Everyone loves a comeback story. There’s just something about seeing someone overcome incredible odds in order to experience wild success that moves our spirits. In fact—and I know this is indulgent, but I’ll just say it’s one of the perks of the position—watch this video and tell me you don’t feel at least a little excited by it.
The Kansas City Royals have developed the reputation over the past couple of years of being the kings of the comeback victory…although they seem to have lost some of that magic over the past few weeks. Now, I know this particular game came from the season in which we didn’t win the series, but it set up last season in which we did. But true-to-form almost every one of our victories in last year’s playoffs were come-from-behind victories. We trailed after the seventh inning in over half the games we played. It was funny listening to the announcers almost roll their eyes as the Royals…again…started hitting in the 7th or 8th inning to come from behind and win the thing. In fact, after the 2014 series Kansas City fans were so excited by their comeback boys that but for the panicked, last-minute rule changes by the MLB they would have put the whole team in the All-Star Game.
There’s just something about a comeback that gets us going. I think this is just part of who we are as humans. It’s part of who we are as creatures created in the image of a God who loves a good comeback story. And we can know this because the Scriptures are full of them. Over and over and over again we see the odds against God and His people are a billion-to-one and yet He wins every time. And yet, as inspiring as comeback stories are to us, the very fact that a comeback is necessary means there was failure happening. That’s part of why comebacks are so encouraging: because when we were sitting in the place of failure we didn’t think we were coming back. I’ll confess: when I was sitting there watching that September 30th evening by the time it got to the sixth inning and we were down five runs and it was getting late I turned the TV off in disgust and went to bed. I was tired of watching us fail. The truth here is that when we are sitting in a place of failure in our lives a comeback is not what we’re expecting.
Well this morning we are in the fifth part of our series, Beauty from Ashes. If this is the first part of the series you’re catching this morning you are kind of coming in at the end of the movie. While the ending is going to be really good this week and next, if you want to pick up on what you’ve missed you can go to the church’s website and find both the transcripts and the audio of the first four parts of the series. In any event, the big idea for this series is that from time-to-time in our lives we all find ourselves sitting in a pile of ashes resulting from some decisions we’ve made. In those places it is easy to get down on ourselves and everybody else and figure that the ashes are pretty much what is going to define us going forward. But the great hope we have been firmly setting before us is that if you are a follower of Jesus you serve the God who specializes in making beautiful things out of the ashes of our lives.
So far on this journey we have seen how God can bring beauty out of the ashes of times when we’ve gotten wildly off track with the plans He has for us, times when we have broken a relationship with someone important, times when we’ve let a critical spirit loose in our lives and it has run fairly rampant, and times when we’ve been crippled by doubt. In each of these situations we’ve seen that no matter how deep our failure may seem, God is still capable of working His good plans to completion if we will give ourselves to Him.
But let’s be honest with each other this morning: there are some failures that are bad enough we don’t really believe we can come back from them. There are some holes that are deep enough we can’t see any way we are ever going to climb out of them. Exactly what this situation is changes from person to person, but we all have this category in our minds. When we are in a place like this a comeback isn’t simply a distant, but miniscule hope, it’s not even a realistic possibility. We literally cannot imagine God doing something positive in, much less with, our lives from that position. And yet, just like every other category of ashes we’ve talked about over the past few weeks, God can still bring beauty here. In order to show you this incredible truth this morning I want to take you to the story of one of the most important leaders in the early church. This man’s successes, though, came after a failure the likes of which made the Royals’ nearly thirty years of terrible baseball prior to last season seem like an unending string of victories. You can find the story of this remarkable failure in Luke 22. But before we get there, let me give you some context so that you can see just how deep Peter’s failure really was.
Peter was one of the first disciples Jesus called to follow Him and His recruitment story is the most dramatic of the bunch. It was the only story that featured a miracle. This combined with Jesus’ healing Peter’s mother-in-law made him one of Jesus’ most dedicated followers. Peter was part of the inner circle that included him, John, and James. Peter was the disciple who first verbally identified Jesus for who He really was and this plus the ensuing conversation made an impression on Peter and the other disciples that is still felt today.
