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

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 Lent Part 3

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:

LENT #2: THE UNEXPECTED GRACE OF HUNGER

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The essence of fasting is embracing our weakness, and our need of God. It leads us to a place where we are more deeply connected to our need for Him, where we are joyfully humbled by our utter dependence upon Him. It doesn’t hurt our prayer life, either.

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 Lent 2

LENT #2. FASTING. LUKE 4;1-2

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. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry. (Luke 4:1-2, ESV)

Last time we talked about how God often leads those with whom he is pleased into difficult things. This is not because God is mean, or perverse, but rather, because he knows more than us, and sometimes suffering brings us tremendous blessings. Some of the blessings we receive through suffering may not be fully realized until we stand with Jesus in our new, resurrected bodies:

16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

(2 Corinthians 4:16-18, ESV)

This time I want to look at the spiritual discipline that we call “fasting.” As we see from our text in Luke, Jesus went without food during a period of forty days. I used the ESV translation above because it captures the Greek quite well: “And he ate nothing during those days.” This could mean that Jesus had nothing to eat, whatsoever, for forty entire days – in other words, for 960 hours. It could also mean that for forty days, Jesus had nothing to eat while it was daylight. The Greek would support either meaning. If you pushed me, I would say that I think Jesus ate one simple meal each day, after dark for forty days. Again, however, it could mean that he had no food whatsoever during all that time. I also want to point out that it says nothing about drinking, and since the human body cannot survive longer than about three days without liquid, I’m quite sure that Jesus at least had water to drink during this time.

This practice of deliberately going without food for a period of time is called fasting. The English word “breakfast” simply means to break (that is, end) the fast of the night-time hours. Protestant Christians are often both confused, and somewhat ignorant about fasting. One of the things most Christians do know is that fasting from food is not a necessary part of following Jesus. I quoted this same passage last time:

16 So don’t let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new moon ceremonies or Sabbaths. 17 For these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality. 18 Don’t let anyone condemn you by insisting on pious self-denial or the worship of angels, saying they have had visions about these things. Their sinful minds have made them proud, 19 and they are not connected to Christ, the head of the body. For he holds the whole body together with its joints and ligaments, and it grows as God nourishes it.
20 You have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the spiritual powers of this world. So why do you keep on following the rules of the world, such as, 21 “Don’t handle! Don’t taste! Don’t touch!”? 22 Such rules are mere human teachings about things that deteriorate as we use them. 23 These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires.

(Colossians 2:16-23, NLT)

Fasting certainly falls into the category of food and drink, and also practices of pious self-denial. Paul’s point  in the Colossians passage is not that you should never have a special holy day, or that you should never fast, but rather that you should not allow anyone to condemn you for what you do, or don’t do, with regard to such things. Fasting, merely for the sake of fasting, accomplishes nothing. Fasting will not make you more holy. If done with the wrong attitude, it will not help you fight temptation. Jesus himself condemned the way some people practiced fasting:

16 “And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get. 17 But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. 18 Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.

Matthew 6:16-18, NLT.

When we use fasting as an opportunity to show off spiritually, we have made it almost useless. When we make fasting into a rule that we have to follow, we destroy its value.

However – and this is a big however – since at least the time of Moses (that is, for more than three thousand years) followers of God have engaged in fasting. You can find followers of God fasting in almost every Old Testament book. Jesus fasted, obviously, on more than one occasion. His disciples fasted, after Jesus was crucified and raised. In the two-thousand years since then, millions of Christians have engaged in this spiritual discipline, some quite regularly. In short, fasting, done the right way, can be very beneficial in our relationship with God.

I’m going to talk about my own fasting experience. Please understand something however: I am not trying to give you the impression that I fast twice a week for years on end, or anything remotely like that. I believe I have done it often enough to help me teach about fasting, but I’m quite sure I would benefit from fasting a lot more often than I actually do it. Perhaps this message is also for my own sake, to become more regular with it.

Usually, I plan ahead of time the sorts of things I want to bring up with God during a fast. Maybe I’m feeling burdened for a particular person or issue. Maybe I want to be closer to God. Perhaps I want God to address something in my life that I am having a difficult time dealing with. Sometimes I write down my “fasting concerns” in a notebook. Sometimes I don’t.

The normal Biblical model of fasting is going without food for a set period of time. As I mentioned before, sometimes that means not eating while the sun is up for one day, or many (and not “making up” for your missed meals by gorging in the evenings). Sometimes fasting might mean going without food for a set number of hours. I would say that to get any benefit from it, you ought to go without food long enough to develop hunger pangs for a period of time. When the hunger pangs come, you can use them in at least two ways.

