God on a Donkey

God on a Donkey

Matthew 21:1-11

Dr. Jim Denison

Bruce McIver was pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church here in Dallas for thirty years. When he retired, he then published Stories I Couldn’t Tell While I Was A Pastor and a sequel. If you’ve not read them, you’ve missed a delightful blessing.

Here’s my favorite story in the books. It was Palm Sunday at Wilshire, and Bruce was preaching from our text. In the King James Version Bruce read, the Bible says, “And (they) brought the ass, and the colt, and put on them their clothes, and they set him thereon” (Matt. 21:7). This was the Elizabethan English word for the donkey. Well and good.

Bruce described that first Palm Sunday in eloquent detail, with Jesus getting off his donkey and ministering to the people in the streets. Then in a burst of emotion Bruce exhorts his people, “And, ladies and gentlemen, if we’re going to do anything for God in this city, we’re going to have to get off our [King James Version for donkey] and minister to people in the streets!”

He realizes immediately what he has done, and makes a strategic decision: he will keep on going. Maybe no one will notice; maybe he can gloss over it. He couldn’t. The minister of music sits rigid, staring straight ahead, until his body begins to shake and tears come to his eyes. His smothered laughter ignites guffaws in the choir, which cascade off the platform into the congregation. And Palm Sunday is over for that year, and that preacher.

From his story Bruce concludes that when a pastor makes a donkey of himself, he may as well admit it.

But that’s not the only lesson this day can teach us. Today I’ll be your tour guide as we travel back to join the procession on that first Palm Sunday. Let’s get among these people, see what they saw, feel what they felt, know what they knew. Then we’ll decide who we are in this procession, and who we want to be. The answers will surprise you, and encourage you, I think.

Setting the stage

Passover always occurred in the Spring. It was the greatest season of celebration in the Jewish year, something like Christmas for us.

This particular year more than two million people have crowded into the Holy City, many of them with special excitement. They have heard the stories about this Galilean rabbi, his miraculous powers and rising popularity, and his clashes with the authorities. The question on everyone’s lips is, “Will he come?”

If we could combine a presidential election with Christmas Day, we’d have something of the electricity in the air that week

Because Jerusalem is so crowded, most travelers stay elsewhere. And so Jesus settles at the home of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary in Bethany, 2½ miles outside the city. It was here that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead on his last visit, just a few weeks earlier. His decision to stay here only fuels the fire of speculation, reminding everyone of his amazing powers.

It is Friday, and Jesus has come for the Jewish Sabbath, from 6 o’clock Friday afternoon to the same hour on Saturday. I’m sure he went to the synagogue in Bethany on the next day, as was his custom, then rested with his friends. He would remain here until Sunday morning.

Now comes the pivot point of his entire mission on earth. If he goes to Jerusalem, there will be no turning back. The enthusiastic crowds are waiting for him like their presidential candidate, and the authorities are waiting for him like the Gestapo. He can still turn around and go back to Galilee, keep healing people and teaching disciples and building God’s Kingdom. Or he can go to Jerusalem and die. This morning, in his friends’ home in Bethany, he must decide.

You know his choice. And he will go to Jerusalem in the most auspicious manner possible.

The ancient prophet Zechariah had made this prediction: “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zech. 9:9). The military conquerors returned from their triumphs on white stallions; the men of peace always rode on a lowly donkey. This King would come in peace, the prophet said.

What would this King do when he arrives? The text continues: “He will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the [Euphrates] River to the ends of the earth” (v. 10).

What would he do for them, the crowds milling about Jerusalem this day? “As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit” (v. 11).

So the prophet had promised them a King, one who would overthrow their enemies and free them forever; one who would rule the entire world, from sea to sea and to the ends of the earth. How would they know it was he? He would come to Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, a symbol of peace.

Jesus could pick no more powerful or clearer way to stake his claim: he is the Messiah, God’s promised one, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Nothing would arouse the crowds or incense the authorities more.

And the stage is set.

Meeting the players

Now let’s meet the players in this drama we have joined, as Jesus approaches the city on his Messianic donkey. First we see the crowds, and they’re ready for him. The journey from Bethphage, where he borrowed the donkey, is less than a mile from the east.

