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The Agony of Defeat


66 While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came by. 67 When she saw Peter warming himself, she looked closely at him.

“You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus,” she said.

68 But he denied it. “I don’t know or understand what you’re talking about,” he said, and went out into the entryway

Mark 14:66-68

He became the poster child for defeat. The five seconds it took for him to become the icon of downfall wiped out the hard work that had gone into learning to “ski fly” and for many years, the film clip of Vinko Bogataj falling off Heini Klopfer Hill in West Germany accompanied host Jim MacKay’s voiceover on Wide World of Sports.  The “thrill of victory montage” changed with the sports’ seasons, but the “agony of defeat” was always Vinko, losing control before he even left the ski jump, veering off to one side and bouncing wildly into the crowd.

It was an epic fail. Onlookers feared he would not survive the crash.

And don’t we all feel that way when we mess up? We assume the world is pointing fingers at us, exploiting our faults and snickering behind their hands. Worse even, we have a hard time forgiving ourselves and so we figure that God cannot forgive us.

It happens to us all.

Even to those who walked with Jesus. Mark 14:66-68 tells the story of the downfall of the disciple Peter. Often referred to as the “Big Fisherman”, Peter was known for his loud and brash ways. In Matthew 26:33-35, Peter hotly declares that he will never desert Jesus; he will not run away when push comes to shove and he says, and I quote, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never deny you!”

Big words from a big man. Easy to say, hard to do.

When Jesus is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane and taken to the house of Caiaphas the priest, Peter and John are the only disciples who do not run away. Points for that. But later on, one of the servant girls sees the Big Fisherman in the courtyard and says, “Hey, you! You were with Jesus!”

Peter brashly denies it, using legalese to say, in effect, “I have no idea what you are talking about.”

Strike one.

A short while later, another servant girl says, “Wait a darn minute. I know this man here was with Jesus.”

And Peter continues with his slide into the agony of defeat by uttering an oath that basically says, “I don’t know who that blasted fellow is!”

Strike two.

By now, everyone who is hanging around the courtyard has heard Peter speak and they know he is from Galilee. Someone puts two and two together and shouts out, “Yo, dude! You talk just like Jesus! You must be one of them!”

And this  time Peter begins to curse.

Strike three.


Then, as we all know, that rooster crows to herald the coming of the dawn and Jesus, just yards away from Peter in the courtyard, turns and looks at His disciple and Peter leaves the courtyard and goes to cry his eyes out in privacy (Luke 22: 60-61).

And Peter’s story could have ended there. He could have crawled off and licked his wounds, spent his life on his boat in the Sea of Galilee, and faded into a cautionary tale.

But God had other plans for Peter.

The angel who greets the women who come to Jesus’ tomb after the Sabbath specifically says to them, “Go and tell Peter and the disciples” (Luke 24:9). And Peter, wild with excitement and disbelief, pushes his way in front of John, and runs as quickly as his sandals will allow to the tomb where Jesus has been laid. It’s not much later when Jesus turns Peter’s “agony of defeat” into the “thrill of victory.” Appearing to the fisherman on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus says to Peter, three times, “Do you love me? If you do, feed my sheep.” And while it saddens Peter to know he’s messed up before, he now embraces a chance to do the right thing.

As Pastor Tim pointed out on Sunday, we are all prone to failure. But wiping out, be it on a mountaintop or in a courtyard, need not dog our steps. Here are three lessons Pastor Tim pointed out:

  1. Wiping out is never the end of the road. Peter went onto become “the rock” upon which the church was built (Matthew 16:18) That’s turning a defeat into a victory!
  2. Jesus prioritizes those who have fallen. The angel made a point of telling the women at the empty tomb to “Call Peter.” And later, when Jesus met Peter on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, He had a special message for him.
  3. Church is a hospital for the broken, not a museum for the perfect. Many of our Old Testament forebearers messed up in Biblical proportions: Abraham, David, and Saul just to name a few.

But whatever happened to Vinko Bogataj, the very face of failure? To him, it wasn’t the big deal Wide World of Sports made it out to be. He made a call from the hospital that he wanted to have a “do-over” but his doctors wouldn’t allow it. After recovering from a concussion and a few bruised ribs, he went back to his quiet  live in Slavia. He married, raised two daughters, and became a painter famous enough to be awarded the Golden Palette in 2002, the highest honor Slavia can give to a painter. He was largely unaware of his iconic role on a television show in the United States. It was just a tiny sliver of his life.

In 1981, ABC hosted an event to celebrate 20 years of Wide World of Sports and invited Bogataj to attend. He accepted and was surprised to find that many of the famous athletes at the event –including Nadia Comaneci and Muhammad Ali—wanted his autograph.

Not because he failed.

But because he didn’t let it stop him.

Just like Peter did.

