A Story That Begins And Ends In Grace
Mark 14:26-31, 66-72
A few years back UCLA was playing Stanford University in a football game. UCLA killed them. The final score was 64 to 0. After the game, a reporter approached the Stanford coach and asked, “What was the turning point in the game?” The coach replied, “When they played the National Anthem!”
Sometimes our lives seem to be like that. It seems that we start off losing the battle against sin and evil. We consistently do things we know we shouldn’t do. I suppose that’s why the Bible has been for these last thousand years the best selling Book on the planet. You see, the Bible is dedicated to helping us know what to do when “we blow it and we know it.” The story of Peter is a case in point. The story actually unfolds in three chapters: Chapter 1 is entitled Grace. Chapter 2 is entitled Guilt. Chapter 3 is entitled Grace. Now you are probably thinking to yourself, “Wait a minute. Chapters 1 and 3 are the same.” Right. The message is that Peter’s story begins and ends in grace. So does your story. So does mine. Let me show you what I mean.
Chapter 1: Grace
On the night before He died, Jesus said to His disciples, “You will all become deserters; for it is written, ‘I will strike the Shepherd and the sheep will be scattered,’ but after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” Now that’s an amazingly gracious word from the lips of Jesus. Had I been Jesus, I would have said to those disciples, “I know you are going to fail me; I know you are going to leave me high and dry; so I’ll just have to find some better and stronger people on whom to build my kingdom.” But Jesus didn’t say that. He said, “I know you are going to fail me, but it’s all right. After I am raised from the dead, I will reconnect with you.” Do you see that Jesus was actually forgiving them before they ever did anything warranting such forgiveness? Isn’t that incredible? By the way, He does the same thing for us. Have you ever thought about the fact that there is not a new sacrifice of Jesus on the cross in every generation? You see, Jesus gave His life two thousand years for our forgiveness long before we ever did anything requiring such forgiveness.
June 6th, 1944. That was a day of significance in shaping our modem world. It was what we have come to know as “D-Day”—the Normandy invasion—an unprecedented attack which led ultimately to the defeat of Adolph Hitler. One of the most unforgettable experiences of my life was to stand last summer with Trisha in the spectacularly silent beauty of the American cemetery atop the hills towering over Omaha Beach at Normandy. We were moved to the core of our being as we walked past row after row of white crosses set against lush green grass—10,000 crosses telling 10,000 stories of uncommon bravery. If, as the saying goes, “War is Hell,” and it is. If war is the ultimate evidence of human sin and evil, and it is. Nevertheless the courage and sacrifice sometimes evoked by war’s evil gives a hint of the divine decree: “No one has greater love than this to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” To confront the reality and the result of such brave sacrifices as we did at Normandy last year, cut to my soul’s quick.
June 6, 1944. Something else happened that day that cut to the heart of my faith. The responsibility for that massive military maneuver fell squarely upon the four-starred shoulders of General Dwight David Eisenhower. The night before the invasion was launched, General Eisenhower spent hours visiting with the young soldiers under his command, speaking to them like a father delivering last words to a son. Then as wave after wave of planes and troops headed off into the darkness, Eisenhower stood transfixed, his eyes awash in tears. Then he returned to his quarters and with his own hand, he wrote a message which was to be delivered to the White House in the event the mission failed. Of course, the invasion didn’t fail and so the message never made it to the White House. Now, however, the message has made it into history. This was what General Eisenhower wrote, “Our landings have failed. The troops, the air, the navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame attaches itself to the event, it was mine alone.” Of all the brave deeds done on June 6th, 1944, this may have been the bravest of them all: The general who took the blame even before the blame needed to be taken.
That’s what we see in Jesus’ words. He was saying to the disciples and to Peter in particular, “I know you are going to fail. I’ve known it from the very beginning, but it’s all right. When everything is said and done, I will be waiting for you in Galilee.” The story, you see, begins in grace.
