Learning from Failure

Those of us who are Americans love success.  We celebrate it; we work hard to achieve it; and we honor those who attain it.  Take the Fourth of July as an example.  In a few months, we will do what we do every year – we’ll have parades, and speeches, and festivals and fireworks.  On that day, all across this country, millions of people will commemorate the date on which we declared our independence from Great Britain.  And you know why we do that?  Because we won!  

            If we had not won, then we would not celebrate July 4th as a national holiday.  Instead, we would all be driving on the left-hand side of the road, eating scones with jam for breakfast, drinking tea at three in the afternoon, and singing “God Save the Queen”.  Baseball would be replaced by cricket, and we would have to use expressions like, “Pip! Pip!” and “Cheerio!”  But thankfully, we avoided all that by successfully kicking the redcoats out of America. 

            As you might expect, the fourth of July is not a big holiday in England.  No one shoots off fireworks, or holds parades, or gives speeches to commemorate a failure.  And, at the risk of offending our beloved British friends, my point is that we celebrate success, but we either ignore or condemn failure.  And, very often, if you fail in this world, you will not get a second chance.  Failure is fatal.

            Fortunately, though, we serve a God with a very different approach.  Many, if not most, of the people God chose in the Bible had a personal history of failure.  Moses committed murder, David committed adultery, Jacob was a con man who deceived his own father, Noah was guilty of drunkenness, and Samson lusted after women.

            Failure is something that we are all too familiar with in our own lives.  We often look back with regret and say, “I wish I could go back in time and change what I did because I really, really messed up.”

            To make matters worse, we don’t always deal with failure the way we ought to.  We live with disappointment, frustration and regret.  Some of us are so afraid of failure that we don’t even want to try any more, because we might fail again.  But, as someone has pointed out, it’s not so much a fear of failure as it is a fear of shame.  We have trouble dealing with our failure because we have such a deep sense of shame about what we did.

            If scholars are correct about the background of the gospel of Mark, then Mark was writing to a group of Christians who were going through some severe persecution in Rome.  They were being arrested and they were told to deny their faith in Jesus and affirm their allegiance to the emperor.  Many of them were tortured.  Some of them were murdered. 

            And there are times that I wonder, what would I have done in their place?  If I was the one being tortured, would I have denied Jesus?  If my family and my means of income had been threatened, would I have worshipped Caesar?  If I had been locked up in a dark dungeon, would I have told them what they wanted to hear to gain my freedom?

I’m sure that all of us would like to think that we would be faithful to Jesus in all of those circumstances.  There’s a part of us that is tempted to say, like Peter did, “Lord, even if everyone else turns their back on you, I would never do that!”  But I think deep down in our hearts we know that it’s possible that we might have been among those who failed Jesus.  Because we’re painfully aware of just how often we fail him now.

Many Christians in the first and second centuries must have had to deal with the painful memory of their failure.  In a moment of weakness . . . a denial of Jesus . . . and a memory that would haunt them and cause them to question their worthiness to be disciples of Jesus ever again.  Could they still assemble with their brothers and sisters in Christ?  Would the church even accept them?  More importantly, would Jesus still accept them?  Haven’t we all been there at one time or another?

Some of us wrongly believe that there is no room for failure in the life of a true disciple of Christ.  Well, maybe a minor setback, some little sin, but no obvious or major failures.  And if you do fail Jesus – if you disappoint him greatly or stumble in a public and humiliating way – he may still let you follow from a distance, but you will be unfit for any prominent or leading role in the kingdom.  Because real Christians just don’t fail like that, or so the myth goes.

Let me share this quote with you:  Whenever you do something you believe in, you must accept some failure to experience success.   

Michael Jordan once did a basketball commercial where he said, “I’ve missed 9,000 shots in my career.  I’ve lost almost 300 games.  Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and I missed it. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life.”  Then he said, “That’s why I succeed.”

What he said makes no sense unless you realize that:  Whenever you do something you believe in, you must accept some failure to experience success.  