From Matthew 16:13: “Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them ‘But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.’”
Wow, right?!? While there’s still some debate today over exactly what Jesus meant here, there’s really no question that this was an incredible proclamation on His part. Whether Peter himself was the rock or (and I think more likely) Peter’s confession was the rock, either way, Jesus’ statement here is incredible. Your person, your leadership, your confession of me, your recognition of my identity, your dedication to me is going to serve as the foundation point of the whole movement I came to create. Talk about being on cloud nine! This guy should never have any problems being totally dedicated to Jesus…ever.
But there’s more. Not long after this Peter was one of the three disciples Jesus took with Him to the top of a mountain in order to reveal to them a glimpse of His real glory as the second member of the Trinity. He got to see Moses and Elijah—the two most important people in Jewish history at that point—alive again and having a conversation with Jesus. And then about a year later when Jesus revealed to the group that one of their number would soon betray Him Peter was right at the front of the line proclaiming His dedication. “Even if all these other guys run out on you, Jesus,” Peter said, “I’ll never do it! I’m with you to the bitter end.” Jesus told Peter that before the rooster crowed the next morning he would deny him like all the others, but Peter would have none of that. And when the crowd came to arrest Jesus, there was Peter proving His words by pulling out a sword and lashing out at the nearest body. He was ready to fight to the death to defend his Lord.
But then Jesus stopped him. And the soldiers took Him. And all the other disciples ran off in fear. And so did Peter. But he came back! He followed the mob with John from a safe distance. The two of them together tried to keep track of where Jesus was going and what was happening to Him. John had some family connections with the high priest that gained him access to the priest’s inner courtyard, but Peter had to wait outside by himself. There surrounded by people who didn’t know of Jesus as anything but a heretical criminal, he lost his nerve.
Luke puts it like this in 22:54: “Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house, and Peter was following at a distance. And when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat down among them. Then a servant girl, seeing him as he sat in the light and looking closely at him, said, ‘This man also was with him.’ But he denied it, saying, ‘Woman, I do not know him.’ And a little later someone else saw him and said, ‘You also are one of them.’ But Peter said, ‘Man, I am not.’ And after an interval of about an hour still another insisted, saying, ‘Certainly this man also was with him, for he too is a Galilean.’ But Peter said, ‘Man, I do not know what you are talking about.’ And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly.”
Peter, the man on whose confession Jesus was going to build His church denied Him. There is no failure deeper than Peter’s. He turned his back on everything he’d ever said he believed. He forsook everything he said he’d do. He proved to be a liar of the highest order. I mean, it’s one thing to fail another person, but to so boldly fail God…that’s a different level of failure than most of us will ever achieve. Perhaps you think you’ve failed God before. Perhaps you’re certain of it. But have you ever had Him tell you you’re going to fail Him, deny it to His face, fail Him exactly as He told you you would, and then have Him look you in the eyes immediately afterwards?
Even after the resurrection Peter still figured he was toast. We can tell this because when the group headed back to Galilee upon Jesus’ instructions Peter took up fishing again. When they encountered the risen Jesus for the third time on the shore of the Sea of Galilee Peter was fishing with the disciples. Why? Because they were hungry, sure, but they were doing the very kind of commercial fishing that Jesus had called them to leave behind some three years earlier. Why would Peter have gone back to that? Because after failing His Lord with such profundity he had written himself off. It didn’t matter that Jesus hadn’t done so yet, Peter knew there was no way he was ever going to be able to do something useful for Jesus again. His failure was too deep.