The crowds hear that he is coming, and immediately catch the significance of his decision. And they make their own decision. There are no primaries, no elections. They are certain that the One riding this donkey is the Messiah, the King. His procession instantly becomes something like a presidential motorcade.

They line the narrow streets leading to Jerusalem like a parade, and throw their cloaks on the road for his donkey to step on. They cut palm branches from the trees and spread them out before him as a king. They close in behind him into a procession of thousands, shouting at the top of their lungs, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (their title for the Messiah).

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” they sing, quoting Psalm 118:26, a Messianic psalm. In fact, the psalm continues, “The Lord is God, and he has made his light shine upon us. With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar. You are my God, and I will give you thanks; you are my God, and I will exalt you” (vs. 27-28). “Hail to the Chief” isn’t even a good analogy; they are calling Jesus nothing less than God come to earth.

There’s nothing more this crowd can do to proclaim Jesus their Messiah. And there’s nothing more they can do to incite the authorities, either.

“Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” they shout at him (Luke 19:39). Note that they call him “teacher,” not Messiah. But Jesus refuses: “If they keep quiet, the stones will cry out” (Luke 19:40). Here he claims to be Creator as well as Messiah.

But Jesus knows that their rejection of him on Palm Sunday will lead inexorably to their crucifixion of him on Good Friday. So, as he rounds the point of the Mount of Olives and turns north into the valley of Kedron, the Holy City bursts into view. Even with the adoring shouts of the crowds ringing in his ears, “he wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes'” (Luke 19:41-42).

All the while his disciples are silent. They don’t defend him to the jealous authorities, or shout to the crowds. But they’re there. As we’ll soon see, we must not forget them.

Finally this “presidential” procession leads to the Temple, the “White House” of their culture, where Jesus dismounts his Messianic donkey. Then Mark says, “He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve” (Mark 11:11), returning to Mary, Martha, and Lazarus’ home. But the die has been cast. Holy Week has begun.

Choosing our part

I’ve tried to be your travel guide as we have joined that first Palm Sunday and met its players. Now I must ask you, Where in this drama are you? Are you part of this adoring, exuberant crowd?

It would be a fun Sunday morning, to be sure. I mentioned last week George Stephanopoulos’s book on the White House. He describes in great detail the euphoria he and his colleagues felt when they realized they had elected the next President of the United States. It would have been even more euphoric, I would think, to be in the procession that “elected” the Messiah, the King of Kings, on this day.

But bear in mind, this is only Sunday. Remember what these same crowds would do five days from today. Remember how their “Hosannas” turned to “Crucify!” Those who lined the streets to cheer him as he rides his Messianic donkey would soon line the streets to jeer him as he carries his Messianic cross.

I’m in the crowd if I cheer Jesus when he’s popular and reject him when he’s not. If I worship him for what he will do for me, and refuse what he asks me to do for him. I’ve been in this crowd. Have you?

What about the religious officials, the authorities? It’s easy to dismiss them, of course. Surely none of us would reject Jesus and his claims to be Lord and King. None of us would refuse him his throne in our hearts and lives. None of us would choose our own ambition, or popularity, or status over him. Would we?

I’ve been among the authorities. Have you?

What about his disciples, amazed and thrilled by it all? They’ve seen his power and hoped he was the Messiah; now they have proof of it. They are no longer the lonely faithful; they are heroes along with him, and leaders in this movement of such promise.

But of course, in five days they forsook him and fled. When they had to risk their lives for his, they refused. When their faith came at a cost, they were broke.

I’ve been among the disciples. Have you?

I guess we’ve all been among the crowd, the authorities, the disciples; maybe that’s who some of us are on this Palm Sunday. Now, who would you like to be? I’ll tell you who I want to be: the donkey.

That’s no surprise to those who know me. I’m sure I have all the characteristics, the necessities. I can be just as stubborn, and just as loud. Maybe you can, too.

But friends, on Palm Sunday the donkey had the greatest honor of all: it carried Jesus. The donkey carried him to Jerusalem for Easter, just as a donkey had carried his mother to Bethlehem for Christmas. The donkey brought Jesus to the people he came to save, and to the cross where he did. In the midst of a fickle crowd, prideful authorities, and cowardly disciples, the donkey did its job. It alone was faithful.

