Spiritual Disciplines  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented
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Common question: if it were your last day on earth, what would you do? More specificaly, what about your very last evening? There’s all sorts of things I could think of, if it were me. After my last day, which I’d probably have spent with my loves one, in the evening, I’d probably want to relax with them at home, and probably watch a few episodes of Friends, Modern Family, or The Office (US). Having said that, there’s all sorts of things I would instintively be happy doing on my final night on earth. But spending time on my own, away from my family and friends, “a stone’s throw away” - the text says - that probably wouldn’t be the first thing we’d think of.
In our series on spiritual disicplines, this morning we turn to solitude. To spend time with God alone, and often in silence. Maybe, you hear this and think: yeah that’s not for me.


To prepare for major task. Luke 4:1-2, 14-15. 40 days in the wilderness in preperation for his public ministry.
To recharge after hard work. Mark 6:30-32 After the 12 come back from being sent out to do ministry, Jesus tells them to seperate from the people, to go a solitary place, and rest.
Before making an important decision. Luke 6:12-13. Early in his ministry, Jesus spends a whole night in peayer before choosing his 12 disicplines.
To process grief. Matthew 14:1-13. Jesus goes away to a solitary palce to grieve after learning of the death of his cousin John the Baptist.
To focus on prayer. Luke 5:16. Many times in Jesus’ ministry he spends time alone simply to pray.
In a time of distress. Luke 22:39-44. As we saw in our reading, Jesus spends his final hours before his arrest, praying in solitude.
So: If your life ever involves; preparing to do stuff, doing stuff, making decisions, grief, prayer, or distress, solitude is for you. If we seek to practice the Way, live as Jesus did, do as he did, and become like him, solitude is a prominent part of the Christlike life.


It is because our relationship with God, is indeed a relationship, that we spend time with time him in solitude. Consider some of the relational language God employs for us in the Bible.
Father-child. This is a deliberately personal image that God employs to describe our relationship that says something about the level of love and imtimacy he wants from our relationship. As every parent knows, if their child were going through a time of grief, or distress, you want to be there for them because you love them. When I was a kid, when I was anxious, distressed, miserable, more than anything I wanted to be with my mum and dad. Of course, in all these instances we’ve disucssed, God wants to spend time with us. It’s not in our best interest to spend time in solitude with our heavenly Father, it’s actually also in his best interest.
Today Bible’s the Father-child image has recieved critcism for being problematic. The reason offered is that many people have broken homes and difficult relationships with the fathers. Of course, that’s true. it is a deeply painful reality. But if anything, this should bring us to focus on God as Father even more, not less. It becomes all the more important to know that we have a heavenly Father who is without our flaws and wants to spend time with us when we are prearing for a big change in our lives, feeling burnout from work, making tough decisions, processing the loss of loves ones, trying to sort out our prayer life, and going through times of anxiety and distress.
Husband-wife. Throughout the Bible, God is depicted as the faithful husband of his bride, Israel. And in the New Testament, of course, we are grafted in to God’s chosen people, and Paul then speaks of the chuch as the bride. For my dissertaton for my degree, I did a study of Ephesians 5:21-33 where Paul speaks of the husband-wife relationship as reflecting Chirst’s love-relationship to the Church. This says a lot about how we should spend time together. Hannah and I are still finding our feet with marraige, but we know how detrimental it would be for us if only one of us ever did the listening, not getting chance to speak, while the other did all the talking, and never any listening.
I will give you a confession of one of my greatest weaknesses. Within the space of a second, I can go from speaking and making meaningful discussion, to completley zoning out and staring into space where there is not a single thing happening in my head. Sometimes I say something to Han, and then I zone out, and she answers or responds to what I’ve said, and then I come back, and realise that yet again, I’ve zoned out. And she’s looking at me waiting for my respond. At that stage I have two possible options. I can fess us and ask her to repeat, which I often do, or I can to try and gauge or figure out what she’s said, and take a stab at what might be the correct response. The success rate of this approach is around 0%. So I tend to go with the first. If you’ve ever practiced solitude, you might know what I mean by drifting off and zoning out when you’re supposed to be listening. “Thank you lord for this, please help me to spend time with you in silence. The sound of silence. Hey, wasn’t that the name of that song by Simon & Garfunkel? Hello darkness my old friend… I love that song, maybe I should add it to my playlist. Oh yeah, I do need a playlist put together for the dinner party next week. Oh that’ll be fun - could play jenga, or uno!”
