READ : Luke 22:31-34
“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.” And he said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.” He said, “I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you three times deny that you know me.”
Luke 22:31-34 rsv
What is your only comfort in life and in death? One of the great faith confessions of the Christian church answers this way: “My only comfort is that I belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” I love that testimony, its warm, personal character and the way it describes Jesus as a “faithful Savior.”
That’s what I want to talk about today, the Savior’s faithfulness to us, even in times when we are less than faithful.
Where is Jesus when we blunder badly? It’s easy to see His hand in our successes (if we take the trouble to notice) but what about in our failures? How does He fit in there? Is there such a thing as a theology for defeats? A Christian meaning when we stumble in the worst way?
Suppose you’re going along fairly well in the Christian life. Suddenly everything falls apart and you hit rock bottom. A man, for example, gets angry about something, then deeply depressed. Before you know it, he’s had too much to drink and he’s becoming violent at home, breaking furniture in the process. Afterward he’s humiliated, disgusted with himself. What has happened to him?
Or a young woman in the church, married for a little over a year and happy with her new baby. As time goes on, she begins to feel restless, tied down. She gets a part-time job and begins to go out for a while with a girl friend after work. One night she doesn’t come home until 4:00 a.m. She and her husband have an all-out battle when she finally arrives.
Or again, we see a man who feels that he has left behind the sham and dishonesty of his former life in business. He’s made a real commitment to Christ. Some time later the pressure is applied by business associates. It seems that a deal is coming up that involves a lot of money. If he’s willing to cut corners just this once, his whole family can be more secure financially than they’ve ever been. So he goes along with it, and he gets caught. He’s in deep trouble.
Now where is Christianity in all of this? How does Jesus fit in? Or to bring it closer to home, where is He in the failures and backslidings we have known this week at home, at school perhaps, at work or with our friends?
The classic example of lapsed discipleship in the New Testament is Simon Peter’s denial of Jesus. It’s certainly the most widely publicized. All four gospels include the sad account: Peter professing his deathless loyalty, Jesus predicting his denial, and then the big, rough disciple wilting before his questioners. What a book of truth the Bible is! Even its most notable men of faith appear in their shabby moments, their worst hours. Peter was the foremost apostle but how dismally he failed the Lord!
How do we react to that? We can view such happenings with a sneer and say, “That’s what Christians are: a bunch of hypocrites!” I’ll never forget the experience we went through when a young man in our congregation was arrested and charged with a heinous crime. At the time he was apprehended by the police, he was carrying a Bible. After this came out in the newspapers, some of the Christians in our congregation were taunted at work with words like these: “What do you think of your Jesus now?”
On the other hand, perhaps we shake our heads knowingly and say that Peter should have been on the lookout. “If Christians are watchful and constant in prayer, they won’t collapse when the test comes.” That’s true. But it doesn’t help to hear that, does it, when you’ve fallen grievously, when you feel sick inside with remorse and shame. You’re willing to admit, “Yeah, I should have behaved differently.” But the fact is you didn’t. What can all your Christianity mean now?
Listen to these words from Luke’s gospel, chapter 22, beginning at verse 31. I think they’ll give us some light on that question – and encouragement. Jesus is speaking. “`Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.’ And he said to him, `Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.’ He said, `I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you three times deny that you know me.'”
PRAYING FOR US
All right. Where is Jesus when we fall on our faces, when we let Him down? We see first that He’s praying for us before it ever happens, “I have prayed for you.” Jesus apparently saw the whole thing coming with Peter – and prayed. Here the curtain is drawn back on what goes on behind the scenes. The enemy wants to sift Peter. He’s hoping that all the wheat of his faith will be blown away with the chaff. Yet the drama unfolds, as it always does, within bounds that are set by God. Satan is allowed to subject the Lord’s people to stern testing, but Christ’s prayer is a mighty, preserving force. Apart from it, this sifting of Satan would succeed. Peter and many others like him would never recover. “But,” says Jesus, “I have prayed for you.”
What did Jesus pray? Surely not that Peter would be shielded from temptations or even kept back from humiliating defeats. But He did pray that Peter’s faith would not fail, that even in the midst of struggles and shameful inconsistencies, he wouldn’t finally fall away. So, though Peter deserted the path for a time, he would come back. Jesus says, “When you have turned again,” not “if you do.”
There’s a truth to think about. Jesus Christ knows what we are going to face. He knows our weakness, knows our cowardice, yet prays for us that we won’t be completely overcome. That’s where He is in our failures. He’s praying about them before they ever occur. And that gives us confidence that we’ll be able to come through them after all.
