Fear and failure - Mark 14:27-72

This is a sermon by Peter Birnie from 27th September 2020.

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What do us humans normally do when we have failed at something in life? Often, even if it is something relatively small like failing a driving test or an exam, we try to keep it as quiet as possible. And if that doesn’t work and the news still comes out then we either have our excuses ready or even worse, we point to someone else and say “I still did better than them.” Where that is true for smallish things like driving tests and A-levels, it is even more emphasised when it comes to our sin. Imagine a book that had all of your sin and failures written in it, recorded in exact excruciating detail, and someone you love finds it and begins to read. The very thought of that can make us squirm can’t it, and I guess there would certain pages in particular that you would want to grab and tear up before they got a chance to see them.    

One of the incredible things about the gospel accounts is the honesty with which they present the sins and failures of the disciples. Mark’s gospel is most probably Peter’s account of Jesus’ life, and that makes Mark 14 v 27-72 all the more astounding because it records failure after dismal failure In Peter’s life with a detail that would leave us curled up in shame and embarrassment. The sin and failure is not hidden, no excuses are given, and rather than pointing at others to paint himself in a better light, Peter points us each time to Jesus; it is as if Peter is saying, ‘my sin and failure are dark enough but they are even worse when you compare them to the shining righteousness of Jesus.”  

But actually, Peter has an even greater purpose in mind than that. CC Riverside, we are Peter in this account – we failed in the struggle and fight, we failed in the trial and test …. BUT Jesus didn’t fail. Jesus endured and Jesus won and so as sin-broken failures we must fix our hope in him because it is only hope that is placed in Jesus Christ which turns our weeping into joy. 



We begin with verses 27-52 and in those verses we can say with Peter “I failed in the struggle and fight, but Jesus won.” As the disciples (11 of them now) and Jesus walk from the Upper room to the Mount of Olives, the burden of what is ahead weighs more and more heavily upon Jesus. Mark has been building up to these hours of unimaginable struggle as Jesus tries to prepare himself and his disciples for the horror of the cross. All of scripture, all of human history points to and depends upon Jesus enduring the storm that is about to break upon him, pressing on obediently through the cosmic struggle and fight that is coming his way. And Jesus did endure, Jesus won the battles;

Jesus won as he continued to love despite the struggle. V27 “’You will all fall away’, Jesus told them, ‘for it is written: “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.” But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.’”

Jesus isn’t being cruel here as he says these things to the disciples and as he insists to Peter that the crowing of a cockerel will sound his crushing failure. It is the opposite of cruelty; despite the huge pressure building upon him and the torment that lies ahead for him, Jesus, out of deep love for Peter and the disciples, wants them to understand something of vital importance. Yes the Shepherd is about to be struck (as Jesus is nailed to the cross), yes the sheep are going to scatter (as the disciples abandon him and run off), but there is a future ahead when Jesus will rise from the dead and the disciples who are about to fail so badly, they are part of that future.


This has got to be why Jesus is so insistent with Peter about his upcoming crushing failure. It is not cruelty but love, extreme love, red-hot love; in the days to come Jesus wants Peter to know that he already knows Peter’s heart, he already knows the depths that Peter is about to descend to. Jesus already knows that Peter’s spirit is willing but his flesh is weak and so this means Peter’s terrible failure won’t be the end of him as a loved disciple – Jesus knows Peter and still loves him. Pause there for a moment and ponder that. We are Peter in this account - Jesus knows every little detail about us, all of our past sins, all of our present doubts, all of our future failings, (all of that book from the start) and, Jesus still loves us, he still poured his blood out for us. Maybe if we just went home accepting and believing that one truth today it might change our lives enormously. Jesus loved throughout the struggle.    



And Jesus won as he prayed in the struggle. Gethsemane – the garden of tears was where Peter, James and John saw Jesus at his lowest point; v33 ‘deeply distressed and troubled, his soul overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.’ One of the reasons why this current Covid crisis is so cruel is the way it is separates suffering patients in hospital from their loved ones. All you want to do when someone you love is ill or dying in hospital is to be with them. Jesus is in a state the disciples have never witnessed before; it is hard to imagine the levels of distress involved as he dreads the burden of sin that will be loaded on to him, the cup of Divine wrath that he is about to drink, the impending separation from His Father. All he asks Peter, James and John to do is to be with him in his struggle, to watch while he suffers and prays. 



But 3 times, as Jesus pours out his heart to his Father in heaven, as he struggles and labours and fights in prayer, he returns to find his closest friends fast asleep. “Simon, are you asleep? Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The Spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” The 3 men were so filled with shame and embarrassment at their weakness that verse 40 tells us “they did not know what to say to him.” How terrible to have such crushing failure exposed at a time when their Lord was enduring such trials. But endure He did.  

Jesus won as he obeyed throughout the struggle. Obedience to his father no matter what the cost was. “Abba, Father, he said, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will but what you will.” In the middle of Jesus’ distress and severe trial, the disciples go to sleep, but Jesus does what he always did, he surrenders obediently to the will of his father in heaven. He fights to obey. The very nub of obedience is in that sentence; ‘not what I will but what you will.’
Sin is the proud self-rule in every human heart that says to God, ‘I know better, I want to do things my way.’ We have said this before but the “nice respectable people” who work hard and live in tidy houses with well brought up children are in exactly the same boat as the gangs of youths running drugs on the council estates. Why? Because people just live whatever way they want – “Not your will God but mine.” This is the problem and scope of sin and without the cross of Christ there is no hope for anyone.  

