A sermon preached on February 21, 2010, the first Sunday in Lent, based upon Luke 4:1 – 13.
Yogi Berra is famous for saying things that are simultaneously dumb and wise at thesame time. My personal favorite Yogi saying is, “When you come to the fork in the road, take it.” It’s dumb because a fork is by definition a choice between two separate paths, so you can’t just “take it”, and yet it’s wise because it points out the fact that in our lives we routinely come to forks in the road without even realizing it. There’s a conscious choice required of us, but we don’t see it.
This is literally what happened to me exactly five years ago when I was on my sabbatical. Like Jesus and countless others, I wanted to experience going out into the wilderness to be alone and fast. I arrived at the woods in Northern California where my “quest” would begin at dawn the following day. The preparation required that I go up the mountain and locate a campsite for the four days of the fast, which I did, finding a lovely spot beside a great old red wood tree. Depositing two gallons of water, I made my way back down the mountain. I rested a while at the cabin where I would have my “last supper” and spend the night. Then as the afternoon light was fading, I hiked once more up the mountain to take another two gallons of water that I would need for my time alone in the woods.
Despite a drizzle of rain further darkening the sky, I found the campsite easily enough and deposited the two other gallons. I then proceeded back down the mountain to the cabin. Night was falling, but I wasn’t scared, I was in control, I knew what I was doing.
Or so I thought. I was hiking along apparently without paying a whole lot of attention to where I was going, and I did exactly what Yogi warned against. I came to a fork but didn’t recognize it as a fork, and oblivious to the choice I should have made, I continued onward.
After a while though, doubts began to creep in, and at some point I realized that I wasn’t on the right path. (The pile of dead deer bones was the giveaway; I hadn’t noticed those on the way up.) So I turned around, walking more rapidly now. It was getting darker now, and evidently I missed a fork once more. Confident that I could handle my little trek up the mountainside, I hadn’t brought any or the sort of things someone wiser would have taken; a flashlight, warm clothes, a canteen, stuff like that.) Quite lost now, I began to feel some degree of terror mixed in with embarrassment. After a couple of hours, I did eventually make my way back to cabin, but not before developing a blister and causing my contact person a fair amount of distress.
The experience, however, was valuable, because the next morning at sunrise when I set off to hike up the mountain to begin my four days alone in the wilderness, I did so distinctly humbled, with a more respectful view of what it means to be a guest in the wilderness.
There’s this story about an American scholar of eastern religions traveling to Japan to meet with an old Zen Master from whom he hoped to further his knowledge of Zen. The master welcomed him, and offered him a cup of tea, which the scholar accepted. The master began pouring tea into the cup of his guest, but continued pouring once the cup is full. “Stop,” cries the scholar, “can’t you see that my cup is full!”
“Yes,” replies the Zen master, “and it is the same with your mind: how can you learn about Zen when your mind is full of all your thoughts and preconceptions about Zen. You can not possibly learn what I have to teach until your empty your mind.”
You may know the Gospels pretty well, or, you might not know them at all. If you don’t know them, you might take comfort in the fact that you have an advantage over those of us who take pride in our knowledge of these stories, for you are less likely than we are to miss the forks in the road.
For instance, many of us are familiar with the way the Gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke start off. We know that Jesus appears for the first time as an adult at the River Jordan where John (this peculiar guy who has spent a lot of time hanging out in the wilderness) is preaching repentance and baptizing crowds of people who have come out to the river with a desire to start a new life with God.
And you may remember that Jesus himself gets baptized, just like all the other people, and that as he does so, he undergoes some kind of powerful experience in which the holy spirit enters his life, like a dove from heaven, and he hears the voice of God saying something truly wonderful to him: “You are my beloved son with whom I am well pleased.”
Now if we know the story, then we already know that the next thing that happens is that Jesus goes out into the wilderness, led by the Holy Spirit, where he fasts alone for forty days, and undergoes temptations from the devil. And since we’re so familiar with the story, we may miss the fork in the road that Jesus take here, the fact that the next thing you would expect to happen is for Jesus to get to work. There’s no time to waste; so much to be done, so many lost sheep who need his attention and the power he has to help them.
But instead, Jesus took the fork we overlooked, doing precisely the opposite of what would make sense to us. He goes off by himself. He goes hungry. (What would our mothers say? “Eat! You’ll need your strength!”) The son in whom God is pleased heads off to spent time with the devil.