And what makes a great disciple of Jesus Christ is not the fact that we never fail.  Yes, I know, that’s the goal.  As John writes in I John 2:1, “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.”  But then he goes on to say, “But if anyone does sin”, or more accurately, “When you sin”, here’s what you need to do about it.  Because, as John pointed out just a few verses earlier, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (I John 1:8)

What God expects of us is not perfection.  Rather, what he expects is a willingness to recognize our failure, to repent of it, and get on with the work of the kingdom.  That’s what makes someone a faithful follower of Jesus.  And that’s why Mark is so honest about the failures of the twelve apostles.

One of the themes that Mark keeps coming back to over and over again is the disciples’ failure.   He shows us that the disciples never quite seem to get it right.  They fail to understand what Jesus says time and again. They don’t get the point of his parables, they misunderstand the message of his teaching, they are unable to grasp the meaning of his predictions. 

And because they misunderstand what Jesus says, they also fail to understand who he is and what it means to follow him.  They’re constantly thinking about earthly kingdoms and political power.  They fight among themselves for the best positions as they debate who is greatest in the kingdom of God.

They failed Jesus in other ways.  They’re afraid in a storm when they should have been calm because of the presence of Jesus.  They keep underestimating what Jesus is capable of doing and they’re always amazed or terrified when he does something.

 They were faithless when they should have been faithful.  They spoke up when they should have been quiet; and they were quiet when they should have spoken up.  They were proud when they should have been humble.  They competed for power when Jesus wanted them to learn how to be a servant.

            They consistently and constantly disappointed and frustrated Jesus.  And sometimes he became impatient with them, and rebuked them, saying things like, “How long must I put up with you?”(Mark 9:19, NLT).

            Then, in Mark chapter 14, our text this morning, there is one failure after another.  The disciples got upset at the woman who poured perfume on the head of Jesus and Jesus had to rebuke them.  Then, later in the chapter, while Jesus is in the garden of Gethsemane, the disciples are sleeping when they should have been watching.

Then, in his time of greatest need, they all deserted Jesus.  We pick up in Mark 14:46: “And they [the soldiers and the mob] laid hands on him and seized him… And Jesus said to them, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But let the Scriptures be fulfilled.” And they all left him and fled.”  (Mark 14:46-50). 

Earlier in this chapter, Jesus had predicted that his disciples would desert him but they all denied that he knew what he was talking about.  In the end, though, they did desert him – every single one of them.

It’s important for us to understand that Mark has not pointed out the failures of the disciples to make us think they’re terrible people.  He’s trying to teach us a lesson about the role of failure in a disciple’s life.  He’s making a point about what it means when a disciple disappoints the Lord, when a follower doesn’t follow like he or she should.

His point is that failure is not necessarily fatal to a disciple of Jesus.  It’s not failure that disqualifies us from discipleship.  It is what we do with our failure that’s important.  Let me repeat that because it may be the most important thing I will say in this entire lesson — It is not failure that disqualifies us from discipleship.  It’s what we do with our failure that’s important.

There is a failure which leads to death.  But there’s also a failure which results in forgiveness and a second chance.  Knowing the difference makes all the difference in the world to those of us who want to follow Jesus.  And Mark tells us about the two greatest failures of disciples in this chapter to show us the difference.

The Failure of Judas

In Mark 14:10-11, Judas makes his plan to betray Jesus.  “Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. And when they heard it, they were glad and promised to give him money. And he sought an opportunity to betray him.” 

Judas said to the Jewish leaders – you want to arrest Jesus and you want to do it quietly.  I’m the perfect spy.  When I find out when Jesus is planning to go to a place that’s quiet, I can send you word so you can arrest him away from the crowds.  The Jewish leaders were more than happy to take him up on his offer, and for his services, Judas was offered 30 pieces of silver. 

That evening, Jesus gathered with his apostles to take the Passover meal with them.  “And when it was evening, [Jesus] came with the twelve. And as they were reclining at table and eating, Jesus said, ‘Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.’  They began to be sorrowful and to say to him one after another, ‘Is it I?’  He said to them, ‘It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the dish with me.’” (Mark 14:17-20)

Mark tells us that all the apostles took their turn asking Jesus, “Is it me?  Am I the one who’s going to betray you?”  Matthew specifically tells us that Judas had the gall to ask, “It’s not me, is it?”  Judas pretends to be innocent and acts insulted, “Surely you’re not talking about me?” 

