A God of Failures

Sermon by David Felker on December 31, 2016

John 21:1-19

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Please turn with me in your Bibles to John chapter 21. John chapter 21; we’ll be looking at verses 1 to 19. It’s on page 907 in the church Bible in front of you. And just before we read, something to consider. From 2001 to 2011, there was a first baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals named Albert Pujols. And in those ten years playing for the Cardinals, Pujols was a nine-time all-star, he was a three-time National League MVP, and he led them to two World Series titles. But I think that Pujols would tell you that the pride of his life is his family, and especially his daughter Isabelle who has Down Syndrome. And as a result of that, Pujols has real deep compassion for children with Down Syndrome. And every year the Cardinals have what they call Buddy Day where local Down Syndrome kids come on game day and they’re paired with a player and they get to hang out on the field and be in the dugout and watch batting practice, and they get to stand on the field for the National Anthem. And this is my favorite stat about Pujols. I think the amazing thing about Pujols is this. In ten years playing for the St. Louis Cardinals, on games played on Buddy Day, Pujols hit with an unheard of batting average of .527 and he had twelve home runs.


In 2006 at Buddy Day, a young boy named Danny was with Pujols and after the National Anthem he said, “Pujols, would you hit me a homer today?” We love these stories. And Pujols said, “I can do that.” And so that night they were playing the Pittsburgh Pirates and Pujols didn’t waste any time. He hit a homerun in the first inning, he hit a second homerun in the third inning, and he hit a third home run in the fifth inning. This one went 450 feet. The Pirates pitcher that night, Ian Snell – I love this – he said in his post-game conference that he thought that third homer was going to hit the St. Louis Arch! Okay after the game, the story goes that of course Tony La Russa, the manager, the coach at the time, gave Pujols the game ball; probably one of the hundreds that he had earned. And of course, Pujols walked out the door, and of course he’s bombarded by the media and by fans as he walks out of the locker room that night, but he’s looking for Danny. And the story goes that he sees Danny across the way and he yells his name. And you can just imagine that Danny cannot believe that Pujols remembers his name. And he makes his way over to Danny, he gets on his knees, and he says, “Danny, I kept my promise. Here’s this game ball.”


It’s an amazing story and it reveals to us, Danny reveals to us actually, something about Pujols’ character. See, we already knew that Pujols was a future Hall of Famer, we already knew he was an unbelievable hitter, we already knew that he was one of the best players in the game, but Danny revealed to us that Pujols has a giving and gracious heart. John chapter 20 seems to end as a final conclusion. If you look at verses 30 and 31, “The purpose of this book” – it’s a nice conclusion, and it would be perfectly natural I think to assume that after you read verse 31 you would start Acts chapter 1 verse 1. It would be perfectly natural to assume that you would turn the page and on page 908 you would start Acts of the Apostles. So why then this, what seems to be a bonus chapter? Why did John write this?


John 21 teaches us something very, very important about the heart of God. Peter was a great failure; Peter was the great denier. He fumbled and failed. He was at his worst and at his weakest and Peter here gives Jesus the opportunity to display His desire, to display His heart to rescue, to reclaim, to restore and to renew. Of course, we see it elsewhere in the gospels, but I think in no place is it plainer than here in John 21 – Jesus’ heart to rescue, to reclaim, to restore, and to renew big sinners. And so with that, let’s give our attention to God’s Word. Before we do, let’s pray. Let’s pray together.


Our great God and heavenly Father, we pray that You would work through my lisping and stammering tongue and that You would turn the spotlight on Jesus. We pray this in His name, amen.


John chapter 21, beginning in verse 1. This is God’s Word:


“After this, Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias, and he revealed himself in this way. Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.


Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, do you have any fish?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved, therefore, said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off.


When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared ask him, ‘Who are you?’ They knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.


When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He 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 the third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do 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. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.’ (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’”


Amen, this is God’s Word.