Chapter 2: Guilt
Jesus then took the disciples out to the Garden of Gethsemane. It was there that the soldiers appeared and placed Jesus under arrest. The disciples then had to make a choice. They had to choose between their friend and their skin. They chose their skin. They all fled. Jesus was then hauled off to stand trial—if that’s what you want to call it—in the palace of Caiphas the high priest. Peter, the Gospels tell us, followed at a distance. He didn’t want to get too close, but he didn’t want to be too far away either. He didn’t want to be with Jesus, but he didn’t want to be without Him either. He must have been in a turmoil inside as he tried to hide himself in the shadows of the courtyard at the palace of Caiphas. Suddenly one of the servant girls of the high priest saw Peter and said, “I know you. You are one of His friends.” Peter Immediately retorted, “I don’t know what you are talking about.” Another accusation. “You must be a friend of His. You’ve got that distinctive Galilean way of speaking.” (Side bar: Maybe Peter did speak with a notable accent or maybe it was just that he had been with Jesus so much that he had picked up some of Jesus’ expressions and mannerisms. I mean, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the way we speak each day would lead others to label us as followers of Jesus Christ. Ah, but I’ll save that thought for another day.) However, Peter responded to this accusation by crying out, “I do not know Him.” Then he proceeded to cover his deception in a blanket of blue language. While the distant crowing of a rooster welcomed the dawn’s early light, Peter retreated into the darkness of his own denial. He did what he had pledged to Jesus he never would do. He had sworn that he would never fail or forsake Jesus, but that is exactly what he had done. Just at that moment, guilt had come crashing down upon him with a frightening force—so much so, in fact, that Mark says, “And he broke down and wept.” He didn’t try to rationalize away what he had done. He didn’t try to put a positive spin on things. He didn’t try to place the blame elsewhere. No, he just buried his bearded face in those thick fisherman’s hands of his, and he cried his eyes out.
Notice this please: Honesty brings healing while secrets bring shame. I don’t say too many wise things, but every once in a while God gives me a wisdom not my own. So you can write this one down: Honesty brings healing while secrets bring shame. Peter knew that the only way to deal with his guilt was to get it out. Friends, if guilt is eating away at you, if yesterday’s failures are tormenting you whether they happened last week or twenty years ago, get them out. You don’t have to tell them to everybody, but you do have to tell them to the one who already knows them. You do have to tell them to the Lord.
When the King of Prussia visited a Berlin prison in the seventeenth century, all of the inmates crowded around him professing their innocence. They claimed they had not committed the crimes of which they had been accused and thus were all unjustly imprisoned. They all made the same claim—all that is but one. One man remained in his cell, and he never spoke. The king was intrigued by that, and he said to this prisoner, “What did you do?” The man replied, “I was charged with theft.” The king asked, “Are you guilty?” The man answered, “Yes, Sire, I am guilty. I am getting what I deserve.” Whereupon the king turned to the guards and said, “Get this guilty man of here. I don’t want him contaminating all these innocent people.” Well that’s a part of what we learn from Peter. There is something about being honest with God that sets us free from yesterday’s failures.
Chapter 3: Grace
The story ends with two words which Mark records right near the last lines of his Gospel. Over in Mark 16:7, we read of what happened after the resurrection. The angels said to the women at the tomb, “But go tell His disciples”—and here are the two words—“and Peter that He is going ahead of you to Galilee and there you will see Him just as He told you.” Do you hear that? Peter is specifically mentioned by name, “but go and tell His disciples and Peter.” Isn’t that great? It’s as if all heaven and earth had seen Peter fall flat on his face in failure and now all heaven and earth had come to lift him to a second chance at glory. Peter’s story began in grace and it ended in grace. Our story begins and ends the same way. Our God is the God of the second chance through Jesus Christ.
Let me be very personal at this point. My beloved professor James Stewart of Scotland used to say, “Every sermon well preached will cause you to die a little.” That’s true. You see, what makes a sermon a sermon is the anointing of the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit touches a sermon, the Holy Spirit sets it on fire, and when the Holy Spirit sets it on fire, it burns something down inside of the preacher. Take to the pulpit in the grip of that Spirit, James Stewart used to say and it will cost you—ultimately it will consume you. For nearly two years now, I have been taking to this pulpit in the grip of that Spirit. I know what it is to pour yourself out with all the passion you possess in the hope that the people to whom you speak might come to know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, as Master and Friend. I know the cost of wondering if it happens at all. For more than anything else in all the world, I want you to know that you matter to Jesus Christ. I want you to know that your story begins and ends in His grace. I want you to know that even when you blow it and you know it, like Peter did, that God calls your name in love and offers you another chance at glory. I want you to know that God loves you in Jesus Christ—loves you, every single one of you, as if you were the only one in all the world to love. Therefore, no matter what it may cost, I’m going to keep taking to this pulpit; I’m going to keep telling you about Jesus Christ; I’m going to keep calling you to commit your life to Him; I’m going to keep preaching His transforming, life-changing, world changing, death-defying Gospel until under the consuming fire of the Holy Spirit, there is of me nothing left…