“Purifying Ourselves through Self Denial”
Second Sunday in Lent
February 25, 2018
Genesis 17: 1-7; 15-16
Psalm 22: 22-31
Romans 4: 13-18
Mark 8: 31-38
Fr. Gary W. Thurman
For the first twenty years of my life I was in a traditional denominational evangelical Church. In that place we didn’t mention Lent very much, it didn’t hold a major place in our lives. Fasting and Ash Wednesday weren’t really mentioned much at all; at least Lent was brought up in terms of “What are you giving up for Lent?” But the point wasn’t developed much.
Later I joined a Charismatic Church, and while Lent and Ash Wednesday wasn’t a big topic, we loved to talk about fasting. All Charismatics love to fast. but at any time the Spirit leads, not just Lent. We used to define Lent as that stuff that you find in your belly button, and no one knows where it comes from. When we talked about Lent fasting, one of our favourite jokes was to say, “This year my fasting is going to a new level, a higher dimension never before heard or understood. I’m going to fast fasting.” Another joke sure to get a laugh was about the “Faster’s Cookbook,” a collection of favourite recipes from those who are fasting. Of course, all the pages were blank!
Then I joined a Sacramental Church, and the issue got more serious. I very clearly remember Lent 1995. The Lord had been dealing with me about my pride and tendency to focus everything on myself, when about the second week of Lent I was watching my favourite TV program and one of the characters said, “It’s not about you, Dr. Carter!” The funny thing was, at that line the volume of the TV set seemed to increase four-fold, and I could swear the actor said “Mr. Thurman” instead of Dr. Carter. That’s when I learned just how much fun Lent could be! But necessary, very necessary.
The Gospel for today is Lent in a nutshell: a man must deny himself. What do we deny? The place we usually give ourselves, squarely at the center of our existence. We tend to look at every person, every thing, every situation and circumstance, and see it as it relates to us. “What’s in it for me? Is there anything here that I can profit from?”
But, as Dr. Carter on the TV show learned (as did I, and I’m still trying to remember) not everything is about us. We are not at the center of everything; that place is reserved for the Lord Jesus. Thus, there are times when we must deny ourselves, our plans and desires, and give way for what the Lord wills. You see, His ways and ours are not always synonymous. That may shock some of us, and it is not an ideal situation, but it’s the truth.
Essentially, Lent is about denying ourselves, and bringing our very existence closer in line with God’s word and will. And one of the ways the Lord brings this about is through fasting. Fasting is a tool to teach us about self-denial. I’ve always thought that “fasting brings power.” If you want power, fast! But now I’m beginning to think that fasting leads to self-denial, and that’s where the power is. Fasting can just be abstaining from food, and all you have there is a diet. But true fasting - that which instructs us about self-denial - can result in the power of God working in our lives. Again, the focus is the self-denial.
In v. 38 of today’s Gospel Jesus says, “Whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him.” This is a companion verse of Matthew 10: 32-33, “Everyone therefore who shall confess Me before men, will also confess him before My Father Who is in heaven. But whoever shall deny Me before men, I will deny him before the Father.” You can put the two principles together, confess and deny, Christ and His words, and Jesus says, “Don’t deny My words.” If in Mark, He says, “If you are ashamed of Me and My words,” and in Matthew, He says, “Don’t deny Me,” then, don’t deny Him by denying His words! And yet these words that Jesus says in verse 34, “Deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me,” are probably some of the most denied words in the whole Bible. We just don’t like to tell people that Jesus said them, because if we are trying to evangelize somebody, and we tell them, “You know what Jesus said? You’ve got to deny yourself. You have to take up your cross and you have to follow Him,” chances are they are not really going to be excited about journeying your Church.
Self-denial is not very enticing to the average person. It is not a way to convince somebody, “Come, join me. You’ve got to deny yourself.” We are happy to tell people, “Come to the Lord. Come to see Jesus because my goodness, you will be so blessed and happy. He will make you better and more fulfilled.” It is like Jesus is the greatest self-improvement program in the world. But what Jesus talks about here is self-denial, not a self-improvement program.
