Sunday, February 19, 2012


[Start with a game showing close-up shots of pictures, and ask the children to identify the object in the picture. Some of these are difficult, but always someone in the congregation can eventually guess. After each one, the "big picture" is shown, with a box indicating the "zoom-region" of the first picture]

Now I hope that at this point, we can all agree that sometimes it helps to take a step back and look at the big picture. If we look at things too closely, we so very easily miss what’s really going on! Now this is not just true of pictures and magic tricks. It is also true of life. But the bad news about life is that you, me, and everybody else is really tempted to look at things from a really narrow perspective.

The Bible warns us about this. It says: “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are [God’s] ways higher than [our] ways and [His] thoughts than [our] thoughts.” We often need God’s help to make our vision bigger; we often need God’s help to have our minds opened to what’s really going on; we often need God’s help to make our hearts bigger, too.

Now to stretch your perspective this morning, I’d like you to consider one of philosophy’s biggest unsolved problems! It’s one of the great mysteries of life: we get older, and we learn lessons, and in one sense we are completely different people than we were five, or ten, or thirty years ago. But in another, equally important sense, we are exactly the same person! It is a grand paradox. But isn’t this wonderful news? We don’t ever need to be stuck with who we are today. We can change, and we can keep changing even when we get older. And God has change in his will for us. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation!” the Bible says

It means that God won’t judge you on how we were when we were four. And it means we don’t get judged on how we were when we were eight (you know, when your Mom or Dad reminds you how you were when you were eight – they do that because they love you and they thought you were adorable; but when big sister reminds you how you were when you were eight, she want to hold it over you for-ev-er – just sayin’).

But it means that we don’t get defined by our mistakes. Seriously! Sometimes churches (I hope not our church – but some churches) get their message wrong on this point. As if life were like baseball: your errors are counted, and three strikes and you’re out. But that’s the difference between a friend and an enemy, isn’t it: a friend wants to define you by your successes, and an enemy wants to define you by your mistakes; an enemy wants to define you by your past, and a friend wants to define you by your future. When Jesus says “love your enemies” he simply means to treat everyone as friends, doesn’t he? Get in the habit of defining people by their successes.

This morning, in order to prove to you that we can change (that we should change), and in order to prove that we aren’t defined by past mistakes, I’d like us to consider the life of someone in the Bible.

This person is very important in the Bible. In fact, this person is one of only four people in the Bible that God gave a new name. Who can help me name all four?
• Abram->Abraham;
• Sarai->Sarah;
• Jacob->Israel;
• Simon->Peter.
Now before we get where we’re going, it is interesting to consider these four people as in the following diagram. The Bible says that Abraham and Sarah are the physical ancestors of the people of Israel (that’s the “Old Covenant”). But it also says that they are the spiritual ancestors of the people of faith, too (that’s the “New Covenant”). And each of the two other God-renamed people in the Bible show up right at the beginning of each of those branches of Abraham’s descendants! Israel (who name was originally named “Jacob”) is the father of the nation of Israel, and his relationship to that nation is derived from his twelve sons. Peter, on the other hand (whose name was originally “Simon”) is the rock on which the church was built, and his relationship to that community is derived from his leadership of the twelve disciples.

So let’s talk about this guy named Peter. But like I’ve already kinda warned you, instead of what we normally do in church, I’d like to try something different. Usually, we take a story, and digging deeper and deeper, we talk about that one story all morning (at least sometimes it feels that long, doesn’t it?) But today, I’d like to take a step back and remind you of all of the stories with Peter from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and John! Really. You see, this morning, I don’t want us to be looking at the character of Peter so closely we miss what is actually going on… instead of looking at things up close, we’re going to skim over all of Peter’s life – at least the part that he thought was important (history implies that Peter’s story comes to us in the gospel of Mark)!

Now, depending on how you count, there are fifteen stories involving Peter in those books. Of those, three of them just talk about things that happen to Peter. Those aren’t so interesting. Instead, I want us to see exactly how Peter behaves, and how Jesus responds to that behavior. Ten stories might sound like a lot for one morning, but most of them are really short, so let’s go!

