What do you think of when you hear the word “comeback?”
Sports fans might think back to the most recent Super Bowl and the Patriots’ historic 25-point comeback, the largest in Super Bowl history. Michael Phelps was in the news this week, hinting at a possible comeback, even though he officially “retired” following the 2016 Summer Olympics. Others might think of a favorite entertainer – Garth Brooks, for instance – staging a comeback tour after years away from the limelight.
Of course, not all such comebacks are received warmly. In 2006, Barbara Streisand announced a 15-city comeback tour and fans reportedly paid as much as $12,000 for exclusive access, which included a group photo and autographed souvenirs. But some of her fans threatened to file a class-action lawsuit against her after paying exorbitant amounts to see her “farewell” tour in 2000, only to find out that it was far from her final performance! (I guess the farewell tour functions simply to set-up the comeback tour.)
We love it when our favorite team perseveres in the face of adversity, when an athlete overcomes the odds or an entertainer reinvents himself. But have you ever stopped to ask why we love comeback stories so much? Is it simply because they’re dramatic? Compelling? Inspiring? Or could it be that our fascination with these comeback stories is intended to point us to the ultimate comeback story, the story of Jesus?
As we wind down our Daring Faith series, I want to challenge you to think of the gospel as the greatest comeback story of all. John makes it clear: the spiritual forces of darkness conspired to put Jesus on the cross. He tells us that Satan himself entered Judas, setting into motion the arrest and trial of Jesus. But as we noted last week, none of these things could occur without the consent of Jesus. John makes it equally clear that Jesus remained in complete control to the very end. For the joy set before him, he endured the cross and all its agony.
And on that glorious Sunday morning, the victory of God was revealed; the tomb was found empty. Jesus “came back” from death, declaring the sovereign reign of God over those evil forces. And the empty tomb is a comeback promise for God’s people as well. It promises that sin and death need not have the last word in our lives, that God has initiated a spiritual comeback for those who would dare to believe.
John demonstrates this by sharing several post-resurrection stories toward the end of his Gospel. Today we’ll call them comeback stories.
John begins by telling Mary Magdalene’s comeback story. Mary had already experienced a tremendous spiritual comeback in her life. Luke 8:1-3 tells us that Mary was possessed by seven demons until Jesus healed her. So, Mary already knows that the power of God can bring you back from some very dark places. When we find her outside the tomb on that Sunday morning, Mary is despondent. She and the other ladies have come to tend to the body of Jesus, but they’ve found the tomb empty.
At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. “Woman,” he said, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). – John 20:14-16
The tears in Mary’s eyes kept her from seeing Jesus.
The same could be said of some of us – the tears in our eyes are keeping some of us from seeing Jesus. Not that we’ve lost our faith; Mary hasn’t lost her faith here. But some of us are so overwhelmed by grief that it’s the only thing we see anymore. I know firsthand how deep that well runs. A recent brain-imaging study revealed that the same areas of the brain that were active in the brains of cocaine addicts were also active in heartbroken case subjects when they simply looked at a picture of their former romantic partner. The neuroscientists conducting the study concluded that we crave our departed loved ones just as much as the addict craves their next fix. It just proves what we already know: grief is incredibly powerful.
But Mary’s story teaches us a really important truth: with God’s help, you can come back from grief and sorrow. The key ingredient in this kind of comeback is hope. If you have something to believe in, a hope that your loved one is no longer suffering, hope of seeing them again someday, then you can come back from sorrow. Hope is simply maintaining and eternal perspective – the most hopeful people have an eternal perspective. If you’re running low on hope, it’s probably because you’ve lost your eternal perspective. According to Ecclesiastes 3 God has set eternity in the hearts of man. There’s some sort of universal awareness that there’s more to life than what we can see, that we’re more than just oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, carbon, and water. But when we lose sight of this eternal perspective, we lose hope.
The empty tomb declares that God has an answer to our sorrow. 1 Thess. 4:13-14, Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. The empty tomb promises that you can come back from grief. It’s a promise of hope. That’s Mary’s comeback story.
John tells another comeback story, the story of Thomas.
Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.” A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” – John 20:24-28
It’s easy to criticize Thomas for his lack of faith. But my heart goes out to him, in part because I talk to a lot of people who wrestle with doubts of one kind or another, and in part because I’ve also wrestled with doubt over the course of my walk with Christ.
Maybe faith comes easily for you, but if it doesn’t, I want you to hear this: we’re not going to judge you if you have doubts. God gives us a command at Jude v22, Have mercy on those who doubt. And we plan on being faithful to that word. So, you’re not weird if you have questions; you’re not unwelcome here if you’re still unsure about all of this. In fact, it’s been my experience that those seasons of doubt are sometimes the prelude to a period of great spiritual growth.
