The fire crackled in the crisp air, casting shadows on the walls not five yards away. It looked inviting, this bonfire, for not only was the night air chilly, but also this whole episode had been so draining, so terrifying, that the body cried out for comfort, for something, anything, that would bring assurance and warmth. Strange how when the heart and the mind are disturbed, it is so often the body which wants to be held and stroked and cared for. And so, though he knew none of those who had gathered around the fire, he went among them and took his place at the edge of the circle, close enough to feel the heat but not so close he would have to take part in the raucous talk that was already boiling up. Not a time for rowdy stories or for boisterous laughter, not when you've seen your world come apart at the seams, not when you suspect that the next few hours will mean the end of the finest, most loving, most gracious friend you've ever known.
So quiet, calm, time to collect one’s self. But this girl who kept coming out, then running back into the house – who was she anyway? He thought perhaps he had seen her earlier today, but no, how could he? Who was she, anyway? They all look alike, these girls around the streets of the city. She ought not to be out here with these roughnecks anyway; who knows what they have on their minds. Here she comes again. Why does she keep walking back and forth from the courtyard walls, why does she keep glancing at him? She stops in her tracks; her face turns squarely to him. "Ah." " Ah," she says, to no one in particular. "This man also was with him."
What? What did she say? Was she looking at him? "This man also was with him." What could he say? She was looking squarely at him and her words were like arrows directed to his very eyes. What could he reply? "Woman, I do not know him."
But by now others had turned to look. Bored as they were, they sensed a diversion, something to make an issue of, someone to needle. And so one of them found his voice, "You also are one of them, yes, of them, you know who I mean. You also are one of them." This is getting out of hand, he might be discovered, and not only discovered, but he might be in trouble, real trouble. Can't back off now. "Man, I am not." No, no, you’ve got the wrong boy. "Man, I am not." Do you hear?
At that, all the voices grew still … not a sound. No laughter, no stories. No grumbles about the governor's taxes, no speculation about the weather. No sound but the log burning through and breaking and sending a shower of sparks for a brief moment. For an hour or so, not a sound. Suddenly one of them stood up, stood up and turned and pointed a long, bony finger, flinging his words out against the air where they seemed to freeze and hang there for all the world to see: "Certainly this man also was with him, for he is a Galilean. I heard it in his voice." He jumped to his feet and with heart pounding, with his pulse racing, he screamed out, "Man I do not know what you are saying. Get off my case, will you? Get off my back. I do not know what you are talking about. Man I do not know what you are saying."
I do not know … what’s that sound? Great God in heaven, that eerie sound! Cockcrow – what was it he had said? How could he have known? Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times. How could he have known? And there in the windows of the palace, he saw his master, standing, looking. Looking.
And Peter … Peter called the Rock … Peter who had proclaimed his faith so firmly … Peter who had said, "I am with you to the very end" …Peter went out and wept bitterly.
What had happened here? What is moving and surging within this man who, days before, hours before, had seemed so sure of himself? And, more important, what can we learn from Peter, can we see something of ourselves in him? Is it possible that in his denial of the Lord he mirrored something of our own denials? Is there something of each of us wrapped up in this one whom Jesus had called Petros, the rock? You might say, do we have a piece of the Rock? I think we do… I think we do. I suspect Peter's story is our story too. As he succumbed to the pressures of the moment, the pressures put on him by his peers around that fire, so we also find it easy, perilously easy, to say along with him, I am not one of Christ's. I am not with him. What is it? It’s the power of peer pressure.
You see, for one thing, we like Peter have confused loudness with loyalty. We have confused loudness if safe places with loyalty in the world. We have supposed that we had it all together. We have imagined that because we have sung hymns lustily – of course always within the confines of the church -- that that means we'll be able to sing the Lord's song in a strange land. We have imagined that because we know to use all the right words, all the pious words, in a Sunday School class, that that means that we can and will interpret our faith to anyone who demands that we do so. And so we stand ready to give our testimony, every Sunday morning, here at church. Where it’s safe and secure from all alarms.
We have confused loudness with loyalty, you see, and we have imagined that just because we know all the right things to say and we say them boldly, right here, where it's the accepted thing to do, that we're on the way. But loudness is not loyalty. Loudness, the earnestness with which we confess the Lord when it's safe to do so, that's not loyalty. That's not the same as putting it to the test, out there, in the real world, under peer pressure, where men build fires and gather around to swap stories and to probe lives. Not the same at all.
A few years ago there was a television program called Lie Detector. On Lie Detector the idea was that the guests come with various stories, usually having to do with some accusation being made against them. Some accusation which they deny. They are then hooked up to the polygraph, the lie detector, and the aim is to see whether they are telling the truth. What happens is that the machine records various physical responses as questions are being asked, and it makes a judgment as to whether the truth is being told. The point seems to be that the more energy, the more oomph you put into answering a question with a lie, the more the machine records your hypocrisy. In other words, in simplest terms, the lie detector knows that loudness is not loyalty. Shakespeare’s "Methinks he doth protest too much." We have learned that those who most vigorously defend are the first to crash.
And so Peter. Only hours earlier, Peter had said to the Lord Jesus, "Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death." What a declaration! What a fantastic thing to promise! Sounds extreme, doesn't it? And yet you and I find it easy to do the very same thing, How often have we sung, "Wherever he leads I'll go," when our intention was to take our witness no farther than the church doors? How often have we cried out, "0 for a thousand tongues to sing my great redeemer’s praise," when the one tongue we do have remains silent in the workplace, in the schoolyard, in the real world. Loudness, yes, but not necessarily loyalty, thanks to the power of peer pressure.
