Here is the text of a sermon I preached recently entitled Stillness and Silence Lead to God:
In verse 10 of the 46th Psalm, the Psalmist exhorts the faithful to “Be still, and know that I am God!”
The command to ‘be still’ in the original Hebrew comes from the verb rapha, which means to be weak; to let go; to release. The Psalmist knew that for the Israelites, it was tempting for them to rely on their own resources and military strength, or even to form alliances with foreign powers in order to achieve their aims. But this, he knew, would lead to disaster. Instead he calls on the faithful to persevere, to remain true to their calling, and above all, to ‘surrender’ their lives and their circumstances to the will of God, knowing that he is in control.
When we still ourselves, when we give up the hustle and the bustle of everyday life, then we can truly surrender to God’s will. This fact is as true for the Israelites in the days of the Psalmists as it is for us in our modern age. It was also true for Jesus in his earthly ministry as well. Consider our New Testament lesson for today – Luke 6:12-16, where we have Jesus choosing the twelve apostles:
Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: 14 Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15 and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, 16 and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
Jesus spent an entire night alone in prayer; he did this because he needed that solitude to still the storms around him and to reconnect with his heavenly Father. He needed to get rid of all the background noise and the interference generated by his simply being in the midst of people. The controversy he generated, the atmosphere of threat and recrimination that surrounded his every word and his every move; all of this resulted in a deafening cacophony of noise and frantic activity. And to make matters even more complicated, Jesus had before him the important task of selecting the twelve apostles, the people who would accompany him throughout his ministry and beyond. His mind and his thoughts were heavy with the burden of expectation and threat; the responsibility that rested on his shoulders was enormous. And so Jesus retreated to solitude and quietness of the mountain; there he would find no crowds anxious to follow his every word or to receive healing; there he would simply be alone with God.
It is interesting if you look through the Gospels, you will see that Jesus frequently used silence and solitude during his life and ministry. And he did this, not because he was fed up with people – that was not part of his reasoning. He did not want to get away from the commotion and thronging crowds because he was an introvert – he loved being in the presence of people, being amongst them and ministering to their needs. Rather, Jesus used that time to seek the Father’s will and therefore to be more effective in ministering to his people. During this time of reflection he opened his ears and his heart, ready to imbibe the wisdom and the love that flowed naturally from the Father’s; he sought to hear his voice and to bask in his presence.
Just the other night I read a sermon on the topic of Jesus and his search for solitude. The sermon was entitled ‘The Solitude and Silence of Jesus – Seven Examples’; it was written by an American minister called Tom Shepard. In his sermon, Rev. Shepard very helpfully categorised the occasions and the reasons behind Jesus’ retreat to solitude, and these are as follows:
- Solitude at the beginning of ministry
- Solitude before making important decisions
- Solitude at the death of a close friend
- Solitude at the pressure of popularity
- Solitude at the daily demands of life
- Solitude before significant events, and finally
- Solitude before facing death
These seven examples can in effect provide a blue-print for our own spiritual life, where we follow the Psalmists command to: “Be still, and know that I am God!” It strikes me that in order to be spiritually fulfilled and in order to follow our calling as Christians with all of its demands and difficulties we need periods of silence and solitude. But that is not often easy! We live in a very fast paced world of instant communications and the constant buzz of noise and activity around us; it is difficult to find even short periods of quiet and solitude – there is so much to do, especially if we have young families to look after. And the noise generated by children is a wonderful gift from God – there is no doubt about that! We should cherish those moments of laughter and chatting and the buzz of excitement; they are so precious. But there are times when quietness and stillness are equally, if not more precious. Consider the times when there are important decisions to be made, or when we are faced with illness or even death, or simply the pressures of life are overwhelming us. It is at these times that Jesus leads us into solitude and silence.
Isaac of Ninevah was a seventh century Syrian monk, who explained so eloquently what happens when we practice silence:
Silence will illuminate you in God. . .
and deliver you from phantoms of ignorance.
Silence will unite you to God. . . .
In the beginning we have to force ourselves
to be silent. But then from our very silence
is born something that draws us into deeper silence.
When Isaac of Ninevah points out that we often have to force ourselves to be silent, I think he makes an astute observation. Silence is often not easy; when we are not used to it, it can be frightening or unsettling. It forces us to confront our innermost selves with all of our insecurities and fears. But the greater prize – realising that we are in God’s presence – awaits us when we can sweep away those barriers, when we can move from ‘negative’ to ‘positive’ silence. The Cistercian monk and writer, Thomas Merton, put it like this:
Silence has many dimensions. It can be a regression and an escape, a loss of self, or it can be presence, awareness, unification, self-discovery. Negative silence blurs and confuses our identity, and we lapse into daydreams or diffuse anxieties. Positive silence pulls us together and makes us realize who we are, who we might be, and the distance between these two.
As Presbyterians perhaps we are not too used to silence! Within the Presbyterian tradition is a strong focus on the word of God and the sermon as central to the experience of worship and communing directly with God. And it is right that this should be the case; through reading or hearing God speak to us we can enter into his presence and discern his will for us in our lives. But perhaps we need to also re-discover the gift of silence. In that sense we have much to learn from our brothers and sisters from other Christian traditions – the contemplatives and the Quakers for example. We can even look to those of other faiths; in his book entitled ‘Holy Silence: The Gift of Quaker Spirituality’, J. Brent Bill in his survey of silence in religion wrote:
The faiths born in the East — Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism — have long cultivated an appreciation for silence. They believe silence is essential to spiritual life. They see silence as a mark of spiritual maturity. The Chinese scripture called the Tao Te Ching says, ‘Those who know do not talk. Those who talk do not know.’ Those revered as the holiest people in the East — gurus, bhikkhus, and Zen Masters — are people of few words. They speak little because they believe, as Gandhi said, that ‘In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in a clearer light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness.’
The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments call us to practise silence as a means to connecting with God. To “be still and know that I am God” is a powerful reminder of the value of divesting ourselves of the noise and clutter that is part-and-parcel of the human condition, especially in the context of our modern lives. Jesus also, by his example, calls us to reconnect with God through silent prayer.
It is in that spirit that we now come before God yet again in silence. In doing so we surrender ourselves to him. Let us use the silence of this time in this holy space to approach God with open hearts and open minds. Let us pray in silence.