Richard Sibbes was a 16th-century writer and he wrote a little book called, The Bruised Reed. And in it, he unpacks Isaiah chapter 42 verse 3, “A bruised reed he will not break.” And in that little book, Sibbes writes that “God’s children are bruised reeds, before their conversion and many times after. For usually God empties men of themselves and makes them nothing before He will use them in any great service.” And Sibbes goes on and says, “Well what is it to be bruised? The bruised reed is a man or woman that is brought low by a certain self-knowledge. This bruising is not simply those brought low by the crosses of life, but those made to see their own sin. For that is what bruises us most of all. A man or a woman truly bruised judges his own sin the greatest evil. It is a mercy,” he says, “but this mercy must need most often sting, for we must be bruised to be healed.” And then last part, he says, “We are told that Christ will not break the bruised reed by which I dare say Christ means more than He says. That not only will He not break us or quench the smoldering wick, but He will cherish, He will cherish those with whom He so deals.”


I stand before you this New Year’s morning as a bruised reed. And if you woke up to 2017 as a bruised reed, if you are feeling bruised today, if you have been brought low and you feel cast down in darkness and despairing of yourself, remember and take comfort that, as Sibbes says, “As a mother is tenderest to her most diseased child, to her weakest child, so does Christ. Christ most mercifully inclines to the weakest and His way is first to wound and then to heal. And we see that there is more mercy in Christ than there is sin in us.” And that is what Peter finds in John chapter 21. John chapter 21 is the story of a desperate man. He is a bruised reed. Peter is a great failure. He is the great denier of Jesus. The public, massive, shameful failure. Peter is in the midst of unshakable failure. That’s where we find ourselves in John 21. And so what hope is there for Peter? I think that’s the question that our hearts really need an answer to in our failure. What hope is there for Peter in the midst of his failure? And therefore, what hope is there for us in the midst of our failure?


Well, welcome to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, welcome to John 21, and welcome to the God who makes breakfast for failures. You see, we learn in John 21 that great failures make great followers. Great failures make great followers. You have a great failure and you have a great follower, but there’s something in between that. In between that, you have a great forgiveness. Great failures who have received great forgiveness become great followers. Luke 7:47, “He who has been forgiven much loves much.” And so here in John 21, Jesus has now risen from the dead, He’s not yet ascended into heaven. He appeared to Peter and the other disciples at least two other times, but here’s why this would have been a cliffhanger. You would have wondered, “How did the story end? How did it end? What happened with Jesus and Peter? Did Jesus stop loving Him? Did Jesus turn on him? Did He turn him away? What happened with Jesus and Peter?” Because in all of those other encounters, there’s no record of Jesus addressing the failure or the denial. And so this is one of the most heartbreakingly tender episodes in the Bible. And we’re going to see just two things. And I think they’ll bleed into one another a little bit but first we’re going to see in verses 1 to 14 that a great failure receives a great forgiveness. And then in verses 15 to 19, a great failure becomes a great follower.


A Great Failure Receives A Great Forgiveness


And so the first thing that we see – a great failure receives a great forgiveness. Now to fully understand what is going on, we have to get the backstory; we have to remember what happened with Jesus and Peter maybe two weeks ago. Jesus was with some of His best friends at a very important time in His life. And if we judge just based on frequency and print in the New Testament, Peter is mentioned the most. And so Peter is arguably Jesus’ best friend. And Jesus tells Peter specifically, “You are going to deny Me three times.” Peter says in Matthew 26:35, “No way, Jesus. No way. Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You.” You fast forward just a little bit and Peter is in the courtyard of the high priest, this is a familiar story to most of us, and he says three times with great gusto, “I am not a follower of Jesus.” And then in Luke’s account of this failure, we read in a moment that no playwright could ever script, that from a window in the home, Jesus turns and His gaze catches Peter and then the rooster crows. And so that is the great disappointment! That’s the great failure of Peter.


The Story Is Not Over

And I think it’s likely that Peter did what we all do in our failure. He replayed the tape. He replayed the tape over and over and over again. I want you to turn if you would to Mark chapter 16. In Mark 16, so this is three days later, three days after the crucifixion, some friends of Jesus, these women come to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. And Jesus is not there; He’s risen. And an angel bumps into them is talking to them relaying a message from Jesus, and says in verse 6, “You need to go tell the disciples He’s not here. He’s risen.” And then Mark chapter 16 verse 7 says this. “Go tell His disciples and” – who? “Go tell His disciples and Peter. Go tell His disciples and Peter.” I think those are two of the most important words for our hearts in the Bible. “And Peter.” Presumably implying that Peter needs to know that, “The story is not over. Peter needs to know that I am alive. Peter needs to know that the promises were true.” How gracious that Jesus had Peter on His heart and the sensitivity to know that Peter was wallowing in his woundedness presumably. So after Jesus’ resurrection, He has told His disciples, He tells them right there in Mark 16, “Go back to Galilee.”