Nobody remembers the donkey, and that’s the way the donkey would want it. Its burden was all that matters. So it is with us.


God rode a donkey because he loves me. Jesus rode this donkey to Jerusalem, to die for me. He loves me that much. Even though I’m numbered in the fickle crowd, the prideful authorities, the cowardly disciples. He died for this very crowd, these very rulers, these very disciples. And for you, and for me.

If I were the only sinner on earth, he’d have done it all, just for me. He loves me as I really am. No matter what you think of me, or I think of myself. He loves me so much that he rode the donkey to the city where he faced the cross—my cross. And yours.

Have you ever received the love he died to give you? A present must be opened; love must be accepted. Have you let him pardon your sins and save your soul? Have you let him forgive your secrets, your shame, your embarrassment, your weakness and failures? Have you let his love encourage your spirit and strengthen your heart?

Every person needs help, home, and hope. Jesus offers you all three. No matter who you have been in this story. God rode a donkey on Palm Sunday to prove it.

And now Jesus asks me to love him enough to be his donkey. To carry him to the fickle, prideful, cowardly people who need him. To tell his story, and share his love in mine. The donkey doesn’t matter—only the One it bears.

God still rides a donkey. Will you be his donkey this week?

Help in Hard Places

Help In Hard Places

Luke 4:1-13

Dr. Jim Denison

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,To the last syllable of recorded time,And all our yesterdays have lighted foolsThe way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor playerThat struts and frets his hour upon the stage,And then is heard no more: it is a taleTold by an idiot, full of sound and fury,Signifying nothing (Macbeth, act 5, scene 5).

Now, don’t you feel better? But Shakespeare was more right than we’d like to admit. A shocking seven of eight Americans say that our country is worse off than it was five years ago.

George Barna makes his living surveying Americans on nearly every subject. Here’s his summary of the current scene: “For most Americans, the search for meaning in life continues. Despite our technological sophistication and political savvy, millions of adults are desperately seeking the keys that will unlock the secrets to achieve significance in life and bring them greater fulfillment. As a nation, we are exploring many avenues. Comparatively few have arrived at what is deemed to be a reasonable or satisfying conclusion.” The title of his book is descriptive: Absolute Confusion.

The truth is, America is one of the best-fed nations in the world physically, but we are starving spiritually. Our souls are famished. What can help?

Jesus, in a wilderness setting, faced the same temptations we struggle with today, and defeated them all. When we come to our own wilderness, what can we do? Where is there help in hard places? What should we be doing right now?

Fasting (Luke 4:1-4)

“We turn from self to God, seeking strength not in ourselves but in him. We turn from food, possessions, our bodies and ourselves, to magnify God.”

I mentioned in a recent sermon that every day we Americans eat 53 million hot dogs, 3 million gallons of ice cream, and 75 acres of pizza. It seems that fasting is the most un-American of all the spiritual disciplines. We seldom talk about it in our churches; in fact, most Baptists have never really studied this subject at all.

Fasting defined is simply abstaining from food for spiritual purposes. Let’s ask three questions about this discipline, from Matthew 6:16-18.

First, should we fast? Or is this an outdated practice from biblical times, like eating kosher food? Jesus fasted for 40 days. When the tempter showed him a rock—round, white, sun-bleached, looking very much like the loaves they baked in those days—Jesus refused to turn it into bread. He refused to break his fast, choosing not to live “by bread alone.”

In Matthew 6:16 he says, “When you fast ….” Not “if” but “when.” He assumes that his hearers will fast. All through Scripture we find people practicing this discipline. Moses fasted 40 days while receiving the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28); Elijah fasted for 40 days (I Kings 19:8); Daniel fasted from meat and wine for three weeks (Daniel 10:3); Paul fasted from both food and water for three days after his conversion (Acts 9:9) and later said that he “often” fasted (2 Cor. 11:27).

Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline is the best book in recent decades on the subject of spiritual disciplines. He says, “Fasting can bring breakthroughs in the spiritual realm that will never happen in any other way. It is a means of God’s grace and blessing that should not be neglected any longer” (p. 60).

