This Sunday's Sermon
Sermon for Sunday, February 28th...
THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED
Exodus 32:1 - 14
Who knew that small portions of the Appalachian Trail are sometimes re-located? Prior to a week-long, solo backpacking adventure way back in the pre-cell phone era, I researched an official trail guide and decided that my sister would drop me off at a railroad crossing in the Cumberland Valley, near Carlisle – at a place where the trail traced a public road before ascending once again into the mountains. What the trail-book didn’t tell me was that since its publication, several miles of the famous footpath had be re-routed so as to by-pass private property.
So I commenced my hike – searching in vain for the white blaze markings that should have been guiding my way. So where was the trail? Well! I kept walking until, at last, I spied a trail veering off the asphalt and up into the mountains. Thankfully, the path was marked with blue blazes, signifying that it was a spur of the Appalachian Trail. For the longest time I hiked that overgrown trail until… finally… the white blazes welcomed me onto the right path. And yet… the most stunning, majestic mountaintop view to be had during that entire week was found on that blue-blazed spur – on the road less travelled. My unexpected detour was a blessing in disguise.
You and I make important choices on our walk through life: choices concerning friendships and getting along with folks who drive us crazy. We make choices regarding work and play and retirement; the spending of money and the sharing of our time, among a’ hundred other things. Some of our choices may set machinery in motion that have far-reaching consequences. Melissa and I had a conversation not so long ago about how our decision to live and work in Washington County shaped our children’s lives in ways that we could never have imagined! And – indeed – the choice to have children sparks for anyone an endless sequence of decisions about school and church, TV and discipline, and on and on. Looming over and above all other questions is this: what are you gonna do with the rest of your life? Robert Frost wrote a famous poem which begins, "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.”
Long we may gaze down those two roads, each one headed off to points unknown. One road is worn from use. It’s the road of least resistance, the road of popular opinion, the road of conventional wisdom, the road of creature comforts and peer pressure; it’s the easier road – the well-travelled, familiar road. The other road – the one less travelled – is more difficult to navigate. It’s the path called Truth and justice; goodness and mercy, patience and peace, compassion and faithfulness; the path of sacrificial giving and sacred promises. Voices in this world may tell you that the road less travelled is the way of the wimp and the bleeding heart, the way of the goody-two-shoes, the way of the naïve, the impractical and the imprudent. But tell me this: where has the well-worn path of conventional wisdom and popular opinion led our culture but into pits of fear and addiction, dysfunction and divisiveness, self-absorption and self-deception?
One of the remarkable things about the Bible is the candid way in which the people of Israel repeatedly examined the lousy choices that they and their forbears had made. This morning's scripture lesson is the story of a particularly bad choice – the choice of God’s people to break Covenant with the Holy One who’d saved them from suffering and servitude.
In Exodus 19 and 20, the Voice from on High speaks to the people who are called Israel: "You have seen... how I bore you on eagle's wings and brought you to myself... You shall be my treasured possession." Ah… but there’s a condition: "Obey my voice and keep my covenant” (verse 19:5): for "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the...house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before you." (See Ex.20.2-5).
Moses thereafter went up the high mountain to get more direction from the LORD God. Several weeks had passed and NO Moses! Thus did fear rear its ugly head. Feeling vulnerable to God-only-knows-what-might-be-out-there in the inhospitable wilderness, the crowd craved protection, security, and guidance. Yet the problem with fear is that it almost always compels the impatient crowd to take matters into their own hands, rather than waiting on the LORD’s Wisdom. Too many of God’s people choose poorly, demanding of Moses’ brother, Aaron, that he "make for us some "gods… who shall go before us.”
It’s an interesting choice of words – "who shall go before us.” Everywhere else in the Book of Exodus, it’s used to describe the movement of God’s Messenger. Listen, for example, to Exodus 14:19-20… "The angel of God who was going before the [Israelites] moved and went behind them, [coming between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel].”
