LENT #3: THE SURPRISING GRACE OF BEING ALONE

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It is wise to stop and consider how you are living, and where your path is leading. It is God’s wisdom to take time apart from the rest of life, and allow Him to speak into your soul. Life is hardly worth living if we never even stop to think about who we are, what we are doing, what it means, and where it all leads. In today’s internet-driven world, the only way to “consider your way” is to get away. In fact, it is clear that Jesus thought that was true, even two-thousand years before the invention of the high-speed modem

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LENT #3: SOLITUDE

1 And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days, being tempted by the devil.

(Luke 4:1-2, ESV)

I want to remind you that we are not doing our normal verse-by-verse exposition of this Bible passage. Instead, this is a topical series, centered around the season of Lent, and using Luke 4:1-13 as a kind of jumping off point to consider various spiritual disciplines that go along with Lent, and also certain temptations. So, for instance, this time we will talk about solitude. I don’t mean to imply that the spiritual discipline of solitude is one of the main concerns of Luke 4:1-13 – though obviously, Jesus was alone for forty days, that isn’t the main point Luke is making. However, also obviously, Jesus was alone, and there are other Bible verses about solitude, and so we’ll use the event of Jesus’ solitude here as a starting point for thinking about the spiritual discipline of solitude.

I promise you, we will get to verses 3-13 before Lent is over! I didn’t actually plan it this way (I wish I was that smart) but this is turning out to be a sermon series about finding grace in unexpected ways. We’ve talked about the unforeseen grace of suffering. Last time, we considered the unanticipated grace of being hungry – where we talked about fasting.  Today we will look at one more surprising way to encounter God’s grace – through solitude.

So, as mentioned, Jesus spent forty days alone at the beginning of his ministry. Just in case we might say “well, it doesn’t explicitly say there was no one else there,” Mark gives us these details:

12 The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.

(Mark 1:12-13, ESV)

Being with the wild animals did not mean that he had a pack of friendly wolves keeping him warm at night. Prior to the middle of the 20th century, most humans around the globe considered wild beasts to be a huge threat to human life and flourishing. To readers in the first century, the mention of wild animals meant deadly danger and terror. To be with the wild animals meant that he was utterly alone with all the perils that exist apart from the help of other human beings. Mark mentions the angels that ministered to him, but Luke and Matthew record that the angels came only after his temptation was finished. Even if the angels were with him the whole time, believing there are unseen spirits sent by God to help you is not the same as having another human being there with you, someone whom you can see and hear and speak with.

I’ve mentioned this before, and it bears repeating. Part of why Jesus was able to be the perfect substitute for human beings on the cross is because during his time on earth, he limited himself to the confines of his human nature. God-the-Son joined his divine nature with human nature in the person of Jesus. And prior to his resurrection, Jesus did not use his divine nature. Instead, he depended upon the Father and the Spirit for all things, just like all humans must do. He could have used his divine power to protect himself, or to find strength during those forty days. However, he set aside that divine nature, not using it, instead living as all humans must live, in faith in God the Father and God the Spirit. Philippians chapter 2 makes this clear:

6 Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to.7 Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form,8 he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

(Philippians 2:6-8, NLT)

So Jesus committed himself to using only human resources. Jesus, limiting himself to his human nature during his time on earth, could not sense the angels any better than you or I. And, limited to human resources, he spent forty days alone.

This is not the only time Jesus sought solitude, by the way. Many times, throughout the gospels, it records Jesus going off alone to pray by himself.

35 And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, 37 and they found him and said to him, “Everyone is looking for you.” (Mark 1:35-37, ESV)

12 During those days he went out to the mountain to pray and spent all night in prayer to God. (Luke 6:12, CSB)

5 But now even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities. 16 But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray. (Luke 5:15-16, ESV)

18 And it happened, as He was alone praying, that His disciples joined Him, and He asked them, saying, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” (Luke 9:18, NKJV)

13 When Jesus heard about it, He withdrew from there by boat to a remote place to be alone. (Matthew 14:13, HCSB. [The “it” that Jesus heard about was the death of John the Baptist])

23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone (Matthew 14:23, ESV)

All of these are separate events, by the way. Clearly, even though many people wanted his presence all the time, Jesus made it a priority to spend significant time alone. He was not the only person in the Bible who did this, by the way. Jacob was alone in the wilderness when he had his vision (which we sometimes call “Jacob’s Ladder”). Jacob was again alone when he wrestled with the angel of the Lord. Moses spent roughly a third of his life in a desolate wilderness. He was not alone all the time, but as a shepherd, he probably spent significant time by himself (Exodus 3:1).