But when he learned that Jesus planned to go to the Garden of Gethsemane outside the city of Jerusalem after the meal, he realized this was the perfect place and the perfect time – a quiet spot in the middle of the night – and so, Judas slipped out quietly to go tell the Jewish leaders to get ready to arrest Jesus.

A few hours later, Judas leads a mob of soldiers to the Garden of Gethsemane.  In verse 43, “Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, ‘The one I will kiss is the man. Seize him and lead him away under guard.’  And when he came, he went up to him at once and said, ‘Rabbi!’  And he kissed him.”(Mark 14:43-45)

Of all the signals Judas could have used, why a kiss?  He could have pointed to Jesus or simply described him.  To confront Jesus face to face – to embrace him, kiss him, and call him “Rabbi!” – “my teacher” — the coldness of his actions are just incredible.

And I think the greater sin was not that Judas failed so miserably as a disciple, but that he did it with no sense of remorse.  That becomes all the more evident when you see the contrast Mark makes between Judas and Peter. 

The Failure of Peter

The second great failure of this chapter is that of Peter.  And I think that we need to understand from the onset that Peter’s failure was just as bad as Judas’s failure.  It starts earlier in this chapter when Peter doesn’t believe Jesus’ prediction. 

In verse 27, “And Jesus said to them, ‘You will all fall away, for it is written, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.”….Peter said to him, ‘Even though they all fall away, I will not.’  

“And Jesus said to him, ‘Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.’  But he said emphatically, ‘If I must die with you, I will not deny you.’ And they all said the same.” (Mark 14:27-31)

Jesus tells Peter that he will desert him, and Peter says, “Never!”  Then Jesus predicts that Peter will even deny knowing him and Peter insists that he will not.  “These other guys might do something like that – maybe Thaddeus or Bartholomew – but not me.  I’ve got your back, Jesus.  You can count on me!  I’ll always be there for you!”

But, then, just a few hours later, Peter did desert Jesus along with all the rest of the apostles.  Verse 50, “And they all left him and fled.” Afraid that they, too, might be arrested.  Afraid that they might even be killed for being with Jesus, they ran away and hid.

            And then, of course, there is the most famous of Peter’s failures — his denial of Jesus.  “And as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came, and seeing Peter warming himself, she looked at him and said, ‘You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.’  But he denied it, saying, ‘I neither know nor understand what you mean.’ And he went out into the gateway and the rooster crowed. 

            “And the servant girl saw him and began again to say to the bystanders, ‘This man is one of them.’  But again he denied it.  And after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, ‘Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.’  But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, ‘I do not know this man of whom you speak.’ 

            “And immediately the rooster crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, ‘Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.’  And he broke down and wept.” (Mark 14:66-72). 

Mark stresses the fact that Peter failed miserably.  Peter denied Jesus even though he had been warned just hours before that he would do this.  And he denied Jesus not just once but three times — twice to a servant girl!

            I mean, it would be understandable if Peter denied Jesus to a Roman soldier or to the High Priest himself, someone in a position of power.  But Peter is so afraid that he even swears and curses in making his denial.  This is not just a failure, this is an epic failure of someone from whom we expected so much more. 

But Peter’s attitude toward his failure was very different from Judas.  In verse 72, “He broke down and wept.”  (Mark 14:72).  Peter failed miserably – but then he repented of his failure.  Judas also failed miserably – and Matthew tells us he experienced some remorse, but Judas was never inclined to repent.  It’s difficult if not impossible to imagine Judas being broken before God and crying out in his sorrow, recognizing his need for forgiveness.

What makes Peter such a great disciple is not that his failures were not as bad as Judas’ but that, like King David in the Old Testament, Peter responded to his failure with repentance and tears. 

And therein lies the hope for all of us.  It’s not our failure that disqualifies us as disciples but the absence of repentance.  We can see in the rest of Peter’s life that his brokenness and his failure led him to repent and that repentance led him to be an even greater servant.

Failure and Discipleship

            I was reading recently about a kid who was answering Bible questions in front of a congregation.  The minister asked him, “What can you tell me about King Solomon?”

            And the boy said, “Well, King Solomon was the one who had a lot of pets.”

            And the minister said, “How do you know that?”

            And the boy said, “Because it says so right in the Bible. Solomon had 700 wives and 300 porcupines.”

