This is the second of three addresses written for our Advent Breathing Space communion services. The final service takes place on Thursday Dec 16 at 8pm.
WAIT FOR THE LORD: WAITING IN SILENCE
Psalm 62.1-7, Luke 1.5-25,57-66
We live surrounded by words and it is easy to find we are drowning in a sea of them. As well as face to face communications there are phones, texts, emails, words thrown at us by newspapers, advertising, the internet, television and radio. We can “have our say” on almost anything too, giving instant, and sometimes ill thought through opinions on discussion boards, blog comments, Twitter, Facebook.
Earlier this autumn there was a short but fascinating series of programmes on BBC 2 or called The Big Silence, where five volunteers were introduced to the practice of silence by Christopher Jamieson, the Abbot of Worth, and then went through a eight-day silent retreat. Most had no Christian belief, and none had any real experience of silence before. They found it very tough, but also completely life-changing. In silence, for the first time ever in some cases, they were able to hear the sound of their own souls, and beyond that, something that many of them acknowledged as the voice of God. They found, to their surprise that far from cutting them off from communication, silence opened them up to the most important communication of all, the words they had been longing to hear, words of healing, forgiveness and challenge.
Christian tradition, like many other religious traditions, values silence, time when we don’t speak, and aren’t spoken to either. It recognises the danger of words. They can be wonderful, but often we use them to cut things down to size, to manage and control. If we can put something into words, explain it, pick it over we feel as if we know where we are with it. But that is often an illusion. What I mean by the words I speak may be quite different from what you understand when you hear them. And some things are simply too big, too complicated to put into words at all. We struggle to express things like love or grief, the things that really matter to us, not because we don’t feel them intensely but because we do. We know we will never find words to express them adequately. They are ineffable, to use an old word – unspeakable, beyond description.
Zechariah had an experience of the ineffable in our Gospel reading today, an experience of the God who is beyond all our abilities to describe. He’d gone to the Temple to do his duty as a priest. He thought he knew exactly what was going to happen, that he had it all under control. He would just say the time-honoured words, do the time-honoured rituals and then go home. He’d probably practiced and practiced to get it word perfect. But there is an angel, large as life, standing by the altar, with an explosive announcement to make. His wife Elizabeth is going to have a baby, despite the fact that she is far too old for this to be possible, humanly speaking. All Zechariah’s carefully prepared words go to pot, but not only that, his grasp on the rest of his life evaporates too.
Imagine how many conversations he must have had, – with himself, with Elizabeth- over the years as they agonised over their childlessness. How many words have they spoken as they tried to make sense of it? He thinks he has it sorted out in his mind. He has grudgingly accepted that this is how it is. But the angel tells him otherwise. Zechariah demands an explanation. But there isn’t an explanation, or at least, not one that he will be able to get his head around. He is struck dumb, not out of malice or as a punishment, but because there are times when, frankly, it is better to shut up and let God get on with what he is getting on with.
“For God alone my soul waits in silence,” says the Psalmist. Here’s another man who is reduced to silence by the things he faces, battered by his enemies till he feels like a wall on the point of collapse. He could talk about his situation till he is blue in the face, but he knows it wouldn’t bring him the help he needs. “From God comes my salvation,” he says. He may not know what God is doing, but he knows who God is; someone who is faithful and just and who will not abandon him.
By the time Zechariah’s child is born, he has learned this lesson too. “His name is John” he says to his assembled family and friends. Not Zechariah or some other family name. John – Yochanan in Hebrew, which means “God is gracious”. He can’t explain it or account for it, but he knows it to be true as he looks at his miraculous newborn son.
This evening, as we wait for God in silence, let us simply observe the inner chatter of our minds, the urge to put into words what can never be expressed or understood and ask for his grace to find him in the silent mystery of the Word made flesh who dwells among us.