For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter
under heaven. . . a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.
Eccles. 3: 1, 7
“A time to be born, and a time to die . . . a time a time to weep and a time to laugh . . . . ; a time to speak and a time to keep silence . . .” These familiarlines from the book of Ecclesiastes express so well the ups and down, the beginnings and endings, the joys and sorrows that are part of the experience of every human being. In the view of the teacher, as the author of Ecclesiastes calls himself, this is just the way things are. He frankly doubts that we can ever figure out what God’s purpose is in all these roller-coaster highs and lows of human life. Sometimes the teacher sounds like a hardened agnostic. At bottom, however, he’s simply an honest seeker after wisdom who admits he does not have an answer to the mystery of the purposes of God in all these entangled heights and depths of life.
I want us to focus this morning on the teacher’s observation that there is “a time to keep silence and a time to speak. “A time to speak” doesn’t require much explanation. Every day we speak hundreds of times: we greet one another, we ask questions, we make promises, we say thanks, and we say no thanks--these acts of speech are the stuff of everyday life.
But in saying there is ”a time to speak,” the teacher no doubt has in mind those particular occasions when, if we are to be faithful to our common humanity and to God, we must speak out against evil forces and on behalf of the good. When Queen Esther hesitated to speak in defense of her endangered fellow Jews, her uncle Mordecai pleaded with her, “Do not remain silent. Perhaps you were chosen as queen for just such a time as this.” Or as Pastor Martin Niemoller said, recalling his days under the rule of Hitler, “When the Gestapo came after the Jews, no one spoke out; when they came after the gypsies, no one spoke out; and when they came after the handicapped, no one spoke out; so when they finally came after us, no one was left to speak out.”
God has given us a voice and calls us to use it: to praise and give thanks to God; to express our love for one another; to challenge injustice and to speak out in support of just causes and the things that make for peace and harmony. As has been said, all that is required for evil to thrive is for good people to remain silent.
This morning, however, my sermon is not about the importance of speaking out when remaining silent would be unfaithful. Instead, I want us to consider the other time for which our text says “there is a season and a purpose under heaven”: “a time to be silent.” Times of silence are not empty, throw away times. They are a valuable part of our common human experience; and they are important moments in the everyday life of faith. Recognizing this fact may be more important for people of faith today than ever before. From early morning to late at night we live in a world of relentless cacophony. We have gotten so used to our world of manufactured sound pollution that times of silence are not only hard to come by; we sometimes seem to avoid them like a fatal disease.
But, one might ask, is that really so bad? Doesn’t the Bible everywhere celebrate the creative and saving power of the Word of God? Aren’t we called to respond to that Word by making a “joyful noise unto the Lord” (Ps. 100:1). Didn’t God speak out when he created the world, saying: “Let there be light!” And when the time was ripe, didn’t God cause the eternal Word of God to dwell among us as one of us to speak and act and live and die for our salvation and the renewal of our broken world? If the Bible teaches anything, surely it says that the God of the Bible speaks rather than remaining silent.
All true, and yet . . . the Bible also reminds us that there is a time for silence in the life of faith. It does so not only in the beautiful passage in Ecclesiastes that is our morning text. We are elsewhere told that on one occasion Elijah the prophet experienced the presence of God not in a roaring wind, or in a thunderous earthquake, or in a raging fire, but in a moment of sheer silence. The Psalmist must have had similar experiences: Think of the familiar line of the twenty-third Psalm: “He leads me beside the quiet waters; he restores my soul.”
Even in the contentious book of Job we are told there is a time for silence. In his immense suffering, Job practically screams at the defenders of God, and even at God himself. Job’s tormentors bombard him with countless arguments, defending God’s ways and accusing Job of the many sins he must have committed to have warranted all the suffering he is undergoing. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the book, we are told there was a time when silence was observed. It happened when Job’s friends first arrived at his house, and for the following seven days and seven nights, they had the decency to simply sit with Job . . . in silence.
