The Benefits of Having Less
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
Scripture: 1 Peter: 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15
March 1, 2009
“The Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.” — Mark 1:12-13
This is the first Sunday of Lent and Lent is the period of forty days during which we watch with Jesus in the wilderness, until his Crucifixion and Resurrection. Traditionally Lent is a time for spiritual self-examination and the strengthening of ourselves to withstand temptation. Some of us fast in order to sympathize with Jesus, and to create temptation that we might overcome and thus tone our spiritual muscles. There is not doubt benefit to be gained from a spell of special self-discipline, although I do not favor the ascetic brand of theology. I am on the side of the Incarnation, which I interpret to mean that the Spirit of God is present in, with, and under all the aspects of creation and we do not need to withdraw from God’s good gifts to draw nearer to God. We can find God in the gifts of creation. Nevertheless, there can be great benefit in making do with less.
I cannot resist referring yet again to our global economic problems, to say that we all may be forced to do with less in the coming years, which could be a good thing. Some of us have been living for years not only beyond our material means but also beyond our emotional and spiritual means. Many of us found ourselves, relatively speaking, unbelievably rich, and having lived a frugal and responsible life to that point we suddenly tried to learn how to live like a maharajah. To the extent that I experienced that, I can say that I found it a mixed blessing. It enabled me to support many good works and good people, but it also introduced an anxiety, sometimes bordering on the frantic, into my life. I often thought longingly of that lovely Shaker hymn, “It’s a gift to be simple, It’s a gift to be free, It’s a gift to be down where you ought to be…and when you’ve arrived at the place that’s right, ‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight. When true simplicity is gained, then to bow and to bend we shall not be ashamed.” Forced frugality and compulsory modesty can be good for the soul and the mind. So our coming unavoidable modesty might be viewed as a kind of global Lent, during which all the nations go off into the wilderness, to learn humility, frugality, and perhaps even honesty. Welcome to the Lent of nations! 40 years in the economic wilderness.
It’s interesting how the rituals of religion correspond to basic human behavior. We are creatures who cannot endure too much of the emotional extremes. After a period of joy we need sadness, or at least seriousness, before we can appreciate another time of joy. So the bright seasons of Christmas and Epiphany give way to the purple season of Lent. I suggest we trust the spiritual wisdom of the liturgy and let ourselves be led now into seriousness and honesty, which are two important ingredients of wisdom.
The inner life of Jesus is unique in an absolute sense and so we dare not second guess his psychology, but the Gospel wants us to realize that in the wilderness Jesus was willingly submitting himself to temptation and that the temptation had to do with the question of his own identity. John the Baptizer had just identified him as the chosen one of God, the beloved Son, and before anyone could encounter him the Spirit drove him “immediately” into the wilderness. There he wrestled with the nature of his mission and concluded that it was not to take worldly power, no matter how much immediate good he might have done with it, but to avoid the power of this world in favor of the humble, frugal and honest power of love.
Therefore, when he comes out of the wilderness after 40 days, he could announce that the long awaited Kingdom of God had come in him. The rest of the gospel of Mark, all the way to the Cross-, is the unfolding of what this wilderness choice means for Jesus – Crucifixion -and for us – Resurrection.
We are face to face with the mystery of the two natures in the one Jesus. His human nature was tempted by the lie of this world that power is boastful, forceful, and big. His divine nature never wavered from the truly true – that only love is big, only love is finally forceful in its gentle way, but that love is never boastful. The temptations he endured he endured for us – “He was tempted as we are and yet without sin (Hebrews 4:14-16),” his triumph over the devil was for us; but the whole struggle in the wilderness was for God his Father. It was a manifestation of his unique faithfulness to his Father (Romans 3:22-26; Galatians 2:16, 3:22; Philippians 3:9), exercised on our behalf. Ever since the fall of the angels God had been looking for one faithful human being to re-establish the link with the power of creation. Adam his second try failed, being duped by the first failure; now at last God succeeds; perfect obedience freely given in the form of humble, suffering love, overcomes the devil in the wilderness, and the New Creation begins!
After such a flight of pure theology I am stunned and without any suggestions for practical application. So let me say just this, marvel at the love of God that seeks us so intensely, that takes on our destroyer, and throws him in the wilderness, that dethrones the one who is a liar and a murderer from the beginning (John 8: 44). Because Jesus has overcome the devil we are in principle free, all of us from Adam to the last infant born this day, free to take up the offer of Jesus to follow him out of this wilderness and into the paradise of his love. We are all free of the guilt and power of sin; let us therefore act as if that were so.
May you have a blessed Lent and may the angels uphold you in all temptation.