Monday, January 19, 2009

Finding the Strength to Stand (Mark 14:54, 66-75)

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On this day in 1895 (January 18), the New York Times carried an article which had previously been printed in the San Francisco Bulletin about a church which was being sued by an architect whom the church had refused to render full payment for services. The dispute involved the architect’s placement of a rooster on the top of the steeple. In conversation with the architect, trustees of the church were told that the reason for the use of the rooster was based on this biblical event in which Peter denied the Lord three times before the rooster crowed. The trustees of the church thought this was an irreverent symbol, and insisted that the rooster be removed. Thus, they refused to pay the architect because of what they perceived as an insult to their congregation, and the lawsuit was spawned.

Throughout Christian history, the rooster has found its way onto the top of many steeples. During the Protestant Reformation, reformed churches in particular topped their spires with roosters. The reason was twofold. First, as the rooster roused people from their slumber announcing the dawn of a new day, roosters on the steeples of reformed churches symbolized the awakening from centuries of slumber in unbiblical church traditions and the dawn of a return to Gospel-centered ministry. Also, it reminded them of Peter’s denials. As the steeple was often the most visible and prominent structure in towns and villages, people would see the rooster and be reminded to stay faithful to Jesus and not deny Him as the apostle had done.

The iconographers of the ancient church often added a rooster to images of Peter. In fact, today a church stands on the very spot where this incident took place which is called, “The Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu,” or “The Church of St. Peter and the Crowing of the Cock.” Thus, standing in the minds of most when they think of Peter, is not his preaching on the day of Pentecost, not his epistles from the New Testament, not his influence on the Gospel of Mark, or the boldness with which he endured persecution and even martyrdom, but his three-fold denial of the Lord in the dawning hours of that Friday morning. There is a lesson for us all in this. The ironic fact is that a testimony for Christ takes years to establish, but can be destroyed in a fleeting moment of weakness. And one’s failures will often be remembered much more vividly than one’s successes. Like Peter, each of us is frequently on the receiving end of a barrage of temptations that would spiritually undo us if we submit to them. They may be subtle or severe, they may be public or private, they may be moral, legal, social or in any other realm of life. Some of them will present themselves as major and obvious moments of decision, others will appear to be minor and insignificant. But in each one, we will be faced with the choice of standing firm in our faith or denying the Lord Jesus. And so what may we learn from the example of Peter in this passage that will prevent us from denying the Lord in those moments? Or to put it another way, is there anything in the example of Peter’s failure that will help us find the strength to stand? I believe there are several such lessons.

I. We can stand strong when we stay close to Jesus (v54a)

When we first encounter Peter in this passage, we find that he had followed Jesus “at a distance.” This phrase “at a distance” jumps off the page. Why does one follow another “at a distance”? It is to keep from being spotted or caught up in the activity. His love for Jesus compelled him to not totally abandon Him, but Peter’s love for his own life led him to keep a safe and comfortable distance between himself and the Lord. Where was Peter when the Council was looking for witnesses to testify against Jesus? When he might have spoken a word in His defense, he could not, for he had kept himself at a distance. While we may commend him here for not fleeing altogether, as apparently the rest of disciples had done, this distance enabled him to keep that possibility open for himself. The distance forshadows, and even provides opportunity for the denial that follows. And in verse 68, when the questions began to come his way, notice what direction Peter moves. He moves out onto the porch, even farther away from Jesus.

You and I will never stand strong for Jesus if we merely follow Him at a distance. There are some who are happy to accept the joys that superficial devotion to Christ brings them, but who keep a distance between themselves and the Lord in order to minimize the responsibility and sacrifice that following Him closely would entail. Following Jesus closely may be hazardous to one’s health, one’s career, and one’s social status. In the workplace, one will occasionally be expected to do something or say something which compromises Christian conviction. Follow Him too closely there, and one may find himself out of work. In one’s network of friends, there may be subtle pressure to act a certain way or speak a certain way. After all, one does not want to be known by his or her peers as a fanatic. As long as one keeps a distance between self and Savior, then the difficult decision of sacrificing friendship for faith disappears. And of course we know of those who throughout church history have had the blade of the sword and the barrel of the gun thrust to their heads, and been asked to choose Christ and death, or safety and survival. As long as one follows Christ at a distance, the decision to deny Him remains and open and easy option.