LOOKING OUR WAY
But there’s more to the question. Where is Christ at the very moment these things happen? In the crisis itself? When we’re in the act of failing Him? Imagine for a moment that you’re in the courtyard of the high priest’s house. Peter is gathered with others around a fire trying to keep warm. “Hey,” says a maid, “that man there, he was with the one they arrested. I saw him.” “What do you mean, woman, I don’t even know Him.” A little later, Peter is confronted again, “I know you. You’re one of them.” “Man, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” By now Peter is becoming edgy. After an hour or so, another bystander pipes up and says, “I’m sure this man is one of Jesus’ followers. You can tell by his accent that he’s a Galilean.” But Peter denies everything, even more vehemently than before.
Just then, two things happened. A rooster crowed and there was movement in the court. Apparently Jesus was being led down the hall, out through the porch, past the fire, into the gloomy archway on His way to further suffering. As He passed near where Peter was, He turned and their eyes met. As Luke puts it, “The Lord . . . looked at Peter” (Luke 22:61).
Can you imagine what was in that look? I’m sure it said for one thing, “Peter, I know. I wasn’t standing by, but I know what happened.” And there must have been pain in that look too – a greater pain than beatings and thorns could ever bring. The more loving and sensitive a person is, the more deeply he feels the wound of friends who let him down, of promised love that chills, of loyalty forgotten. Peter probably hadn’t thought about that, about how what he did would cause Jesus pain. He only thought he was looking out for himself. He never imagined that he was adding pangs to the Lord’s sorrow, joining with the tormentors. That is, not until that look.
Most of all, the gaze of Jesus spoke mercy and forgiveness. Not anger, not contempt, not cold indifference, but a brokenhearted love. Think of it. Lied against by false witnesses, insulted and spat upon by soldiers, rejected by the priests as an impostor and blasphemer, yet still the heart of Jesus goes out to Peter. What a thing to know, that our denials don’t quench His love. Even our treacheries can’t kill it.
See what that look did for Peter. He went out and wept bitterly. His eyes were opened to what he had done. A glimpse of the Lord’s face brought everything flooding back to his mind. In a flash, he remembered the trust that had been placed in him, the friendship shown him, his own boasts and vows. “O God, what have I done? How could I have treated Him in that way?” It was an awful moment of self-awareness.
And that look of Jesus led to genuine sorrow, true repentance. Godly grief always springs from a sight of the love we have hurt, the heart we have broken. When the ice is frozen hard on your driveway in the winter time, even brute force can scarcely move it. But let the spring sunshine touch the frozen mass and soon it will turn to slush and melt away. There’s nothing like the warmth of undeserved kindness, the gaze of a dying Savior, to melt all our hardness and coldness of heart. More than that, it keeps our sorrow from turning into despair. It kept Peter from the self-loathing that might have led him to lose hope and destroy himself. Christ’s love assured him that in spite of what he had done, everything wasn’t lost. He wasn’t rejected by his Master and friend.
So where is Jesus in the moment of your failure, your denial? He’s right there, knowing all that happens. He’s waiting to catch your eye so that you can see what you’ve done to Him and be moved to some healing sorrow. But even that is not the end. After the remorse, after the agony of shame, Jesus comes to restore you. There are hints in the New Testament record that the Lord ‘s very first appearance after His resurrection was to Peter. Can you imagine that? Jesus came to this man, forgave him, reinstated him, gave him a chance to say, “Lord, You know that I love You.” That’s where Jesus is, on the other side of our failures, waiting to restore us, ready to hear us say again that we want to be His.
I wonder where this finds you today. Maybe you’re riding high right now, supremely confident that you’ll follow the Lord all the way and be true to Him even when others fail. Jesus, as He urges you to watch and pray, is praying Himself, praying that when you falter, you won’t fall away.
Or maybe right now you’re caught in the squeeze, turning your back on the Lord you have professed. Your life in some glaring way seems to deny that you even know Him. He wants to catch your eye today, wants you to see just what’s happening and how you’re grieving His Spirit.
Or maybe it has already happened. You’ve already seen that. You’ve known defeat, brokenness, shame. You hardly dare to trust anything about yourself any more. Take heart, friend. Jesus comes to you where you are, listening to your confession, waiting to hear your new pledge of love and ready with a great work for you to do. Isn’t that a marvelous thing? And when you’re on your feet again, He says, “Strengthen your brethren.” When you’ve been through this, when your heart has been broken and mended, deal kindly with your fellow strugglers. Above all, help them toward the One who binds up the brokenhearted, lifts the fallen and gives another chance to those who fail.
What about you? What is your only comfort today? Can you say that with body and soul, in life and in death, you belong to your faithful Savior Jesus Christ? You can say that. You can invite Him this very day in a simple prayer of trust to come into your life and be your personal Savior. Will you do that now? You’ll find Him faithful even on those days, those dreary days, when you are not. And you’ll find Him willing and able to make you the kind of person who can at last stand true.
Prayer: Lord, make that so. Faithful Savior Jesus, help us to be faithful. Amen.