Story #1: (Luke 5) One day, Jesus is preaching, but the crowd is getting big, and the people at the back are finding it hard to hear. So Jesus gets into Peter’s boat (he was a fisherman, you know, and he and his buddies were cleaning their nets) and he asks Peter to put the boat a little bit from shore so that the people on the bank can have a natural auditorium. When Jesus is done, he tells Peter to go catch some fish. After all, that’s what fishermen do: they catch fish. And even though Peter doesn’t think this is the time or place (and, after all, he the expert, and what does this preacher know about fishing?), he does what Jesus says. And you know what happens: they catch more fish than they had ever caught their entire lives. It takes a long time to get all those fish under control, but after it is all over, this is what Peter does: he falls down at Jesus feet and says “Go away from me – for I am a sinful man.” Perhaps the most important revelation you will ever receive is to discover just how sinful you actually are. Down to the core. That’s exactly how people respond when they truly meet with God. Clearly Peter felt inadequate to even hang around Jesus. Perhaps you might feel that way some time. I know I have. But the good news this morning is that God can and does use people who feel inadequate, too!

Story #2: (Matthew 14). Later on, the disciples were caught in a storm on the lake in the middle of the night. Not fun. But then, still in the middle of the night, as they are fighting the storm, and trying desperately to get back to shore, they see Jesus coming to give them a hand. Except… he’s walking on the water. Quite naturally, they’re a little freaked out! The Bible says that they even screamed with fear. I can’t blame them, really. But then Jesus yells “don’t be afraid, it’s me!” And then it is Peter’s turn: he says, “If it is really you, tell me to come to you on the water.” Now notice that Peter is smart enough to know that if you are going to do something that seems crazy – it is only really crazy if you don’t talk to God about it. But if God gives you the go-ahead, you might very well go down in history as one of God’s special people. And that’s what happens to Peter: Jesus replies, “Come on, then!” So out steps Peter, and there he is: walking on the water with Jesus! How cool is that?

Now at this point, most people reading the story of Peter are really impressed with his faith, and many sermons have been preached about being as bold as Peter. But is Jesus impressed? Not at all – because of what happens next: Peter, taking his eyes off Jesus, starts to notice that the wind and the waves are even scarier when you are on the outside of the boat. And in his panic, he starts to sink. Now Jesus saves him, and helps him back to the boat. But does Jesus commend Peter for doing something bold? Not at all; just the opposite: (verse 31) Jesus says to Peter, “your faith is so small!”

So even though the story might seem impressive at first, it seems to be a disappointment to Jesus in the end. So, if you ever think that your faith is way too small – you’re in good company! Jesus built his church on someone whose faith was too small.

Story#3 (a really short one – Matthew 15): after hearing some of Jesus teaching, Peter asks Jesus to explain. At school, there are some times when if you ask the teacher to explain, the teacher is delighted that you are paying attention. Other times, asking for an explanation is a dead giveaway that you haven’t been paying attention, and that’s what Jesus response suggests. “Are you so dull?” he asks Peter. Once again, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Jesus was disappointed in Peter… again. Have you ever asked a question you really should have known the answer to? I have. Many times. The good news this morning is that God can use people who make that mistake, too.

Story#4 (Matthew 16): One day, out with his disciples, Jesus turns to his disciples and asks them a question: “who do people say I am?” After hearing all their replies, Jesus then asks “and who do you say that I am?” to which Peter replies “You are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Now this might very well be the smartest and best thing that Peter has ever said in his life, and this is the point at which Jesus tells everyone that Peter will become the foundation of the church. And while he’s on the topic of building his church, now Jesus tells his disciples the events that will define the church: he tells them that he will have to suffer, and be killed, and then rise from the dead. But check out Peter’s response: he takes Jesus aside and says, “no, no – this can’t be happening.” Safety tip: not usually a good idea to correct God. And Jesus replies, “Get behind me Satan!” – he calls Peter the devil! He says that Peter “does not have in mind the things of God but the things of men.” You know, I’ve been there. I bet you have, too. Not seeing things from God’s perspective can mess up your whole day.  -- but the good news this morning is that God can use people who make that mistake, too!

Story #5 (Matthew 17): The week after, Jesus took three of his disciples with him up on a hillside, and while they watched, the disciples saw Jesus appearance change. His face shone, and his clothes turned an incredible bright white. And then two other people appeared out of nowhere and started to talk to Jesus. When he saw that, Peter said, “It is so great to be here. How about you let me put up three tents for you guys!” You recall that last week, Peter said the smartest thing he ever said. This week? Not so much. In fact, the Bible actually apologizes for Peter, it says: “he had no idea what he was saying.” Once again, it is like the Bible is smiling and shaking its head about Peter’s attempts. Have you ever said the wrong thing at the wrong time? I sure have. Many times. The good news this morning is that God can use people who make that mistake, too.

