March 25, 2007

Struggling Disciples May Come
Matthew 14:22-33

“It is far worse to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all.” Do you believe that? Failure is one of those things that is common to all of us. Unfortunately, not all of us view it in the same way. Our culture and those around us scream “succeed, achieve, excel.” One of our greatest fears is getting a big F whether on a test, or evaluation, in a decision or a relationship. We just don’t want to fail!

There’s good reason why people have a fear of failure. Losers are not easily tolerated in our society, and there is much pressure to win. Our world celebrates winners with parades, by displaying team banners and wearing team logos on shirts and caps. Losers are quickly forgotten. President Kennedy once said, “Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan; no one wants to claim it.”

May I submit to you this morning that as any struggling disciple comes to Jesus she/he risks failure. Such was the case for the man and the disciples in Matthew 17. When coming to Jesus there was the risk of being seen as impotent or faithless, unable to heal the boy with seizures. They risked being viewed as having a less than adequate witness of their verbal profession of faith. They risked having their profession of faith questioned, challenged, even ridiculed.

I. What is the Failure that one risks?
From God’s Perspective:
One of the reasons we fear failure so much is because of the way we understand success. We sort of think that success is never doing wrong, never making a bad decision, always meeting our highest expectation, reaching all our goals. Success for the Christian can’t be measured according to quotas, goals, sales or achievements. The only measure of success for the disciple of Jesus is obedience. Results-orientation has crept into the church. Thus, we have become fearful and in turn lose heart when the Holy Spirit moves us to do or say something that may be risky. We think, “I’m afraid of what will happen. I don’t think anything will come of it. I won’t be successful!” instead of thinking that my success is measured in my obedience to the Spirit’s direction. Logically speaking, you would think that God would somehow be impressed with success as the world defines it – numbers, credentials, accomplishments. He’s not!

Deuteronomy 7:7,8 The Lord did not set His affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous that other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you.

God takes pleasure in displaying His grace and mercy in our lives. It’s ironic that our worldly successes could be a barrier to His blessings.

Success and failure from the world’s perspective are opposites, but from a biblical perspective the opposite of failure is not success but obedience, faithfulness to God’s way and His Word.

In my present role I often hear pastors asking each other the “success” questions: How many people were present? How were the offerings? What do the important people think? How many responded to the invitation? How many people prayed to receive Christ? How many did you baptize? Good questions for growth and evaluation of our relationships or our ministry but they’re not always good for measuring our obedience and faithfulness to the Lord. Hear a few righteous perspectives on success:
Success is the active pursuit of God’s ideal for life and character
Success is a process, not a product
Success is not measured by what we are but by what we are compared to what we could be
Success is determined by character, not by calculations
Success is doing what God wants

Doug Rumford in his book Scared to Life suggests a different set of questions to measure Biblical success:
“Does this thought, action, or decision honor God? Does it honor the principles
of God’s Word? Does it honor others for whom it is intended? Does it honor my
gifts and stewardship? Am I ‘walking in the light’ in terms of my motives and
conduct as I pursue this goal?”

Listen, there is no greater failure than refusing to do what the Lord is stirring you heart to do (Matthew 14:22-33) gives us an example of a struggling disciple who risked failure in coming to Jesus and yet he came.

II. Resistors to Risking Failure
Peter, a struggling disciple, comes to Jesus in the most unusual circumstances. In doing so, he risked failure, at least failure as the world would see it. Did you ever stop to think about the thoughts Peter may have had that might have hindered him from risking coming to Jesus on the water?
“My buddies will think I’m nuts!”
“What if I trip getting out of the boat?”
“They’re gonna think I’m showing off.”
“If I don’t go now, Jesus will get angry.”
“If I get wet, I don’t have any dry clothes.”
I don’t believe Peter had any of these thoughts but I do think they are representative of thoughts and feelings of people who don’t want to fail, who fear it immensely; those struggling disciples who choose not to come to Jesus with their doubts, fears, failures and foibles.

A. What others think
One of the reasons people refuse to risk failure is because of what others will think. “Other people will laugh at me. Other Christians won’t think much of me. Other followers of Jesus won’t like me. Even people of faith will laugh at me. I’ll make a fool of myself.” Wait a minute! If your standard of non-failure is always pleasing others, everyone on the face of this planet would be considered a failure. Even Jesus would be a failure by those standards. Just after he fed the 5000 (John 6), we see that the crowds of followers murmured and grumbled. In fact, verse 66 says, “From this time many of His disciples turned back and no longer followed Him.” Somehow when we make decisions, or try new things or take risks or bring our doubts and struggles to Jesus, we become a magnet for criticism. Criticism sticks but positive comments and affirmations fade. What we are in need of is that community of faith that gives us the liberty to “fail” and still be accepted. In fact it gives us the arena in which to grow in spite of failure. We need to say with confidence, The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me? (Hebrews 13:6)

Another reason people don’t want to risk failure is the –
B. Fear that they will disappoint God.
Our view of God’s standards and demands are beyond reality. Sure they are high but, He is not a ruthless task master looking to bop whoever doesn’t tow the line. For example, if an overwhelming fear of getting an F from God for my preaching or teaching kept me from pursuing it then the sin would be in the lack of doing it, not in doing it imperfectly or in a manner that didn’t meet someone’s expectations. The same is true for you as you embark on new areas of obedience. It was so for Peter as the Lord called this struggling disciple to get out of the boat, take a risk and come to Him. If the Lord speaks to you about a new faith step he wants you to take or a new plan for witnessing or an action that is risky and you don’t obey, that is the sin, not how well you do what He’s called you to do.