So why does Jesus take this fork?
You’ve probably heard it said: “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The expression comes from the political arena, but it applies to all kinds of power that people can possess. If we look at the political history of the human race, what we see is a long, sad tale repeated over and over again. Somebody is in power and ruling, and abusing their power, failing to keep in mind the best interests of the people they’re ruling. Eventually, whether through a violent revolution or by a long, peaceful political process, the people in power get thrown out, and people who had been out of power take hold of the reigns of power.
Usually the new regime starts off with a lot of idealism. This time, the best interests of the people will set the agenda for those who are in power. But over time, to some degree, the power corrupts. Why does this happen?
It happens because there is a quality of arrogance to human nature, part of what the Bible calls “sin.” Gradually, the people in power lose sight of the distinction between their interests and the interests of the people they’re ruling. It’s all one-in-the-same, and anybody who suggests otherwise gets relegated to the role of enemy-of-the-people. The people in power come to feel entitled. The laws don’t apply to them.
Now this doesn’t happen all at once. The process is usually gradual and subtle. There is no single place where the people in charge say to themselves, “Now we’ll go over to the dark side.” In all likelihood, they were so busy with ruling that they never stopped to notice what they were doing.
In other words, they don’t notice the forks in the road.
At his baptism, Jesus received power, big time. Awesome power; the very power of the Spirit. So what’s Jesus going to do with that power? Well, “good,” of course, which is why it seems obvious that the next thing for him to do would be to get to work. But Jesus is a human being, and as such, the temptation of arrogance, the temptation to abuse power is there for him as well.
And so the genius of Jesus is that he realizes he needs to confront this temptation straight on, and not let them have the opportunity to sneak up on him when he’s busy with his ministry. So he intentionally spends time with the devil. He’s hungry, and the devil suggests, “Hey, you’re the son of God, the rules don’t apply to you that apply to every body else. Use a little of that power you have to turn these stones into bread.”
“Hey, you want the kind of power that can really make people do what you want them to do, I can help you out with that. Hey, you want people to really stand up and take notice of you, to bow down before you in marvel of your wonder? I can help you with that too.”
In each instance, the appeal is to Jesus’ arrogance.
Ponder the downfall of Tiger Woods. I suspect Tiger Woods has been asking himself over the last two months, “How did I get here?” It wasn’t like he sat down one day and said, “I know what I want to do with my life: I want to have sex with as many beautiful women as I can. I want to become the most famous adulterer on the face of the planet.”
It doesn’t work that way. The corruption of power comes gradually. Slowly, over time, Tiger Woods became the richest and most famous athlete alive. Power is intoxicating; the more power you acquire, the more people there will be telling you how wonderful you are, how you can do pretty much whatever you want. Temptation comes with power; Tiger Woods didn’t have to go looking for it. The opportunities simply presented themselves.
And then there is the lie the devil peddles that if nobody knows you’re doing it – in Tiger Wood’s case, the nobody being both his wife and his adoring public – well, then, what’s the harm? It isn’t really happening. And anyway, you are entitled.
There was another essential component to Tiger Wood’s downfall, and that was his busyness — his non-stop activity. When you’re always on the go, well, then there’s little opportunity to notice the forks in the road – no time to notice that you are, in fact, heading in the wrong direction, getting more and more lost. And when finally you do realize you are lost, you discover the creeping nature of your addiction, that what you had thought you were in control of, well, it turns out, you’ve become a slave to them. You lost control a long time ago.
C. S. Lewis was on the mark in something he wrote in Mere Christianity:
People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, “If you keep a lot of rules I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.” I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.
Now we aren’t rich and famous like Tiger Woods, and most of us aren’t actively involved in politics, so how does all this power relate to us?
Well, every one of us has been given some measure of power. We all have our own little kingdoms. There are people in our lives with whom we have the power to inflict pain through the abuse of our power. Will we confront our arrogance before it is too late? Will we notice the forks in the road?
One of the things I pondered out there in the woods is that to refuse to choose is in fact to choose. Pretending there isn’t a fork when there is in fact one doesn’t let us off the hook.
Lent is a time to slow down in order to notice the forks in the road, the ones we have taken or missed taking, and the ones we have yet to confront.