Polycarp, who was the elderly Bishop of Smyrna in the mid-2nd Century, was brought before a Roman proconsul on the charge of being a follower of Christ. Feeling pity for him because of his age, the proconsul urged him to deny Christ and to proclaim that Caesar is Lord. If he would but utter that confession and offer a small sacrifice of incense to Caesar’s statue, he would escape with his life. But Polycarp’s now famous words indicated that he would stand strong. “Eighty-six years I have served Christ, and He never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” And for that confession, Polycarp was burned alive at the stake. When they threatened to nail him to the stake, Polycarp said, “Leave me as I am; for He that gives me strength to endure the fire, will also enable me, without your securing me by nails, to remain without moving in the pile.” And when it appeared that the flames would not harm him, he was stabbed to death.

We recall the horror stories of Columbine, when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris put guns to the heads of their classmates and asked them if they believed in God or in Christ. And we know their stories, that more than one of them said “Yes,” and were killed. We could cite example after example, ancient and modern, of those who endured hardship and horror for the sake of Christ, standing strong when they could have denied the Lord and survived. But in each case, they stood strong because they followed closely. You and I may never have to choose between life and death, but daily we are presented with the choice of a truth or a lie; an action or inaction; righteousness or sin; speech or silence. Underlying every one of these choices is the ultimate reality of standing strong or denying the Lord. And if we will follow the Lord closely in our lives, we can make the right choices in those cases. By faithful and regular exercise of the spiritual disciplines of prayer, the meditation of God’s word, the fellowship of the church, we keep ourselves close to Jesus, and enable ourselves, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to make the decision of preferring His fellowship to our own safety, comfort, and security. When we stay close to Him, we stand strong. But if we, like Peter, are content merely to follow at a distance, then we must not be surprised to find ourselves frequently making decisions that appear to be insignificant at the moment, but which amount to a denial of His Lordship over our lives.

II. We can stand strong as we avoid coziness with the world (v54b)

We’ve seen enough detective movies to have the image in our minds of someone following at a distance. We can imagine a guy in a wide-brimmed hat and a trenchcoat with upturned collar peering around the corner of some back-alley, or crouched low in the bushes peering out with binoculars, or something like that. But that is not what Peter was doing. He followed Jesus at a distance, but he was not hiding in isolation. He was “sitting with the officers and warming himself at the fire.” It was still the time of year when the night-time air could be uncomfortably cool, and a fire would be a welcome comfort. And so we have this ironic juxtaposition of Jesus facing the icy blast of interrogation in the chambers of the high priest, and Peter warming himself by the fire in the courtyard below. And he is seated there. He is not passing through or standing idly by. He has taken a seat, another attempt to provide for comfort. And notice the company he keeps: he is seated with the officers. Who are these officers? In John 18:3, this same Greek word that is used here is used to describe the arrest party that accompanied Judas to seize Jesus; in Mark 14:65, it is used of those who were slapping Jesus in the face. And in their company in the courtyard, we find a disciple of the Lord seated among them and warming himself at their fire. And it appears at least on the surface that Peter is more concerned to maintain his relationship with this crowd than with the Christ.

Now I have said that standing strong involves avoiding coziness with the world. What do I mean? The word “world” has several connotations in Scripture. We find statements such as we have in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world ….” In this context, it is obvious that “world” means the people who inhabit the world. We also find statements like Matthew 24:14, where we read, “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world ….” Here, “world” indicates the planet, the entirety of the earth. And then we find statements like John makes in 1 John 2:15: “Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” It is obvious that this use of “world” is not the same as the other two, for we must go into all the world and proclaim the message of the Gospel, and we are commanded in Scripture to speak the truth in love. And if anyone who loves the world, in the sense of the people of the world, does not have the love of the Father in him, then how could it be said that God Himself loves the world? No, in cases like we have when John says “Do not love the world,” he is not referring to the planet or the people, but rather what we might call the pursuits of the world. The “world,” in this sense operates on a common way of thinking that is self-centered, materialistic, seeking personal comforts and prosperity. Thus, we are surrounded by people who have been infected with this way of thinking that life amounts to the accumulating of things and the attainment of status. And that flies in the face of the Christian worldview, which says that life is about denying oneself, taking up one’s cross daily and following Christ. It has nowhere been put more succinctly than in the historic Westminster catechism: The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. And to the world’s way of thinking, that is utter nonsense.

