A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on January 6, 2013
Psalm 16:1-11; 1 Peter 1:3-9
Do you mind if I share with you a story I have told before? It’s been quite awhile, so many, if not most, of you may not remember it. When I pastored a church in Baltimore, in the mid 80’s, I spent a fair share of my time at the infamous Johns Hopkins Hospital. Several of our church members were employed there. One of them, our church organist Alice Flumbaum, was the executive secretary to the director of the Wilmer Eye Clinic at Hopkins. One day, while visiting some patients from our church, I dropped in on Alice to say hello and shoot the breeze for a moment. She was a special friend, the kind of person I enjoyed being with. In fact, though we left Baltimore more than twenty-five years ago, we still stay in touch with Alice, and her husband Dave, from time-to-time.
While we visited together that day, we talked about Jesus… but not, perhaps, in the way you might imagine. Specifically, we talked about the huge bronze statue depicting Jesus with outstretched arms located just behind the information desk at the entrance to the hospital. The caption at the bottom of the statue is from Matthew’s gospel, chapter eleven, verse twenty-eight: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Gene Blagg, you will be glad to know it is inscribed in the good King James.
That part of the hospital is an old facility, and as with places of that age, has been added onto quite a bit during its years of existence. To get an idea of what I mean, visit UAMS sometime, especially the old section, and see how difficult it is to find your way around. It is very easy to get lost in its maze of corridors and rooms and buildings. Well, UAMS has nothing on Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, let me tell you.
My friend Alice said there were many times when she would be walking through the complex and a friend or acquaintance – often from our church – would see her and ask directions to the exit. They had managed to get into the hospital, a relatively easy thing to do once you found a parking place and fended off the local kids who wanted to clean your windshield for a buck – whether it needed it or not – but, once inside, they found it very difficult to locate the way out!
“Just get me back to Jesus,” they would tell Alice, referring to the statue, “just get me back to Jesus!”
Boy, if that won’t preach, nothing will! And, I think it’s an apt and timely point to make this first Sunday of the new year, don’t you? How do we get back to Jesus? It is one thing to spend four weeks anticipating and celebrating Jesus’ birth. But there comes a time when Jesus grows up and begins making demands of those who would follow him, and calls upon his followers to yield themselves to an unseen kingdom.
So the question must be asked… How do we restore a faith that tends at time to reflect, to mimic, what is going on in our misbegotten society instead of shaping it to reflect more the spirit of Christ? How do we find a faith that keeps us anchored in the tempestuous storms of life? How do we keep life nailed down when everything else seems to be coming loose?
Indeed, how do we get back to Jesus?
On Christmas Eve, Janet and our grandson Matt were rummaging through a cabinet looking for our DVD of the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” We all wanted to watch it that night, a tradition at our house. They eventually found it, but not before coming across a devotional book entitled Renew My Heart. It is a compilation of daily devotions written by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. I decided to read it this year, and in the second devotional found a phrase that Wesley used. He talked about our need for a “fresh atonement.” As soon as I read it, that statue of Jesus came to mind. What better way to get back to Jesus than by allowing his spirit to provide us with a freshness to our faith journey?
That thought led me a bit further down the road, this time to Simon Peter. In my mind, no one else in scripture epitomizes more than Peter what atonement can do to change one’s life. Let’s set the scene…
It is that infamous night when Jesus was tried before the Sanhedrin at the home of Caiaphas the high priest. Jesus has met with his disciples earlier in the upper room, and has talked with them quite directly about betrayal. He tells them that one of their group will betray him into the hands of the enemy. Peter has let it be known that he would never do such a thing as deny his Master, and Jesus responds by telling him that before that very night is over he will do most certainly it, not just once but three times!
Then comes Gethsemane. Jesus prays all night while his disciples, Peter included, fall asleep. Then chaos sets in. Jesus is arrested by the vigilante crowd, led by Judas, the betrayer. He is taken before the chief priest and other religious authorities to be interrogated. We do not know what happened to the other disciples at this point. We can only assume they scattered in different directions. But Peter follows at a distance.
Now realize something… Simon Peter is not a coward. It took a great deal of courage for him to follow this blood-thirsty mob because you can be certain that if it goes badly for the Nazarene, as is bound to happen, it will be just as treacherous for his followers. The authorities know who they are; it wouldn’t take long to round them up. Yet, Peter walks right into the courtyard of the high priest and sits down with the guards, of all people! Casually warming himself by the fire, he tries to blend in and eavesdrop on the proceedings. It is then that one of the maids of the high priest recognizes him. “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus,” she says.
Peter denies her accusation. “I neither know nor understand what you mean,” he says. And realizing that things are getting a bit too warm for his liking, in more ways than one, perhaps, he walks out into the gateway. But this is one persistent maid. She sees him again and says to those standing around, “This man is one of them.” Peter denies it the second time.
