The Failure of Failure
A sermon Mark 16: 1-8 by Nathan Nettleton, 30 March 1997

Yesterday, the Port Adelaide football club played its first game in the AFL, the national football competition. They are a team who have won ten out of the last seventeen premierships in the South Australian League, but yesterday they were beaten by 79 points or something in that vicinity. No doubt it was difficult for a team so accustomed to success to swallow. But it was after all their first game in the big league, and nobody seriously expects them to do very well this season, so the commentators were gracious to them, and no doubt they are being relatively gentle on themselves too. Lots of talk of “having a fair dinkum go” and “giving a good account of themselves” and “showing encouraging signs of what they are capable of.”

But at the MCG on Thursday night, when North Melbourne went down, there was no such talk. In a game that I’m sure Mike O’Neill would be only too happy to describe in minute detail for you, the reigning premiers had a shock loss to Melbourne, one of the perpetual bridesmaids of the league. And there was just no way to put a positive spin on it for North. When you’re the reigning premier, no amount of talk about “having a red hot go” or “moral victories” or “giving a good account of yourselves” will win you any sympathy or redeem the situation in any way at all. For North, people only look at the score line, and that tells that they had a shocker and they’d best get back to the training track and just keep their mouths shut.

Unless you’re in special circumstances like Port Adelaide, that’s the way it is with failure. Does the Managing Director of a Corporation stand up before the shareholders with a sliding sales graph and say, “Well, we lost six million this year but we’re calling it a moral victory. We had a red hot go and it was a year of character building for our company”? The next week there’s a new name on the office door.

Failure. It’s that sinking emptiness in the pit of your stomach when you look down the list of exam results, and there’s your name, at the bottom. And it’s not alphabetical.

It’s the surgeon returning from theatre and pulling off the surgical mask to reveal an ashen expression that speaks without having to utter a word. There’s no need to ask whether the operation was a success.

It’s packing up your belongings from the house and moving into separate flats; and not knowing who should take the wedding album when neither of you will look at it again because its just too painful.

It’s watching John Brumby trying to explain that although the polling booth returns show that the Labor Party made up no ground at all in the election, it has enabled them to see the way forward and rebuild for the future and they are committed to keeping the government honest for the next four years. If we’d had a few more weeks we could have turned this around, and I want to thank everybody for their hard work. Someday we’ll look back on this as a good experience. And behind him you can see people carrying off boxes of unused badges and bumper stickers and streamers and others just staring blankly into their beers.

Failure. Defeat. The slide to the bottom.

What do you do with it? One response is the cheap rationalisation. It was a moral victory. I know of another minister who tells a story about when he was a young pastor with his L plates still on and he went to a house where the husband had just dies, and the newly widowed woman met him at the door and barked, “Don’t you go giving me any of that preacher crap about ‘he’s better off now’ or ‘he’s gone to a better place’ or any of that stuff. He’s gone and that’s it!” And he was. She knew and she wasn’t going to have it softened up by any cheap talk. He was gone.

More likely, in the face of failure, we will find far more skilful rationalisations. There must be someone else to blame. It’s the governments fault. It’s a communist plot. It was because my potty training was dysfunctional. This has been going on since Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the snake of course, it’s nothing new.

According to the Enneagram model of personality profiles, I am the type of personality that defines my whole being in terms of success. I am allergic to failure. You can call me stupid, or call me uncaring, or shallow, or weak, or chaotic, or irrational, and I’ll cope OK. I won’t like it, but it doesn’t threaten my sense of self too much. But call me a failure, and I’ll be devastated. I’ll either fall apart, or lash out or most likely try to explain that you’re misreading the situation and it’s not really a failure. Or if something I’m central too is too obviously a failure even for me to hide from, I’ll quickly share the blame around so that it wasn’t really a personal failure, there was a whole group of us involved and we failed together. It was democracy you see, and if we’d all done it my way we probably wouldn’t have failed.

Combine my personality type with moderate intelligence and you have an absolute expert at avoiding the possibility of failure, and at explaining it away if it is staring me in the face. None of us like failure, but I’m especially allergic to it.