Have you ever been there? Have you ever made such a huge mess of things that you figured there was no way you were ever going to clean it up? I heard a story about a guy who went into his pantry one afternoon to get a snack. Up on the top shelf he found a gallon glass jar of salsa. Perfect. Chips and salsa. As he reached for it, though, he didn’t get his hands quite around the jar and it fell off the shelf and hit the floor with a deafening crash. Salsa was everywhere. The floor. The ceiling. The walls. The pantry door. Everything in the pantry. Him. All covered. He did the only thing that made any sense in the moment: he shut the door and walked away. When his wife saw his salsa-stained clothes and asked what happened he just said to her: “Honey, we need to sell the house.” If you’ve ever made that kind of a mess before in life you know exactly what he was thinking. There’s no way this is ever going to get fixed. I just need to walk away and start over somewhere else. I need to leave the life I’ve been living behind and make a new one because there’s nothing left here for me to go back to. I need to forget about this relationship because I’ve broken it so completely it’ll never be fixed. I suspect you have experienced a failure. You may have even experienced such an enormous failure that you honestly wondered if you had crossed that line into the territory of an unfixable failure. Maybe you didn’t even wonder. You just put yourself in that category: irredeemable. You wore the label on your soul like a scarlet letter. Maybe you’re secretly wearing it right now. Peter certainly did. But before you write yourself off entirely know well that there’s hope. You see, Peter’s failure wasn’t the end of his story. It doesn’t have to be the end of yours either.
The morning when the disciples encountered the risen Lord on the shore of the Sea of Galilee after spending all night fishing Jesus called Peter to the side after they had all had breakfast together. John writes that when He did, He looked straight at Peter and asked Him a painful question: “‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ [Peter] said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ He said to him a second time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ He said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him a third time, ‘Simon, son of John, so you love me?’ Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ and he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’”
Jesus didn’t let Peter off on the depth of his failure. Each time He asked Peter whether or not he loved Him, Peter felt like he was getting punched in the gut. Each asking was a stripe across his wounded conscience. You see, sometimes we think that the way to bring people back from the hole of failure is to try and minimize the extent of the damage done. “Oh, it wasn’t really that bad,” we’ll say. But the tough reality is that such efforts actually accomplish just the opposite of their intended goal. Instead of pulling the person out of his failure they leave him sitting in the midst of the burned-out walls, but now there’s some flowery wallpaper up so it doesn’t seem quite so bad as it is. While it’s not awful that things don’t look quite so bad anymore, if the point is redemption and restoration it has been missed rather broadly. God doesn’t do that with us. Jesus didn’t do that with Peter. He didn’t sugarcoat the fact that Peter had blown it…royally, cosmically even. He owned it. He made Peter own it. But then He moved past it.
He called Peter out of his failure and back into not only His service, but vital service. He called Peter once again to, “Follow me,” just as He had done three years before. In fact, the similarities between the two stories are remarkable. Peter’s restoration was so complete that a few months after this time he would stand before the religious authorities of the Jews when they had arrested him for performing a miracle in Jesus’ name and proclaim with boldness: “…let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well. This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” The religious authorities were so shocked by this speech that they could only marvel at the fact that he had been with Jesus. His restoration was so thorough that when threatened with imprisonment and beatings if he continued to speak about Jesus he would only reply, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” Peter’s confession, made over and over for everyone who was within earshot was indeed the foundation on which the church would grow and thrive, is still thriving today, and the gates of hell have indeed not prevailed against it in spite of their best efforts.
Think about this with me now: If God in Christ could redeem Peter from such a failure as that, what do you think are the chances that He could redeem us from whatever failure we happening to be living in at the moment? I’d say they’re 100%. God can redeem us from even our worst failures. It doesn’t matter how low you’ve fallen. It doesn’t matter how much of a mess you’ve made. It doesn’t matter how completely you’ve screwed things up. God can redeem us from even our worst failures. There’s simply no failure so big that He can’t still redeem you from it.
