Lenten Chapel Service, Lee University February 29, 2012
I remember the first time I read the story about Jesus’ 40-days in the wilderness. There’s something about the temptation by the devil that tends to get our attention more than the fasting. And that’s only natural. The temptation has all the earmarks of the classical agon—the duel between heaven and hell, the showdown between Christ and the Devil. It’s got tension and conflict and even a little suspense. And, as we learn if we’ve read our John Milton, the devil can be an awfully interesting character.
But today’s reading in the Gospel of Mark just talks about the 40 days in the wilderness without a lot of detail. And it parallels the reading in Genesis that deals with the end of the Flood and the first grand display in the sky of the rainbow, the sign of God’s promise–all after a period of 40 days of rain. It’s one of those all-too-tempting pairings from the Old and New Testaments—40 days of rain and storm and destruction on the one hand, 40 days of desert and heat and wasteland on the other. Don’t worry; I’m not going into the whole numerology bit to illuminate the mystical meaning of the number 40. Saint Augustine has a great explanation for it and if you’re really, truly interested, there’s even a Wikipedia article on it that makes for pretty riveting reading.
No, what I want to address in this small moment of reflection is the Why of Self-denial. Self-denial is something with which we are pretty unfamiliar in the United States. To us, self-denial is NOT eating the Big Mac today. It’s skipping our favorite TV show or fasting from sweets or walking up the stairs rather than taking the elevator. Sadly, the cultural priorities that surround us pretty much zero out any kind of real self-denial. In fact, we’re pretty safe at any given moment from having any serious thoughts about it. Some product somewhere is going to come to our rescue and make our cross oh-so-much easier to bear. And if that’s not enough, we have plenty of research that will tell us in big bold letters that, after all, self-denial can be bad for your health.
So if we’re not talking about putting away soft drinks or social media for Lent, what are we talking about? Well, first of all we are also not talking about denial for its own sake, to prove a point, to give ourselves some sort of spiritual P90X rush, to deliver high fives to our neighbors or to be able to post the ultimate status update: “Day 40 without food and I’m still alive!”
Nor is it about self-flagellation, the practice that emerged in the time of the Black Death where the people who weren’t dying of the plague lashed their backs to a bloody pulp and then went around killing their neighbors who were full of sin. That’s what we tend to do when we’re feeling especially pious—we take our new-found holiness out on our neighbors who don’t quite measure up.
No, self denial is about shutting up, about ceasing the self-centered inner monologue that accompanies our daily routine. It’s about closing out the endless noise of the world and the relentless insistent demands of our bodies. It’s about turning down both the volume of life and the static of our psyches. Why? Because it’s only when we turn off our self-created whirlwinds that we are able to hear Truth.
In the end, self-denial is about freedom.
We have a beautiful Welsh Corgi. That’s a dog that has all the regal attributes of a German Shepherd, only without the legs (they’re very short). Our Corgi, Pepin, loves to eat. In fact, he has no off switch when it comes to food. If we let him, he would eat all day and still crave more. If he suspects you have a tiny morsel of something edible, he’ll start jumping up and down in front of you with his tongue hanging out. I’ve often thought that we could channel this mighty gift of his. What could we not train him to do by using his appetite as a motivation? I believe we might even be able to teach him to fly. Yes, it’s funny, but the sad thing is that our lovely little dog has a serious problem. He is captive to his appetites. You see, Pepin can’t decide that today he’s not going to crave food. He has no will of his own. He is driven by his genetic code. He is a prisoner to his propensities.
You see where I’m going, don’t you? James talks about being driven by our own lusts. Isaiah talks about everyone of us having gone astray. The fact is, self-denial is not merely a thing we should be doing at Lent. When Paul says we can do all things through Christ, he’s not just talking about making every day like Friday. No, he’s referring to gaining freedom from the things that drive us day in and day out, that skew our thinking and our values and even our relationships, that make us mean and petty, uncaring and insensitive, overreaching and ungrateful. Self-denial is about closing the door on our appetites just long enough to realize that we don’t have to live as prisoners to them. We can quiet the animal roar long enough to hear that still small voice of the Holy Spirit, always there and ready to teach us and to empower us to take the steps that will lead us into real freedom.
I truly don’t mean to belittle anything anyone has done during this season to put a check on themselves. I hope no one will take anything I’ve said that way. There are many practical benefits to be gained from simple disciplines. But I do hope to invite us, regardless of what we do, to make sure we are not merely trading one bondage for another, but that we are turning the key in the lock that will let go our chains and allow us to make a true beginning of loving God with all our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves.