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You Can Fail And Not Be A Failure

Jeremiah 18:1-6

Back when Joe Garagiola was a catcher in the major leagues, he had a young pitcher on the mound who had just come up from the team’s farm club. It was the young man’s first time to pitch in the major leagues, and the first two batters he faced had gotten hit. They were now on second and third base. Standing at the plate was Stan Musial, one of the greatest hitters ever to play the game. When Garagiola squatted down behind the plate and flashed the signal for the fast ball, the young pitcher shook his head. So Garagiola flashed the signal for the curve ball, but again the youngster shook his head. Then Garagiola signaled for the changeup, but that didn’t suit the young rookie either. So Garagiola called “time-out,” went out to the mound, and said, “I called every pitch in the book, and you’ve shaken them all off. What do you want to throw anyway?” The frightened young man glanced at Stan Musial, standing at the plate, and then he turned to Garagiola and he said, “Nothing, Joe, I don’t want to throw nothing. I don’t want to throw nothing. I just want to hold on to this ball as long as I can!”

You see the young man was paralyzed by the fear of failure. I suppose we can understand that. Jeremiah in the Bible certainly understood it. I mean, he knew what it meant to fail in life. Jeremiah was a young man whose family had forsaken him and turned against him. He was a young man who was repudiated and ridiculed by his church though he sought to serve that church. No one ever loved his country more than Jeremiah did, and yet his country would have nothing to do with him. He sought to do what he believed God wanted him to do, and yet he was beaten, whipped, discouraged, and defeated on every hand. No matter how he evaluated his performance in life, he always came up with the same answer: He had failed. If you ever visit the Sistine Chapel in Rome, you will find on the west wall of that room Michelangelo’s portrayal of Jeremiah. There you will see the figure of a man broken and brooding, dejected and weeping—a visible representation of what it means to fail in life. Make no mistake Jeremiah understood what it means to fail. However, I want us to remember that the Word of God came to Jeremiah in the midst of his despair, and God said in essence, “Jeremiah, you have failed but you are not a failure. Get up and go down to the potter’s house, and I will show you what I mean.” Jeremiah did what God told him to do. Apparently, he spent the whole day at the potter’s house watching the potter work. He saw the potter take a lump of clay, place it on the wheel, and then work the spinning clay with his hands and fingers to form something useful and beautiful. He saw that there were times when the lump of clay, because of some imperfection or impurity within it, simply would not yield to the potter’s touch. And he saw how the potter then would remove the imperfection, knead the clay again to make it pliable, and go on to make something beautiful out of it. At the end of that day, Jeremiah went home with a new hope in his heart. He’d learned some lessons which carried him out of failure and into the future with hope and encouragement. They are lessons we need to learn, as well…

Jeremiah learned that God, like the potter, works in our lives.

Jeremiah realized that the lump of clay, on its own, could never form itself into anything. That could only happen when the potter put his hands to it and began to work it. Just so, Jeremiah says that God is always at work fashioning things out of our spinning world and out of our swirling lives.

Now I could illustrate how God works in our lives in dozens of ways, but since today we are focusing on failure, let me speak about how God works in the things which work against us in life. All of us here are sophisticated enough to understand that in order for a painting to be a good painting, it must have in it both light and dark, both brightness and shadow. The contrast contributes to the beauty. We don’t have to be professional musicians to understand that a discord set in the midst of a melody can, in fact, accentuate the beauty of the melody. That’s the way God works through failure. The shadowed times in our lives, the discordant times in our lives are the times which contribute to the beauty of our living. That’s why Martin Luther could say, “My failures have been my teachers in divinity.” And that’s why, if we are honest, we shall have to admit that the times when God has carved upon our lives the deepest lines of His beauty are those times when we have experienced hurt and hardship, failure, and frustration.

I’ve tried to think of an elevated, eloquent way to say it, but I can’t come up with it. So let me just say it plainly. We are living in a mushy world—a world of comfort, ease, and all kinds of conveniences designed to insulate us from things that are difficult, demanding and challenging in life. As a result, we are become mushy people. Aren’t we? And as mushy people, living in a mushy world, we develop a mushy faith, and we think of God as a mushy God. We associate God with a beautiful day, with temperatures in the mid 70’s, not a cloud in the sky, the birds singing their lovely songs, but when the howling storms of life come and we are chilled to the bones, and there is no letup for days or weeks, we wonder why God has turned away. But the Bible teaches us that our God is not a mushy God catering to the whims of mushy people. The Bible teaches us that the downside of life is as much a part of God’s work as the upside. If there were no night, there would be no day. If there were no winter, there would be no spring. If there were no valleys, there would be no mountains. If there were no defeats, there would be no victories. Yes, and if there were no failures, there would be no successes. Therefore when we encounter failure in life, we need to learn the lesson Jeremiah learned—that God is at work, even in the failure, to shape us and to mold us into the people He wants us to be.

Jeremiah also learned that sometimes the clay, because of imperfections or impurities, would not yield to the potter’s touch.

Jeremiah realized that the clay is not perfect and the potter knows that, because of the imperfections, more work with the clay will be required. In other words, Jeremiah is saying that our Lord not only expects our failures but accepts our failures as well. Here is the way I like to say it. Tuck this in your heart and take it with you: Not to win is not a sin.