First, every time you feel hungry, use that as a reminder that there is something special going on between you and God today. Let the hunger pangs remind you to pray. Briefly pause what you are doing, and pray for the concerns that you want to address in your fasting. You might then continue working, and continue praying as you work, if possible. As you pray, use the hunger. You might think or pray something like this: “Lord, I am hungry, but I want your intervention in these things even more than I want to eat.” Let your hunger become an appeal to God. Present your hunger to God as a prayer.

Second, when you feel hunger (and perhaps weakness along with the hunger) use that feeling to maximize your dependence on God in general. I might think something like this: “Oh wow, I feel weak and hungry right now. God, as much as I feel like I need food right now, I need you, even more. As much as I desire to eat, I have an even greater desire for you, and for your work in my life. I confess to you that I need you even more than I need to eat.” Embrace the weakness you feel. Embrace the desire for food (without satisfying it), and let God turn them into dependence upon Him, and desire for Him.

If you haven’t fasted before, some of what I’m describing might make more sense to you after you have tried it.

Many people have adapted “fasting” to include things like abstaining from only certain kinds of food (like not eating sugar, or red meat). Or, abstaining from watching television, or from watching sports, or playing video games. Some people might even say it like this:

“I’m giving up _________ for lent.”

Myself, every year, I give up football for lent (to my overseas listeners, this is a joke: there is no American football during that time of year).

These are admirable ideas, but to really engage the power of Biblical fasting, I think it needs to be something that provides constant reminders throughout the fast (like hunger pangs), and something that makes you aware of your weakness, and your absolute need for God. You need to abstain from something in such a way that the fasting continually leads you into dependence upon God, into prioritizing him above all else. To be honest, I’m not sure that abstaining from video games or sugar would do that. One thing I can think of that might be comparable to not eating is ceasing smoking. From what I understand, if you are a smoker, and you quit, you will have constant cravings, and you will be reminded of your weakness and need for God. Along those lines, the apostle Paul says it is OK for married couples to fast from sex for a short period of time, as long as they both agree to it (Note: he doesn’t command it!). He does command couples to not take that particular kind of fasting too far. My own struggle with pain has sometimes provided the same sort of experience as fasting: The pain becomes a reminder that is felt by only me. I feel a deep need for God, and I use the pain almost as a prayer.

In spite of these few exceptions, I wonder if it is significant that in scripture, the only kind of fasting it really talks about is fasting from food. One of my concerns about other types of things that are called “fasting” these days, is that they sort of emphasize our own will power and achievement, without emphasizing our weakness and dependence on God. If I “fast” from watching TV, I might be tempted to become proud of my self-discipline, proud of doing something that feels righteous. When I fast from food, I feel too weak, too needy, to become proud. Not only that, but if I fast from sugar, or TV, or video games, basically, I am just becoming a healthier person. I’m not casting myself in dependence upon God, I’m working to make myself a better person. That’s a good thing, but it is definitely not the main spirit or intent behind the discipline of fasting.

I will add two very important things. First, it might be wise to check with a doctor before you fast. Particularly if you are diabetic, or have some other kind of health condition, you ought to make sure it is safe before you try it.

Second is this: If the fast is becoming a hindrance, rather than a help, just stop, and eat something. This doesn’t mean that fasting won’t ever work for you. It means that this particular fast, at this point in time, isn’t helpful, so let it go. A few times, I have fasted, and all I could think about was how hungry I felt. I wasn’t feeling dependence on God, and I wasn’t really praying any more, I was just obsessing about my desire to eat. I talked to the Lord about it, and I felt clear permission to go ahead and eat. At a later time, I fasted again, and that later fasting was very spiritually helpful. So, even if the first time you try it, it doesn’t go well, don’t give up. If you have a time when it doesn’t seem helpful, don’t write it off for the rest of your life.

A few practical thoughts. If you are new to fasting, I would suggest going without food from one evening meal until your next evening meal. In other words, eat the evening meal, and skip snacks for the first evening, and then fast from breakfast and lunch (and any snacks) the next day. Break your fast with the evening meal twenty-four hours after your last meal. This is not too terribly challenging. You should be able to get in a few hours of hunger pangs that way.

While you fast, please be sure to drink plenty of non-caloric fluids – water, black coffee or tea (though be careful with too much caffeine on an empty stomach!), or plain carbonated water. I don’t recommend diet drinks, because they can sometimes fool your body into thinking you’ve had something sweet, which can mess with your blood sugar, and actually make the fast more difficult. If you are really struggling, but you also really want to finish the fast, a cup of broth or bullion sometimes helps you feel better, and contains only a handful of calories.

