Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Sermon: Matthew 26: 31-35, 57-75 Words of Defiance and Denial

Do you remember going to the seaside when you were growing up? The waves splashing, the sand getting between your toes. You might have built a sandcastle or dug a big hole in the beach. Did you ever lift a big handful of sand, as much as you could could, only to watch it slip away through your fingers?

That’s how I imagine it felt like for the disciples in that first Holy Week. They must have been on a high on Palm Sunday; the crowds cheering; Jesus entering the city on a donkey; the cleansing of the temple. It looks as if everything is going to plan. Jesus, the Messiah, is here to be the conquering, kick the Romans out kind of king. Hosanna to the Son of David!

But then things start to go wrong. The wheels begin to come off the car. Through the week there are disputes with the religious leaders. Five chapters of questions, debates and hostility. Perhaps Jesus isn’t as popular as he had seemed on Sunday. But that’s nothing to the devastation of the Thursday night. Over dinner, Jesus announced that one of the twelve was going to betray him. It came as a shock to them - they didn’t all immediately turn to Judas and say, it’s him. Rather they all say ‘Surely not I, Lord?’ (22) Judas has gone now. There’s Jesus and the eleven. There’ll surely be no more surprises.

As they leave the upper room and make their way towards the Mount of Olives, Jesus tells them how the next hours will go. ‘This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ Jesus quotes from Zechariah 13:7, a chapter which points to the events of Holy Week. He knows that it is going to happen, and yet it is unbelievable for the disciples to hear. As we would expect, it’s Peter’s voice we hear.

You see, the whole way through the gospels, Peter is the disciple whose words are recorded. When Jesus walks on the water, Peter is the one who says, ‘Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.’ (14:28). Peter is the one who correctly identifies Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God (16:16) but then rebukes Jesus as he begins to speak of the Christ’s suffering (16:22). At the transfiguration, it’s Peter who pipes up with his idea to build three shelters for Jesus and Moses and Elijah (17:4). It’s Peter who asks about how many times he should forgive his brother who sins against him (18:21). We’re used to hearing Peter, sometimes opening his mouth before his brain is in gear; sometimes over-confident; sometimes rash; but always ready to follow Jesus.

And what does Peter say on this occasion? ‘Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.’ (33) Does he look around at the other ten and think to himself, well, they might be a bit flaky, they might not be totally reliable; I’m better than them. There rest of these boys might give up and give in, but not me. I never will. He is sure of himself. He’s been with Jesus all this time. He’s going to stick with Jesus. They’re defiant words.

But look at Jesus’ reply: ‘I tell you the truth, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.’ (34) Jesus knows what is going to happen. He knows the plan and purpose of the Father, already written, promised long ago in the Old Testament. He has already told the disciples what is going to happen; now he does so again to Peter. The general falling away is now given detail. Three times before the rooster crows, you will disown me.
But Peter won’t let it rest. He comes again with his defiant words: ‘Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.’ There’s a pattern there, isn’t there? Even if (whatever comes along)... I will never. Words of faith, words of defiance, easily spoken in the safety of the disciples.

Could it be the same for us? When we’re in church, it’s easy to say and sing our words of faith. Commitment is safe in the crowd. There’s no fear and no consequences to our declaration of trust. We can even be bold in what we promise to the Lord. Do our words still hold true when we’re away from church? It’s harder in the world to keep our promises and live out our faith.

For some, there is strong pressure to deny Jesus - or be killed. We don’t face that pressure here, but there is still some subtle pressure to deny the Lord. To talk of what you got up to at the weekend, except for the time at church. To know that you would face ridicule if friends knew that you were here at a midweek service - are you getting a bit over enthusiastic now? To dodge the difficult question about the Bible or God, or to just try and blend into the background, rather than being known as a follower of Jesus..

When we catch up with Peter again, Jesus has been arrested in the garden where he was praying. A large crowd with swords and clubs have come to take Jesus away. Peter swings a sword and cuts off an ear. But resistance is futile. Jesus is led away. The disciples scatter. But Peter follows, at a distance. He’s not fallen away yet.

As Jesus is tried inside the house of Caiaphas, Peter makes it into the courtyard. He’s there among the guards. Watching, waiting. Peter’s earlier defiant words turn into denying words.

A servant girl recognises him. Jesus had been around Jerusalem all week, creating a stir. Peter, as one of the closest disciples was obviously near him the whole time. ‘You also were with Jesus of Galilee.’ Bold, brave Peter, frightened of the accusation of a slave girl. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ He moves on, out of the courtyard to the gateway. Maybe it was darker there, maybe he was trying to hide, avoid the stares and accusations. Another girl takes a good look at him: ‘This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.’ ‘I don’t know the man!’
His blood pressure is rising. He’s fearful, uttering these denying words.

Northern Ireland is a small place, but I’m always struck by the variations in accents. (I can’t do accents) Just think of the Ballymena accent, or a Belfast accent. Or, if you go up to Belfast, they might know that you’re from Fermanagh. It’s a bit like that here. the people in Jerusalem look down on the people of Galilee, in the north. ‘Surely you are one of them, for your accent gives you away.’ But again, Peter denies it: ‘I don’t know the man’ with swearing and curses.

At that very moment, the rooster crowed. The sound is like a wake up call, a reminder to Peter, a signal of his failure. The words of Jesus are remembered, where Jesus had spelled out what would take place. Peter remembers, and wept bitterly.

Perhaps as we hear of Peter’s defiant words becoming denying words, we’re reminded of our own failings and fallings. Perhaps even today you’ve denied your Lord in what you have thought, or said, or done. Your response is to weep bitterly with Peter. You can’t believe it has happened. Is this it? Are we done for?

The good news is that failure is not final; failure is not fatal. Peter weeps as he remembers Jesus’ words. The sand has slipped through his fingers; it seems as if all is lost. This Jesus thing was good while it lasted, but now Jesus is arrested. The Jewish leaders reckon he is worthy of death. High hopes have been dashed. And to make it worse, Jesus knew what Peter was going to do. Had he seen it coming? Did he know it was all going to end in such circumstances?

Jesus knew that defiant words would lead to denying words. Peter remembered with pain what Jesus had said: ‘Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.’ Peter just needed to remember a few more of Jesus’ words. You see, Jesus had told the disciples what would happen over the next few hours - but he had said more than just the fact that they would abandon him. Look again at verse 32.

The shepherd will be struck, the sheep will be scattered. The Christ will die. But it’s not the end. Jesus knows what lies ahead. He gives them a pointer even now that death is not the end, that failure is not final.

We can quickly write people off if they disappoint us. Oh no, I wouldn’t trust her, not after what she did that last time. Him? He didn’t deliver that one time thirty years ago, so we can never depend on him again.

But Jesus tells the disciples of the ultimate future. The other certainty of this weekend. ‘But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.’ The scattered sheep will be gathered again. The stricken shepherd will be raised to new life. Failure is not final. Because it is written in God’s purpose, and Jesus is alive, having died for our failures and denials. So cry those tears of godly repentance, and return to him, the shepherd of your souls. Amen.

This sermon was preached in Brookeborough Methodist Church on Wednesday 16th April 2014.

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