            Everyone in the church laughed.  And the boy became very embarrassed.  Because he realized he made a mistake.

            But the truth is that we all make mistakes.  Some of them out in public, in front of everyone.  And some of them behind closed doors.  We’ve all said things we wish we could take back. We’ve all done things we wish we wouldn’t have done.

            We start off strong.  We have the best of intentions.  We have the desire to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ.  Yet, so often, we get distracted.  We take our eyes off of Jesus.  Maybe we allow the wrong influences in our lives.  We experience a setback.  We make a bad decision.  We fail by allowing sin into our lives, and our relationship with Jesus suffers.

            Mark wants us to know that there are two kinds of failure.  There is a failure that leads to death.  The example of Judas teaches us that even disciples of Christ can turn their back on Jesus and walk away completely.  You can fail Jesus and not repent, not weep over your failure, not be cut to the heart by the mistakes you’ve made.  And failing like that will absolutely separate you from Christ.

But there’s another failure that results in forgiveness.  The example of Peter shows us that disciples can fail miserably and yet still be a disciple, and through repentance and forgiveness go on to achieve great levels of service in God’s kingdom.  It’s not the absence of failure but the willingness to repent, to weep, to be broken by failure that assures our place as a disciple of Christ.

Jesus wanted Peter despite his history of failings.  Jesus wanted Peter in spite of his denial.  And the next time we hear about Peter in the gospel of Mark is in Mark 16, after the resurrection of Jesus.  The angel that appears to the women at the empty tomb tells them,

“Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here.  See the place where they laid him.  But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee..” (Mark 16:6-7).

Why does the angel mention Peter specifically?  I think it’s because Jesus wanted Peter — the man who had failed him so miserably – Jesus wanted Peter to know that everything’s okay.  He still loves him.  Jesus hasn’t given up on him. 

And that must have meant a lot to Peter!  Because you have to think at this point in time that Peter had given up on himself.  He had failed his Lord.  He had denied that he knew Jesus three times.  To make matters worse, he had been so bold and so insistent that he would never let that happen, and yet it did happen.  Peter was a failure and he knew it. 

But there’s good news!  Peter, Jesus still loves you!  Three times in John 21 Jesus gives Peter an opportunity to reaffirm his love for Jesus.  Jesus still has work for Peter to do.  He gives him the responsibility of feeding his sheep.  The keys of the kingdom that were given to him were not taken away because of his failure!

And there’s also good news here for Mark’s readers.  Remember, as I said earlier, it’s likely that the gospel of Mark was written to Christians in Rome who were suffering terrible persecution under Nero.  It’s likely that many of them were failing Jesus, even denying Jesus, out of their fear and weakness.  What was required of those Christians was the same thing required of Peter – not an absence of failure but a broken heart.  Repentance, not perfection, is the only requisite for following Jesus.

And then, of course, all of this means that there is good news for all of us, because we’ve all failed Jesus in some way or another.  We’ve all stood in the place of Peter.  There are times when we have disappointed and frustrated Jesus.  There are times we have denied Jesus.  We’ve denied him with our sin.  We have denied him at times when we failed to stand up for him.

Maybe there’s a sin with which we continue to struggle.  Maybe a fear of sharing his story with those who are lost.  Maybe a hesitancy to commit entirely to Jesus and follow wherever he leads.  With our failures and our inability to obey perfectly, we have all failed him… miserably.

And sometimes we can be overwhelmed by the depth of that failure.  Sometimes we can feel that we have messed up so bad that Jesus has given up on us.  What Mark wants us to know is that Jesus can forgive our failures if only we are willing to weep for them.  Our failure is not fatal, like it was for Judas, if we respond with repentance… like Peter.  Rather than disqualifying us for discipleship, failure can actually make us useful in the hands of God if we respond to it properly.

            This morning, if you have failed, please don’t respond to your failure like Judas.  Don’t give up on the grace of God; don’t give up on yourself.  Rather, admit your failure and see it for what it is.  Don’t sugarcoat it and try to make it seem as if it’s not so bad.  Don’t try to sweep it under the rug and pretend that it isn’t there. 

            The only way to properly handle our failures before God is to weep and to feel broken and to repent.  For only then can we be forgiven. 


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