What I love about Thomas’s comeback story is that he works out his doubts in the context of Christian community. Surrounded by fellow disciples, Thomas knows that he is in a safe place to express his doubts, to ask his questions. In your experience, has the church been a safe place to ask hard questions? For many people, I’m afraid the answer is no. That means something has changed from Thomas’s day to ours. But if we’re serious about being like the NT church, then we must strive to be the kind of place where heartfelt questions and honest dialogue are welcome. The NT bears witness to the fact that you can comeback from doubt if you’re immersed in a safe Christian community.
At least one of the key ingredients in this kind of comeback is humility. Thomas is humbled when he sees Jesus, so much so that he makes perhaps the strongest statement about Jesus in the NT: “My Lord and my God!” Our doubts are sometimes the result of a prideful reliance on our own understanding. And that’s where humility comes in. May we possess the humility it requires to walk in the wisdom of Prov. 3:5, Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.
The final comeback story in John’s Gospel is the comeback of Simon Peter. Jesus appears to the disciples at the Sea of Galilee and John records a miraculous catch of 153 fish and a breakfast meal Jesus shares with these disciples.
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me.” – John 21:15-19
What is your greatest spiritual failure? What does spiritual failure look like in your life?
Those are difficult questions, I know. For Simon Peter, his great spiritual failure was his denial of Jesus. Three times he publicly declared that he was NOT a follower of Jesus, that he didn’t even know Jim. Just hours before Jesus was arrested, Simon Peter had proclaimed, “I will lay down my life for you, Jesus!” But when the moment of truth arrived, Simon failed. And we’ve all been there.
Everyone experiences spiritual failure from time to time. No one’s spiritual life is an unbroken string of victories. And Simon Peter’s story gives us an unvarnished view of a total spiritual meltdown. This is his greatest spiritual failure and, like us, Simon Peter is wracked with guilt as a result. But as we said from the outset, these are comeback stories. And here we find Jesus carefully putting Simon Peter back together.
Three times Jesus asks Simon Peter: “Do you love me?” And three times Simon Peter responds, “Yes, I love you.” Why would Jesus ask Simon Peter three times?
I believe Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” three times because Simon Peter denied him three times. I believe Jesus is putting Simon Peter back together as thoroughly as he has come apart.
Jesus asks Simon Peter the most important question when it comes to spiritual failure: “Do you love me?” When you experience spiritual failure and you’re trying to put the pieces back together, it’s first things first. So, this is where it begins: Do you love Jesus? Your answer to that question determines everything else. It made all the difference in Simon Peter’s spiritual failure and it makes all the difference for us.
Despite his enormous failure, Simon Peter loves Jesus. And because he loves Jesus, the Lord says three times, “Care for my sheep.” Now, Peter may be inclined to think that, because of his failure, he has no part in the Kingdom. After all, as this story begins, Simon has returned to his former life as a fisherman. (How many times has a spiritual failure caused someone to give up on their Kingdom identity? How many times has someone returned to their former way of life because they assume their spiritual failure has cost them their place in the Kingdom?)
But Jesus doesn’t see it that way. In fact, Jesus sees this as an opportunity for Simon Peter to minister out of his failures. Jesus knows that when we come back from spiritual failure, we become even greater forces for the Kingdom. Before his failures, Simon Peter seems brash, arrogant, and boastful. He’s none of those things anymore. His spiritual failure has produced spiritual scars. But those spiritual scars, through the grace of God, make Peter an even better shepherd for the flock. Far from disqualifying him from service, his spiritual scars make him even more useful to Jesus.
So again: What is your great spiritual failure? What moment from your past gives you the greatest amount of guilt? Whatever it is, know this: you can come back from guilt. There are two key ingredients in this comeback; we provide one but only God can provide the other. The first ingredient necessary to come back from guilt is good old-fashioned Gospel repentance. Brokenness. Contrition. Saying, “I’m sorry” to God. This ingredient is wholly dependent upon me. That wound never becomes a scar without repentance on my part. Without repentance, it’s simply a festering wound.
You need to know this: repentance hurts. The text says that Simon Peter was hurt that Jesus kept asking him, “Do you love me?” That’s the only place I know of in the Bible where it says that Jesus hurt someone, but he does so intentionally to break Simon Peter. And in order for us to experience true repentance, we must similarly be broken.
But the second ingredient in the comeback from guilt is grace and this is God’s part. His grace is available. As John tells us at the beginning of his Gospel, For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace (John 1:16). The grace of God is available in its fullness to free us, that we might comeback from guilt.
Is your story a comeback story? It can be. The empty tomb declares that your story can be a part of the greatest comeback story of all.