One of my favorite songs is by Dan Fogelberg,
and it sings of a fork in the road.
Listen to Fogelberg’s journey, and his dilemma:
High on this mountain,
The clouds down below,
I’m feeling so strong and alive.
From this rocky perch
I’ll continue to search
For the wind and the snow and the sky...
Sunny bright mornings
And pale moonlit nights
Keep me from feeling alone.
Now I’m learning to fly
And this freedom is like nothing that I’ve ever known...
Off in the nether lands
I heard a sound
Like the beating of heavenly wings
And deep in my brain
I can hear a refrain
Of my soul as she rises and sings
Anthems to glory and
Anthems to love and
Hymns filled with earthly delight
Like the songs that the darkness
Composes to worship the light.
Once in a vision
I came on some woods
And stood at a fork in the road. My choices were clear
Yet I froze with the fear
Of not knowing which way to go.
One road was simple acceptance of life.
The other road offered sweet peace.
When I made my decision,
My vision became my release.
[© 1977, Hickory Grove Music (ASCAP)]
And the song ends there.
The singer never reveals which path he chooses,
leaving us to decide for ourselves which way to go.
In the gospel according to Mark,
the disciples have come to a fork in the road.
Maybe we could put up one sign that points to the way of the world.
And the other sign would point to God’s way.
Or, to use the terms Mark employs,
one way is the way of human thinking;
the other is divine thinking.
The right way seems clear enough.
Peter might have described the two paths
as the road to victory and the road to defeat.
That, according to his understanding of the work of the Messiah.
Remember the context of our reading:
in the verses just before the morning’s text,
Peter has made his “great confession.”
Jesus had asked, “Who do people say that I am?”
Then he asked his disciples more pointedly,
“Who do you say that I am?”
And Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”
So, that must mean taking one of two paths.
One path, the one Peter assumed Jesus would take,
was the road of power and glory and mighty conquests.
After all, Peter and the disciples were accustomed
to seeing Jesus heal the sick, miraculously feed the masses,
and successfully face off against the corrupt powers of the Temple elite.
“You are the Christ.”
For Peter the only other path was back home to his boat and bait,
back to life before Jesus, before he came through the town saying, “Follow me.”
This fork was clearly marked:
Triumph! Victory! The whole world!
The other road? Just back home.
But the reading for today begins with this ominous prelude:
“Then Jesus began to teach them...”
He began to tamper with the road signs,
to redefine the fork that lay immediately ahead.
Mark summarizes the teachings, saying,
“The Son of Man must undergo great suffering...rejection...death.”
But Jesus also tells of his resurrection after three days.
Like many of us, Peter doesn’t hear the whole message,
only the bad news: suffering, rejection, and being killed.
As Peter listens, he begins to see the victory road begin to crumble.
He doesn’t like what he’s hearing and takes Jesus aside.
Someone has to take the initiative and straighten him out.
Peter rebukes his Lord.
But before Peter has his say, Jesus turns away from him, looks at the other disciples, and,
with harsh, cutting words that are among the most familiar in the Bible, he rebukes Peter.
“Get behind me, Satan!
You’re not thinking as God thinks, but as human beings do.”
Two ways to go here, Peter.
The divine road or the human road, or to be more blunt, God’s way or Satan’s.
The temptation of Jesus didn’t end in the wilderness;
here in Peter’s complaint is God’s opponent again offering another way.
I can see Peter putting his arm around Jesus and
pulling him close a little too firmly and saying,
“Look, Jesus, the way I see this...”
Mark lets us use our imaginations, but Matthew fleshes out the scene
with Peter saying, “God forbid it, Lord!
This must never happen to you.”
Jesus, it doesn’t have to be this way!
There is a better path, one that doesn’t include you getting yourself killed.
In a breath, Jesus again renounces the voice of temptation,
and says, “Get behind me, Satan.”
Maybe a more gentle way to have said it would be,
“Back me, Peter.
You’re trying to take the lead, but you’ve got to get back behind me.
But this was not a time to be gentle.
It was a time to be hard.
But name-calling? “Satan?”
This may be Jesus’ way of saying that
“human desire, human ambition, apart from following the...narrow way of God is, well, satanic.”
[Willimon, “Pulpit Resource”]
Jesus calls Peter, and the disciples he leads,
the church for which Peter stands,
me and you,
You remember what Jesus said.
“The road to destruction is wide and spacious, and there are many who take it.”
You remember the rest.
“It is a narrow gate and a hard road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
If Peter sees a fork in the road now,
Jesus invites him down the path most difficult to follow.
It is the path of self-denial.
It is the path of renunciation, surrender, and suffering.
It is the path of the cross.
It is the path of death,
but it is also ultimately the path of life.
Through the centuries, Christians have chosen that path,
renouncing evil, abandoning false gods and letting go of old securities,
while remembering always whose is the power and the glory.
If we choose to follow that path,
and we do make that choice daily,
we will join the saints and martyrs in surrendering our will to the will of God.
There’s a fork in the road.
Peter was about to head one way, Jesus the other.
“We see Jesus in the Gospels continually inciting
all those who would come after him to set themselves outside
the norms and expectations of their own culture and even their religion
for the sake of the Kingdom.” [Roberta Bondi, in “Weavings,” Nov-Dec 1991]
Professor Roberta Bondi says one example is Jesus’ advice to Mary and Martha,
who are told to give up their culture’s ideals of what women can and cannot do.
Another is Jesus’ call to the rich young ruler to give up his secure place of honor
and even goodness in his own society.