And so the Lord says to us as he said to Peter, I tell you, the cock will not crow this day, until you three times deny that you know me. Three times? Great God, I would that it were only three times in a day that I deny him! For the truth is that I confuse loudness with loyalty, and I can stand in this pulpit and say all sorts of things, things which I know full well would sound perfectly outrageous among my peers, my neighbors. And I have denied him. I have denied him. I do not know him. Confusing loudness with loyalty.
Two or three weeks ago, at the barber shop I’ve gone to several months, the barber finally asked, "Where do you work?" I whispered, "pastor." You could have heard a pin drop. My secret was out, and the power of peer pressure got to me.
But there is more, for we, like Peter, have met the crucial moment and we have denied our Christ, because we have thought of ourselves as victims and not as victors. We have seen ourselves as victims and not as victors.
It's really a matter of self-esteem, you see. It's at bottom a matter of how we understand ourselves, how we see ourselves. You think for a moment about Peter in that situation. Think how much of himself he had invested over these three years. Think of his hopes, his dreams, his fantasies. Imagine how he felt now that his expectations were apparently dissolving. The kingdom was to have come; but instead the king was taken into custody and was at this moment being questioned and prepared for trial, not for trial only, either, but for certain death.
What do you do, then, when you see your world crashing down about your ears? What do you do when everything for which you have worked and prayed and pushed, everything is being destroyed? Well, what you do is reject it. You reject it in disgust. You pretend you never wanted it anyway. You try as best you might to put that disaster behind you, you try to purge it from your life. You planned on being on top of it all, you planned on a victory celebration. But now you are not a victor at all; you are a victim. And it hurts. It hurts. And you don't want anybody to see your dismal failure. And so you deny it all, you reject it. We so much want to look good in the eyes of our peers that we deny our dreams.
A few years ago some psychologists came up with a system of thinking, a way of looking at human relationships, they called transactional analysis. Transactional analysis, in many ways, is just a convenient way of organizing some common sense observations about human life and personality. Nothing very mysterious. But the TA (as it came to be called) … the TA people talk about life positions, ways in which we view ourselves, ways in which we view other people. TA produced a book, "I’m OK, You’re OK." And what they pointed out was that for many of us, the way we see ourselves is "I'm not OK." I'm Not OK. I'm a failure. I can't do anything right. Everything I put my hand to turns sour. I'm not OK.
Is it too much to suggest that this happened to Peter, and that this happens to us? We get down on ourselves. We get to thinking of ourselves as victims more than as victors. We get to imagining that we are no good. And the truth is there are plenty of folks out there willing to help reinforce that, plenty of folks will be only too glad to tell you how no good you are. And peer pressure is downward to make us think, "I’m not OK."
So listen to the speaker at the fireside. "You also are one of them." You are one of them, one of those vagabonds, those fanatics. You are one of those Jesus-freaks. I can almost hear his voice colored with a sneer. "You are also one of them"
I say again, the pressure of our peers is so often a downward pressure. So often the devil's strategy in the world is to get us thinking of ourselves as failures, as nobodies. You tell a child often enough that he is a bad boy, and he will grow up and prove you right. You tell a man or a woman often enough that they are one of the failures of this world, and they will find some way to lash out at their world. It might be criminal behavior, it might be child abuse, it might be obscenity; but it all has one meaning. When we see ourselves as victims and not as victors, when we see ourselves as losers, when we hate ourselves, then we also hate the image of God that is in us. And that is denying Christ. To be a victim, to see no victory, no triumph, in your life, that is denying Christ. As surely as Peter says I know him not, denying his dream, when we see ourselves as nobodies, we have denied Christ.
But I would have you see this morning that there is good news even in this sordid business of denying the Lord. There is good news here, because, thank God, there is more to Peter than confusing loudness with loyalty. And there is more to Peter than acting the part of the victim instead of the victor. No, there is more to Peter than confusing loudness with loyalty, more to him that being victim instead of victor. And, praise be to God, there is more to us also.
For crisis does not always mean crumbling. The crises of life do not have to mean that life crumbles. And the crisis of faith does not have to mean that faith crumbles. Peter, despite all that he had done, despite the fact that he had allowed himself to be put down by the pressures of his peers around that fireside, despite all that, there is another Peter here. There is a repentant Peter, a Peter who can weep bitterly. There is here a Peter for whom cockcrow comes, destroying his illusions, calling him back to his true identity. There is another Peter here, a repentant Peter.
The Scripture records that as the cock crowed, the Lord turned and looked at Peter. The Lord looked at Peter, and Peter remembered. He remembered and he ran and wept bitterly. He remembered who he was and who loved him. And he was turned around in crisis, but not crumbling beyond repair, turned around by the Lord's long look.
Turned around, I suspect, by a look that is not so much accusation as it is disappointment and pain. Turned around.
Turned around by the look of one who knows our infirmities and weaknesses, yet accepts us and loves us and is on his way to a cross for us; turned around.
Turned around by one whose gaze penetrates to the very soul, piercing joints and bones and marrow to know what is in us, what moves us, to know how we respond to the pressures of our peers, when the test is real, not just a mock battle inside the walls of the church, not just loudness but loyalty. Turned around.
Turned around by the look of one who has walked the dusty road with each of us, who has tasted our defeats, who knows what we feel, who indeed is to suffer the worst this world has to offer but who will meet it all not as victim but as victor. Turned around.
Turned around from the power of peer pressure by the one in whose eyes there is the power to turn crisis from crumbling into a rock. Turned around.