The bystanders are convinced, however. “Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean,” they say. They can tell his by dialect that he is a Galilean, and perhaps by the way he dresses. Cursing, Peter says, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.” It is then he hears the cock crow, remembers that Jesus said he would deny him, breaks down and weeps, and runs out into the dreadful darkness of the night.
Simon Peter… so brave, so strong, so cock-sure of himself (please excuse the pun)… he cannot, when the going gets tough, keep his faith in his Master. He betrays Jesus just as Judas has done. He may not have done it for money or political gain, but it is betrayal nonetheless.
Now, let’s fast-forward about thirty years. The still infant church is struggling to grow and survive in the face of widespread persecution. The Christians are still largely unaccepted by the Jews, are thoroughly despised by the Romans, and treated with disdain by everyone else. One of the church’s leaders is writing a letter to a particular congregation, giving them encouragement in the face of their difficulties. We read those words just a few moments ago…
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you… In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials… Without having seen him you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy. As the outcome of your faith you obtain the salvation of your souls.
Those words were written by the very same man who, some thirty years before, stood by the fire in the high priest’s courtyard and denied knowing the Christ who is mentioned in this letter. On second thought, he is not the same man. He has changed… drastically. He no longer knows fear when his life is threatened. He no longer is hesitant to share his faith. He no longer cowers down before those who oppose his Master. No, on second thought, he is not the same man.
We remind you, it has been about thirty years since he last saw Jesus. He had been with Jesus the very night he betrayed him. Now, not having seen him in all that time, his faith in Christ is stronger and runs much, much deeper. How can that be? My belief is that Simon Peter came back to Jesus, and in doing so received a fresh atonement.
You know that Simon Peter was not the only disciple to betray his Master that night. We’ve talked about that already. In fact, the very name of Judas now means betrayal. You will find plenty of people who still bear the name of Peter, but I dare say you will find none who are willing to name their sons Judas. What was the difference? It was not just that Judas went out and hanged himself. It was that he gave up… completely. He did not come back to Jesus as Peter did. He did not accept a fresh atonement.
Imagine how difficult it must have been for Peter to face his risen Lord after knowing what he did. And here’s the interesting thing… It is virtually impossible for us to believe that Jesus would tell the other disciples what happened that night at the home of the high priest. And there is no scriptural evidence that any other disciple accompanied Peter to the home of the high priest. No one had to know what Peter did that night. But the story got out. It was told… and retold. How? Why? Evidently, Peter told it himself; told it because he wanted to illustrate how deep and how far Jesus’ redemptive love will reach. Peter told the story himself because he knew the only way he could live with himself was to offer himself all over again to the One who gave his life for him.
As painful as it may be to face his Lord again, he wanted to remain a follower of the Galilean. Evidently Judas couldn’t bring himself to do that, and he perished for it. Somehow, he had not learned that Jesus will accept us regardless of our transgressions.
E. Stanley Jones was one of the most famous preachers and Christian leaders of the first half of the twentieth century. He was a missionary to India, a friend of Gandhi and other world leaders. He had the ear of some pretty important people in his day. Jones was a tireless globetrotter who exacted an enormous influence on people wherever he went. Near the end of his long life he decided to write an autobiography. On his third attempt – he considered the first two to be too much about himself – he succeeded with his volume, A Song of Ascent.
In his autobiography he tells of an African who, after being converted to Christianity, changed his name to After. As far as he was concerned, everything of any real significance happened to him after he met Christ. So, he changed his name. Jones went on to explain that this was his experience. He didn’t change his name, but he began his third autobiography with Christ and then told his story in the context of his faith. He wanted the account of his life to focus on Jesus and not himself.
Is that true of you and me? Does the account of our lives focus on Jesus?
If this first Sunday of the new year finds you wandering a bit aimlessly in life, you can do nothing better, nor more lasting, then to regain your bearings by getting back to Jesus and finding in him a fresh atonement.
Somehow Peter knew that Jesus would forgive him. Somehow he knew that even in the moment of his greatest personal darkness, Jesus would take him back. Somehow – and it was something that Judas must not have believed – Peter knew his Master still loved him despite all his weaknesses. Peter came back to Jesus. And that is why he was able to say to his friends in Christ, “As the outcome of your faith you obtain the salvation of your souls.”
Have you ever considered taking a spiritual inventory of your life, looking deeply and honestly at yourself to see where you are in the journey of faith? What better time to do it than now? Perhaps you will find within yourself a deep need for some spiritual re-direction.
If that is true for you, let Simon Peter, who knew what he was talking about, be a model of faith for you this morning. Let his life and his words encourage you to find your way back to Jesus, for it is in him – and him only – that you will experience a fresh atonement.
We are only human, Lord, and sometimes in our humanness we make a real mess of things. Forgive us, we pray, and help us get back to Jesus. In his saving name we pray, Amen.