David spent a great deal of time alone in the wilderness, when he was a shepherd. In fact, anyone who was a shepherd in ancient times spent many days at a time apart from other human beings, so we have to add the prophet Amos to the list of people who often spent time alone. The prophet Elijah spent a long time alone, at least two different times. So did John the Baptist, prior to Jesus.

Jesus himself invited the disciples to spend time apart from others, with just him:

30 The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.

(Mark 6:30-32, ESV)

We know that very early on in the history of Christianity, many were practicing the spiritual discipline of solitude. Some people took it too far, and withdrew from all community, but that is not what Jesus modeled. It is clear from the Bible that all Christians need to be firmly rooted in Christian community. But there is also need for each of us to be connected to Jesus ourselves, on our own, not only through others.

Like many things in the Christian life, there is a balance here. I have preached before about the importance of Christian community. Let’s not forget there is also an importance to spending time alone with God, with no one else around.

I will freely admit that solitude is the easiest of the spiritual disciplines for me. I crave time alone, and I look forward to it. I have had to learn, and to discipline myself, to be deeply connected to Christian community, to be involved in the lives of others. So, in the same way, perhaps being connected to others is easy for you, but you might need to learn, and discipline yourself, to spend time in solitude with God. Jesus certainly showed us that is important, and, as with fasting, Christians throughout the past two thousand years have practiced the spiritual discipline of solitude.

Some of you may have engaged in this before, but I want to make sure to help everyone understands solitude, even if you are a “beginner,” so I’ll start with the basics.

If you are a real “people person,” or if you are a parent of young children, you may need to start with just a few hours alone – say, half a day. If you are struggling with depression, it may not be the best time to start practicing the discipline of solitude – although, there is a possibility it could help. Use caution and good judgment if you are depressed.

It is best if you can do it someplace other than your home, so you aren’t distracted by things you could be doing, but sometimes you may not have an option. If you have a greater tolerance for being alone, you should maybe consider camping remotely, or renting a cabin that is physically distant from your home, and spending a night, and then a whole day, alone with God. My typical times of solitude for the past twenty-five years have been three or four nights, and thus two or three entire days alone, though I have spent as much as eight days alone in a cabin two miles from the nearest (dirt) road. I try to get at least a couple days alone at least once a year, though I prefer twice.

The intention of solitude is to spend time together with God apart from time with anyone else, apart from things that distract you from the presence of God. There are some practical implications here. During your time of solitude you should plan to be out of touch with people and the world – no phone, no texting, no social media or internet. Don’t use the time to catch up on work – this is time for you and God.

What you actually do, or don’t do, during the time, depends in part on how much time you have, and on what helps you connect with the presence of God. If you are spending only a couple of hours, I would suggest maybe reading a chapter of the Bible, then doing a short devotional reading, and then spending time sitting in silence, in conscious recognition of God’s presence. After that, maybe you could walk, and pray out loud to God with no one else around.

When I take two or three days of solitude, I usually bring along one or more Christian books. Sometimes I have a particular thing I might want to hash over with God during the time, so I’ll bring a book specifically about that topic. I’ll read more slowly than usual, and often pause, and – this may sound weird – talk with God about what I’m reading. For a time of two or three days I usually also take along a couple fiction books. This is because when I have that much time, I spend it not only consciously doing “spiritual things,” but also relaxing in God’s presence through reading, hiking, and fishing. For me, reading is not a distraction, but an engagement with God. When Kari and I go away together, we don’t spend every second staring into one-another’s eyes. Sometimes we are both reading something in the same room. The fact that we are reading does not altar the fact that we are also together. So, when I have a good amount of solitude time (two days, or more) I do have periods that are less directly focused on God, and yet the entire time is imbued with an awareness that it is just God and me, together.

