Perhaps the whole world is at its breaking point. If not the breaking point, then we are certainly at a high point of chaos and confusion. In between the Christmas carols on the radio and the endless reruns of Frosty the Snowman, another report of mass violence comes over the airwaves. Approaching a holiday that marks God’s embrace of all things human, prominent public figures are having a field day vilifying an entire religious group. With smiles and laughter, we enjoy holiday parties, but as soon as we get behind a closed door the façade comes down and we feel our misery so acutely once again. We all know that the world is broken, but that brokenness seems more evident this year than in years past. And somehow, we have to navigate the confusion of this world through the crushing busy-ness and stress of everyday life, and especially the busy-ness of this holiday season. All of this busy-ness, all of the pain, all of the unnecessarily stressful holiday preparations…all of this is noise…is static…is a distraction that prevents us from truly hearing the message Advent is both proclaiming and preparing us for.
The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival.
Church, as well, can be a place where an overabundance of words and phrases can overshadow the true purpose of being here: worshipping and experiencing the presence of the Living God. And so I’m willing to risk something, just a bit, and stop talking for a moment. I invite us all now into a period of silence. What may at first seem foreign, or even unwelcome, can become a meaningful moment of peace if you give yourself over to the presence of God in this place. Relax in the comfort of this sanctuary. Rest easy in the arms of God. Let all of the concerns of life outside of here, however immediate they are, fall away for just a moment. And ponder what Zechariah’s words might mean for you, today: The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.
(At this point in the service, I called the congregation into two minutes of meditative silence)
Silence, when embraced and lived with, can be something pregnant with both ease and anticipation. When we give ourselves over to the moment…to sit in the silence and let our guard down, or let our minds run, or think of nothing more than our breath, we are at ease. But we also anticipate when the silence will be broken. When our ears will pick up the faintest of voices that finally erupts into conversation or, better yet, erupts into song. He will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. For me, the image of the Lord singing a song of love over all of creation is powerful, and is precisely the song I think the world needs to hear. It’s the song of Christmas, of this love coming down and being born in the likeness of humanity. But it is a song that can best be heard when one enters through the interplay of silence and anticipation found in Advent, through the intentional slowing down of our lives, through the willingness to pause for a bit and catch our breath.
In this world of static noise and fast-paced frenzy, in this world of violence and upheaval, the call to slow down and listen for what may speak to us in silence is more necessary now than ever before. From my experience, sitting in silence, making an internal space for insight and inspiration to emerge, is the place where the voice of God speaks loudest. It is not without its frustrations, however, as inner silence often requires that we confront the pain and chaos of the world, or the pain and chaos of our own lives. But we move through the frustrations in order to encounter the truest voice, the most beautiful song, on the other side. It's like the experience of Elijah waiting for the Lord to pass by: He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ The silence of God is not empty, though it may often feel that way. Rather, it is pregnant with the potential to give us deeper insight into God’s mysteries…through silent and expectant waiting, we come to the peace that passes all understanding, where the need to know and intellectually possess falls away, and we are given over to a deep unity with God. We are brought to a place where we can hear the song of Christmas, the song of God’s frivolous love for humanity, as something more than a trite and overplayed carol that accompanies our shopping and gift wrapping…as something other than empty static in the face of unending tragedy. We can hear this song as what it truly is: the salvation of the world. And when we have received this song as a song that fills our silence with deep and true meaning, we are invited to join the Lord and sing this song to the world. But not yet. First we must prepare our own hearts to truly hear this song with expectant ears not cluttered by the static of the world.
*A sermon preached at Trinity on the Hill Episcopal Church in Los Alamos, NM on December 13, 2015. The texts were Zeph. 3:14-20, Philippians 4:4-7 and Luke 3:7-18.