The Stranger on the Shore

That’s where we find ourselves in the first few verses of our text. Peter and six of the disciples, you see this in verses 2 and 3, they’re by the Lake of Tiberias, also known as the Lake of Galilee, and they go fishing. Now again, these are skilled fishermen; these are old hands at this craft. They know this body of water. They would know the right spots but they fish all night and they catch nothing. And so a stranger appears on the beach and calls out to them and says, “Cast your nets on the right side of the boat and you’ll catch fish.” That’s verse 6. They don’t recognize that it’s Jesus. That’s not too shocking. It was only half light. It says that the stranger was a hundred yards away, so that’s a football field away. And in verse 7 as they’re hauling in the fish, the beloved disciple puts it together, realizes this is Jesus, and says to Peter, “This is the Lord.” And Peter, it says that he was without his clothes, maybe a little loin cloth around him, he puts his clothes back on and then he jumps in the water. And he swims to shore, he cannot get there fast enough, and he meets Jesus on the beach.


Deja Vu

This would have been deja vu for the disciples. It would have been deja vu for them because here in John 21 Jesus repeats the same miracle, the same miracle that first captured Peter at the same place where He first called Peter. Because in Luke chapter 5, the same thing is going on. It’s the same crowd, same Jesus, same Peter, same town, same lake, the same thing’s going on. Both are fishing episodes. Both times Jesus tells Peter to “Cast your net into the water.” Both times massive results; there’s a massive catch. But here’s the difference. In Luke chapter 5, when they start to realize that Jesus is God – you read this in Luke chapter 5 verse 8, Peter gets a glimpse of that. He’s scared to death. He falls on his knees and he says, “Get away from me, Jesus.” He says, “Depart from me, Jesus, because I am a sinful man.” And here in our text, Peter is jumping out of the boat swimming to shore halfway clothed. He cannot get to Jesus fast enough. What has changed?


Christ Will Not Break the Bruised Reed

I think that Peter finally seems himself clearly and I think that Peter finally sees Jesus clearly. I think Peter finally sees that he is a bruised reed, but I think he also finally sees that Christ will not break the bruised reed but He cherishes those with whom He so deals. Peter sees that he is bruised and broken and bankrupt, but that he is bought and beloved by and betrothed to Jesus. You see, that is the operation of the love of God in Peter’s life. His grace makes him see again. Peter sees that he is now a loved failure. He sees that he is a loved failure but he is utterly safe and he is utterly secure with Jesus. Peter doesn’t encounter a resurrected Jesus who shames him, who left him, who lost him, who gave up on him. Instead, he encounters the God whose mercies are new every morning. He encounters the love that will not let him go. He encounters Jesus, the Friend of sinners. I want you to consider this morning when you experience failure – How do you imagine Jesus’ posture towards you? When you experience failure, how do you imagine Jesus’ posture towards you? What does Jesus think about you amid your failure?


Matt Chandler is a pastor in the Dallas area and he tells this story where, when he was a freshman in college in Texas he was sitting in class by a mid-20 single mom who had a checkered past. And she was recently divorced. She was in a relationship with a man who was married but over the course of the semester, they became friends. And Chandler says he invited her to a ministry event on campus and she agreed to go. And so they show up to this event and he didn’t know what the speaker was talking about and they get there and the speaker is talking about sexual abstinence. And Chandler says that it was the most shame-filled, fear-mongering talk that he had ever heard. And the big illustration was the speaker held out a rose and he said, “I want you to see this beautiful rose and I’m going to pass it around to the couple hundred people in the room and I want everyone to touch it and I want you to break a piece off of the petal if you want and then I want you to give the rose back to me.” And kind of the big closing, the big crescendo was he takes that rose and he says, “See this ugly rose? Who would want this rose?” And Chandler says he was getting, you know, angrier and angrier as the speaker kept going and that it took everything in him not to yell out, “Jesus wants the rose! That’s the point of the Gospel! Jesus wants the rose!”