Sometimes in solitude, I have long periods of silence. But I also listen to music at times, because that often opens a spiritual window to God in my heart. The main idea is to have a block of time that is dedicated to spending with God. The way you spend that time might vary, but the  most important thing is to set aside anything that distracts you from God’s presence: phone, internet, other people, and so on.

You may sometimes get together with a good friend, or go away with your spouse. When you do that, you might turn off your phones, and use the time to focus on that relationship. That’s exactly what you are doing with times of intentional solitude.

The practice of solitude does require some adjustment, however. The first couple hours of being alone, you are very likely to feel like you are wasting time, and to think that what you are doing is silly and pointless. You’ll end up thinking about stuff you should do, and people you need to talk to. You won’t feel like it is spiritually productive at all. This is normal. It is part of the process of solitude. If you simply allow these feelings to happen, and continue to be alone with God, eventually, all the stuff going through your head will begin to quiet down. You will begin to settle in to a quiet refreshing place with the presence of God.

Many people feel lonely during times of solitude. This too, is normal, and actually can be very helpful for your spiritual life. We cram our lives so full of people, activities and things, that we seldom stop to simply recognize our own selves, and the presence of God. Intentional loneliness helps us to slow down, and see our need for God, our dependence upon him. It gives us perspective that is almost impossible to get otherwise in this insanely busy modern world.

When you are constantly in touch with everyone you know, constantly connected to news, and social events, and even to the random thoughts of acquaintances you haven’t seen for years, it wears out your soul. The human soul was made for connection with other humans. But it was also made for connection with God, and sometimes, in order to have that, we desperately need to be alone with God, without other distractions.

If you are never alone with just yourself and God, you will never really know the state of your own heart and soul. Socrates is famous for saying these words: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” But even before he said that, Solomon, the wisest man in the world, said something very much like it:

8 The sensible person’s wisdom is to consider his way,
but the stupidity of fools deceives them.

(Proverbs 14:8, CSB)

In other words, it is wise to stop and consider how you are living, and where your path is leading. It is God’s wisdom to take time apart from the rest of life, and allow God to speak into your soul. Life is hardly worth living if we never even stop to think about who we are, what we are doing, what it means, and where it all leads. In today’s internet-driven world, the only way to “consider your way” is to get away. In fact, it is clear that Jesus thought that was true, even two-thousand years before the invention of the high-speed modem. David, Solomon’s father, wrote this:

23 Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my concerns.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me;
lead me in the everlasting way.

(Psalms 139:23-24, HCSB)

He understood the importance of time alone with God, time for God to use your own mind to dig into your soul and bring up things that need to be addressed. Elsewhere, he wrote this:

9 Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
which must be curbed with bit and bridle,
or it will not stay near you.

(Psalms 32:9, ESV)

When we never separate from the world and take time alone with God, we are being like a mule. We are not letting God guide us, or address things in our lives that need addressing. As scary as it may be sometimes, we need to stop and find out what is in our souls. We don’t have to be afraid, because God is with us as we do that.

Jesus went into the loneliness of exile from Heaven on our behalf. For what felt to him on earth like an entire lifetime, he was apart from the light and joy and fellowship that was normally his in Heaven. His going apart, his separation from the fellowship of heaven, accomplished the most wonderful thing possible for us – our salvation.

God does not ask us to separate from himself. But at times, it may be vitally necessary for us to have time set apart to allow Him to draw us closer.

Please listen to this song, written and recorded by my wife, Kari. It might be another way of encouraging you to find value in time alone with God.