If you have already done some fasting, and/or if you want to challenge yourself a bit, you could fast from after the evening meal of day 1, throughout all of day two, and then break your fast the morning of day 3. That would make basically a thirty-six hour fast.

People who fast for multiple days in a row are usually only fasting during daylight hours (in other words, they have one meal per day, in the evening). One other approach for multiple-day fasting is to drink broths, and diluted fruit juices throughout the fast. Please do be careful about multi-day fasting without any food at all. Do some research and prepare well before embarking on a long fast.

I also want to reiterate the advice of Jesus. Fast during a “normal,” day, going about your normal routine (apart from food). Don’t advertise the fact that you are fasting – the point of the fast is what is happening in your own relationship with God, and it doesn’t have to concern anyone else. If someone asks you why you aren’t eating, you don’t have to be paranoid about it – you can admit you are fasting without feeling proud or bad. On the other hand, if you start as I suggested, most people won’t even notice you skipping breakfast and lunch – the evening meal is the one you are most likely to share with others, so no one has to know that you’ve been abstaining all day long. Again, you don’t have to be all mysterious – if someone happens to ask why you aren’t eating, you can mention it. But try not to use fasting to make yourself look good in the opinion of yourself, or of others. That’s what Jesus warned about.

Sometimes, in the bible, a group of people would agree to fast together. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with that, and nothing wrong with other people in the group knowing that you are fasting along with them. There is no basis for anyone in the group to become proud, since everyone is doing the same fast. I will say this however: we should be very careful to not coerce anyone into fasting with us. I was once part of a group where two people basically shamed the rest of us into fasting with them. There was no clear purpose or goal for our fasting. It was more that they wanted us all to show what hard core Christians we were. Needless to say, that fast didn’t go very well for me. Don’t let yourself be forced into it, and don’t try to force others to join you, but it isn’t wrong to invite, without pressure, others to join you.

It makes sense to me that Jesus began his ministry work with this long fast. As we will see later, the things gained in fasting tended to counteract the temptations the devil gave Jesus. Fasting leads us to depend on God, not on ourselves, or the resources we might have. So, when the devil tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread, Jesus was already in a place of deep dependence on God.

Even though Jesus had a perfect union with the Father, he found it helpful to fast. Without making it a law, I would like to suggest that if even Jesus practiced fasting, we too, could find tremendous benefit in it. For now, at least let us remember that we need God more than anything, even food. Our need points us to God’s satisfaction of all needs: Jesus Christ. Rely on Him today!

LENT #1: THE UNEXPECTED GRACE OF SUFFERING

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God the Father made it quite clear that he was pleased with Jesus. It is certain that Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit. And yet, the Father’s approval, and the Spirit’s leading brought Jesus into a wilderness where he had nothing to eat, and had to battle with the devil. Our circumstances are not a reliable guide to understanding how God feels about us. Often, God leads us into suffering, because he is treating us as his children; treating us, in fact, exactly how he treated Jesus.

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 Lent 1

Lent 2022 #1. Luke 4:1-4

On March 2, this year, we entered the church-season of Lent. The “church year” with its various seasons – like Lent, Advent, Pentecost, etc. – is not found in the Bible. It was developed over time, in conjunction with “church festivals.” Church festivals include days like Christmas, Pentecost, Resurrection (Easter), All Saints, and also days celebrating the lives of various famous Christians. The church year developed as church leaders found it useful to remember different important parts of the Bible, and to highlight certain Biblical themes and events. Eventually, by the middle ages, the lives of most people in Europe revolved around the church year, and the various festivals of the church. It was helpful, at that time, for people to have their lives rooted and grounded in the Church year. The rhythms of their lives, all year round, were deeply attached to themes and holidays that reminded them of God. The very word “holiday” actually comes from the phrase “holy day.”

There are negatives to the church year. The seasons and festivals of the church year are associated with various Bible readings. Eventually, the Church began to focus only on those particular Bible readings, which were chosen by human beings to create the church year. Most people did not have their own Bibles, so they only heard the Bible when it was read at church. Because of the way the church year is structured, no one ever heard a whole Biblical book read in order – that is, in context. Not only that, but the readings of the church year (called “the lectionary,” or “the pericope” [pronounced per-ik-uh-pee]) leave out well over half of the Bible. Many pastors only preach on the lectionary, which means, in such churches, there is over half the Bible that you will never hear taught or explained. When pastors preach on the lectionary, it is, by necessity, preaching out of context. I know some pastors who would argue that the lectionary, along with the church year, is the context, but those are man-made contexts, not the context given by the Bible itself.