Story#6 (Matthew 18): One day, instead of Jesus asking his disciples a question, Peter asked Jesus a question: “How many times should I forgive my brother when he wrongs me?” and then, in a fit of generosity, Peter suggests a possible answer: “Would seven times be enough?” And for many people, this would be generous indeed. And isn’t it a shame that so many Christians can’t even make it to seven? But listen to Jesus answer: “not seven times, but seventy times seven!” It is like Jesus is saying “Buddy! You’re not even in the right time zone!” Have you ever felt like the very best you could ever give wouldn’t come close to measuring up to God’s standard? I sure have. Many times. The good news this morning is that God can use people who feel like that, too.

Story #7 (John 13): At the last supper with all the disciples together, Jesus pours water into a basin and starts to wash the disciples feet. He comes to Peter, and this is not one of Peter’s “clever” days. He says to Jesus, “No! You will never wash my feet!” And very gently, Jesus replies, “unless I wash you, you can’t be with me.” Now to his credit, Peter is now smart enough to change his mind “then please wash my hands and head as well as my feet,” he says. You know, some people, after getting caught in saying something completely wrong, are far too proud to change and be right. They should learn from Peter this morning. And so should we: have you ever completely misunderstood God’s intentions in your life? I sure have. Many times. The good news this morning is that God can use people who make that mistake, too.

Story #8 (Matthew 26): After the last supper, Jesus goes to a garden and, taking three of his disciples (including Peter) he goes off a little ways and wants to pray. “Keep watch with me,” he asks these three close friends. But guess what? After praying for a bit, Jesus comes back to see his disciples, and instead of finding them on watch like he asked, they are all sleeping! Jesus wakes them up, and says “really guys, I mean it: watch and pray” and he goes off to pray again. Sure enough, the second time he returns, they are all sleeping again! And the third time, too. This is where that saying comes from: “the spirit is willing, but the body is weak.” Have you ever felt just too weak to do what God has asked you to do? I sure have. Many times. The good news this morning is that God can use people who feel like that, too.

Story #9 (Luke 22): When Jesus is arrested, Peter wants to be the hero, and, drawing sword, slashes off the ear of the High Priest’s servant. No doubt Peter wanted Jesus approval by protecting him like this. Is that what he gets? Just the opposite! Jesus rebukes Peter, “put your sword away!” he says, and promptly heals the man’s ear.

As some of you know, I love to spend a week at camp during the summer. About eight years ago, when Nathanael was ten, I was speaking at a camp that Brent was directing. The theme of the camp was pirates! And one evening, the director (Brent) and the speaker (me) were involved in a bit of drama for the entertainment of the campers. There we were, at the end of the dock, and all the boy counselors were coming up both sides of the dock to throw us into the lake. Well Nathanael, bless his heart, came running out onto the dock to save us! One ten-year-old against a dozen teenagers!! He actually pushed one of them into the lake before the second counselor turned around and pushed him in  I could only shake my head and smile.

And I bet that’s how Jesus felt about Peter, too: a cosmic drama is playing out in front of Peter, and he is totally confused about God’s plan was in the world. Have you ever felt like that? I sure have. Many times. The good news this morning is that God can use people who feel like that, too.

Story #10 (Luke 22 – last one this morning): During the last supper Peter puts on a big show in front of all the disciples about how he would face death for Jesus. But after Jesus is arrested, Peter followed at a safe distance. And not once, not twice, but three times someone came up and said “hey, didn’t I see you with Jesus?” and every time, Peter denied ever knowing Jesus at all. So much for being brave. So much for being loyal. Just totally, shamefully, disowning his friend and teacher.

So what have we learned from the life of Peter this morning. He felt inadequate; he had little faith; he asked the wrong questions; he had in mind the things of man rather than the things of God; he sometimes said the wrong thing; even his “good” didn’t cut it with God; he completely misunderstood God’s intentions in his life; he felt too weak to do what God wanted him to do, he was totally confused about what God is up to, and he didn’t even have the character to stand up for a friend. Wow. That’s heavy. But check this out: God wanted to use him a-n-y-w-a-y. God used Peter as the rock on which he built his church!

The biggest lie you will ever listen to might be the lie that you’ve messed up too much for God to use you. God can always forgive you. The biggest mistake that you ever make might be the mistake that because you’ve messed up once, you might as well give up trying. Those ideas aren’t from God. The enemy, the accuser, wants us to believe less of ourselves so that we will believe less of God. You see, Jesus’ dying for us pays the price for our greatest failures; Jesus’ dying for us can cover all of our sins. And Jesus’ rising from the dead means that we, too, can live a brand new life. And that, my friends, is some good news this morning.