched his life once. Would Jesus want anything to do with him now?
When they got ashore, Jesus was standing near a charcoal fire—the same kind of fire that Peter had stood near when he denied Jesus. This was the most vivid reminder imaginable of Peter's failure. What happened next?
Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"
"Yes, Lord," Peter replied, "you know I love you."
"Then feed my lambs," Jesus told him.
Jesus repeated the question: "Simon son of John, do you love me?"
"Yes, Lord," Peter said, "you know I love you."
"Then take care of my sheep," Jesus said.
Once more he asked him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"
Peter was grieved that Jesus asked the question a third time. He said, "Lord, you know everything. You know I love you."
That's a fascinating conversation. First, did you notice how Jesus addressed Peter? He didn't call him "Peter." He called him "Simon, Son of Jonah." It was formal. Solemn. Intensely serious.
What was so serious to Jesus? The question he asked Peter. He didn't ask, "What were you thinking!" Not, "Are you sorry for what you've done?" Not, "Do you promise that this will never happen again?" He asked, "Do you love me?"
Did you expect Jesus to ask that question? The question, "Do you love me?" is the first thing on God's mind after you fail him. As New Testament scholar Murray Harris put it, "First things first." When we sin, it's our betrayal. It's our disowning. Jesus didn't call him "Peter" because the question was whether Simon wanted to be Peter. Did he want to be a rock for Jesus? When we sin, we're the ones who turn away.
Jesus is asking, Peter, do you want to be in relationship with me, or not? God wants to forgive us, God wants to restore us, God wants to be close to us and accept us right where we are. But do we want that with God? You may say, Well, of course I do! Who wouldn't? Be careful. You can want to know about God, talk about God, think about God, even do things for God, and not want to love God. Do you really want to deal with your sin, turn from your sin, own your sin, and come to God with a tender heart, a heart that wants to be restored?
Jesus asked Peter that same question again, and then a third time. Three times, Peter had denied Jesus. And three times, Jesus asked Peter to do the opposite. Jesus wanted Peter to make the connection. He wanted to go over it three times, because Peter had denied him three times. On the third question, when Peter realized what was going on, he was grieved.
So how did Peter answer? It wasn't, "Of course I love you." He couldn't really say that. Because there was nothing obvious about his love. He had just betrayed Jesus not once, not twice, but three times. He had shown anything but love. So what did he say? "You know that I love you."
Think about that statement. He was saying, Jesus, you know me. You know everything about me. You know me beyond my actions, beyond my sin. You know what's deep inside. You know that I love you.
And Peter did love Jesus. He failed spectacularly, but there was no questioning where his heart was toward God. And he stood on that. So he said, "Jesus, we both know what I did. But you also know my heart. You know that I love you."
Each time, Jesus said the same thing. "Then get back in the game. Don't let your sin be the last word. Do not run from me, do not run from you calling, do not run back to your old life." And then came his final words: "Peter, I want you to follow me."
Those were the very words that Jesus had said to him at the start of their relationship—the ones that made Peter drop his nets and start doing life with Jesus. Suddenly the charcoal fire that had only represented failure now represented something brand new: forgiveness. A second chance.
This forgiveness isn't just for Peter. God offers complete and total forgiveness to anyone who wants it. When Jesus died on the cross and said, "It is finished," he was saying, I paid the price for every sin, every failure, every mistake, and every screw-up. Even yours.
Jesus didn't come to condemn; he came to save. He came to offer a new life. That doesn't mean you ignore the lessons that should be learned from sin, or that sometimes the consequences of our sin don't linger, or that our sins are something that God takes lightly.
But sin doesn't have to end your life. It doesn't have to be the final word, the final verdict. Because of what Jesus did on the cross, you can come before a living and loving God and say, "I'm sorry. I really do love you. Forgive me." And he will. But that's not all—he'll also add, "Now, let's start over. Follow me." That's who God is after you sin.
You may wonder if you can ever push the patience of God to the limit and never get another chance. Or you may feel like you've taken him up on second chances before, but there's a limit to how many times you can come to him in failure. You may be scared to death that you've committed a sin or a series of sins too great to forgive.
Peter thought the same thing. Then when what he feared most took place—standing face-to-face with Jesus—he discovered something so radical he hardly knew how to respond. He learned that God is the God of forgiveness. He's the God of the second-chance—and third, and fourth, and one-hundredth chances. He's the God of the new beginnings, no matter how many times they're needed.
The cross is there for you. There's a fire built there, and Jesus is calling you to come and stand with him. But first things first: do you love him? Forgiveness isn't just a Peter thing, but neither is the question Jesus asked him.
For some of you that question from Jesus means "Are you still wanting to be in relationship with me?" You were in the game, once. But then you fell back, and now your life is in free-fall. God feels far away, but you are the one who moved. Do you really want to go back to fishing? Or do you want to go back to following?
Come to the charcoal fire built at the foot of the cross. Tell him that you do love him. Hear him say, "Follow me."
The head-knowledge believer
For some of you, the question from Jesus means something else. You have always believed, but it's just head-knowledge. It's not something that burns in you. It's religion, not relationship. It's principle, not passion.
Can you say what Peter said? Could you stand before him now and say, "Lord, you know that I love you"? Is that what God would see, what God would know, if you stood before him? Would you pass that test? If not, are you willing to come to the fire at the foot of the cross, where Jesus stands, and say, "I haven't loved you, but I want to"?
For some of you, this is a time to look closely at the answer Peter gave:
"Yes, Lord, you know I love you." Not because you gave it once and slipped away. Not because you say you do, but really don't. But because you've never come to Jesus with your life before now.
Your life doesn't show love for God, and your heart doesn't know love for God. But you long for it. You wish you were living for something more. You wish you could come to God, and begin a relationship. You can.
You can hear him say, "Follow me." You can answer, "yes." That's just one prayer away:
Dear Lord Jesus, I am a sinner and need your forgiveness. I believe that you died for my sins. I want to turn from the way I've been living. I now invite you to come into my heart and life. I want to trust you as my forgiver, as my leader. I want to follow you. Amen.
Come to the charcoal fire built at the foot of the cross, with that prayer in your heart.
If you want to make your answer God's question clear, take a heart-shaped post-it note from your program. Let it be your heart. Offer it to God, whether it's renewing your heart, or giving it for the first time. Whether it's bringing a dead heart to life, or acknowledging that sometime in this series you've come to grips with your sin and you are pledging your heart to him, to be baptized, to join the adventure. Maybe you just want to declare, again, that he has your heart.
Get out of your seat, come up here, and put it on the cross. As you do, no matter what your situation, no matter what you've done, no matter where you've been, whisper the prayer, "You know I love you."
Whether you are saying it for the first time or renewing it from the past, this is your time. When you do, he will whisper back, "I love you. I forgive you. Now get into the game, and follow me."
James Emery White is founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and is a consulting editor to Leadership Journal. He is author of Serious Times and A Search for the Spiritual, and blogs at churchandculture.org.