A time for silence in the life of faith may occur in different contexts and serve different purposes. For one, silence can be a time of unexpected spiritual enrichment. Think of the times you were amazed into silence. Perhaps it was when you saw the picture of the blue planet called earth taken by an astronaut from a space capsule. You may have found yourself silently amazed by the beauty of the planet that is, by God’s grace, our home. Or perhaps it was when you stood at the edge of the Grand Canyon, and just before you said something like “Wow,” you were quietly lost in the breath-taking grandeur of the scene before you. In such moments we are taken outside ourselves in silent wonder. And it need not be the starry sky above, or the Grand Canyon below that amazes us into silence. Recall Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Look at the lilies of the valley!” Just look, Jesus exhorts us . . . . Look and wonder at these lovely creatures of God whose beauty exceeds the glory of King Solomon. The grace of God is at work, my friends, whenever we are drawn out of ourselves in silent amazement at the wondrous work of the Creator.
In addition to occasions of being amazed into silence, there are times when a moment of silence gives us an opportunity to remember life-giving blessings we have received. These are moments when we are invited into silence. All of us have been the recipients of unexpected gifts from others. And we often need a quiet time, a time of silence, to recall and give thanks for these gifts. In the film “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” there is a scene in which Fred Rogers is being given an award by President Obama for his TV ministry to children. Rogers surprisingly used the occasion to ask the people at that ceremony and all the TV viewers to just be quiet for a few minutes and remember one person—a friend, a family member, a teacher, a stranger—who in some way blessed them and helped make them a better person, and then in silence, give thanks for that person and that gift. A time of silence just might trigger the memory of a moment of grace you had long forgotten.
But of course, most importantly, think of the familiar time of silence that accompanies the communion service observed here each Sunday. We hear the words of Scripture and the invitation to come to the Lord’s Table to receive the bread of life and the cup of salvation. Then we rise and approach the table in silence, remembering as we come forward the extravagant, redemptive love of God for us in Jesus, once again renewing us and once again gathering us into one people.
But let’s be honest. There are times of silence that are not times of spiritual enrichment reigniting the awareness of the invasion of the grace of God into our life. These are the times when we are stunned into silence. The report you have anxiously awaited comes back from the lab, and it is positive. It’s past midnight on prom night, and your son or daughter isn’t home yet, and there’s a knock at the door, and a policeman informs you there has been a bad accident. These are moments when we are not invited into silence but shocked into silence. For the time being there is little that we can do but wait and pray, and waiting is never easy. It isn’t easy for us, and it wasn’t easy for Jesus when he prayed in Gethsemane. This waiting that the Bible speaks of is a particular kind of waiting. It is a waiting on and hoping in God. This is a discipline of faith, and we often have to learn a bit of this discipline in silence.
But there is another, supremely ominous and dangerous kind of silence, and it would be playing make-believe to pretend it doesn’t exist. Some moments of silence can be so terrifying that they endanger our very soul. It’s those times of life when evil seems triumphant . . . and God remains silent. It is this silence of God that is Job’s real torment, and it is only at the very end of the book that Job gets a response from God. The Psalmist too experienced this dark night of the soul: “If you remain silent, O God, I will be as one who goes down to the grave” (Ps. 28:1).
As if the terrifying experiences of Job and the Psalmist were not enough to unsettle us, it is one of the greatest mysteries of our faith tell that Jesus, too, experienced the silence of God. To be sure, the silence of God was not the dominant experience of Jesus in his life and ministry. God was not silent when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary the coming birth of Jesus. God was not silent when upon the birth of Jesus the shepherds in the field heard a heavenly host announcing the arrival of the Savior. God was not silent when Jesus was baptized in the Jordon or when he was transfigured before the disciples, with a voice from heaven declaring, “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.”
