At the Cross-Road

Sermon Preached at St. Barnabas (Villas, NJ)
March 8, 2009 - Lent 2B

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.[1]

I don’t read a lot of poetry, and yet, whenever it snows, this poem by Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken,” always comes to mind. And yes, I do know that the poem is actually about the woods in autumn! In any event, it’s hard to believe that just a few days ago, I was thinking of this poem as I walked my dog, Gabby, through the back yard and looked out through the snow-covered woods. And yet, there it is: one day the ground is covered with new-fallen snow, parents are pulling their children down the street on sleds, and the sound of shovels scraping walkways echoes up and down the street and seemingly, a moment later, the snow is gone, crocus can be seen bravely peeping out of the ground and yesterday, I even saw my first robin – the true harbinger of spring.

Sudden transitions often catch us off guard – boots, hat, scarf, and mittens on Tuesday; tennis shoes and a t-shirt on Saturday. I imagine Peter was quite caught of guard by his conversation with Jesus which we heard in this morning’s Gospel. To set the stage for what we heard read, we need to back up a few more verses in the gospel. Jesus begins the conversation by asking his disciples,

‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.”[2]

Why does he order them not to tell anyone? Because Peter has answered the question correctly – Jesus is the Messiah! In Matthew’s version of the story, Jesus responds to Peter saying, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!”[3] With or without the blessing of Jesus, Peter must have been feeling pretty good to have gotten the answer right. In the first place, the disciples are notorious for their repeated misunderstandings of Jesus’ intentions so to finally get one right – that’s got to feel pretty good. But, even more than that, if Jesus is the Messiah, the Lord, then this group of disciples is about to become pretty important. Why? Because in the 1st century, there was only one person who used the title “Lord” and that was Emperor Augustus. Coins which bore Augustus’ likeness were imprinted with the words “Savior of the world.”[4] So, if Jesus claims to be the Messiah, the Lord; surely he must be planning to overthrow the Roman Emperor and, if he is successful, wouldn’t you want to be one of his close friends – one of his disciples?

So imagine Peter’s shock when Jesus begins to talk about the “great suffering” he will undergo, when he talks about being “rejected by the elders, the chief priest, and the scribes,” when he talks about being killed. Of course, Peter rebukes him! Can’t you just hear him?

“Jesus, look, you just said you are the Messiah . . . the Lord, the next Emperor. Augustus didn’t become Emperor by being killed; so, let’s forget all this talk about suffering, rejection, and death. We need to raise an army – maybe some of those 4000 people you fed will join us – and let’s prepare for war!”

At which point, Jesus turns on him and shouts, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Peter’s head must be spinning. “Two roads diverged in a wood” and the disciples are at the crossroads. The Rev. Scott Hoezee, Director of the Center for Preaching Excellence at Calvin College, writes, “[the disciples] want to stick with Jesus and be his followers while at the same time insisting that Jesus follow them down the path they want to take.”[5] They want Jesus to follow them down the path of power, of status, of wealth. But Jesus has other plans – he insists on taking the road less travelled - the path to the cross. And what a crisis for these disciples! They want to follow Jesus, they want to stick with him, they want to remain his devoted disciples and they will do anything for him, go anywhere with him . . . except there.

And is that so difficult for us to understand? Don’t we all want to follow a charismatic leader who promises new hope and new life? Don’t we all want to stick close to just that sort of person? But when that person starts saying things like, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”[6] How many of us might start to back away . . . wait a minute, I thought this was about new hope, new life, salvation. What’s all this talk about cross-bearing and losing my life? I’m not so sure about this anymore.

My brothers and sisters, we stand with Peter at this crossroad every day. This cross-road – the road to the cross - is the Christian life. On Ash Wednesday, we were invited “to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”[7] Examining the crossroad, choosing the road to the cross, involves a great deal of prayer and self-examination. And, as we learn from Peter in today’s reading, it also can involve some costly mistakes. And so, as we began our worship this morning, I invite us to pray again,

"O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”[8]

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

[1] Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken,” The Norton Anthology of Poetry, 3rd edition, eds. Alexander W. Allison, Herbert Barrows, et. al. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1983), p. 913.
[2] Mark 8:27b-30.
[3] Matthew 16:17.
[4] “Introduction: Jesus through the Ages,” Saving Jesus: A Revolutionary Exploration of Jesus Christ for the 3rd Millennium (Living the Questions, 2006).
[5] Scott Hoezee, “This Week at the Center for Excellence in Preaching: March 8, 2009,” Calvin Theological Seminary.
[6] Mark 8:34b-35.
[7] Book of Common Prayer, p. 265.
[8] Collect for the Second Sunday in Lent, Book of Common Prayer, p. 218