And David Rensberger puts it this way:
“The heart of Christian spirituality is abandonment,
the total offering of ourselves to the God who created us
and then recreated us in Jesus Christ.” [Rensberger, “Weavings,” March-April 1997]
He lists some of the metaphors of self-denial that pervade the New Testament:
“taking up the cross,
the seed dying in order to bear fruit,
being crucified to the world,
dying to sin and living to God,
stripping off the old self and putting on the new.
They all point to the abandonment of our own self-centered desires,
and placing all our hope in God who raises the crucified Jesus from the dead!
There’s a fork in the road.
And one road leads to the cross.
It is absurd in our self-centered culture,
the society of faster pain relievers,
the world of entertainment where nothing is worth doing unless it’s fun,
the culture of competition where the only reason to play is to win,
the domain where following the stock market is a religious experience.
Why would anyone abandon (what Bonhoeffer called) “the attachments of this world”?
Why would anyone take the path Jesus is beginning to walk here in Mark’s gospel?
Why would Peter get behind him and follow him down that road?
Why would any disciples risk their lives to line up in that parade of absurdity?
Why are you here?
Why would anyone join the church today,
especially if the church has chosen the way of the cross?
In his essay on “Discipleship and the Cross,”
the young German theologian martyred by the Nazis
wrote, “Thus it begins;
the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life,
but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ.
When Christ calls (us), he bids (us) come and die.”
The law of Christ is the bearing of the cross.
And Bonhoeffer asks how disciples are to know
what kind of cross is meant for them?
We will know as soon as we begin to follow our Lord
and share his life. [Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, pp.99-100]
I know I’ve shared this story before, but in case you missed it…
An angry parent made a phone call to the campus pastor at Duke University, William Willimon.
The caller was upset, very upset, and began the conversation saying,
“I hold you personally responsible for this!”
The father was provoked because his daughter,
who had been bound for graduate school,
had just informed him that she was going to “throw it all away” (her father's words)
and go do mission work with the Presbyterians in Haiti.
The father shouted into the telephone,
“Isn’t that absurd? A B. S. degree in mechanical engineering from Duke,
and she’s going to dig ditches in Haiti.”
The campus chaplain replied,
“Well, I doubt she’s received much training here
in the engineering school for that kind of work,
but she’s a probably a fast learner and will get the hang of ditch digging in a few months’ time.”
“Look,” the father said, “this is no laughing matter.
You have behaved irresponsibly to have encouraged her to do this.”
“What have I done?”
“You’ve ingratiated yourself to her, filled her head with all that religion stuff.
She likes you; that’s why she’s being so foolish.”
Willimon says he tried his best to maintain his composure.
He said, “Now look, weren’t you the one who had her baptized?”
And didn’t you read her Bible stories, take her to Sunday School,
and go to the Presbyterian youth fellowship?”
The father stammered, “Well, yes, but...”
“Don’t “but” me,” Willimon said.
It’s really your fault that she’s gone and believed all that stuff,
that she’s gone and thrown everything else away on Jesus, not mine.
You introduced her to Jesus, not me.”
There was a pause, and the father said quietly,
“But all we ever wanted her to be was a Presbyterian.”
“Sorry,” the minister said, “but you’ve messed up and made her a disciple.”
The road had forked, and she chose the path of selfless discipleship.
The civil rights leader and United Church of Christ minister Andrew Young,
who served as mayor of Atlanta and later our ambassador to the U. N.,
tells a similar story about his daughter.
He and his wife had been so proud that their eldest daughter
had become actively involved in the life of a local church.
At a time when many young people her age were dropping out of church,
she was thriving spiritually, growing in faith and commitment.
Then one day she announced to her parents that
she wanted to go to work for Habitat For Humanity.
She wanted to spend her life building houses for persons in need,
and she wanted to do that in Uganda.
Young tried to talk his daughter out of it.
What he wanted was for her to go to church,
meet a nice young Christian man,
fall in love, get married, have a family, and have a happy life.
Andrew Young says,
“What can I do? She tells me she has a call from God.”
The road forked.
She chose the path of self-denial and discipleship.
Neither daughter’s story is as dramatic as those of
Oscar Romero or Dietrich Bonhoeffer or other contemporary martyrs.
These women didn’t die in the service of the Lord,
but they did give up their lives, the core of their being,
to follow after Christ.
And I have no doubt that, like Peter, they both learned more about themselves
by discovering who Jesus is.
There is a paradox in the road.
The way to self-fulfillment is through self-denial.
During the Lenten season, we hope to understand better who Jesus is
so that we might know ourselves better.
We hope to understand more fully what it was Jesus did
so that we may respond more faithfully in service to others, the things we do..
The flow of this story today moves from “Who is Jesus?”
(“You are the Christ”)
to what it means to be the Christ
(to suffer, be rejected, and killed, but then to rise again)
to what it means to be his disciple, to follow him.
“Here to be a Christian is to follow Jesus on his costly way
in an imitation of Christ that brushes aside the pieties usually associated with that phrase
and goes for the jugular of life itself.” [Lamar Williamson, Interpretation: Mark]
On this Sunday in the Lenten season,
we stand at a fork in the road.
If one road is simple acceptance of life,
and the other offers sweet peace,
which road will you choose?
If one road is wide and leads to destruction,
and the other is narrow and leads to life,
which will you choose?
Jesus is starting on the path.
Will you choose to follow?
You must decide.
And your decision is crucial.