True, when you deny yourself, you will find yourself growing in the Lord, and you will find yourself with a greater level of joy and peace and righteousness because that is the Kingdom of God. But if we try to achieve this our own way, then we denying the words of Jesus when He said, “Sometimes, there is self-denial involved in this way of the Cross.” We cannot deny the word of Christ that say, “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me.” We must avoid the temptation to deny these particular words of Christ because they are a vital part of what makes a complete, healthy, and successful Christian life.
We look at self-denial as the giving up things; all we think about is the about things. We sometimes we equate life and things. More things means a better life; less things means an uncomfortable life. This is one of the basic misconceptions of Christianity and of Christians.
But self-denial begins to take better shape when we understand Luke 12:15, which says, “A man’s life does not consist of the abundance of the things He possesses.” If we think that we are to keep things so that we will be happy, then it is going to make us shy away from self-denial, and we are going to be less than we should be in the kingdom of God.
Just this week, a very famous man of God, Billy Graham, went to be with the Lord. He was probably one of the most successful Christians of his era particularly in the realm of evangelism. Billy Graham died at 99 and his ministry was well over fifty years. His eulogies will list all his abundant attributes, but I just want to point out one thing: Unlike most major tele-evangelist or religious figures in his generation, he never had a hint of a scandal. I think I understand why. Long ago I heard him say in an interview, when asked, “Dr. Graham, to what do you attribute the success of your ministry?” He said something that I will never forget, “When I first began my ministry, back in the forties, just out of the seminary, the Lord showed me a Scripture in Luke 12:15 where it says, “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.” I have always tried to follow that word of Christ.” For his entire life, he and his family lived in very simple house. He was not an ostentatious person, even though he ministered to millions, including presidents and kings. He understood the proper place of possessions, of things, in his life. And that kept him out of trouble, and on the right path.
Man’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses. The NASB translation says, “Not even when a man has an abundance does his life consists of the things he possesses.” When we understand this, self-denial is easier. If we are focused on things, then, we are really going to have a hard time. We say, “Lord, I can’t do it without this thing.” “Lord, I really don’t like to give up this thing.” “Lord, this thing is really important to me.” “Lord, I can’t be happy without this thing or that thing, and all the things.” We have to get beyond things, because not even when a man has abundance does his life consists of the things.
When we talk about fasting as a tool for the evaluation of self-denial, we start with these two statements of Jesus in today’s Gospel, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” We evaluate, we look, and we say, “If I gain this thing, is it really worth losing my soul? Is it really worth losing my life over? If I gain this wonderful possession, is it worth losing my role and my citizenship in the kingdom of God?” This is what fasting will help us do. We fast whatever the Lord directs us to fast, then we evaluate it as Jesus teaches us. “Is it worth my soul? Is it a good deal?” “What can we trade for our soul?” “What is worth its loss?” We evaluate: is having things better than having our soul?
I am sure that was what Jesus was doing in the wilderness when He was fasting for those forty days. He probably got hungry before the devil showed up. I am sure that there were times that He was tempted. He didn’t have to have a devil to tell Him, “You can turn that stone into bread.” He was probably thinking, “That twig could be lumpia Shanghai, that scrubby shrub could to be a salad, and oh, what I wouldn’t give for a lamb chop! But if the Father said, “Let us fast.” So He asked himself, “Is it worth My relationship with My Father?” Is it worth denying Him to say, “Father, I know You want Me to do this, but I am so hungry? Is it worth it? Is it worth denying the love of His Father? Is it worthy denying His mission and His calling to be the Savior of the world?” Jesus evaluated and said, “Is this a good deal or not?” Yes, it looks tempting; yes, it looks good, but what is the price? What is the comparison? Is this worth My soul?
It is not to say that if you eat rather than fast that you are going to hell. It is something that it is instructing us. The experience of doing without shows us, “Yes, we can do without.” It is painful; it is tough; it requires self-discipline and yes, self-denial, but it is better than doing without Jesus. It is better than doing without our soul.