The God Who Makes Breakfast For Failures

A bruised reed He will not break but He cherishes those with whom He deals. I don’t know where you are at this morning. I don’t know what you’re struggling with. I don’t know what failure you find yourself in. Maybe you feel like that battered, broken rose. You need to know that Jesus, Christian, sees you all the way to the bottom. He sees you all the way to the bottom and He knows what is really in the cold corners of your heart and He moves toward you with the gift of His faithfulness. In fact, Jesus so establishes and maintains the relationship that even the deepest failures by you occur in the context of deep, unbreakable, relational security. Peter’s only hope in the midst of his failure is that Jesus knows him and loves him, that Jesus is with him and for him, that He has redeemed his life from the pit, that He is a friend of sinners, saving, helping, keeping, loving, He is with me to the end. And He makes breakfast for failures. He is the God who makes breakfast for failures. That’s the first thing we see. A great failure finds a great forgiveness.


A Great Failure Becomes A Great Follower


Secondly and briefly, a great failure becomes a great follower. And I want to stress this at the beginning. A great follower is not one who first does great things for God, but a great follower is first one for whom God has done great things. And I think that we’ll see that as we unpack this. Look with me at verses 15 to 19. You see this well-known dialogue begin to unfold with the three-fold question answer. And so they’ve been eating breakfast with the others. At some point, Jesus takes Peter on a walk. He says to him three times, in verses 15, 16, and 17, He calls him, “Simon son of John.” Now you may remember in John 1:42 Jesus says, “You were Simon,” but He says, “You will be Peter.” And so Jesus takes him back. He takes him back to the beginning. He takes him back not only to the place where they had begun in Galilee, but He uses the name with which they had begun. He calls him, “Simon.” You see, Jesus is willing to start over with Peter. He gets a new record. He wipes his slate clean. And so we are right back at the beginning. And he says in verses 15, 16, and 17, “Do you love Me more than these? Do you love Me? Do you love Me?”


Hurting In Order To Heal

And I think there are a couple of things happening here. First, we see that Jesus is hurting Peter, He’s hurting Peter to heal him. He is mercifully convicting Peter to restore him. You see this in verse 17. Jesus asked the third time, of course, the same number that Peter had failed Him, and we read that Peter was grieved. And so you get the sense that on the one hand, Peter can’t stand it. On the one hand, this is a painful process for Peter. But you get the sense on the other hand that Peter needed it so bad. Peter needed Jesus to acknowledge his brokenness in this way, and Jesus does. And this has to be so liberating for Peter. Jesus is healing Peter. This is not just a remedy. This is not just a quick-fix to make Peter feel better. But Jesus goes really deep. He is after deep redemption in Peter’s life. This is deep-seated heart work. Jesus is really stripping Peter. This is why it hurts. Jesus is stripping Peter of his self-reliance and He is calling him back to a posture of complete and utter dependence on Him. I think that’s the first thing that we see.


Lovers At The Most Fundamental Level

I think a second thing that we see is that Jesus is stressing to Peter that at the most fundamental level we are lovers. You notice this. He doesn’t say, “What do you think of Me?” He doesn’t say, “What will you do for Me?” He doesn’t say, “Will you keep My commandments better?” He doesn’t say, “Are you going to fail Me in the future?” He says, “Peter, do you love Me?” It’s what we love that defines who we are. “Peter, do you love Me?” Jesus is after his heart.


Do You Love Me?

But I think maybe even something deeper that’s happening, a third thing that we see here, something that is being communicated here in this question, “Do you love Me?” Jesus is reminding Peter that one of the truest things about him, even in his failure, is that he is desired by God. Do you notice the irony in the questions? You know, Peter has failed Jesus. Peter has betrayed Jesus. Peter’s the one that’s fumbled this. You would expect that Peter would be on Jesus’ hip saying, “Jesus, do You love me? Jesus, do You love me? Jesus, do You love me?” But it’s Jesus that’s asking the questions. And I want to suggest that Jesus’ questions, “Do you love Me? Do you love Me? Do you love Me?” they are ironically a love-saturated expression of Jesus’ profound and undying love for and commitment to Peter. His confronting not only comes in the context of utter security, but it’s also always done with the intention of recovering and restoring you unto Himself. Do you see how safe Jesus is for sinners?


