Do Not Be Afraid sermon series – #1: Peter and the Fear of Failure

This week, we are starting our sermon series called “Do Not Be Afraid,” in which we look at people around Jesus who overcame their fears in order to be faithful. Today, we start with the disciple Peter, who has moments of great faith and great doubt, sometimes in the same boat ride!

SCRIPTURE – Matthew 14:22-33 –  Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land,[d] for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind,[e] he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

SERMON
Do Not Be Afraid Sermon Series
#1 – Peter and the Fear of Failure
Matthew 14:22-33
Feb. 14, 2016

What are you afraid of? You probably know if you have acrophobia, you have a fear of heights, and if you have agorophobia, you have a fear of crowds. But did you know that some people have coulrophobia, which means you’re afraid of clowns? Other people suffer from ophalophobia, the fear of belly buttons. Are you scared of not having cell phone coverage? You have nobarphobia. People with anitadaephobia? They are constantly in fear of being watched by a duck. And there are even people who deal with hippopoto-monstro-sesqui-pedalio-phobia, which is the fear of long words. I’d tell you what I’m afraid of, but then I guarantee the choir would put one of them in the pulpit next week. So choir, I’m afraid of $100 bills!

What are you afraid of? We all have some kind of phobia, because we’re all afraid of something. There’s no such thing as being fearless. In the Bible, God gives a lot of different commands, but do you know the one God gives the most? It’s not a command about how you treat someone else. It has nothing to do with what you eat or how you behave. No, the most common command in scripture is, “Do not be afraid.”

Why does God say that so often? Because there’s so much of which we are afraid! And yet, the Bible gives us example after example of people who overcome their fears in order to be faithful to God. For our Lenten sermon series, we’re going to be looking at some of the folks who walked with Jesus on the way to the cross. Each of these people faced significant fears and overcame them with the help of God. What can we learn from them about how we are to deal with our own phobias?

We start with Peter, probably the most famous disciple and one of Jesus’ closest confidantes. I absolutely love Peter because he is a living demonstration of how hard this faith thing is. Throughout the gospels, Peter has moments of exemplary faith, followed in a few verses by some of the most bone-headed moves in all of scripture. I figure if Peter followed Jesus for three years and still couldn’t get it right, there’s hope for all of us.

Our story today is a great example of Peter’s wishy-washy ways. The disciples are out in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, during the fourth watch of the night. That means the disciples had been rowing and bailing for up to nine hours, and had yet to make it across the sea. Why? Because, Matthew tells us, the wind was against them. As a former Chicago resident, I understand the metaphorical force of that statement. Have you ever had that feeling, like the wind was against you? You work and work and work and get nowhere, you take one step forward and are blown two steps back.

So the disciples are battling the wind and the storm and the sea. Jesus comes to them, walking on the water, saying to them, “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.” And Peter, in one of the greatest demonstrations of faith, asks to come to Jesus on the water. Some commentators scold Peter for putting Jesus to the test, but I don’t see it that way. Peter wanted to be where Jesus was. He wanted to be with his Savior. So Peter steps out onto the water and begins to walk toward Jesus.

Now let’s stop a second to take in what just happened. Peter is a normal, flawed human being like you and me. He’s not Harry Houdini or David Blaine. He has no special powers of levitation or buoyance. And yet, he steps out of a boat in the middle of a nasty squall and starts walking on the water toward Jesus.

But then, faster than a stiff breeze, he looks down at the churning waves, he feels the wind against him, and he starts to sink. He cries out to Jesus for help, so Jesus reaches down and pulls Peter up, saying, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” I love how the Bible translation the Message renders Jesus’ words: “Faint-heart, what go into you?”

What got into him? Was it the realization that he was risking his life by stepping out of the boat? Was it the sudden awareness of the severity of the storm? Was it that he was awakened to the fact he was doing something that he thought he couldn’t do? What got into him? I bet it was the same thing that gets into us when we step out of the boat and realize we are vulnerable to the risks and dangers around us. Why did we leave the security of the boat? What if we don’t have what it takes? What if the wind is against us? What gets into us? Fear of failing.