This exercise of comparison and evaluation is where we can gain our spiritual strength. This is where we gain a deeper appreciation of the things of God. It is all about the question: is gaining a thing worth the loss of our soul? Is it a decent trade? In the midst of this, we must understand that fasting is not about legalism.
I am always uncomfortable when someone in the pulpit would say, “Church, this Lent, we should all fast so and so.” There is a reason we call it self-denial. We can deny ourselves, but we can’t deny somebody else for them. When we tell somebody that he should fast something, that is not denying ourselves, but denying something for that person. We do not tell people what they should give up or what they should deny themselves. Self-denial is all about what the Lord tells you to deny yourself, not what the Lord tells you to deny somebody else. Sometimes when we get into this, it becomes legalistic and awkward.
I was in the supermarket last week, and of course, they take everything as an opportunity for merchandising and selling. Even in Lent, I went through the meat section and maybe they thought that there would not be a lot of people buying meat at this time. But in the fish section, there was a huge advertisement that said, “Lenten Delights.” These are two words that I have never seen used in the same sentence before. It had graphics of all the wonderful things that you can eat in Lent – fish, shrimp and shellfish. I thought, “The same Bible that tells me about fasting also tells me about certain dietary restrictions, and one of them is shrimp and other shellfish.” So the market is telling me that it is okay to fast with a big fat shrimp sandwich, yet the Bible tells me to refrain from shrimp and shellfish. I am not telling you not to eat shrimp because I love shrimp, and a verse in Timothy says, “Whatever we eat with thanksgiving and prayer to God is clean and blessed.” I’m not saying that the dietary restrictions apply. It is the principle that I am showing you. We can’t legalize fasting; it is a way to help us understand and lead us to self-denial. It is a deeper level than whatever food we are missing or whatever favourite practice we are missing.
So concerning Lent, fasting and self-denial, let’s paraphrasing Romans 4:13, “Is it of law or of faith?” Do we fast because the law dictates it, or do we fast by faith? St. Paul says that it was by faith. Abraham received his promise by faith; we do our Lent fasting by faith. It sounds like a nice cliché, but what does this mean? Basically, Abraham believed God, and God credited it to him for righteousness. Belief is faith. When we have faith, we believe. Faith is the noun; believe is the verb. Abraham believed God and received his promise by faith. We approach our Lenten devotions by faith, not by Law.
What did Abraham believe? He believed that God’s ways were higher and they were good to follow. He believed that the intentions of the Lord were good. This is what man lost in the Garden when the devil said, “God told you not to eat of the tree because He knows that if you eat of it, you are going to be as good as He is. God’s intentions for you are not honourable. Eve, Adam, God is cheating you out of something more than you could have!” When Adam and Eve lost their faith in the goodness of God, they lost out on the Garden.
This is the mistake that man continues to make to this day. Abraham was different. He believed that God is good. It wasn’t just a cliché for Abraham to say, “God is good all the time; all the time, God is good.” It was a real life belief in his heart.
Why do we deny ourselves? Why do we deny our own desires? It is because by faith, we believe that God’s desires for us are better and are higher. They bring us to a higher place in life; they bring us to a higher existence; they bring us to a more effective role in the kingdom of God; and they bring us to a place where we can carry out God’s very desire and will and purpose for us. These things don’t just happen automatically. They don’t just happen overnight. They happen as the Lord works in us and through us, and part of His purpose and His methodology of doing that is in Lent. It is fasting; it is self-denial.
Though we focus on self-denial in Lent, we learn that it is not just something that we do for six weeks. It is an everyday thing - 365 days a year; 366 days if it is Leap Year. Self-denial is to deny the things that we’ve been caught up with, and deny things that we have thought were so important our lives. Lent teaches us that even if a man has abundance, his life does not consist of the things that he possesses. Lent teaches, “I can do without this, but I can’t do without the love of God in my heart. I can’t do without His relationship, which is offered to me through Jesus Christ. I can’t do without His presence in my life on a daily basis. For the other things, I will make it through for forty days without them. I won’t last without the life of Christ in my heart.”
Fasting brings us to an understanding of self-denial which leads us to a greater role and greater level in the kingdom of God. May our Lent this year be a Lent that brings us to this place in Him.