All of this is good to know, and important to take into consideration. The church year is man-made, neither created by, nor demanded by the Bible. Paul writes this, in Colossians:

16 So don’t let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new moon ceremonies or Sabbaths. 17 For these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality. 18 Don’t let anyone condemn you by insisting on pious self-denial or the worship of angels, saying they have had visions about these things. Their sinful minds have made them proud, 19 and they are not connected to Christ, the head of the body. For he holds the whole body together with its joints and ligaments, and it grows as God nourishes it.

(Colossians 2:16-19, NLT)

It is easy to see how those verses apply to the church year. But there is another aspect also. We should not judge those who do find the church year helpful. In addition, the church year is the product of centuries of thoughtful consideration. Times have changed, of course, but I think sometimes we in the 21st century are perhaps too quick to dismiss ancient Christian practices that followers of Jesus found helpful in former times. Even today, millions of people find the church year helpful for following Jesus. I do think it has its deficiencies, but I also want us to be able to draw from what is good and helpful in Christian tradition.

All that is a very long way of saying that this year, I would like to at least experiment with following a church-season – in particular, the season of Lent. I do not intend to follow the church year always, but I do want to expose you to this ancient Christian tradition. As always, we will base it firmly in scripture. In fact, it is possible that we will spend all seven weeks of Lent in just one scripture passage, but we will see.

The season of Lent is arranged to last forty days, in remembrance of the forty days that Jesus spent fasting and praying in the wilderness, and battling temptation, just before he began his world-changing ministry. It also echoes the forty years that the people of Israel spent wandering in the wilderness before they entered the promised land. The forty days of Lent begin with Ash Wednesday, and end with Easter. We will begin this Lenten season by looking at that experience Jesus had in the wilderness.

1 Then Jesus left the Jordan, full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days to be tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and when they were over, he was hungry. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”
4 But Jesus answered him, “It is written: Man must not live on bread alone.”

(Luke 4:1-4, CSB)

Let’s remember the context. Jesus has spent thirty-years living in obscurity, most of it in the town of Nazareth. Most sons in those days probably ended up doing whatever their fathers did for a living, so it is likely that Jesus was a builder, like Joseph. Now, at the age of thirty, led by the Spirit, he visits his cousin John, and is baptized by him. At his baptism, the Father made it known that He was pleased with Jesus. He affirmed Jesus in his Divine Sonship. And then, the first thing the Spirit leads Jesus to do is to go out into the wilderness, where he is to refrain from eating, and face the temptations of the devil.

There is an important point here. I think it is very significant for many of us. The Father was pleased with Jesus. The Spirit was with him, leading him. And he was brought into a desert wasteland where he had no food and had to fight with the devil.

You don’t have to go very far in America to hear a Christian who says something like this: “If you just follow God, he’ll take care of you. Your life will go better.” The Father was pleased with Jesus. The Spirit was leading him. However, his life did not get easier as a result of this, but harder. Following God is not a guarantee that everything will go well for you. That’s hard, but it’s the truth. When we follow God, he is often kind enough to lead us to the place where we understand that this life on earth is not the main focus. He usually uses suffering to help us absorb that message.

There is something else that many people may need to hear today: Our circumstances do not necessarily reflect how God feels about us. Jesus had nothing to eat. He was assailed by the devil, and living in a desert wasteland. And the Father was so pleased with him; the Spirit was with him. The Father had his reasons for allowing Jesus to go through that. But his reasons had nothing to do with  his delight in Jesus.

Sometimes, when I’m going through tough times, I think maybe God is angry at me, or perhaps I’ve done something that has caused him to teach me a lesson. Another thought I have sometimes is that I’m going through hard times because I’ve made the wrong choice, and not listened to the Holy Spirit. But that could not have been the case with Jesus. The Father was pleased with him. The Spirit was leading him. And he ended up in a wasteland with no food, fighting the devil.

I think this passage calls us to dare to look at our circumstances differently. Because we are in Jesus, the Father is pleased with us, too. What we are going through is not necessarily a sign of how God feels about us. It’s true that, unlike Jesus, we sin. Sometimes we go astray and hard circumstances are a result of our bad choices. But Jesus shows us that you can follow the Spirit and still end up in the desert with no food and the devil attacking you constantly. Just because you are in a hard time does not mean that God is displeased with you. Trust his love and grace to you – it comes to you through Jesus, which is to say, perfectly!