In America today, failure is considered an unpardonable sin. No one likes to be thought of us as a failure because of the stigma that goes along with it. Missing the game-winning shot, losing a big case, dropping out of college, not having a spouse and 2.3 kids – all examples of failure in our culture. Somehow our failure becomes a comment on our character, our competence, our value as a human being. No one likes to be thought of us a failure.

Newsflash! We’re all failures. Every single one of us. We’ve all tried something and failed. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that! I want you to turn to your neighbor and say, “I’m a failure!” Now, with a big smile your face, say to that person, “You’re a failure, too!” There, doesn’t that feel better, to name our fallibility, to admit we’re human. It’s OK to be a failure.

We have to remember that failure is not an event, but a judgment about that event. Something is only a failure if we label it as such. You probably know Edison’s quote about his attempts to invent the lightbulb: “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that did not work.” Rather than being a negative, I believe failure is a positive, because it helps us know what to do differently next time. Failure is an essential part of the creative process. I was recently reading through some of the very first sermons I ever preached. Ugh. Painful. I can’t believe my church in Chicago sat through them. After my very last sermon to them, several people clapped. I think it’s because they were glad to see me leave!

So failure is not a bad thing, but fear of failure is paralyzing. It’s insidious. It’s a force that can keep us from being the people God has called us to be. What if I start reading the Bible but don’t understand it? What if I try to pray every day but can’t keep up the routine? What if I serve at church but don’t do well? What if I join the choir but miss a few notes? Sometimes it’s easier just to stay in the boat, isn’t it? Would that have been easier for Peter? Sure. If he’d stayed in the boat, he would have never risked drowning. But he also would have never walked on water.

So where do we find the courage to overcome our fear of failing? We have to find it somewhere, because our only other option is quitting. And let’s be really honest here: It’s ALWAYS easier to quit. Quitting will always be the easier option. The greatest temptation we face when our plans fail is to surrender, to give up hope, and climb back into the boat.

But if we do that, we just may miss the call Jesus is extending to us to join him on the water. Courage is not the absence of fear; courage assumes fear is present, but that it isn’t in control. Courage means keeping our eyes on Jesus in the presence of failure. It means taking the risk to leave the comfort and security of our boats to walk toward Jesus in our lives.

Guess what? We’ll still fail. Right? We’re never going to succeed at everything. And when we do fail, then we try again. Failure is not the end of the world. You won’t die from it. Instead of letting it define you, you redefine it. The story goes that after an unsuccessful attempt to climb Mt. Everest, Sir Edmund Hilary stood at the base, shook his fist, and said, “I’ll defeat you yet! You’re as big as you’re going to get, but I’m still growing.” Every time he tried to climb it, he failed. And every time he failed, he learned, he grew, and he tried again. And one day, he didn’t fail.

I know, I know. Our Mt. Everests are pretty tall. And the boat is so warm and comfortable and familiar. But you can’t walk on water if you never get out of the boat. Failure is not failing to reach your dreams. It’s not having a dream. Failure is not missing your goal. It’s not having a goal. If at first you don’t succeed, big deal! It’s usually the second, third, or fourth time you actually get it right. In my case, I’m still trying to get it right. Remember, everybody fails. But everybody can grow, as well.

I believe God is calling each of us to get out of our boats and walk toward Jesus. And, believe me, that call can be scary. You might fail. If you are being called to do something you think you can’t do, and if doing it would make someone else’s life better or help strengthen your faith, then there’s a good chance that call is from God. There’s the boat. There’s Jesus. So then, what are you gonna do? Are you going to let your fear of failing keep you from stepping out? When you face a challenge, are you going to lean into it our run away from it? This is your life. You can’t step out of it. You can only live it or not live it. So make that difficult call. Start that challenging project. Take that new class. Try that new hobby. Say “yes” to that new calling. What’s the worst thing that can happen? You might fail. Or, you might not. What are you afraid of?

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