To listen to the song, click the play button:

HOW DO YOU KNOW GOD LOVES YOU?

gethsemane2

All of the suffering that Jesus endured (and we haven’t even got to the worst of it, yet), he did for you. Every moment of his life, every stubbed toe, headache, splinter or cold, every time he was tired, hungry, lonely or in pain – it was all voluntary, and all of it was for you.Sometimes God is a mystery, and it seems like he’s distant, like he doesn’t care about us. The actions of Jesus show us definitively and conclusively that he loves us.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Matthew Part

Matthew #93.  Matthew 26:31-45

With these verses, we enter the time period  that is often called “the passion of our Lord.” I don’t like the expression, because it comes from people showing off their ancient language skills, and frankly, it doesn’t really make sense in English. Here’s why people call it “the passion.” One of the Greek words for suffering is “patho;” it is often found in the form “pascho.” In addition, one of the Latin words for suffering is “passio” (and Latin was used almost exclusively in the Medieval Church). From these, we get our English word, “passion.” However, the meaning of “passion” in English has changed. These days “passion” does not mean “suffering.” Even so, now you understand why the suffering of Jesus is called his “passion” by silly people who don’t care if they are understood by the general population.

As always, I want to remind you that several legitimate, Biblically-sound sermons might be preached on any given passage of scripture. In these last few chapters of Matthew especially, we could easily spend several weeks finding new and important things in just one passage. We could talk about prayer, or the weakness of the disciples. As I’ve prayed and studied this time, however, what the Holy Spirit has impressed upon me is to focus on Jesus, and his suffering for us.

I want to make sure we have the correct understanding of the suffering of Jesus. It would be easy to say, “You know, I don’t know what the big deal is. Jesus was God, so how hard was it, really, to go through the crucifixion?” I am going to explain this as non-theologically as possible. In some ways, maybe what I say will be simplistic, but I think it might help us.

When Jesus entered Mary’s womb, not only was he gaining his human body, but he was also leaving heaven, and all of its advantages, behind him. Paul describes it like this, writing to the Philippians:

5Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus, 6who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage. 7Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men. And when He had come as a man in His external form, 8He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death — even to death on a cross. (Phil 2:5-8, HCSB)

You may have heard the expression, “I’ll take you on with one hand tied behind my back!” In a real sense, that’s what Jesus was doing. In taking on human flesh, Jesus also voluntarily left behind all the power and privilege of his divine nature. He kept his own divinity “tied behind his back,” so to speak. He voluntarily limited himself to complete dependence on the Father.

So, for example, when Jesus did miracles, he wasn’t doing them with his own divine power as God-the-Son. Instead, the Father was doing them through Jesus, as Jesus trusted the Father and allowed Him to work. When Jesus knew what was coming in the future and prophesied about it, it wasn’t because he was making use of his own divine knowledge as God-the-Son. Instead, he knew these things only because the Father chose to reveal them to him. In the same way, there were some things that the Father did not choose to reveal to Jesus – such as the time of his return to earth (Matthew 24:36). Jesus chose to do and know only what the Father directed. The apostle John records several times when Jesus referred to this state of things:

19So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. And greater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel. (John 5:19-20, ESV2011)

36But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me. (John 5:36, ESV2011)

28So Jesus said to them, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and that I do nothing on My own. But just as the Father taught Me, I say these things. 29The One who sent Me is with Me. He has not left Me alone, because I always do what pleases Him.” (John 8:28-29, HCSB)

All of this was completely voluntary on the part of Jesus. He did not have to do it. Without sinning or doing any sort of wrong, he could have said, “You know what, Father? I’m tired of living without indoor plumbing. Take me home.” He could have said, “I’m sick of being insulted and mocked by these ignorant, rebellious, arrogant people. Let’s pull the plug on this operation.”

Of course, if Jesus had done that, we would all be destined to burn in Hell for eternity. But that’s what we deserve, anyway. It would not have been wrong for Jesus to leave us to that fate. His entire life on earth was by his own choice, and it was all done for my sake and yours. Every headache, every splinter and stubbed toe, every moment of loneliness, every hunger-pang – every single moment of it was voluntary. He never would have had to experience fatigue, or sickness or grief or pain. Every time he was misunderstood, mocked, insulted or mistreated, it was his own choice to remain on earth and endure it – for our sake. Sometimes, we consider the suffering of a little baby who was born with a disease, and think how terrible and pointless that such a young an innocent child should be afflicted. Yet Jesus was more innocent than even a newborn baby. His suffering was even less deserved.

