The Road Taken: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, January 8, 2023 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Matthew 3:13-17.

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.

Even if you are not a fan of poetry, I suspect you’ve probably heard this verse, from Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” It has been passed down by generations of readers, and that last line about the road less traveled is often used as a sort of poetic motto by those who are eager to pursue meaningful, purposeful, adventurous lives. 

Now, I don’t want to be a total downer this soon into a promising new year, but if you’ve ever been inspired by this verse’s invitation to take the road less traveled and chart a singular, unconventional course through life, I am about to ruin it for you. 

Because if you read the entire poem very closely and look into the backstory of its composition, it becomes clear that Frost was being ironic. His point, in fact, is not that there is one blessed byway for the adventurous and a boring one for the rest of us, but that both of the roads diverging in the wood are, in fact, comparable. The narrator of the poem, no matter how they choose to recall it later, is probably not fundamentally changed by the particular road chosen. Frost, with his typically wry sensibility, is subtly poking fun at our anguish and indecision over the choices we make and the illusion that there is one perfect course to take through life—he does this so subtly in fact that it’s easy to miss! But now you know. Sorry.

But Frost wanted to challenge us with this not because he was a nihilist, not to suggest that the paths we take in life are meaningless, but to suggest the opposite, something hopeful—that meaning is found on every path.  Frost, like many poets, saw that true significance is found in the actuality, the givenness of the world around us—that what is good and true is available everywhere, no matter which road we have chosen.

And I, for one, am actually relieved that this is what the poem is getting at, because there have been many times in my life when I grieved the roads not taken—the sense that I had missed some big opportunity or make some irreversible blunder into the weeds. As one moves farther and farther through life, down whatever path we’re on, it’s all too easy to be consumed by what-ifs: what if I had gone there instead? What if I had stayed there just a bit longer? What if I had said yes to that? What if I had said no to that?

It’s natural to wonder such things, but what-ifs can also stop us in our tracks, prevent us from embracing the reality of whatever is in front of us right now. And, as Frost might want to remind us, whatever is in front of us is itself sufficiently meaningful. The journey we are actually on is a good one, because it is real, it is what we have chosen. 

I’ve been thinking about all of this—of roads diverging and life’s purposes—because today we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, and however else we might interpret or understand Jesus’ baptism, it was indeed a pivotal decision in his own journey through the world. Just a couple of weeks ago we honored his birth, and now we observe him as a grown man, setting out with the song of the road on his lips and the fire of heaven in his eyes. “Let it be so now,” he insists to John the Baptist as he prepares to enter the River Jordan. “It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” He is eager to begin, eager to go wherever the Spirit-wind of God is blowing. 

And I wonder, in this moment, sensing in himself the need to fulfill some deep and all-consuming purpose, did Jesus ever ask himself, “what if?” Did he ever consider taking another path? To stay in Nazareth, perhaps, and live a quiet life? Go to Jerusalem straight away and try to make it big there? Or did he worry, at the age of 30 or so (not considered all that young in his time and place) that maybe he had already missed his chance to do his Father’s work? Perhaps. 

But in this moment, in his baptism, no matter what else has come before, we see him make a commitment to the path that he is on. As he goes into those waters, he is saying, whatever this life is, whatever this journey is, whatever this road is, I choose it. I will love it. I will follow it to the end. No more what-ifs. Here I am, Lord. And here I am—the Lord. 

And then he emerges from the river, and heaven rejoices that he has said yes, that he has chosen. For this is what heaven always does—rejoice—when we choose to love what is in front of us. 

And this is what Jesus’ baptism—and our own baptism—invite us into: a life that always chooses love for whatever, whoever comes into our path. A life that isn’t haunted by the roads not taken, but a life that says, instead, this place where I stand is good. And even if it’s not what I imagined, this place where I stand is still full of possibility, it is a place where I might yet “fulfill all righteousness.” For this place is beloved of God, and therefore I will make this place, this life, this path my own beloved, too. I will no longer be distracted by roads never traveled, I will no longer be consumed by what-ifs and whys but I will instead throw my arms open, still bathed in those baptismal waters, still drenched in God’s love, and I will say, “what now? What next? What might I do here, on this road, in order to truly live?”

For what Frost implied, and what God knows, and what Jesus demonstrates is clear: there is no road you can take, no road you have taken before, that will ever remove you from the landscape of God’s Kingdom or the realm of God’s Spirit. Wherever you go–and even if you have stumbled along the way, as we all do–if you move through this world with love and compassion and a thirst for righteousness, you are not lost. For in the end it is not the road we travel that matters most, but the heart of the one who travels upon it.

So wherever you find yourself today, in this new year—whatever has come before, whatever might lie ahead—know that God, through your baptism, invites you into the fullness of life right here, right now; the fullness of life that Jesus embraced.

And when you do come to a fork in the road, make your choice, but remember that God will travel with you wherever you go. God’s mercy will surround your path like falling leaves, God’s peace will be the ground under your feet, and God’s Son—the song of the road on his lips, the fire of heaven in his eyes—will greet you at the end of your journey.

And on that day, “ages and ages hence,” when there is no more sighing, may we add our own words to that famous verse, saying, instead:

Two roads diverged in a wood

And I—

I saw my Lord would never leave my side

—and that has made all the difference.

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