Just like everyone of us can, too.

In an interview Bogataj gave shortly after the 1981 event, he was asked, “What is the difference between defeat and success?”

“Milliseconds,” he said. “Falling down isn’t the thing. It’s getting back up.”

YOU GET WHAT YOU GET (and you don't get upset)

20 Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, 21 being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.

Romans 4:20-21

 “I want a purple sticker,” said Astrid.

“There are no purple ones left,” said my daughter, teacher of this precocious two-year-old. ““There are green and yellow ones.”

Astrid stamped her foot. “But I want a purple one!”

"Well,” said my patient daughter, “we don’t always get what we want. Sometimes we get what we get and we don’t get upset.”

While this philosophy is reinforced often in the pre-school classroom my daughter teaches, Astrid—and her age mates—don’t always agree. Astrid folded her arms across her chest and got upset. Very upset. So upset she was sent to the time-out chair.

Are we ever like Astrid? I know I am. I tell God all about the wonderful plans I have for my life, if only He would get on board with them. He tells me that He’s got better plans for me. In fact, the words from Jeremiah 29:11-13 hang on a plaque in my living room. But honestly, when I’m trying to juggle three jobs and find a way to pay for ever-increasing medical costs, I want to stamp my foot like Astrid and get my own way.

And I’ll just bet I’m not alone. The Bible is chockful of people who didn’t wait for God’s plan to come to fruition but rushed ahead of Him. Sarah, wife of Abraham whose faith in God’s promises of many descendants never wavered, didn’t side with her husband. She took matters into her own hands by giving Hagar, her maid, to Abraham as a concubine. The result? Broken relationships and exile.

In Genesis 27:8-17, Rebekah conspired to have her husband Isaac bless Jacob when the birthright should have gone to Esau, the first born. The result was more broken relationships and exile. Rebekah never saw her beloved son Jacob again. And in Genesis 30:1, Rachel, wife of the banished Jacob, became discouraged at her lack of ability to conceive and gave her husband her maid servant as concubine. Guess what? Broken relationships and exile.

Yet the vast majority of Americans say they trust God and depend on Him for help. Writing for  The New York Times in 2010, Tara Parker-Pope reported on two surveys conducted to determine how people’s health was affected by their belief in God and His role in their lives. Data obtained from The Baylor Religion Institute Survey and the Work, Stress, Health Survey indicated that 82% of the respondents regularly depended on God for help and 71% believed the events in their lives were influenced by God.

So if everybody’s doing it, why can’t we?

The answer is surprisingly simple and has to do with something we all want: control. Just like it’s really hard for me to be the passenger in the car—even though I hate to drive—it’s difficult to totally give control of our lives over to a Higher Power, even if we claim we are. We might say we trust God and depend on Him-and 82% of us do—but when it comes right down to it, we’re a bit scared to put it to the test. We’d like a safety net under that ledge, please, and perhaps the firemen standing by.

But what if we REALLY trusted God? Not just said so on Sunday and went our own way on Monday. What if we whole-heartedly chose to believe in Hebrews 11:1 and put our faith in our pockets each day along with our cell phones? What if, instead of stamping our feet and crossing our arms and being upset we didn’t get a purple sticker, we decided to be grown-ups about it?

On Sunday, Pastor Aaron talked to us about having real conversations—not grumbles—with God. After all, He can take it. These are his five suggestions:

  1. Stop pretending. While 82% of Americans say they believe God plays an active role in their lives, the same percentage are likely to hold onto their disappointments and challenges lest anyone think they’re not trusting God. Let’s let God search our hearts (Psalm 139:23-24) and let’s share the truth about how we feel.
  2. Confess when you’re wrong. We all act stupid sometimes and we all want our own way. God already knows whatever you’re going to confess, be it to Him or another person.
  3. Tell God how you feel. It’s okay to be disappointed you didn’t get the job or win the lottery. David was honest with God about his disappointments! Once you get rid of the negative emotions, God can fill it with positive things.
  4. Tell God you love Him. That doesn’t mean you always understand where He leads you. But reminding yourself of God’s attributes will remind you of why you should trust Him.
  5. Tell God you’re puzzled. Life doesn’t always look good. Sometimes a fish looks like a gorilla. Sometimes we can’t tell what the heck it looks like. But we can trust that God has made it for us. So it’s got to be awesome.

And back to Astrid, who spent the allotted minutes in time-out and decided that a yellow sticker would be okay. So my daughter affixed a yellow sticker to Astrid’s chart and the child went off to play. The next day, when sticker time came around, my daughter held out the choices to Astrid. The little girl studied them for a moment, then put her arms around her teacher and said, “You choose. I trust you, Miss Bonnie.”

Good for you, Astrid! I’m trying to learn to trust God that way, too, no matter what color sticker He gives me.