So poor ol’ Aaron, then, may have been duped by a mind-trick into thinking it was okay to forge the golden image of a young bull. The statue, after all, would only represent God’s Messenger without actually being a Divine presence. But the One, True God and Creator of the Universe will have none of that nonsense. The crowd had elevated that golden image to a status equal that of God. "These are your gods, O Israel” they announced – not ONE deity, mind you, but two! That’s more than disobedience: it’s defection from God!
There’s one other detail that bears mention. What did the people say to Aaron? "As for Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we don't know where he is." REALLY? Was it MOSES who saved God’s people from their bondage? Was it by the hand of MOSES that bread came down from on High to feed Israel as they wandered about in the wilderness? Was it the Power of MOSES that pulled back the waters of the Red Sea, letting God’s people cross safely toward their liberation? Think about your former pastors and the one who now stands in your pulpit. Name for me who among them saved you from the power of darkness and death? Or was it president Trump, or president Obama, or any other U.S. president, or legislator, or judge that graced you with true, everlasting hope, faith, and love? Any salvation that comes to us as a fruit of human effort will be no more reliable than human nature and no more enduring than human empires.
Did you notice how Aaron and the crowd tried to have it both ways? "Let’s have a festival to the Lord,” they said even as they were heedlessly giving up devotion to their little tin god! Beware the voices who come seducing and manipulating you with noble or religious sounding words in the promotion of fake hope as delivered by way of imperfect human means.
Thirty-something years ago – shortly before my backpacking adventure – the friend of a friend cornered me at a wedding reception and tried to sell me on a "get rich quick" scheme for which he was a "consultant.” He made his appeal to me with a promise of easy wealth and a life of leisure. I said "no,’ believing then as I do now that if it sounds too good to be true, it surely IS too good to be true! Then the young entrepreneur appealed to Christian commitments. "God wants you to be wealthy," he said, "so that you'll know God's blessings and give glory to his name by having tons of money to give back to God and to help the poor.” It’s an interesting argument, isn't it?
Yet when I think of persons who have been blessed by God, I think of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Dirt poor, she was, and with a heart that was ripped in two when her son was rejected and murdered. I think of Saint Paul who, for Christ’s sake, was imprisoned, mocked, derided, beaten, and bloodied more times than he could remember. Like I said – the fruit of human-made "salvation” is no more reliable than ever-changing human ingenuity. The "growth industry” into which the young man was seducing me to invest my money was – get this – coin operated pay phones! When’s the last time you so much as even saw a coin-operated pay phone?
God knows that you want to make good choices for yourselves and for those you cherish. It’s why you’re invested in a community of faith. And goodness knows, but you’re likely aware of the voices in our world calling out to you, each promising the good life, the secure life, the comfortable and prosperous life. We can vote our hopes and fears. We can go searching for the motivational speakers and preachers who inspire hope. We can purchase self-help books to serve us as trail-guides on the journey of life. Yet when, eventually, we throw up our hands in frustration and resignation, it would be good to recall that ancient story of the Golden Calf; and of how it concludes with a word of hope and a glimpse of Saving Grace. God listened to Moses' prayer. God cooled the Holy anger and made a choice to stick it out with us – to forgive us and renew us. But where in the world can we find the Power that transforms us into faithful sons and daughters of the Most High God?
On the road leading out of Jerusalem, a large crowd surges forward. When they part, we see a solitary man, struggling and in agony beneath the burdensome weight of a sturdy wooden cross. This is the road he has chosen to walk. The other road – called "easy street” – had been offered to him as an alternative; but it was, as he understood it, a dead-end avenue without lasting purpose or meaning Though not built for comfort or convenience, Jesus’ Way – called Sacrifice Road – has no end-point. It’s numerous outlets include streets called hope, joy, peace, and love; it requires as maintenance our service and sharing; compassion for others and praise unto the Lord. To follow that road is to be always and forever homeward bound toward the Kingdom of God.
Robert Frost’s poem concludes: "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.” One road, I tell you, is well worn and heavily travelled; but it’s on the road less travelled that we see Christ crucified and Risen, wounded and scarred, yet walking confidently and joyously toward the blazing glory of the Sun that’s rising to rule over God’s New Day. Master Jesus turns and beckons: "Come, follow me,” he says. Two roads diverge. Which way do we go? Who are you going to follow?