So what are we doing following Jesus? It doesn’t matter how you look at it, the stories of Jesus are not success stories. The angels might sing at his birth of the King of the world who brings the good news of salvation for all, but there’s precious little on the scorecard after that. Before he’s old enough to talk, his mere presence has inspired the slaughter of all the baby boys in the whole town, and he’s only escaped by his parents fleeing the country and living like refugees.

When he starts preaching, his own home town write him off as too big for his boots and when he won’t shut up they try to kill him and he has to flee the town. His message is predominantly about God and how God relates to us, but he’s sneeringly dismissed as a heretic by pretty much every religious leader or teacher in the land. Not really what you’d call success.

A lot of people liked to hang around and listen to his stories, but the only people he could get to follow him were people that no one else wanted anything to do with. People who couldn’t get anyone else to be their friends. Prostitutes. Pawn brokers. People who smelt of old fish all the time. Yeah, Jesus was a real social hit! And this mob he got to follow him couldn’t understand him and were always fighting among themselves and trying to get Jesus to do things their way. Boy, if you can’t even get your closest friends to understand what you’re on about, what hope have you got.

Some of the stories of Jesus were even too embarrassing for the gospel writers. Mark tells a story of Jesus having to have a second go at healing a blind man because his first attempt failed. The bloke though the people looked like trees, so Jesus had to have another go. Matthew and Luke were too embarrassed to tell that story so they just abbreviated it to make it sound more successful. And John drops it completely. I wonder how many other stories there were like that that didn’t get told by any of them?

And finally when Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, and it’s really crunch time, what happens? He goes head to head with the religious leaders and the Roman authorities and he loses big time. Within a week of arriving, amidst a cheering crowd who thought he was about to overthrow the Romans, clean up the temple and reign triumphant as King, he’s gone. Arrested, betrayed by one friend, denied by another, and deserted by all the rest. He’s publicly humiliated by the military, condemned on trumped up charges, but no one will defend him, he’s beaten, spat upon and abused, and Amnesty International are nowhere to be found. The crowds turn against him and cry for blood, and he’s dragged out of the city and publicly executed.

By mid afternoon it’s all over. We can go back home now. So much for the big picture, for God’s plan, for the angel’s message, for the hopes of Israel. God’s not going to make the finals again this year. Death remains undefeated, omnipotent. Along with taxes the one one thing that is certain and the only one you can’t avoid.

Jesus hangs there as a symbol of the unavoidability of failure. A symbol of all the brick walls and dead ends and unfulfilled hopes and unkept promises that humanity endures. Death laughed as his tomb was sealed with the stone.

And you can hear the widows voice at the door, “Don’t come in here with any of that preacher talk.” Don’t mock this Friday tragedy with cheap platitudes and pious cliches. He’s dead. Let’s call a spade a spade. Defeat is defeat. Failure is failure. Death is death. God can pack up and go home too.

“Now, after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went out to see the tomb...”

And the whole story suddenly goes haywire! The stone’s been rolled away, the body is gone, the angels are back, what’s going on. A voice says he’s risen. The Mary’s run from the cemetery terrified, unable to tell anyone anything that makes any sense. Emotions are all over the place. Even years later after plenty of time to get their stories together the gospel writers still can’t make enough sense of what happened to get a coherent account of it. Some say he appeared to May, some to Peter. Some say he appeared in Jerusalem, some in Galilee. Some having him coming through closed doors, others having him barbecuing fish on the beach. When the whole world is turned this much on its head, everything is all over the place and you can’t make much sense of it. But something has happened and nothing will ever be the same again.

On Friday, the curtain in the temple was torn in two, opening the way to the Holy of Holies. This morning it’s more than a curtain. This morning the whole impenetrable brick wall of inevitable failure has cracked open. And all the thousands of people who have bashed their heads hopelessly against that wall for generations, have suddenly found a breach in the wall and are coming surging through. And you and I, so drained by the horror and failure of it all as we stood round the cross on Friday, suddenly find that the story, far from being over, is only just beginning and if we will follow Jesus through that wall and into the great unknown on the other side, the brick wall of failure need never be impenetrable again.