Should we fast? The answer seems obvious.

Second, how should we fast? We’ve answered this question in some detail in the booklet we’ve prepared on spiritual disciplines. For now, let’s observe these facts. We are to fast regularly. Our text puts this in the continuous tense: “As you are fasting ….” We are to fast humbly, not to impress people, like the hypocrites do (v. 16). We are to fast joyfully. We “put oil on our head and wash our face,” a sign of rejoicing in Jesus’ day (v. 17). And we are to fast expectantly, knowing that “your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (v. 18). Fasting does not earn God’s blessings, but it puts us in position to receive what God wants to give.

Third, why should we fast? Fasting has clear physical benefits for us. Numerous studies have concluded that periodic days of fasting can cleanse our bodies of impurities, rest the digestive system, and make us healthier people. But the greatest benefit is spiritual. When we fast, we turn from our bodies to our souls, from what we can see and feel to what we believe, from ourselves to God. We learn to magnify God. To be grateful for the food he gives us, for our bodies, our breath, our lives. To focus on him in gratitude and worship.

We want to magnify our Father, to glorify him with our lives, our church, our service. If Moses, Elijah, Daniel, Paul, and even our Lord Jesus needed to fast to defeat the enemy, win spiritual victory, and magnify God, what of us?

Meditation (vv. 5-8)

“In meditation we turn from ourselves to God, seeking power to defeat the enemy, not in ourselves but in his strength and presence.”

Bill Hybels, the founding pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, tells of a time when he nearly “crashed.” He was watching the physical gauge on his personal dashboard, eating and exercising, and all was well. He was watching the spiritual gauge, spending time in prayer and Bible study, and all was well. But he wasn’t watching the emotional gauge which records our souls, our inner selves, and had to experience depression and come near to burnout before he realized the problem.

Satan has tempted Jesus physically—now he tempts him emotionally. “You can have all this authority and splendor, and avoid the cross with its pain and shame,” he says. But when the enemy tempted him with worldly power he already had emotional and spiritual power. His soul was well. How can this be true for us?

Biblical meditation is very different from Eastern mysticism, with its desire to focus on us, our inner selves. Biblical meditation is focusing the mind and spirit specifically on God. There are four methods which can help.

Meditate on God’s word. Jesus has clearly been doing this, so that he can quote Deuteronomy 6:13 from his heart and hear its truth in his soul. We can do the same. Find one verse or a small passage, and focus your heart and soul on it. Put all your senses into it—see it, hear it, smell it, feel it. Dwell in it, with God.

Meditate on God’s creation. Find just one thing God has made and study it. I remember studying a leaf one day, and becoming amazed at its intricacy, detail, and design. If God devoted such attention to a leaf, what is his attention to my life?

Meditate on a life issue. A problem for which you need God’s help, or a good thing which has happened to you. Ask God to give you his mind on the subject.

Meditate on a news event. Seek God’s mind about it. I’ve been reading George Stephanopoulos’s fascinating book on the White House, and am especially intrigued with the way men and women in Washington view power. All that matters in the White House is access to the president, being able to cite his support, having his ear. Even with all the scandals, that’s power. Yet I have the ear of God Almighty. Now, that’s power.

Make time for your soul to meditate on God’s word and creation, your life, your world. And God will give you his power, enough to defeat the enemy whenever he attacks.

Scripture (vv. 9-12)

“In the discipline of Scripture study we turn from reading the word of God for ourselves to using it in God’s purpose and will, seeking hope not in our own ideas but in God’s promises.”

When I first visited the British Museum, I stood alone before two of the most ancient biblical manuscripts in the world, moved nearly to tears. Behind me hundreds of people gaped at the Beatles display. The clear picture was this: the Bible is outdated, irrelevant.

Is this so? How can we use God’s word as Jesus did, defeating the deceptions of our common enemy? To physical temptation, Jesus fasted; to emotional temptation, he meditated on God’s word; now, to spiritual temptation, he studied Scripture. Satan misquoted the Bible; Jesus answered with the word and will of his Father: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Deut. 6:16). How can we know and use the word of God like this? Listen to II Timothy 3:15-17.

