The choice of faithfulness is not binary. When we look back at crossroads, it may seem that there was only one faithful choice we could have made. The word of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that God is with us on whichever path we take. If it is a wrong one, God leads us back, or reshapes the path before us.
The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.
“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
Yogi Berra, Robert Johnson, Abraham, Nicodemus, and Jesus
“Get up and go,” God tells Abram. In the ancient world, travel was hard. It was unusual to get up and go somewhere unless you were forced to go by famine or war.
Apart from a few bands of nomads, ancient people considered the good and blessed life to be a life without much travel. They lived in the place where they were born, perhaps walked a few miles in each direction on occasion for trade or to find a spouse for their child, a spouse who was part of their people, who spoke the same language, but was not too closely related.
Abram’s father, however, was a ramblin’ man.
Terah, Abram’s father, had been born in Ur where his family had been for generations, but he got up one day, in grief for the death of his son Haran, and left. He took his remaining children and grandchildren with him and they headed toward Canaan. Canaan, however, was very far away, and Terah was old. He stopped and settled on the way in a place with the same name as his recently departed son, Haran.
Or, perhaps, and this sounds more likely, Terah named the place they settled Haran, after the only son he had who had produced grandchildren during Terah’s brief life of two hundred and five years.
The name “Haran” is Hebrew for “Crossroads.”
In a culture that valued staying in place for generations, a crossroads would have been an exciting place. Nomads, people who travelled all over the known world, would come through with tales of other people, strange people who spoke different languages and practiced different customs and worshiped other gods. They came with spices and dried food that could not be grown in Haran, and they traded the skins of unusual animals for anything of value the people of Haran, living at the crossroads, were willing to trade.
But mostly, they told stories and shared news of the world.
Centuries later, when God called Jeremiah to call Israel to repentance, God instructed Jeremiah to tell people to stand at the crossroads and “look, ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies, and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.”
And, in Proverbs, Wisdom stands at the crossroads and urges people to choose the path of prudence and reject the path of evil.
It is out of this biblical image of the crossroads as a place where momentous choices are made that the legend of the Delta Blues musician Robert Johnson emerged.
According to the story, Johnson went down to the crossroads (which crossroads is disputed, according to which rural Mississippi town’s Chamber of Commerce is perpetuating the story) and he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the extraordinary guitar-playing talent and style he had developed.
It is true that Johnson played with a flair, originality, and sheer genius on the few records he made before his death in 1938 at the age of 27. Those two recording sessions, one in San Antonio and the other in Dallas, provided inspiration for every blues guitarist since, from B.B. King to Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers, and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. And, it is also true that he was considered a mediocre musician by his peers before packing up his belongings and moving away from his hometown; upon his return, a few months later, his transformation into a legendary guitar player and blues singer stunned his friends and family.
So, the legend was born. The Delta blues was known to be the music of the devil. It carried the echoes of Gospel music, but its laments were laments for the loss of money and sex and material pleasures instead of spiritual longing. And the songs of praises in the blues repertoire are songs of momentary pleasures and a night of drinking and singing and escaping briefly the woes of the world, not the delights of salvation.
So, when Robert Johnson disappeared, when he went down to the crossroads and returned with a talent like nobody had ever seen or heard, it was obvious. He had gone down to the crossroads, the place where one must choose the path of wisdom or the path of evil, between the light and the darkness, and, so the legend goes, he sold his soul to the devil for the price of that devil’s music.
There is something attractive about legends where the choice is stark and binary: choose the good, or choose the evil. It’s simple, clean, and clear.
In the story of Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night, his decision point is sometimes presented as this stark choice—be born anew, or born from above, or do not. Choose the good or choose the evil. Heaven or hell, it’s up to you, Nicodemus.
And, no doubt, there are some decision points for all of us that are that clear and simple, at least in retrospect.
The Gospel, however, tells a story that is deeper, layered, and richer than our binary choices.
Nicodemus in this story slips away into the night without a word after Jesus’s invitation to new birth. John, the Gospel writer, gives us no location for their conversation, but he portrays it as a crossroads for Nicodemus. He comes to Jesus in darkness, and Jesus calls him into the light. He comes to Jesus with questions and he leaves, surely with even more questions. He comes asking who Jesus is and leaves with the question hanging over him, who am I? What am I called to do? How can I be born anothen, which means both again and from above. It’s impossible to be born again, so what does he mean by being born from above?
