The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
At the Crossroads
I'm not sure why, but recently I've been thinking about beginnings. And here we are today, at the beginning of a new Church season, standing with Jesus at the beginning of his journey, standing with Jesus at the crossroads. After leaving John and the Jordan River and the voice from Heaven, Jesus finds himself in the desert. His ministry has not yet begun, but it soon will. And the path he chooses in that desert will not only define his public ministry, it will shape his destiny. But not just that, it will shape the course of history. So, no pressure.
Jesus was thirty years old when he entered the wilderness. And while we know the story of his miraculous birth, how he was born of a virgin, how the angels filled the Bethlehem skies with song, how kings trembled and shepherds rejoiced, he is still just the son of a common laborer from a small town in the hills – nothing of his adult life before his baptism was considered notable enough to record.
Jesus was not born and bred into a royal family. His earthly father, Joseph, was not a king or a ruler or a person of great influence. Jesus was the product of a suspect teenage pregnancy; he was an occupied peasant within an enormous Empire – unknown to most of the world. So, I doubt anyone in the neighborhood foresaw Jesus standing at these crossroads, contemplating his role in the world's salvation.
Before his controversial inaugural sermon in his local synagogue, before he called his followers, before a single miraculous healing or a pithy parable, Jesus finds himself in the vast emptiness of the desert wilderness – led to that place his only companion: the Holy Spirit.
It is not a flashy beginning. A good publicist might have advised Jesus to ride the momentum of the endorsement he received in the Jordan; it was a pretty strong endorsement; it was from God. One quick miracle or a eloquent stump speech from the shore and he could have rode that momentum all the way to the top. Money, power, fame: instant success was within his reach. He could have had it all – right from day one. Instead, he walks out of the water and marches his soaking wet body into the desert, alone – without dedicated disciples or a crowd of curious seekers or a pack of interested investors – gosh, I mean, without even so much as a loaf of bread.
Plato once wrote, “The beginning is the most important part of the work.”1 Anyone who has ever mismeasured at the beginning of a home improvement project might be inclined to agree with Plato. In today's Gospel, we see that the devil appreciates the truth of this statement as well. He understands that Jesus is at the crossroads, about to embark on an important journey, knowing the stakes are high – and he intends to get in on the ground floor.
And so the devil meets Jesus at the crossroads – of course, he does; the devil is always showing up at crossroads. He has some offers, some ideas, some strategies that will help Jesus really unlock his full potential. The devil recognizes that Jesus is special. Rather than challenge or deny that, the devil hopes to capitalize on it, negotiate a collaboration – a mutually beneficial relationship. But first he needs to identify Jesus' “It Factor” – what will push Jesus over-the-top and make their partnership really pop.
Maybe bread. It certainly is a timely strategy. Jesus is on the verge of starvation. Forty days is about twice as long as a typical human being can live without eating.2 Bread must have sounded really good. And to give the pitch a little extra punch, the devil suggests food production at the end, rather than the beginning, of Jesus' fast.
Not only would bread satiate Jesus' immediate hunger, it would mean he would never hunger again. In a society before supermarkets, refrigerators, and the Industrial Revolution, food security was for most people an impossible fantasy. In a region in which stones were easy to come by, making stones into bread would be like growing a money tree in your backyard. Jesus would never need anything or anyone, ever – not even God.
But Jesus isn't biting, so the devil tries Plan B. The bread thing was strong but this is the big time. Much more than bread and the financial independence that would allow, this is power. All of the power. Emperor power. Can you imagine the good one could do with all of that power? Come to think of it: could you image the goods one could reap with all of that power. And all Jesus had to do was shuffle his allegiances, switch teams, give himself to the Dark Side.
But again Jesus resists and so the devil unveils his third, final, and most severe test. The devil sees now that Jesus is very devout. So what better way to test that devotion, and perhaps enjoy some immediate validation, than to step out in blind faith? And in what better place than the Temple – the heart of the Jewish religion, the hub of the community, the house of God? Emperor wasn't attractive enough, but what about Jewish Messiah? Imagine how the crowds would react if God's angels caught Jesus right before he hit the ground below. Then they would get it; then they would all know who Jesus really was. They would have to believe. The angels would remove all doubt – from the crowds, perhaps from even his own mind. He would be loved, adored, accepted.
Jesus had options. And in the desert, they were laid out before him – three tempting options, each path lined with gold, each destined to end in money, power, and fame. Oh, and this is a crossroads, so there of course was one more path – a fourth option. Only it did not lead to money or power or fame. It was a path paved with rejection and pain and humiliation and death. And it led to a cross.
Plato once wrote, “The beginning is the most important part of the work.” Before the sermons, before the followers, before a single healing or parable, Jesus finds himself in the desert wilderness. Jesus started his work in that desert, at a crossroads, with a choice. There he chose to place his trust, his allegiance, his life in the hands of God. That decision defined his public ministry, it shaped his destiny, it set the course of history. And not even the horrors of the cross could subvert that allegiance; with his dying breath he whispered a prayer to God, a prayer that was forged at the crossroads: “Father, into your hands I entrust my spirit.”
Ultimately every new beginning is something of a crossroads – a place where our deepest values are revealed and the course is set for whatever comes next. NT Wright asserts that, “[Jesus'] allegiance to his [God] overrode immediate bodily desires; it ruled out an easy but costly short cut to his vocation [as King]; it forbade him...to challenge the word spoken at his baptism. For [Jesus], worshiping the one he knew as Father was larger and richer than these.”3 His deepest value, his greatest allegiance was revealed in that desert and it set the course for his life and ministry.
Jesus was presented with three tempting options; the paths to success were laid out in front of him. But ultimately he chose the other path – the path that ended in the Cross. And given the options, that path seems like a questionable choice.
But Jesus learned in that lonely desert that the path that God paves is the only path worth taking – no matter where it leads.
Today we are at the beginning of our Lenten journey. In this season of self-examination, we are challenged to consider our own allegiances, to consider what values drive us. There are many choices, many options, many paths – seductive voices that want your devotion. Money, power, violence, fame, glory, success: they want your heart and your soul. Make a better choice. Be like Jesus. At your crossroads, trust that the path that God paves is the only path worth taking.
1 The Republic
3 Wright, Twelve Months of Sundays, 300.