Why study the word of God? The Bible feeds our souls (v. 15). It makes us “wise for salvation”—not just when we come to Christ, but all through our Christian lives. It is the “bread of life.” The Bible reveals God (v. 16a). It is “God-breathed,” meaning that God reveals himself to us through these words. This is his self-portrait to us. If we want to know God, we start here. The Bible equips us for life (v. 16b). Scripture “teaches” us as a road map for effective living. When we get off course, it “rebukes” us, then “corrects” us. Finally, it keeps us on track by “training in righteousness.”

Here’s the result: we are “thoroughly equipped for every good work” (v. 17).

Now, how do we study Scripture so that it works in these ways in our lives? How do we move from reading the Bible to using the Bible? Satan quotes Scripture, out of context and improperly; Jesus uses God’s word to defeat his enemy. How do we avoid the former and follow the latter?

Study the Bible systematically. Not just occasionally, but daily. Not just a few verses, but a chapter and a book in context and in order. Develop a systematic habit of Scripture study. Jesus could quote any part of God’s word, for he had studied it all. I have a plan whereby I read through the Bible each year, and have found this to be essential to my ministry and my soul. Adopt some systematic strategy for reading the Scriptures.

Study the Bible specifically. Focus especially upon a book, or a chapter, and seek to know it in detail. Read the commentaries for help. Research the meaning and application of the text. Right now I’m studying the book of Revelation in my morning time with God, word by word, and am fascinated by the depth of its truths. I’ve been in Revelation 1 since January, and just finished this week. Focus on some book, or chapter, or theme, and mine its riches in depth.

Study the Bible spiritually. Ask God to speak to you through its words. These pages are “letters from home,” as Augustine put it; this is “God preaching,” as J. I. Packer said. Ask God to speak to your soul, your need, your day, and he will.

I’ll never forget giving a Bible in the Malay language to an elderly woman in East Malaysia, and seeing her hands tremble and eyes tear up as she took the word of God and held it close to her heart. She could have defeated the enemy with it. Can we?


Note one last fact from our text: verse 13 says that the devil “left him until an opportune time.” The tempter never finished with Jesus until his death and resurrection. He will not finish with us until our death and resurrection.

If Jesus needed fasting, meditation, and Scripture to wage war with our enemy, do we? Do you and I need the same armor, the same ammunition, the same strategy? If we want to know God personally, share him passionately, and live our faith victoriously, do we need these disciplines? They enable us to receive the power, strength, and grace he wants us to have. These disciplines are God’s gifts to us.

Will you open them?

The Cure for a Crowded Life

The Cure for a Crowded Life

Mark 1:35-39

Dr. Jim Denison

Have you heard of the new organization, “Sink Eaters Anonymous”? This is a support group for those who are too busy to sit down and eat a meal, so they stand at the kitchen sink and eat with their hands as quickly as possible. We are busy people. Too busy.

We are lonely people as well. Mother Teresa said that the great epidemic of our time is not AIDS or leprosy, but loneliness. Last Sunday our deacons spoke with ninety-three people who called in response to the television broadcast, and found loneliness to be the common theme in nearly every conversation. One woman said she would close her eyes and die if she could, she is so lonely.

And some of us are confused people as well. Some of us don’t know who we are, or why we’re here.

Alexander Curry is a thirty-something Wall Street trader for a large brokerage house. He lives in a luxurious Upper East Side apartment with the latest of everything. Yet he says, “I feel that there is a lack of purpose in my being. I don’t understand why I’m here. I don’t really try to understand why I’m here because I think it would probably be futile. It does provide a real hole in my existence.”

A psychologist spent four and a half years surveying over four thousand executives who would be considered very successful by the world’s standards. Six out of ten said their lives were empty and had no personal meaning. Six out of ten!

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were a spiritual discipline you and I could practice which would help us with our busyness, our loneliness, and our confusion? Actually, there is. It is the ancient discipline of solitude.

The simple fact is that our souls need time alone with God. God made us this way. But it isn’t easy, is it? When were you last alone with God for a long time? Has it been a long time? You may wonder, Why practice the discipline of solitude? How? Is it even possible, or are our busy, lonely, confused, crowded lives the best they can be?