But these occasions in the life and ministry of Jesus are not the whole story told by the Gospels. Of that we will be reminded more than once in the approaching season of Lent. Jesus prayed mightily in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Father, if it be your will, let this cup pass from me.” The evangelists do not record any word of God from heaven in answer to that prayer. There was only silence, soon to be followed by the noisy events of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution. Even more frightening is the earth-shaking question of Jesus from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ To which the Gospels record no answer –that is, until Easter morning.
Jesus’ cry from the cross has led some people to think that, at that moment, his faith in God broke down. The Gospels do not support this idea. Jesus was the Son of God, but he was also fully human. On the cross, Jesus in his full humanity asked God why God had abandoned him. But his lament did not arise from unbelief. He cried out to “my God, my God,” not to an indifferent God, or to the emptiness of a godless universe. No, as reported by the evangelists, in his final moments in addition to his cry of lament, Jesus also uttered other words: words like “Father, forgive them,” words like “Father, I give back my life to you.”
How do we explain this paradox? How could Jesus trust in in God even in the abysmal moment of experiencing the silence of God? Was it in part because he had learned to discern the hidden presence of God in many everyday things like the beauty of the lilies? Was it in part because he had often quietly contemplated the words of the prophets envisioning a time when good news would be proclaimed to the poor and release to the captives, and he had seen this happening in his own ministry? Was it in part because Jesus had in so many times of prayer learned the discipline of waiting and hoping in God and in God alone, come what may?
However we answer these questions, the biggest question for us is how might the faithfulness of Jesus in the abyss of the silence of God help us in our faith struggles? For make no mistake, all of us will experience times when God is silent, silent in the world around us filled with the cries of the abused, and the noise of injustice, silent in our own struggles with failing health, or some destructive addiction, or the loss of a loved one. Perhaps when overwhelmed by the silence of God, some of us will find a reassuring hint of the presence of God in the beauty of a lily; perhaps others of us will find a comforting trace of the gracious presence of God in the memory of an unexpected gift once received from a friend or a stranger; perhaps others of us will find assurance of God’s abiding presence and love in hearing a word of Scripture, or in knowing that a friend is praying for us.
But over and above all of these moments of grace, my friends, our greatest consolation in every time of the experienced silence of God comes from the knowledge that Jesus, who embodied the love of God for us all, also went through the experience of the silence of God, and he did it for us. For us, on our behalf, Jesus went through the darkness of the silence of God, trusting that God, though silent, was not absent. For us, Jesus trusted in the abiding goodness and sovereign grace of God even when the forces of evil and injustice seemed triumphant, and God remained strangely silent. For us, Jesus trusted in the omnipotent love of God even in face of the apparent victory of evil over good, and of death over life. Because Jesus did all this for us, we know that we are not alone when we experience the silence of God. Trusting in Jesus, we know that God is never absent or indifferent, even when God is temporarily silent . . . temporarily, that is, because in the resurrection of Jesus, we have the assurance that God is not forever silent, but in justice and grace God speaks not only the first word to our world—“Let there be light!”--but also the last and decisive word of a joyous new beginning—“Behold, I make all things new.”
But why, we may insist on asking, why is God even temporarily silent? There is no easy answer to this question. But may it not be the case that in those times of silence, when we impatiently wait for God, God is passionately waiting for us, waiting for our response to God’s costly gift to us in Jesus Christ?
This, my friends, is the good news for you and for me and for all people: Because of Jesus, we are able to trust that even when God is silent, God is good; his steadfast love endures forever. Because of his ministry, cross, and resurrection, we can be confident that even when God is silent, this has nothing to do with hostility or lack of concern, let alone the sheer absence of God. Whether God speaks or remains silent, God is always present, always at work for healing, for justice, for peace, for new life, and a transformed world. The silence of God in which we wait for God is also the silence in which God waits for us.
We know all this for certain because of Jesus. As the Apostle Paul writes: “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus; neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities, neither things present nor things to come” (Rom. 8:38). To which the Apostle would surely allow us to add; whether it is a time for us to speak, or a time to keep silent, whether it is a time in which God speaks loudly, or a time in which God is temporarily silent, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.