Friendship. The last image I want to raise is that of friendship. You might remember that Abraham is named a friend of God, and in the New testament in John 15 Jesus calls his disciples his friends. This is actually the subject of my Master’s thesis, but that’s a conversation for another day. He characterises this a number of ways, but most notably here, it is characterised by mutuality. It is a close an intimate relationship where the friends are made in Christ. In 15:4 Jesus says to his friends, “abide in me, and I will abide in you”. It is very personal. And no surprise: who doesn’t want to spend time with their friends - that’s part of what makes them friends! Now at school there was something you did with you friends, and only with your friends: you shared secrets. If they were really your friends the secrets wouldn’t get out - though of course they almost always did. Sharing secrets is an intimacy of friendship, and in John 15:15 Jesus actually shares with his friends the Father’s secrets, with his permission of course. You can imagine Jesus and his friends sitting closely and sharing secrets. as his friends, he wants to sit and spend that personal time with us.
We might resonated with having had a friend, and you met with them, they tell you all about their life and everything they have going on, and you sit and you listen, quite rightly, but then they never ask you about your life, or show any interest in you personally. Friendships like that break down, because they’re one way. Friends show a genuine interest in each other, personally. The friendships that stand the test of time are genuine, meaningful, mutual friendships, just like what Jesus has with his friends, like he has with us. We have to invest in our friendship with Jesus, and that means both listening and spending time with him.


So we’ve talked a bit about when we might spend time with God in solitude. We’ve talked about why, we might spend time with God in solitude. The last questions, which might even be the most important, is how do we spend time with God in solitude? For me, I find this really hard.
Now, there are some disciplines I find easier than others. I suspect the same might be true for you, and I think it often ocmes down to our personalities and what sort of character we have. The disicpline of reading Scripture, for example, is something that I find comes fairly easily to me. I am comfortable sitting for quite a long time and reading and studying my Bible. However, it takes me an awful lot more effort, and I find it much more difficult, to adopt positive prayer habits. I don’t know how you pray, but I tend to have an ongoing conversation with God throughout my day. But setting aside some dedicated time in the morning to pray, for example, I find more difficult than setting time aside for Bible reading. And I suspet we’ll all find that there are some disciplines which are easier or harder than others. Perhaps none of them are easy, or perhaps all of them are easy, but I can’t say that’s me.
When I got the sermon rota come through, I saw that I had been assigned to preach on two different disciplines. Solitude, today, and fasting, in a few weeks. When the rota came through on my phone, I felt immedaitely convicted, because the two disciplines I had been given are probably the two disciplines I find most difficult. I believe that is no accident. I believed God works that way, because actually the disciplines we should perhaps be thinking about the most, are the disicplines we find hardest.
I started trying to take solitude a bit more seriously a few months ago. I remember Hanah had a night shift, so when she’d set off in the evening and I had the apartment to myself, I thought I’d spend some quality time with the Lord. I went and sat on a chair away from any distractions, and I set my phone on the top of the dresser. I took note of the time as I did, which was exactly 7pm I just sat there in silence, thinking on the psalm “be still and know that I am God”. Well, it was transformational, it was a deeply rich and profound experience. In that time, I felt like I’d become a whole new creation, I felt empowered that Jesus was coming soon, and like I could take on anything the devil threw my way in the power of the Holy Spirit. Anyway, after a while my phone buzzed, because I’d had a text. And I thought, yeah that’s fine, I’ll check it, I’ve had a long refreshing and meaningful time with God. So I got up and I picked up my phone, and do you know the first thing it said on the screen? In huge font, right on the front, it said 7:06pm. I had been resting in the presence of the Lord, for all of 6 minutes. Apparently, I had restored my soul, handed over the main issues of my life, put the world to rights, and almsot had a profound spiritual breakthrough, in less time than it took me to cook breakfast that morning.
We know that spiritual disicplines take practice, and I’ve worked at it, I have gotten better at it over time. I was especially good at practicing solitude last week, because I was on holiday in Corfu. Let me tell you, it is remarkably easier to spend long periods of time resting in the presence of the Lord, when it’s on a sunny beach in the mediteranian. And don’t comment on the fact I am actually just as pale was I was before I left. For those who struggle with the discipline of solitude, my personal advice would be to drive to London Luton where you can get a 3:15pm direct flight with Easyjet into Corfu Town. However, there are other more practical and affordable steps to develop our solitude stamina. I’d like to name four.
First step: Intentionality, even when it’s inconvenient. Jesus regualrly and deliberately takes himself away to solitatry places to pray. Let’s be intentional, when are we going to head to our solitary place, and where is that solitary place? One thing worth saying: For John Mark Comer in his book, he goes into a remote cabin in the woods. Genuinely, that’s great for John Mark Comer - I don’t have a cabin in the woods. Maybe not everyone here has a cabin in the woods to handy either. He says sometimes he sits on the floor in a dedicated empty room without his phone. Again, if you have that facility that’s amazing. We live in 1 bed flat, and we don’t really have any spare rooms to dedicate to solitude. Also, despite the illusion of youthfulness, if I sit on the floor I don’t find it particualry easy to get back up. It’s about finding what works for you, and for me, I get up a bit before Hannah and just sit on the sofa - that works for me. Or I spend time alone with God when Han is at work. As we’ve seen, the end goal is spending time with God, and so the best setting for solitude, is wherever and whenever makes that most possible. I’d encourage us to be intentional and ask ourselves, what is that setting?
