When God Is Silent
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Rev. Dr. Donna Giver-Johnston
Brian and I went car shopping. The new cars are controlled by voice. If you want to play a song, just tell the car. If you want to get directions, tell the car to show you the way. The human voice has the power to control the car. But what is most amazing is that without a word, the car can or swerve back into the lane or slow down the car before a crash. It even flashes up a coffee cup if you need to stop and take a break. The car has a voice of its own.
The lectionary Scripture readings for today are about voice--in this case, God’s voice.
In Psalm 29 the voice of the Lord is compared to a thunderstorm: "The voice of the Lord thunders over the water; it breaks the cedar trees and shakes the wilderness. The voice of the Lord is powerful; it causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare.”
In the psalm, as in other stories in the Old Testament, people hear God’s voice and it is loud!
In the Gospel lesson, the voice of the Lord is heard at the baptism of Jesus. As he was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And God’s voice declared, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
In the Gospel reading, people hear God’s voice and it is clear!
Throughout the Bible, people hear God’s voice and it is loud and clear!
But, what about people today? Do we hear God’s voice? Is it loud? Is it clear?
Recently, a woman shared with me that she has been carrying a heavy burden and admitted, “I keep asking God to talk to me, to give me an answer, and all I get is silence.”
Sound familiar? Today, people do not seem to hear God’s voice, let alone as loud and clear.
What happened to the talkative God of the Bible? The Sovereign God is not so talkative anymore. What we wouldn’t give for God to visit us like Adam and Eve to talk with us; for a burning bush to speak to us like Moses God’s clear path and how to follow. What we wouldn’t give even for an angel to bring a message from God like to Mary, good news of great joy.
So where is the God of creation and the burning bush and the angels? Why can’t we hear God’s voice loud and clear today? What has changed--God’s voice or human ears?
Many say that we are to blame; we have turned away; and the only reason we cannot hear God’s voice is because we are not listening.
Despite what is written about people today--how they are not religious and are turning away from God more and more--I think the opposite is true. I think that people are as hungry as ever for God--maybe even more so. They want to hear God’s voice. They long to hear God call them beloved. And yet God is silent. And so they go seeking a place where they can be honest about their human struggles, and some of them end up in a church. But sadly, in many churches, instead of being filled with a life-giving word from God, they hear preachers condemn the enemy of the week--alcohol, the lottery, gay people, immigrants, certain news networks.
After years away, one woman finally came back to church with her young son Will. Sunday after Sunday, she listened to the sermon, but felt like she was beaten with a stick. One Sunday, she couldn’t take it anymore, so stood up in the middle of the sermon, put her hands over Will’s ears, and led him out of the church. And never went back.
In the book When God is Silent, Barbara Brown Taylor writes to preachers, “When God falls silent, we too often compensate by talking more, which may be the very worst thing we can do. By addressing the experience of God’s silence in scripture and in our listeners’ own lives, we may be able to open up the possibility that silence is as much a sign of God’s presence as of God’s absence--that divine silence is not a vacuum to be filled but a mystery to be entered into, unarmed with words and undistracted by noise--a holy of holies in which we too may be struck dumb by the power of the unsayable God.” (118).
Why can’t we hear God’s voice loud and clear today? What has changed--God’s voice or human ears? I think what has changed is the noise level. Quiet is hard to come by. Especially in our world today. News bombards us constantly. Even if we try to tune it out, we can’t--our phones are always making noise to alert us to breaking news. Some people play music or tv constantly because it provides protection from painful memories or unwelcome thoughts. The silence is scare and it can be scary. And yet, it is in silence that God often speaks most clearly.
I read to the children of our preschool this past Wednesday. As I was greeting them, they were all trying to talk at the same time. It was noisy! I noticed one little boy was not talking; in fact, he had his hands over his ears. I realized the children needed permission to be quiet. And so I gave it to them. I asked them to zip their lips and open their ears. And then when it was silent, I spoke with a soft voice. They leaned in close and listened with wide-open eyes and ears.
Every religious tradition teaches some form of contemplative practice that does not come naturally to most of us. Practices such as rosaries, centering prayer, labyrinths, and daily meditation and prayer quiets the mind and allows one to be open to what the silence might say. Sometimes into that silence comes a simple word, like “breathe,” or “trust” or “peace.” Other times we might hear a sentence like “Do not be afraid,” “I am with you,” or “You are my beloved.” Then again, we might not hear anything at all. But, we might be filled with a feeling: joyful delight or full-hearted forgiveness or a pure sorrow that releases us from bitterness. As Marilyn McEntyre writes in her book Word by Word, “Silence allows the silt to settle so we can see what gleams and swims below the surface.”
There’s a story about a member of a certain church, who previously had been attending services regularly, who stopped going. After a few weeks, the preacher decided to visit him.
It was a chilly evening. The pastor found the man at home alone, sitting before a blazing fire. Guessing the reason for his preacher's visit, the man welcomed him, led him to a comfortable chair near the fireplace and waited.
The preacher made himself at home but said nothing. In the grave silence, he contemplated the dance of the flames around the burning logs. After some time, the preacher took the fire tongs, carefully picked up a brightly burning ember and placed it to one side of the hearth all alone then he sat back in his chair, still silent. The host watched all this in quiet contemplation. As the one lone ember's flame flickered and diminished, there was a momentary glow and then its fire was no more. Soon it was cold and dead.
Not a word had been spoken since the initial greeting. The preacher glanced at his watch and realized it was time to leave. He slowly stood up, picked up the cold, dead ember and placed it back in the middle of the fire. Immediately it began to glow, once more with the light and warmth of the burning coals around it.
As the preacher reached the door to leave, his host said in an emotional tone, "Thank you so much for your visit and especially for the fiery sermon. I will be back in church next Sunday."
I am not saying that all sermons should be silent--that would put me out of a job! But I am suggesting that there is a time to speak and a time to be silent. And we are all in need of a time when we can turn off the news and suspend the debate and discussion. We are all in need of a place where we can--at least for a moment--stop the noise. The church has been described as an ark, into which all creation is being gathered to save it from the flood of noise. Churches are in a unique position to create a place where people can come into the quiet to listen together.
Sometimes God’s voice is loud. Sometimes God’s voice is clear. Sometimes the word we need to hear comes in the sermon or music or time with the children or prayers or passing peace with another. But more often than not, God’s voice comes as a whisper or as silence. God refuses to yell over the noise. So, in order to hear it, we must be quiet, and lean into the silence and listen for what comes. That posture of leaning in is prayer itself, and that is where we find what we are searching for.
Imagine if all the people coming to church this Sunday were filled with the expectation that they would hear God’s voice. Imagine if in words and in silence, they heard God call them by name and speak these tender words: You are mine. You are beloved. I am so pleased with you. I bet they would come back again and again.
Imagine if we all came to church expecting God to speak to us. Imagine if God did speak to you. What would you hope to hear?
The human voice may be capable of operating a car, but the human ear and the human heart open in prayer can discern the very voice of God. But it all begins in the silence. When God is silent, do not fret, that only means that God is listening and may even be speaking. So, now, let’s lean into the silence together and listen for God’s still small voice.