Matthew 4: 1-11
The great catcher for the New York Yankees, Yogi Berra, was known not only for his fielding and, but also for his sayings. One of them was: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” How delightfully confusing. More philosophical words were written by poet Laurette Robert Frost in his poem “The Road Not Taken.” It ends with these words: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” But my title today was not inspired by either one of those sources. It came from Dr. Suess’ “The Cat in the Hat” when, at the end of a day of unhinged antics by a strange highly mischievous upright cat, the boy who tells the story reports to the readers: “Then our mother came in and she said to us two, ‘Did you have any fun? Tell me, what did you do?’ Then the boy asks the reader: “Should we tell her about it? Now, what should we do? Well … what would you do if your mother asked you?” [Random House: New York, 1957, p. 60-61]
Today, however, is not a time of child-like decisions, nor of philosophical musings, nor of silly sayings. It is a time when the devil asked Jesus to test or turn away from God and to honor him alone! It is a time when the very same devil could ask us the same questions. It is the time when we are asked to consider all the trappings and temptations of this world, the ones that offer us extravagant dining or the temptations of many foods we would best not eat; the time to test the boundaries of our powers, and the time to declare who we serve. Will we really, as the devil suggests to Jesus, try to test God; to see if the Almighty will jump through hoops we set out? Have we been tempted to blindly follow another human being—a lover, a celebrity, a politician, or a sports figure—and give them all the allegiance and devotion that is rightfully reserved for God? Today, there are forks in the road of our lives; there are choices we’ll want to make today. Remember: in the conversation the devil had with Jesus, two roads diverged into a desert. What would you do? If the devil came to you, as he did to Jesus, what would you do? More to the point, what have you done? Early choices you’ve made can set you on a trajectory toward life, or on a trajectory toward death. But today, anyone can pause, and reflect, and decide whether to follow hedonistic temptations—a path many people take; (most recently exhibited at Mardi Gras festivals from New Orleans to Orlando) or we can cut a new path today from the road most traveled to the road less traveled. The road less traveled is the one Jesus took. Last week we learned he could easily have stayed on a mountain with Peter, James, and John and reveled in his glory, but instead Jesus cast his eyes down in the valley and led them there to meet human needs. We could coast through life—not offering time or means to others to lift their level of human experience—or we could seek to make a difference. Assisting with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is just one way you could choose to help others. There are so many temptations that are thrown on our path, some have been called the “seven deadly sins:” envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth, and wrath. These are the temptations of the devil. Such temptations are not ugly; they are attractive and enticing. This calls for wisdom: deciding when to say “Yes” and when to say “No.” Deciding which choice leads toward the light, and which choice leads toward to darkness. Jesus, in his self-imposed 40 days in the desert before his ministry, was physically weakened, spiritually tested, and emotionally extended. In Matthew’s gospel that I read today, one wonders if the scene described was real, or an hallucination, or a dream. But what it did is cause our Lord to become clearly grounded in who he was, and whose he was. It was an experience that caused Jesus to never be knocked off balance by tempters or taunters. He gave an example for disciples to follow.
Although Jesus never set out to be a leader, a leader he was for how he made well-grounded choices for living, not short-term fixes. A wonderful book I have read more than once is called A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. The late Dr. Edwin Friedman wrote these qualities that can cause a person to start a renaissance in his or her age.
- A capacity to go outside the emotional climate of the day.
- A willingness to be exposed and vulnerable.
- Persistence in the face of resistance and downright rejection.
- Stamina in the face of sabotage along the way.
- Being headstrong—at least in the eyes of others.
[New York: Seabury Books, 2007, p. 188-189]
Choosing those qualities, and following our Savior, we can find our way out of the valleys to stand fast against life’s tempting persons and things. Read chapter 4 of the Gospel of Matthew again this week, listening to how Jesus said “No” to temptation and “Yes” to God. Then go and do likewise.
Jeffrey A. Sumner March 1, 2020