Second step: Deal with distractions (phone, family). If I were to give you one guess as to what the biggest distraction is for me spending time with God in solitude, I suspect you’d get it right, it’s this thing (phone). If this isn’t you, that’s terrific, but I suspect for a good portion of us, it might be. Technology like this is holding more and more power over our lives, and is making us used to and dependant on instant gratification. We don’t know how to be spent time alone or in stillness, because we never have to when we’ve got this thing with us at all times, that gives us immediate access to every piece of information we could ever dream of, and hundreds of people only a text ot call away. And I don’t want to be without it. What if I get a call? or a text? Every now and then I go on social media break and I find that really helpful. Sometimes I’m having a chat with someone, over coffee or whatever, and they have their phone on the table. And it might buzz, and they’ll pretend to ignore it, but we’re both very aware that someone’s trying to get in touch. And you want to continue saying what I’m saying, but they’re not really listening because they’re thinking about or checking their phone. I’m not innocent of this, at all. But when that does happens, I sometimes think, this is how God must feel talking to me. He’s trying to bond with me, but my attension is being drawn elsewhere. Part of being intentional, I think, is eliminating distractions. Turn it off and leave it in a different room, and it’s amazing how much difference it makes.
Third step: Be realistic. We set ourselves up to fail when we think solitude is about having to get up at 4am and spend 3 hours not moving in a meditative pose, like this. I think we’ve picked that up from a number of different places, but that’s not what it’s all about. When I was reading church history, I was amazed by these heroes of the faith, who would get up at 4am to spend time in quiet with God before starting their day. What the books often don’t point out, however, is that they might have been getting up at 4am, but they were also in bed asleep by 8pm. They were still getting their beauty sleep, we don’t need to reduce ourselves to 4 hours sleep each night to practice solitude. We need to set reasonable goals. For me, it started with literally a couple minutes, and I found that really hard. God is patient, and kind, and he sees that we are doing our best to spend time with him.
Fourth step: Ask for help. We often fall into the danger of treating Spirutal disciplines as transactional: Christ died for me, the least I can do in return is to spend some time with solitude. Well, yes, but it’s also more relational with that. Solitude isn’t just about us doing out bit, it’s about spending time with our Father, our friend, who wants to spend time with us. The Holy Spirit will still our hearts if we ask him to. We don’t need to achieve it on our own. If we can be vulnerable to say: “Lord, I find this hard, please help me spend time with you”, he will do it. It’s not instinctive for us to do that, but it makes a real differerence. Remember, God wants to spend time with us, it’s not only in our best interests to spend time with God, it’s also in his best interests. He will meet us where we are.


We have a God who loves to spend time with us. That’s why he, as Father, calls us his children. It’s why he, as husband, calls us his bride. And it’s why he calls us his friends. Our modern world has made slowing down to spend time with God difficult. We live in a hurried and busy world being more and more tuned into to expectations of instant gratificaiton. But in this disicpline, God want us, not to do more, but to do less, and to do less with him. To, in the words of the psalmist, “be still and know that I am God.” As we reflect on developing healthy spiritual practices in this series, we are encouraged this morning to take practical and intentional action towards nourishing our relationship with God in this way. Let us (1) be intentional, especially with this where and where, (2) deal with distractions, (3) be realistic and gracious with ourselves, and (4) ask God for his help. Because it’s not only in our best interest to spend time with God, it’s also in his best interest.
The God of all time, space, and matter, who created all that is, was, and ever could be, what he really wants to do, is to sit down and spend some time with you, as his beloved child. It was his desire for that kind of intimate relationship with us that took Christ to the cross. The reason Jesus is in the distress, that takes him a stone’s throw away from his friends, is because he is about to face the cross as the means through which we are reconciled to God. Only after the cross, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, is the Spirit poured out among the friends of Jesus, the bride of Christ, the children of God. And it is in the pouring of out the Spirit that God is made present with us in the person of his Son.
So we might say this: it is through Jesus’ suffering that we are able to spend time with God in our suffering in a whole new way in the power of the Spirit. Now, we can spend time with God in our distress, just as Jesus did in his distress at Gethsemane. The cross becomes a symbol, not only of a suffering God, but of a God who suffers because he wants to spend time with and be reconciled to, his children. And so we follow Christ in standing a stone’s throw away, intentionally investing in the new intimate relationship made possible the day after Christ’s gethsemane solitude. You ever want to see how valuable something is: you look at the price? How expensive was God’s reconciliation to us? Worth investing in, that’s for sure, and one day we do that, is by following our Messiah a stone’s throw away to be still, and know that God is God.
Prayer: Lord help us, as you did in the garden, stand a stone’s throw away.
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