Remember the experience of Simon Peter. At the last supper, he promised Jesus that he would never deny knowing Him and loving Him. Yet just a few hours later, he had done it three times, and had done it in no uncertain terms. He was then so overwhelmed by a sense of his own failure that the Bible says “he went out into the night and wept bitterly.” But remember how, after the resurrection, Jesus sought out Peter directly and said to him, “Peter, feed my sheep.” With that single line of encouragement and acceptance, Jesus was helping Peter to turn his back on his failure, and He was sending Peter off into a glorious new future. He said to Peter, in essence, “You failed. So what, you are not a failure. Forward march!” You see failing to Jesus does not mean that we are a failure. It means only that we have experienced a failure. It doesn’t mean that we have accomplished nothing—it means that we’ve learned something. To Jesus Christ failing means not that we don’t have it, but that we will have to go at it another way—not that we are inferior, but that we aren’t perfect—not that we’ve wasted our life, but that now we have a good reason for starting again—not that we’ll never make it, but that it may take a little longer—not that we should give up, but that we should just try harder. So here is what is true: You and I are imperfect clay. We are going to fail. We are going to make mistakes. We are going to come up short. We are going to blow it. And so we need to learn the lesson Jeremiah learned. The Lord expects us to fail, and the Lord accepts us in our failure. I need to know that. My guess is that you need to know it too.

Then Jeremiah learned that God, like the potter, never gives up on the lump of clay.

Jeremiah realized that, no matter how imperfect the clay might be, the potter would keep kneading it, working it, shaping it, and molding it until it became something beautiful. Just so, Jeremiah says that God is determined to make something beautiful out of your life and mine. No matter how much time or how much effort it takes, God never gives up on us.

Hubert Von Hoekomer is a great Bavarian sculptor. His father was a sculptor before him. In his father’s declining years (he was well up into his eighties), he came to live with his son. Every night, the old man loved to go into the studio and work with the clay, but his fingers were weak and his eyesight dim. So after an evening’s work, he would look at what he had done, he would sigh with deep discouragement, and then he would head off to bed. Now while his dad was sleeping Hubert Von Hoekomer would carefully rework what his dad had done. So the next morning, the old man would come downstairs. In the light of day he would look at the work, and he would say, “Well, you know, it’s not so bad after all.” Dear friends, I think that’s what God does for us. No matter how often or how deeply we fail, God never gives up on us. He keeps working, shaping, and molding us into something quite beautiful. That’s why Christians never let setbacks set them back in life. We fall down, yes, but we don’t stay down. We get hurt, yes, but we don’t wallow in our pain. We fail, like everyone fails, but we never become failures. We lose, like everyone loses, but we never become losers. Why? Because we belong to a Christ who never gives up on us. And therefore, we can never give up on ourselves. Never!

Well…

A couple of years ago, I had the privilege of speaking at a Pastors’ Conference in Birmingham, Alabama. Among those who came up to speak to me afterwards was a man who is a minister in Texas. To understand what he said to me, you have to know that in the autumn of 1970, I was privileged to address a large gathering of students and faculty at Stephen F. Austin College in Nacogdoches, Texas, and then you have to know that ten years later in January of 1980, I preached at the Austin Theological Seminary. After that sermon, I met with students, faculty and visitors in a question and answer session. I attempted to share with them through those questions and answers my deep conviction that there is no joy and satisfaction like that of being a minister in the Church of Jesus Christ. Now with that in mind, let me resume my story. This minister from Texas approached me there in Birmingham and proceeded to tell me that unbeknownst to me, he had been in the audience that night in 1970 in Nacogdoches, Texas and that what happened there confirmed for him a call to the ministry. He had gone to seminary, been ordained, served a small church for a couple of years, and then moved on to a larger church in south Texas. Things went well for a while, but then he experienced failure. People weren’t responding the way he had hoped they would, and he began to lose his zeal for the ministry. His preaching deteriorated. His relationship with some of the membership became frayed. The tension was affecting his life at home. And so as a way of getting away from it all, he had gone to Austin Seminary in January of 1980 to take an education seminar. There by accident… or by providence … he heard me preach and then he attended the dialogue session afterwards. He said that he went home then with a new spirit, a new fire, and a new commitment. Over all the years since, God has done a beautiful, healing work in his life and in his church. His church is now one of the strongest churches in his city. He went on to say that when he picked up a magazine and read that I would be speaking at this conference in Birmingham he had traveled from Texas to Alabama to be there. He said, “Three times in my life God has used you to encourage me, to rescue me from failure, to keep me going in my service to Him.” Then he said, “I’m sure there have been times in your life when you failed or wondered if what you are doing is doing any good.”—How did he know?—“And so I’ve come all this way to tell you how God has used you repeatedly to bless me in my life.” As I thought about him and what he said, I thought of Jeremiah. God is always at work. Three times God had woven the thread of my testimony into that man’s life, and I didn’t even know it, just as there are so many others, including you, whom God has used to touch my life. There came a time in that man’s life when failure led him into bitterness and frustration, and yet, God wouldn’t give up on him. God proceeded to make of him and his ministry something quite beautiful.

I am reminded here of a hymn by Adelaide Pollard. It was written in 1902 at a time when Adelaide Pollard was experiencing failure in her work as a teacher and failure in her body through ill health. One night, she attended a prayer meeting, and there someone prayed these words, “Lord, it doesn’t matter what life brings to us, just have your own way with us.” Those words, “have your own way,” stuck in Adelaide Pollard’s mind, and that night, she sat down and wrote the text of a hymn. I think of the experience of Jeremiah, I think of the experiences in my own life, and I think of you, the people I love, and it makes me want to sing and to pray the words of that hymn:

Have Thine own way, Lord! Have Thine own way!
Thou art the potter; I am the clay.
Mold me and make me after Thy will, While I am waiting, yielded and still.

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