But let’s make a couple of things really clear here so I don’t leave you thinking anything that isn’t true. First, just like He did with Peter, Jesus’ restoration of us is not going to come by way of pretending it never happened in the first place. Restoration is not the same thing as undoing damage that has already been done. If you’ve burned down the house God isn’t going to magically put it back together with the wave of His miracle wand. He’s going to hand you a hammer, pick up one Himself, and go with you through the hard work of rebuilding it. Along the way there are going to be scrapes and scratches. There will be hard conversations and crow served every way you can possibly imagine. But He’ll be with you every step of the way. He’s not finished with you yet. God can redeem us from even our worst failures.
The second thing is this: in order to experience this redemption, we’ve got to give ourselves over to Him completely. This is a lot harder than it sounds. This means embracing a couple of uncomfortable truths. The first is that we have indeed failed. Sometimes when we’ve failed one of the ways we’ll try and deal with it is to make a sincere attempt to get back to normal life without actually dealing with the failure. We’ll pretend it never happened. In order to experience the restoration of God, though, we have to own it. We failed. That’s uncomfortable. It’s painful. It’s humiliating. But it’s absolutely necessary. The second uncomfortable truth is that we can’t fix the problem ourselves. In some ways this is even harder to embrace than the first truth because we want few things in the world so much as to fix our problems ourselves without having to rely on anybody else. We want that because then we can scratch that human itch that has been in place since the Garden of Eden to prove that we are enough in and of ourselves; to prove that we are gods and goddesses in our own right; to prove that we are supremely like God (even though we are ironically most like Him when we are the most dependent on Him). But this is now just as it was then a lie of the first order. After all, the big idea here is that God can redeem us from even our worst failures, not that we can. As a matter of fact: we can’t. And as long as we keep trying under the delusion that the opposite is true we’ll never experience the redemption God has to give us.
Peter had embraced these two truths and had gone the direction that some folks go by essentially embracing despair. He figured he was never going to be of use to Jesus again and so he gave up. This conclusion is tempting when we are in a place of failure, especially when we have embraced those two uncomfortable truths, but it misses the whole point of this series: we serve the God who can bring beauty from the ashes of life. Our God can redeem us from even our worst failures. This is exactly why we must put ourselves so fully into His hands. He not only can redeem us, but He wants to do so. Just as He told Jeremiah to remind the people of Israel when they were sitting in their own place of failure in Babylon: I know the plans I have for you. They are plans for your good and not your evil. They are plans to give you a future and a hope. That hasn’t changed. God can redeem us from even our worst failures. He redeemed the people of Israel who seemed to march toward failure like ants to a picnic and stuck with His plans to bring His Messiah to the world through their nation. He redeemed Peter after his painful denial and made him the cornerstone of the church. He redeemed Paul from his dogged pursuit of the destruction of the church and made him the number one reason that any of us are in church today at all. He redeemed John Newton from the life of a brutal slave trader and through him brought to the world the lyrics to the song that has communicated the riches of the gospel into more hearts and minds than perhaps any other ever written. Our God is in the business of redemption. God can redeem us from even our worst failures.
The path may not be easy. In fact, it probably won’t be. It will be hard. It will be painful. Peter had to face the reality of the wound he dealt to Jesus. Paul had to live with the things he did to his brothers and sisters before joining them in their suffering. You will have to walk a road of humility. You will have to reach out with apologies and sincere requests for forgiveness. You’ll have to make possibly painful changes to the way you’ve been doing things. Hard stuff. But what you will have is the God who specializes in bringing beautiful things from the ashes of life at your side every step of the way. God can redeem us from even our worst failures. God can redeem you from even your worst failure. He’s the God of the bottom-of-the-9th comeback. The Royals’ success last year was remarkable. Their string of comebacks will leave the baseball world talking for years. They changed the way a lot of teams are playing the game. But your comeback will blow all that to pieces. God can redeem you from even your worst failure and in the process will leave everyone who knows you and knows the failure marveling at the God you serve. God can redeem you from even your worst failures. All you have to do is follow Him. I pray you will.