Now the Christian is not to withdraw from the people of the world, and live in isolation upon the planet of the world, in order to avoid contamination by the pursuits of the world. Rather Jesus has commissioned us to take the saving Gospel into the world because He loves these people and does not desire that they perish. However, He has also made it clear that though we are to be in the world, we are not of the world. Better to be on trial with Jesus than warming ourselves by the fires of His persecutors! The cozier we try to become with the world, the more we become intoxicated by the smoke from their fires, and the more occasion and temptation we will find to deny our Lord in order to have harmony with those who hate Him. Who here is immune from it? Have we not all found ourselves in that place where we know that we should say something to someone about Christ, but we fear the consequences of it? Have we not all found ourselves wanting to do something in Christ’s name and for His sake, but have wrestled ourselves into complacency as we weight the pros and cons of it. Some years ago, I was talking with a Christian friend who is a professor at a secular university. I had recently heard him publicly deny and argue against a biblical teaching. When I questioned him about that, he confessed to me that he really wanted to believe and teach that doctrine, but he knew that if he did, he would lose the respect of the academic community and perhaps even his job. It is a cozy fire, is it not? But remember the opening words of the Psalms: “How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, Nor stand in the path of sinners, Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!” Though walking in that counsel, standing in that path, or sitting in that seat may bring us temporal enjoyment or even some measure of benefit, the blessing of God is to be found elsewhere.

In the warm glow of the fires the world sets before us, it is just easier to make a decision of denial than a declaration of dedication. In denial we warm ourselves by the flames of that fire; in dedication, we may die in the flames in that fire. We must make the decision in advance that this world has nothing for us. This is not home, and from an eternal perspective we can gain no advantage by availing ourselves of this world’s luxuries. We live for someone else, and for somewhere else, and we know that in His presence at that place and time, all the wrongs we have endured will be made right, and anything we ever lost for His sake will be more than compensated for. And if we keep that reality in the forefront of our minds as we interact with the world, we will beware of becoming to cozy with the world’s way of thinking, and we can stand strong for Christ in every challenge.

III. We can stand by taking God’s Word to heart (v72)

Jesus had earlier warned Peter that this would happen. In His divine nature, Jesus had perfect foreknowledge of the events that would take place. He told Peter in v30, “Truly I say to you, that this very night, before a rooster crows twice, you yourself will deny Me three times.” But do you remember how Peter responded to that warning? Did he take it to heart? No, he repeatedly argued with Jesus. Verse 31 tells us that Peter “kept saying insistently, ‘Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You.’” And according to v72 here, apparently Peter had given the words of Jesus no more thought. It wasn’t until the rooster crowed twice that we read that Peter remembered what Jesus had said.

Now this does present somewhat of a dilemma to our understanding. After all, if Jesus said it would happen, then there was no way that it couldn’t happen, right? But that is not the point here. Scholars have debated for centuries over the intricacies of divine foreknowledge and human freedom to make choices. We are not likely to resolve the conflict in the time we have remaining today. The point I want to make here is that in spite of being told by Jesus what would happen, Peter argued with Jesus about it rather than believing Him, and forgot the words that Jesus spoke to him until after the fact. It is almost as if he walked away from the warning still convinced that Jesus didn’t know what He was talking about and having the attitude that we find so commonly in ourselves and others that says, “It won’t happen to me.” But now, he remembers Jesus’ words after coming to the humbling realization that it did happen to him.

We have in our possession a treasure of infinite worth. Each one of us has something that most of the people in the world’s history have not had – we have our own personal copy of the Word of God in our own language. We don’t have to be a scholar of foreign tongues, we don’t have to rely on the opinions of the church hierarchy, we don’t have to travel to the library or the cathedral to see it. We can open it up and read it anytime we want. And when we open it and read it, we find glorious promises made by God to His people that apply to you and me. And we also find strongly worded warnings which are applicable to ourselves as well. The real issue with these words is what we do with them when we close the book. Do we walk away from God’s word in disbelief? Do we arrogantly think that our own ideas are more accurate than what God has said? Do we walk away thinking, “It won’t happen to me.” Do we even remember and reflect on what we have read? Have we taken the word of Christ to heart?