A third reason people resist risking failure –
C. Our decision or actions could cause significant inconvenience to ourselves and others.
Sometimes at the close of a service I’ve sensed the spirit calling for a particular action. Such action may feel uncomfortable or be a bit inconvenient or even cause someone a bit of anger but obedience is necessary. Your decision, your actions that cause you to risk failure in coming to Jesus, are often the very places in which you grow most.

Which of these three most hinder you from risking failure, from hearing and responding to God’s Spirit saying, “Act! Speak! Do!” In what areas of your life is He speaking to you…your job, your schooling, your friendships, your marriage, your family, your behavior?

We have so much to learn!

III. Lessons from Failure
In his book, Afraid No More, H Norman Wright says, “When we allow the fear of failure to dominate us, we are demanding a guaranteed outcome in a situation. But a guarantee takes away the opportunity to live by faith and trust God for the outcome.”

Friends, we become stagnant in our lives because we’re not willing to venture out of our safe routines risking failure. Life is a combination of successes and failures. If we never try anything, we will never succeed. If we do take a risk and attempt a new challenge, yes, there may be failure. But as someone correctly stated: “The glory is not in never failing, but in rising every time you fail.” God has not called us to become hermits and never risk anything for his kingdom’s sake. He challenges us to take the plunge, daring to step out in faith. As we do, even if we fail, there are lessons to learn. I think the guys in the boat sort of envied Peter.

Some probably wouldn’t have wanted the awkward situation but for Peter, he risked failure, and probably in their eyes, he did fail, but the growth that was his for risking far surpassed where they were. He had a first hand experience with God’s saving and comforting presence. He learned how frail and hopeless our humanity is against the storms of life. He learned of God’s immediate resources in coming to Jesus in spite of the risk!

Let me point out three lessons from Peter’s experience which apply very directly to being a struggling disciple and coming to Jesus, risking failure to find faith.

A. Jesus is tough to see in the storms of life. Fear is much more evident when the wind is blowing against us, isn’t it? If Jesus had walked to them on the water on a still, moon-lit night they may still have been afraid but the storms made them especially vulnerable. Are there storms in your life that make it hard to see and trust Christ and venture out of you comfort zone, struggles that make it hard to come to Him? It’s hard to see Jesus when your family is being pulled apart. It’s hard to see Him when you hate your job. It’s hard to see Him when a loved one lets you down.

But what does Jesus say to the disciples? Verse 27, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Can you hear Him speaking to you today even in the midst of your failures, weaknesses, doubts…even when the storms are against you and the waves are rough?

B. The first step in risking failure is not always the hardest step. I don’t think it was as tough for Peter to step out of the boat and take the first step of faith as it was to keep going. As his faith dwindled, he began to sink. His faith found focus in the circumstances and not in Jesus as when he took that first step from the boat. The tough part is not in placing faith is Christ but in keeping it in Him, to keep coming to Him. We make a lot of starts, don’t we? Some of us don’t ever take the first step because we are afraid, but many of us start and fail to finish. We sort of get our feet wet, and then give in to the fear of the water. What if we fail? What if we fall? What if this? What if that? Jesus says, “Take courage! It is I! Don’t be afraid!” Keep your eyes on Jesus.

C. When we think about failure more than the presence of Jesus, we are in trouble. Peter started having trouble when he thought about the wind and the storm and the rough waves. His focus wasn’t on Christ. Are you going to focus on what could go wrong or on Jesus?

IV. When you fail
When you risk and fail, when your struggling gets the best of you, when you’re sinking, cling to Jesus. We’re not told whether Jesus carried Peter back to the boat or just assisted him to walk. I kind of think the latter. God wants us to rely on him but not to resign to doing nothing.

When your struggles have separated you from Jesus instead of driving you to Him, John has a word for you, “I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have One who speaks to the Father in our defense – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”

Struggling disciple, come to Jesus, be obedient, but if you fail to do so, if obedience escapes you, there is a remedy. Failure is not fatal.

Fenelon was a spiritual director in 17th century France in the time of Louis XIV. Among his many wise words of counsel, he wrote:
Do not be overly concerned about your defects. Instead concentrate on having an unceasing love for Jesus, and you shall be much forgiven because you have loved much…When we look at our defects in peace through the spirit of Jesus, they vanish before the majesty of His love. But when we concentrate on our defects, forgetting that Jesus loves us, we become restless, the presence of God is interrupted, and the flow of God’s love is hindered. The humiliation we feel about our own defects can often be a greater fault than the original defect itself if it keeps you from moving into the realization of God’s love.

So…Struggling Disciple -
Why not step out of the boat toward Jesus? Yes, there’s a risk that could mean failure. Remember the only real failure is not heeding Jesus word to, “Come.”

Lloyd Ogilvie, former chaplain of the US Senate and pastor of the Hollywood Presbyterian Church once asked his church, “If you had no fear of failure, what would you attempt for God?” A new ministry? Contact with people unlike yourself? Sharing a verbal witness to a neighbor? Fasting and praying: extending care in a special way? Storehouse tithing?

If we in a church of struggling disciples could grasp this idea, there’s an unlimited list of what could be done for God’s kingdom even in the face of failure.

Writer Doug Rumford states, “To risk failure on the voyage of faith is one of the clearest expressions of our love and commitment to the Lord.”

What hinders you as a struggling disciple from risking failure to find greater depths of faith? One of the greatest experiences in our lives is hearing Jesus call us out onto the water of faith and walk with Him there. Would you risk failure for such an experience? I pray you will.