I have a word of hope and encouragement from Jesus for every crowded life here this morning.

The Scripture on solitude

“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went to a solitary place, where he prayed” (v. 35). Jesus has just spent an exhausting day. He started the day by preaching in the synagogue at Capernaum, the most important town on the northwest side of the Sea of Galilee. He exorcised a demon in the worship service. He healed Peter’s mother-in-law. He spent the evening healing all the sick of this large town.

If I were to preach this morning, and cast a demon out of someone right here in church, then go to a member’s house for lunch and heal his mother-in-law; then spend the evening until late counseling with people from all over North Dallas who have come to me with their problems, I would feel tomorrow like Jesus feels here.

Now it’s the day after the Sabbath—Monday morning to us. I know a preacher who doesn’t take Mondays off because he refuses to feel that bad on his day off. Jesus, on the other hand, gets up before dawn, around three or four in the morning. He leaves Peter’s house in Capernaum and walks out of town. He goes to a “solitary place,” literally a “wilderness place” in the Greek. Some place where no one else would see him, off the road, out in the country. If I were to get up tomorrow morning around 3 or 4, get in my car and drive out of the city, pull off the road, and hike out into a field alone, I would do what Jesus did here.

And he “prayed.” The Greek “imperfect” tense indicates that he continued to pray, all morning long. Not for just a few minutes, but from 3 or 4 until daybreak, two or three hours of solitude with God. When’s the last time you spent this much time alone with God? Have you ever?

But this is bad church growth strategy. Imagine planting a church and preaching the first Sunday to standing-room-only crowds, then not coming back for the next service. Jesus’ movement is just taking off, and he’s left town.

So Peter and the others come to help Jesus out. They “hunt him down,” the Greek says. They look all over for him until they find him, so they can bring him back, so he won’t miss his big chance. But Peter and the others are disappointed, and all Capernaum with them. Jesus says, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come” (v. 38).

He goes to the people, where they are, as they are. To the “villages”—we would call them the “county-seat towns.” To their “synagogues” (v. 39), where he could reach the most people. Jesus was a master strategist, knowing where to invest the most to reach the most. And this entire tour, which occupied weeks and even months of Jesus’ precious time on earth and led to ministry and healing with untold thousands, was birthed early one morning when Jesus practiced the spiritual discipline of solitude with his Father.

Clearly, Jesus needed the discipline of solitude. Do we?

Why solitude?

For this simple reason: you and I have exactly the same needs in our lives as Jesus experienced here. For one, he needs to know his life purpose. Here he faces something of an identity problem: who would he be? The local pastor of Capernaum? A faith-healer of great reputation and power? If he stays here, these are inevitable. The decision he makes here will determine the very future of his ministry.

And he faces this issue by time alone with God. Now he can say, “This is why I have come,” or “this is what God sent me to do.” He knows the “one thing,” because he has spent time alone with God.

This was not the only time Jesus answered an identity issue with solitude with God. After his baptism he spent forty days alone, determining the future of his ministry. Before his chose his disciples, the men who would carry on his work after his ascension, he spent the entire night alone with God in prayer (Luke 6:12). In the Garden of Gethsemane, facing the cross, he agonized alone with his Father (Mark 14:32-42). Each time, his time alone with God gave him the leadership and direction he needed.

Do you ever struggle with your life purpose? Of all the good things you could do, what should you do? How can you best spend your time, and your life? According to Jesus, the best way to know is to get alone with the Father, so he can tell you.

And Jesus faced a second problem you and I experience today: power to fulfill our purpose. The old professor once said to me, “Son, be kind to everyone, because everyone’s having a hard time.” We all need a touch from God today. A word of hope, encouragement, joy, grace. Power to fulfill the purpose God has given us.

So did Jesus. If he is to preach the gospel and defeat the demons, call the crowds and teach the disciples, die on the cross and rise from the grave, he will not do this alone. He must have the power of God. He must stay connected to his power source. This he does through solitude.

I have long subscribed to John Haggai’s life motto: “Attempt things which are doomed to fail unless God be in them.” But to do God-sized things, we need God’s power. We must be connected to our Father, as Jesus was, through solitude.