God’s word is like food for the Christian’s soul. I have had the opportunity to know many professional athletes through the years, and from them I have learned about the pre-game meal. In the pre-game meal, these guys will load themselves up with the food that will give them the energy and strength they need to play the game. Certain foods they eat a lot of, certain foods they don’t eat any of. Now, we aren’t going into a game, we are going into life. And in our meal, that time we spend in the Word of God, we are taking into our souls the promises, the declarations, and the warnings of Christ that will strengthen us for the task. But if we walk away and give no further thought to what we have read in the Word, then it is as if we have purged the spiritual nutrients from our system before they had a chance to work in and through us. If we would stand strong in the trials of faith, we must take God’s word to heart.

You and I are faced with opportunities each day when we must make a simple choice: stand strong for Jesus or deny Him. Like we have said, those denials are often not blatant and strongly worded renouncements of Christ, but subtle things – a word spoken or left unspoken here, an action taken or avoided there. Those times have come to all of us, and they will continue to. And we have all failed the Lord repeatedly, and if I understand anything about human nature, I would venture to say that we all will again. So, in closing, I think we must ask the question of how to bounce back from failure. There is only one way to restoration and it is through repentance. Repentance is a change of heart that issues forth in a change of action. It is a return to the Lord in sorrow for our sins, and in a fresh dependence upon His forgiving mercies and His empowering grace. In our text, Peter begins to weep over his sin. Does our sin bring us to tears? Do we see in our sins the very reason for Christ’s death? Do we see in our sins the poison that has been the undoing of the entire human race? Or do we just write them off as little things? Friends, little sins would only need a little Savior. But we have been given a great Savior, God Himself in the Person of Christ, because our sins are great. It is an insult to His nature and His saving act to make little of our sins. Sin should move the child of God to an initial response of weeping, followed by a quick and certain turning back to the Lord in repentance. If it is not quick, then the sin will take root in our hearts and lead us further away from Him. Notice how Peter’s sin began to grow. Initially, it was a rather private conversation with a girl by the fire. But then it moved to a more public denial on the porch in the present of other bystanders. Finally it culminated in a forthright renouncement of Christ accompanied by cursing and swearing. Now, I know those two words are usually associated in my mind with uttering profanity, but that is not the case here. There is almost always an object of cursing when the word is used – something or someone is cursed. Two options exist here. First, it may be that Peter was cursing himself, as if to say, “If I am lying then may I be cursed.” The word anathema, which has the idea of damnation, is at the root of the word used here. Dare I even say this in the pulpit? Grant me the indulgence of saying that Peter may be saying, “I’ll be damned if I know Him.” But it is also a possibility that object of his cursing is Jesus, as if he may be saying, “Curse Him! I do not know Him.” And swearing carries the idea of making a statement under oath. Thus, he solemnly testifies of having no knowledge of Jesus. Now, if we could ask Peter, “Did you intend to go so far as that when you entered the courtyard that night?” he would undoubtedly say no. But we learn from his example that grave and tragic sin is entered into in baby-steps. With each previous denial, he makes the final one more and more of a possibility. Oh, that we would be so sensitive to sin, that when it first rears its ugly head in our lives we would fly to the cross with haste to cast ourselves on Christ’s mercy and grace, lest we let it take us farther than we ever intended to go.

And lastly, let it be said that our failures do not have to be final. As we look ahead in the New Testament, we find Peter being restored by Jesus, filled with the Spirit, boldly proclaiming God’s truth on the day of Pentecost, and throughout the rest of his life. Church tradition indicates that Peter suffered a martyr’s death by crucifixion at the hands of Nero in Rome. His denial is not the last word. Through repentance and restoration He became a powerful individual in the hand of God who left a mark on the church and the world. It has even been suggested by many that the ordeal of Peter’s denial broke him and humbled him to the state where God could pick him and up and put him back together for His greater purposes. So, though it is certain that you and I will experience many failures in our spiritual lives, the question is, will we bounce back? Will we repent, and be restored, and allow God to continue His work in us and use in even greater ways? There is such a thing as falling forward, and it means that when we fall, we learn from our mistakes and move on to a brighter future because of it.

Through God’s grace and the power of His Spirit, there is strength to stand the trials of faith. We learn from Peter’s example in this passage that that strength can be found as stay close to Jesus, as we avoid coziness with this world, and as we take God’s word to heart. It would be my prayer that in my life and yours, we would be committed to doing just that, and trusting God to give us that strength daily. And with the dawn of each new day and the crowing of the rooster, may we not find reason to weep over our failures, but reasons to rejoice in the power of God that works mightily within us.

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