I thought about bringing a tool box up here as a prop today. Except I don’t have a tool box. Why? Because anytime I get some tools to try to build something, fix something, or assemble something, it doesn’t work, I get frustrated, words come out of my mouth that shouldn’t come out of any preacher’s mouth, and I throw the tools across the room and quit. Me + tools = an epic fail.
We’ve got those, right? Or in track and field:
Or on wedding days:
There is even an entire website devoted to epic fails. There are cases these days where it seems like people’s epic fails, the worst moments of their lives, are lived out on a stage for all the world to see.
And that’s certainly the case for a man in the Bible known as Mark, also known as John Mark. We’re going to get to his reference in Colossians chapter four in a few minutes, but can we back up first? Probably 20 years in time and eight books in the Bible. You see, in the book of Acts – the history book of the church in its first 50 years or so – Mark has been in the company of Paul and Barnabas. Barnabas is in fact his cousin; they are related by blood. And it looks for all the world like Mark is the assistant, the armor bearer, to these two higher profile missionaries. And at this stage of the book of Acts and in the journey of Paul, the Gospel is spreading rapidly. And leadership in the early church, as Acts tells it, is slowly transitioning from Peter to Paul. Anyway, about midway through a long journey through the Mediterranean world, after leaving the island of Cyprus, the three of them arrive back on the mainland of what is today Turkey. In a place called Pamphylia. And look what happens in 13:13: “From Paphos, Paul and his companions sailed to Perga in Pamphylia. There John left them and returned to Jerusalem.”
John, John Mark, leaves. Disappeared. Abandoned. Walked away. AWOL. Why? We don’t know. All we have is the barest of hints. It had been a long journey over rough terrain – he could have been tired or sick. The mountains could have been too difficult to navigate. He could have had frustration over the way the Gospel was received – some said “yes” to Jesus while most said “no.” Maybe he was just homesick.
Or possibly the text has a clue embedded in it. Look again at 13:13: “Paul and his companions.” Ah, Paul is evidently the new leader! He is in charge! Gone from beta to alpha! There has been a transition in leadership and perhaps John called Mark didn’t like his new preacher! So rather than minister in unfamiliar terrain with a leader he didn’t fully trust, John called Mark bolted. Pamphylia or bust and busted. The going got tough and he got gone. His epic fail. And because it is in the pages of scripture it has been lived out on the world stage for centuries. Pamphylia.
And you know, we all have a Pamphylia. That place. That day. That set of circumstances that led to our epic fail. Even our desertion.
For someone here it was that job you had that you loved and you blew it. You lost it.
Or it’s that athletic competition and you choked. I know what I’m talking about here. My senior year in college, our tennis team played Duke and my particular opponent was injured. Had a brace from his thigh to his ankle. Could barely walk, much less run. It was a match I could not lose! And I found a way to lose. Total choke. And at the end of that day, we lost to Duke by how much? One match. Mine. Epic fail in front of a whole lot of folks.
Or your Pamphylia was the day you walked out on your marriage. And at the time it seemed justified, it made sense, and now you want it all back.
Or even for a few of you, it’s church. Like Mark, you didn’t like a new leader at church and so you left and now, sitting here you are realizing, “hey! That other guy’s not so bad!”
John called Mark had his Pamphylia, you’ve had yours and so the question becomes: how do we navigate the way up from and out of our epic fail? How can we separate that event from our identity, to ensure that one epic fail doesn’t become five? Because if Mark, if you or if I, stay in Pamphylia, the hero we have hiding within will stay there.
Because something happened in John called Mark’s life in the aftermath of the epic fail at Pamphylia. Fast forward just a few years and a couple of chapters later in Acts. Paul and Barnabas are preparing for another missionary trip and deciding who will be their Sherpas. And Paul has not forgotten Mark’s AWOL; Barnabas, perhaps because of family ties, has. Look at Acts 15:36-40:
Sometime later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord.
Whoa! Repercussions of the epic fail continue to reverberate. Personal failure becomes a community issue; it becomes a source of painful division. Maybe you’ve been on both ends of that: your failure impacted more than you and caused others to divide or, more commonly, you as parents have had division, discord, and even separation over the best way to deal with the epic fail(ures) of your children.
And if Acts 15 was the end of the story of John called Mark and his impact on the early church, it would be a pretty sad thing. Except remember Colossians, the letter that got us into this mess? Twenty years later, something major has evidently happened; look at 4:10: “My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.)”
Paul is imprisoned and his former deserter is now, improbably, his trusted comforter. There is even a chance that he will come with Tychicus to deliver the letter; in that case, Paul refers to the special instructions, which must have said something like, “you’ve heard he was a deserter. Now he’s a comforter. You can trust him because his Pamphylia experience didn’t define him; it refined him.” Don’t mistreat him; fully trust him.