But Jesus came to do his father’s will. Jesus came to live a perfectly righteous life so that he would be able to die on behalf of the sinners he loved. For 30 years he had walked straight into the storm of temptation and right now, with the tempest at its height, Jesus endures. “Not what I will, but what you will.” And he wakes his failed followers up and walks to meet his betrayer with that kiss, his opponents with their swords and clubs, and his death with the nails, the thorns, the cross, and the turned away face of his father. V49 “Every day I was with you, teaching in the temple courts, and you did not arrest me. But the Scriptures must be fulfilled.”

The contrast between Jesus and the disciples couldn’t be more stark when we get to verses 50-52. Jesus speaks calmly with the mob, he is in control, he knows exactly what will happen, he has accepted it, and he has submitted in obedience. Jesus has won in the struggle and fight. But his closest followers have lost, have given in to fear. Everyone deserts him and runs away; such failure. One of them even ends up leaving his clothes behind in the panicked escape; such shame. But this takes us to the very centre of Christianity, the very basis for our hope – to be able to say “I have failed in the struggle and fight, but my saviour Jesus didn’t, he endured, he won.”   



Every week when I prepare a sermon there is a huge danger that I try to avoid – that is the danger of sending God’s people out the door at the end thinking that what they have been told from the front is simply to pull their socks up and try a bit harder to live the way Christians should. That is not the message of the gospel at all but there is something in all of us that means we so easily hear a message like that even if nothing like it was preached. This passage is unrelenting in forcing us to abandon our own efforts at goodness and instead to depend only on what Jesus has achieved, compelling us to say “I failed in the trial and test but Jesus won.” V53 “They took Jesus to the high priest, and all the chief priests, the elders, and the teachers of the law came together.”


More than any other group of people around at that time, this should have been the group where wrongs were put right, where injustices were untangled. If you had any hope in the sheer goodness of humanity then that goodness had to be evident amongst the high priest, the chief priests, the elders and the teachers of the law. And instead what we see are murderous schemers “looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death.” They want to kill him so need to find a legal reason to do it. Utterly wrong. But also ineffective because they cannot find any witnesses whose stories agree with one another. Their words trip them up and show them to be full of sin. And Jesus remains silent.


The trial should be abandoned and the prisoner released but they have got him and they aren’t going to let him go. V61 “Again the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” And now Jesus, quiet in the face of lies, breaks his silence to speak the truth. It is a truth we have known about since verse 1 of Mark’s gospel (“The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God”). These truth-filled words that Jesus is about to speak mark the point of no return, they are the fruit of his Gethsemane resolution ‘not my will but yours be done’. These words mean crucifixion; V62 “I am, said Jesus, And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”  


And that is it. The High Priest is utterly correct that Jesus is claiming God’s authority, that He is claiming to be God. But he is utterly wrong that it is blasphemy. Jesus speaks the truth. And “they all condemned him as worthy of death.” The sinful, scheming, murderous leaders spit, punch, mock and beat the God who came to shed his blood for failed humanity. Jesus was the one tested but it was humanity that failed. And where is Peter? He is ‘at a distance’ watching his Lord be treated in this terrible way. But he is on trial as well, V67 “You also were with that Nazarene Jesus. But he denied it.” V69 “This fellow is one of them. Again he denied it.” V70 “Surely you are one of them, for you are a Galilean… I don’t know this man you are talking about.” Immediately the cock crowed … And he broke down and wept.  


There is no “pulling up of socks” possible for Peter here, “go away and try a bit harder” is totally insufficient. He is crushed by his failure, broken by his sin. There is nothing within himself that could lift him out of this pit. And he has seen clearly that there is nothing in religion that offers him that hope either. But he has some words to hold onto, words from the one who stood the test and won the fight when everyone else fell -  “But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” Peter (and the whole of humanity) failed in the trial and test, but Jesus won.



Application and Conclusion

So how should we respond to this heavy part of God’s word? We are Peter in this account and so we should view our own sin and failure correctly – let it make us sorrowful, let us learn to hate sin, let us be crushed when we try to stay at a distance from Jesus. And let it make us rely on Jesus, let it help us to burn with love for Jesus. No more pretending that we are better than we are, instead realise that Jesus has won where you lost, he has persevered where you gave up, realise that Jesus knows all about your sin and still loves you.


We are Peter in this account, except that on this side of the empty tomb and the ascension our view of Jesus is even clearer that Peter’s was. And so as well as viewing our own failure correctly, let us view Jesus correctly – A triumphant warrior, the victorious obeyer. The one who empowers us to live a life of obedience because this warrior has gone ahead of us. He is with us now, risen from the dead, in us and amongst His people. And so we can have great hope and confidence as we seek to live with him as King. Listen to this quote from Spurgeon and then I will pray. “O lonely Christ, if you overcame the world alone, how surely shall your warrior brothers and sisters overcome it, when they stand shoulder to shoulder, cheering each person their brother, and, above all, when you yourself are in the battle field communicating your victorious valour to the whole host.”

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