When I was in college, my freshman and sophomore year, I lived in the room that was directly across the hall from the payphone. I didn’t mean to be nosy, but I couldn’t help overhearing my classmates’ half of their conversations.
And, this being our college years, many of those conversations were crossroads conversations. Sometimes I heard a young man break up with his high school girlfriend. Sometimes I heard young men on the receiving end of a high school girlfriend breaking up with him.
And, I learned a whole lot about the art of asking one’s parents for money.
The hardest conversations I overheard were around the time when we registered for our classes in the next semester. A hundred and five of my freshman class of 300 began as pre-med students. Only 18 of them entered medical school right after we graduated.
So, I heard a lot of my classmates break the news to their parents—they were not going to become doctors.
I remember one conversation especially, my neighbor from down the hall named Dennis, saying, “Dad, I know that’s what you want for me, but being a thoracic surgeon is your dream for me, not mine. The computer lab is where I really feel alive. . . . “No, Dad, I think you’re wrong. I don’t think computers are just a fad; they’re going to be a part of everyone’s life. . . . yes, I do think I’ll be able to find a job in computer science.”
Dennis ended up as a political science major and his class’s valedictorian.
He has since created and sold internet companies and runs his own consulting business now that specializes in turnarounds. When our college alumni group wants to raise money for a project, Dennis is the first call we make, not just because of his generosity, but because of his strategic wisdom.
Even more important, Dennis is one of the happiest people you will ever meet. And it’s clearly not just because he has become very wealthy. I can’t help but think it has a lot to do with his ability as a sophomore in college, when he was at a crossroads, to choose the path where his greatest gifts were getting developed. Nobody, not even Dennis, could foresee at the time the internet companies he would create. He didn’t choose a future that was clear and defined. He chose a career where his heart and passion for accomplishment would lead him.
Yogi Berra supposedly said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
At first it sounds like an oxymoron, but when you think about it, it actually makes sense. You either stay put where you are, or you take one of the roads forward.
Abram, when he found himself at the crossroads after his father died, he discerned God’s call to get up and go, not really knowing exactly where he would end up.
Nicodemus, after he slipped away into the night, returns a couple of times in John’s gospel. Once to defend Jesus against the accusations of his fellow Pharisees, and then at the end, Nicodemus shows up to bury Jesus with a generous mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds.
John leaves the question open as to how Nicodemus responds to Jesus’s resurrection. He is never mentioned again. Perhaps that’s Johns way of asking us, his readers, “What do you think? What path will you follow when you come to the crossroads?”
Decades after Robert Johnson’s death at the age of 27, the legend persisted of his trip to the crossroads where he supposedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his guitar wizardry.
One of his biographers, however, tracked down his friends and his sister and came up with a more plausible explanation. Robert Johnson went down to the crossroads with his guitar, and he practiced. Day and night, he practiced and played, and performed for small audiences, and then he practiced some more.
Research revealed a fellow musician who told the story of spending nights in the cemetery where nobody else would come so they could play whatever they wanted without anybody listening. I can’t help but think that Johnson and his companion got more from that cemetery than just a quiet place to practice—they surrounded themselves with the reminder, with tombstones that stood as silent witnesses to the brevity of this life on earth.
The crossroads for Robert Johnson was not a deal with the devil, but a reckoning. It was a place where he poured out himself, discerned his direction, and emerged with a voice that would change music forever.
One of those recording studios where Johnson made the records now in the Library of Congress--it now belongs to First Presbyterian Church in Dallas, Texas. It is a place called 508 Park where people without a home can create something--a music studio and an art studio.
Here’s the good news in these stories. The choice of faithfulness is not binary. When we look back at crossroads, it may seem that there was only one faithful choice we could have made. The word of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that God is with us on whichever path we take. If it is a wrong one, God leads us back, or reshapes the path before us.
When we come to a fork in the road, let’s take it. And know that whichever way we go, God is with us, leading us into the future.
Thanks be to God. Amen.