Here’s the results for our Lord:

He knew where to go—to the nearby villages.

He knew what to do—preach and heal.

He knew why to do it—this is what the Father sent him to do.

And he knew how to do it—by staying close to his Father.

We need no less, and no more, than this.

Albert Schweitzer said, “The great secret of success is to go through life as a man who never gets used up.” This great physician, musician, and theologian didn’t get “used up”—he was awarded the Nobel Peace prize at age 77, and worked until he was 89.

But here’s how it works. Oswald Chambers said, “There is only one relationship that matters, and that is your personal relationship with a personal redeemer and Lord. Keep that at all costs, and God will fulfill his purpose in your life.”

Steps to solitude

So, how do we step into this discipline of solitude? The first step is simply to begin, in prayer. This is something nearly everyone does some time. 90% of all Americans pray; 60% do so daily; even 20% of atheists and agnostics say they pray, though we’re not sure to whom. All of us pray on occasion—before meals, perhaps, or when we need something.

Let’s make this the first step into solitude.

Then I would guess that most of us try to make a time for prayer alone with God on a regular or daily basis. A “quiet time,” as we sometimes call it. A time set aside, usually in the morning, usually accompanied by personal Bible study. Jesus did this daily. I hope every one of us does as well.

Luther said, “If I fail to spend two hours in prayer each morning, the devil gets the victory through the day.” Mother Teresa said, “Spend an hour each morning adoring Jesus, and you’ll have all the power you’ll need for the day.”

We’ll make this the second step into solitude.

Now I want to challenge you to take a third step into the discipline of solitude: to make an extended time, on a regular basis, to be alone with God.

Dr. John Stott, one of the great expositors of our day, has a simple formula for his soul: he spends, alone with God, an hour a day, a day a week, and a week a year. I’ve tried to follow that pattern myself, and find it a worthwhile goal.

But whether you do that or something else, make a plan for a regular, extended time to be alone with God. I can attest personally to the value of this. The two-day silent retreat our staff experienced in Atlanta has had an enduring, life-changing impact on me.

We’re going to schedule such retreats in the coming months for our church family. Start by making a morning, or an evening or a day a week for God. Next week I’ll make available some guidelines for such a time of solitude with the Father, and the other disciplines we’re studying during these weeks of preparation for Easter. For now, I want you to decide simply that you will do this.

Now we come to the last step: the daily, internal discipline of solitude. It is possible to be alone with someone, even when you’re not alone. To be alone with your spouse or date in a crowded restaurant or at a movie. To be so focused on them that the rest of the world is secondary in your attention. In the same way, you and I can go through the day conducting an inner conversation with God.

Frederick Buechner has long been one of my favorite writers and novelists; I consider him one of the most perceptive thinkers in Christianity today. In one of his autobiographies, Now and Then, he speaks of his father’s suicide: “‘He was a fine swimmer and dancer and was at home everywhere,’ I had one of my characters say of him. ‘But he had no private home inside of himself, if you understand me. . . . So when troubles forced him home, there was nowhere to go because he didn’t have any home. Or if he ever had had, he’d forgotten his way there'” (Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1983] 36).

Our souls need a “private home inside ourselves” where we can be with God, all through the day.

To do all this, we must make it happen. It won’t just “occur” for us, any more than it did for Jesus. The good is always the enemy of the best. We have to get away from technology and people, to be alone with our Father. If even Jesus needed time alone, away from the very humanity he loved enough to die for, so do I. And so do you.


So, your soul and mine needs the discipline of solitude. We need to take the next step, today. Now, here’s the most amazing fact I can share with you this morning: God wants time alone with us. The Creator of the universe wants time alone with us, even more than we do. We do this for what it will do for us, and for him. We do this because he loves us, and because we love him.

The “desert fathers” were a medieval group of men who forsook their homes to live alone in desert solitude. Someone asked one of them why he had made such a drastic change in his life. The father poured water and some sand into a jar. As he shook the jar, the water became clouded and murky. But as he allowed the jar to rest, the sand settled to the bottom and the water became clear again.

How clear is your soul today? How clear would you like it to be?