And here is one of the first lessons we can take from the season of Lent: there is a time and place in the Christian life for hardship and discipline. It is not because you’ve done something wrong. It’s not because God is displeased with you, or that you need to get your act together. It is because that is the best possible thing for you, at this time.

I’ve come to this place with my own intense physical suffering. I have prayed, and received prayer for my suffering, including many types of prayer, and from many different people. I’ve tried literally dozens of things, medically. Yet I am still in pain. I trust therefore, that if God continues to allow it, it is because this difficult thing is, in fact, the very best thing for me. The writer of Hebrews addresses this same topic, telling us to consider the suffering of Jesus. His temptation in the wilderness was part of his earthly suffering:

3 For consider him who endured such hostility from sinners against himself, so that you won’t grow weary and give up. 4 In struggling against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5 And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons:
My son, do not take the Lord’s discipline lightly
or lose heart when you are reproved by him,
6 for the Lord disciplines the one he loves
and punishes every son he receives.
7 Endure suffering as discipline: God is dealing with you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? 8 But if you are without discipline ​— ​which all receive ​— ​then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Furthermore, we had human fathers discipline us, and we respected them. Shouldn’t we submit even more to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time based on what seemed good to them, but he does it for our benefit, so that we can share his holiness. 11 No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

(Hebrews 12:3-11, CSB)

God disciplines us for our benefit, so that we can share in his holiness. Though it isn’t pleasant at the time, later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. It is not punishment, but training; training in holiness. Most importantly, God deals with us this way because he loves us, because he considers us his children, bearers of his own name.

So here is the first lesson for this year’s Lenten season: allow God to use whatever hardship is in your life to bless you, and train you to share in his holiness. If you can alleviate your suffering, go ahead and do it. But if you find yourself dealing with some kind of hardship that you have no control over, perhaps you could be open to the idea that God will use it to bless you. God is treating you as a beloved child, as a member of the family.

All suffering is difficult. But not all suffering needs to be evil.

Let me say this again, because many 21st century American Christians don’t really know this, or want to accept it: not all suffering is evil. In fact, when we are in Jesus, nothing that we suffer needs to be evil. Instead, the Father can use every bit of it to bless us, and to train us to share in His holiness.

We should not miss this fact, also: God didn’t just use the suffering that happened to come to Jesus as he went about life. There was plenty of hardship in the ordinary, everyday life of someone who lived in 1st Century Israel under the Roman empire. There was poverty the like of which most of us have never seen. There was injustice. There was hard work. There was no modern medicine, so even a headache was not easily solved. But God called Jesus deliberately into even more suffering.

I don’t believe we ought to go looking for ways to suffer. But we don’t need to fear it either, and we need to recognize that sometimes, God’s gracious hand is in the thing that causes us suffering. It is a tremendous comfort for me to know that I suffer because it is God’s best will for me. It is a wonderful joy to know that there is purpose in my pain, and it is accomplishing something in God’s Kingdom, even when I don’t understand it. I am being treated as God’s beloved child. I know this not only because of the Hebrews passage above, but because this is exactly how God dealt with Jesus Himself.

Let the Lord speak to you today about the joy and discipline and love that He can impart to you through whatever suffering he calls you to.

Let me add one final thought. I have heard many Christians say that they believe revival is coming to America. Many of the people who say this are people that I know and respect. But even as they are convinced that revival will come to the American church, I am convinced about the way it will come to us: through suffering. I cannot see any way that American Christians can come to a profound, life changing place in their faith, and have a significant impact on our culture, without suffering. I am more and more convinced that a time of suffering is coming to the church at large. When it comes, let us not be surprised by it. Peter, who knew what suffering  is, wrote:

Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you, as if something unusual were happening to you. Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may also rejoice with great joy when his glory is revealed.

1 Peter 4:12-13 (CSB)

Let us not be worried, or fearful, or dismayed. Jesus suffered, and part of following him, involves following him in suffering. It can be difficult, yes, but it is not bad, not evil. It might be the most wonderful thing God can do in us and through us.

The Spirit himself testifies together with our spirit that we are God’s children, and if children, also heirs — heirs of God and coheirs with Christ — if indeed we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us.

(Romans 8:16-18, CSB)

Once again, we see the connection between being a child of God, and being called to suffer.

During this time of Lent, let us use the season to prepare ourselves, to train our minds and hearts to recognize that suffering does not need to be evil, and it can actually accomplish much good for the kingdom of God. Let us use the practices of Lent to train ourselves, so that we recognize we are indeed God’s children, and he will use us in his kingdom, and in this world.