The Source Of Peter’s Perseverance

And I think that those three things – Jesus hurting him in order to heal him, Jesus going after his heart, and then Jesus really pursuing him with a deep desire – I think those are the three things that fuel, that really drive Peter’s future ministry. I think they’re the things that enable Peter to do what Jesus is really prophesying that he will do in verse 18. Look at verse 18. It’s this bittersweet promise at the end. It’s the last and twenty-fifth time in this gospel that Jesus uses the “Verily, verily,” the “Amen, amen,” or the “Truly, truly” as it reads here in the ESV. And it’s about what is going to happen to Peter. This is the 1st-century description of crucifixion. Jesus is saying, “Peter, you will show Me that you love Me by the kind of death that you die to glorify God.” And it had to be a comfort to Peter who had so often failed in the past. This had to be a strange comfort that Jesus is saying, “I am going to keep you. No one is going to snatch you out of My hand. You are going to be faithful till the very end. You will persevere. Your courage, your courage may sometimes seem frail and feeble, your love may waver, but I will keep you faithful until the very end.”


And tradition tells us that’s true. Peter died by crucifixion. Tradition tells us what Peter asked that he be crucified upside-down because he was unworthy to be crucified like his Lord. And so he was crucified, which verse 18 describes, “You will go where you don’t want to go and your hands will be outstretched.” And after saying this, Jesus simply says to him, “Follow Me, Peter. Follow Me.”


The Grace Of New Year’s Day

Great failures make great followers because they have known a great forgiveness. And just to bring this in for a landing, I want to end with two points of application. The first point is this. The grace of Jesus has rendered every day New Year’s Day. The grace of Jesus has rendered every day New Year’s Day. New Year’s Day carries with it this ethos of newness. No matter what you have done, no matter where you have been, you can start a new; you can start afresh. There’s something incredibly freeing about the promise of newness. Wouldn’t it be great if every day felt like New Year’s Day? What Peter encounters in John 21 is a Savior who is always eager and always waiting to start over. There’s new grace. This glorious promise of fresh mercy. And so why not today? Why not make this church your Sea of Galilee today? Why not this day, this time, this place where you, like Peter, retrace your steps and you meet with Jesus and you find that He is the Friend of sinners? That’s the first thing. The grace of Jesus has rendered every day, every day New Year’s Day.


Where To Get Love For Jesus

The second thing and last thing is this. What if you are here and you are a great failure and you are a great sinner and you can’t say with Peter, “Yes, Lord, I love you,” either because you don’t know Christ or because you do know Him but you feel like such a mixed bag. Sometimes you love Him; sometimes you don’t love Him. What do you do with that? Where do you go? You can’t cultivate it or create it or manufacture it on your own. If you don’t have a love for Jesus, where do you get it?


You know, I talk about from time to time my two-year-old son, Marshall up here. And Marshall right now is really into Toy Story, Star Wars, Dak Prescott, red Starburst, and his grandparents – probably in that order! And Marshall is in a season where he just kind of tells it like it is. He’s going to tell you what’s on his mind. And you know, I’m a rookie parent, but it will happen every so often that I come home and Lauren will say, “David, Marshall needs to talk to you about something.” And so I’ll take Marshall and kind of do the discipline thing and we’ll maybe have the talk, and I don’t think that he’s saying this – again, I’m a rookie parent; you can correct me if I’m wrong – but often at the end of those I don’t think he’s saying this in a defiant or defensive way, but Marshall says, “Daddy, I not sorry. I not sorry.” And all that I know to say to him is, “Buddy, I understand. It’s not okay but I understand, believe me. And all that I know to do is to pray that God would change your heart and would make you anew.” And so we pray, “God, change my heart.”


If you’re here this morning and you don’t love Christ and your heart is cold and you know that you can’t manufacture it or make it happen, what do you do? Please, please, please don’t leave here, do not leave here saying, “I am going to be more disciplined. I am going to get my act together in 2017. I’m going to volunteer more.” Please, please, please don’t leave here doing that. But pray, “God, change my heart and make me new,” and then hang on and see how His grace upon grace will burst into your life. Great failures make great followers because they have known a great forgiveness. Amen. Let me pray for us!


Father in heaven, thank You that You are a God who will not break bruised reeds. Have mercy on us and restore to us the joy of our salvation. Renew us and give us the grace of repentance that we may know that Jesus is a Friend of sinners. And we pray this in His name, amen.

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