So first, we understand that the voluntary and innocent suffering of Jesus began at the moment of his birth, and continued throughout his entire life. As I said, every stubbed toe and every headache, cold, splinter, or fever, was undeserved suffering. And now, in Matthew 26, Jesus is coming to the very worst of it all. Let me make this clear – not only did Jesus suffer tremendously for our sake, and not for himself in any way – but at any moment, he had the option of ending it, and not going through the suffering. This must have been an enormously appealing option during the worst of his afflictions, and one that he could have taken without doing any wrong. Part of his suffering, therefore, involved denying himself the righteous option of getting out of it.

I think that sometime between when Judas left to get the temple soldiers, and when Jesus entered the Garden of Gethsemane, was the beginning of the final, and most intense suffering of Jesus on our behalf. Once more, I want to make it clear that every single moment of his time on earth was a voluntary hardship, and part of his overall suffering for us. But, of course, there is no doubt that the last eighteen hours or so, were an incredibly intense conclusion, without which, the other suffering would have been pointless.

This last, intense suffering starts with betrayal, weakness and abandonment among Jesus’ closest friends. It’s easy to look at Jesus as above all human emotion, but I don’t think so at all. He willingly subjected himself to everything it means to be human.

17Therefore, He had to be like His brothers in every way, so that He could become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18For since He Himself was tested and has suffered, He is able to help those who are tested. (Heb 2:17-18, HCSB)

And so, though we look at Judas through the lens of twenty centuries, Judas was, in fact, one of Jesus’ best friends. It must have been very, very hard for Jesus to realize that someone whom he has spent so much time with, someone he had invested so much in, had utterly rejected him.

Next, came the knowledge that his other followers, though they didn’t deliberately betray him, were ultimately going to abandon him in his hour of need.

Most of us have not experienced the kind of physical pain that Jesus did. We haven’t experienced the depth of emotional suffering – but we have experienced some of the same kinds of things. Our friends did not betray and leave us while we were dying (you couldn’t be reading this, otherwise), but if you live very long, you will experience that loneliness that comes with feeling that someone has abandoned you, or failed to care for you the way you expected. Jesus experienced that with an intensity that was incredibly deep. No one stood beside him in his hour of need. His closest friends couldn’t even stay awake while he agonized in prayer, and they abandoned him shortly after.

Not only was Jesus abandoned by his disciples, but also by God himself. We know that at some point, God-the-Father withdrew his presence and support from Jesus. We know that the arrangement was that God laid upon Jesus all of the sins of the world – our sins, and treated him as our sins deserved:

 He made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2Cor 5:21, HCSB)

God presented Him as a propitiation through faith in His blood, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His restraint God passed over the sins previously committed. (Rom 3:25, HCSB)

This necessarily meant separation from the Father. For all of eternity, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit had lived in unbroken fellowship and one-ness. Even when Jesus came to earth as a human, though the relationship had to be different, there still was fellowship. But sometime during this night – I think, perhaps, not long after Judas left the supper – the Father deliberately withdrew his presence. For the first time in eternity, Jesus was completely separated from God – in a way that no human being has yet experienced. Romans 3:25 above says that God withheld the full punishment for human sin, and laid it all on Jesus. That means that no one has felt the full consequences of sin to the extent experienced by Jesus. No one has been cut off from God in the way Jesus was. No one has yet been so thoroughly rejected by God, as Jesus. The Bible says that at the end of time, those who do not repent and trust Jesus will also experience the hell of eternal separation from God. But until that time, only Jesus has experienced what that is like.

I think that the intensity and grief of Jesus’ prayers in the garden reflect that this separation had either begun, or had happened by that point.

So, what do we do with all of this? What does it mean for us? First, I think we can be quite confident that Jesus understands everything you may be going through when you struggle in your relationships with other people. He’s been lonely. He’s been betrayed. He’s been abandoned. The people closest to him didn’t seem to care.

Jesus also understands what it feels like to be abandoned by God – in ways that we may never feel. He can empathize with every kind of relationship-pain we might suffer.

Another thing I take away is this: Jesus is for you; he loves you. All of this that he went through (and we haven’t even got to the worst of it, yet), he did for you. Sometimes God is a mystery, and it seems like he’s distant, like he doesn’t care about us. The actions of Jesus show us definitively and conclusively that he loves us.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today.