Something has happened in John called Mark’s life. And then Paul just confirms that all over the place in 2 Timothy 4:11: “Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.”
Whoa! Something has really happened. The deserter is not only tolerated but he is pivotal to the whole endeavor. Pamphylia doesn’t have the final word in his life.
And then one more. This one from Peter, now, not Paul. Look what Peter says at the end of his letter: “She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you her greetings, and so does my son Mark.”
“My son, Mark.” Intimate, familiar, mentor and mentee. Something has happened, some several things more likely, to make Pamphylia and its failure be but a comma and not a period in John called Mark’s life. Something has enabled this man to absorb the lessons of his epic fail and to enter a season of productivity. He’s not stuck in Pamphylia; he’s sent into faithfulness. And so what happened?
I think it’s two guys: Paul and Peter. And knowing them and gauging by words they use in Scripture, it seems they both spoke truth into John Mark’s epic fail. Knowing Paul, he no doubt put it all on the table, set the record straight, told the truth. Like the man in Monroe said to me after I absolutely blew a meeting, “you shot yourself in the foot tonight; you ought to make it right.” Paul must have been like, “you know the fallout from your failure, right? Help me understand why you did it and then tell me what you’ve learned.” And Peter, how did he go about it? “My son.” Tender encouragement. He brought comfort. Like the friend I have who periodically will say to me “You’re a good man,” especially when I feel like anything but. But you need both. A Paul and a Peter. Someone who will confront and another who will comfort. It takes that balance of truth and grace to get someone to move beyond their epic fail and into effective service.
So I’ve got to ask you: who speaks truth into your epic fail? Who do you trust to give the hard truths? Who is there who can provide gentle encouragement? As time passes between you and your Pamphylia, who speaks truth into your epic fail? See, if you have only rebuke then you will likely become static. Paralyzed in failure. But if you have only comfort, you’ll likely just be enabled to do the same epic fail again because you never had any consequences. So are you self-aware enough to hear the hard word? And have you freed yourself of the self-loathing so you can receive the gentle word? Correction. Comfort. The comfort that comes from correction and the correction implied in the comfort. Who speaks truth into your epic fail?
I hope and I pray you all have teachable spirits and open ears in the aftermath of your epic fails. That once you succeed at that first job of locating the one who will speak truth into your epic fail, you have success in that second one as well – receiving what you’re told. Likely accepting responsibility and embracing opportunity. Who speaks truth into your epic fail?
I believe in this so much in part because I saw Leslie Steiner’s column in which she explained why she stayed in an abusive marriage for as long as she did and then why she got out. And among the reasons she got out was this: “Two police officers matter-of-factly informed me that if I stayed with my husband, they would find me dead in my living room one day.” Wow, that’s Paul – two of them! – on that thin blue line. Any road to recovery necessarily makes a pit stop at rebuke.
But by the same token when Christian author Larry Crabb was a young teen in church, he stood and delivered a prayer one Sunday in church. It was a disaster. Words wrong, cadence wrong, got so caught up in the moment that he even got the prayers wrong. Epic fail in his first attempt at ministry! Yet at the end of service that day, an older man named Jim Dunbar approached him and said, “Larry there’s one thing I want you to know. Whatever you do for the Lord, I’m behind you 1000%.” Those words had power; they resonated with Larry and have stayed with his soul. Who speaks truth into your epic fail?
It’s just so important with whom you surround yourself and how well you listen. Even on Sundays! You need a Paul who will challenge and a Peter who will comfort and sometimes they are in the same person but not always. But the hero hiding in you best comes out when it is called out by other folks in the aftermath of the epic fails in your life. If you walked out on a marriage, who speaks truth into your epic fail? If the only one who keeps losing jobs is you, who speaks truth into your epic fail? If sports are the thing, who speaks truth into your epic fail? If it’s even leaving one spiritual leader for another, who speaks truth into your epic fail?
Because like I have been saying, something happened in the life of John called Mark. Remember how I said he didn’t stay in his Pamphylia; he didn’t allow failure to define him? And he because useful in comforting ministry to imprisoned Paul, and Peter came to regard him as a son. Well, we know from church history that in the time John called Mark spent with Peter, he took notes, heard stories, internalized what the apostle was telling him. And that’s why one of the four Gospels bears the indelible imprint of Peter’s story. Which one? The Gospel of Mark. He goes from one who abandons to one who proclaims! From deserter to author! From AWOL to MVP!
He becomes someone not known so much for his Pamphylia as for his proclamation. Why? How?
Who speaks truth into your epic fail?
He got confronted by Paul, comforted by Peter, and the rest is, literally, history
Imagine what God can do with all your epic fails.