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Sermon: Mattins - 7 December 2014

Sunday 7th December 2014
Choral Mattins
Zephaniah 3.14-20
Luke 1.5-20
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The Preacher in the book of Ecclesiastes declares, ‘[There is] a time to keep silence; and a time to speak’ (Ecclesiastes 3.7b). And in our two readings today this theme develops: Zechariah keeps an enforced silence, ‘But now, [Zechariah] because you did not believe my words, which will now be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur’ (Luke 1.20); and the prophet Zephaniah declares a time not just to speak but to shout out loudly; ‘Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; Shout O Israel!’ Zephaniah 3.14

Silence is increasingly elusive in the noisy 24 hour, 7 day week society which we have become. The audible signs of this are rolling news, constant availability of mobile technology, traffic, planes, talk and chatter. The less we have the more we become frightened of silence. And when we lose patience with silence, we lose the capacity to listen.

It’s perhaps no accident in that context that silence has become more yearned for. The uptake in retreats and quiet days, I led one just last week, and books such as

Diarmaid Maculloch’s, Silence: A Christian History orSara Maitland’s A Book of Silence have a real following.

In this Advent season we should consider silence, how it fits into our own life of prayer and what spiritual gifts it brings us. Dwelling in silence helps to renew our praise; just as to fast helps us properly to feast: ‘A time to keep silence; and a time to speak’.

Silence is complex. In his most recent book, The Edge of Words, Rowan Williams spends time considering the place of silence, both for good and ill. He cautions that, ‘we risk implying that wherever silence occurs it is a manifestation of an otherness pregnant with depth and critical force’ and we could add spiritual force.

That’s not always so.

There are times when people are silenced as an act of power or abuse: as Sara Maitland relates a friend saying, ‘Silence is oppression and speech, language, spoken or written is freedom…All silence is waiting to be broken’ (Williams, The Edge of Words. p. 161). This must echo true for victims of historic crimes who have been silenced by their abuser or by a system that finds their silence more convenient.

With that cautionary example we have also to acknowledge that there can be a powerful silence. This draws from the silence of Jesus before his accusers, his silent pause before the accusers of the woman caught in adultery which signifies his power before them. There is the silent eloquence of the empty tomb. This is a silence that is not drawn to have to speak or talk.

I am an inveterate talker. One of the things I have had to learn in life is to temper that. My spiritual director has taught me that by the long pauses he leaves when I stop talking. My first instinct was always to fill the silence. I was embarrassed by the silence; I felt that if there was silence I was somehow failing to use the time well, as if cramming time with speech made it more valuable. As I have heard myself in many a school assembly, ‘God gave us one mouth and two ears and we must use them in the same proportion’.

Shattering silence by filling it shuts out God. The Cistercian monk, Fr Thomas Keating, writes, ‘Silence is God’s first language; everything else is a poor translation. In order to hear that language, we must learn to be still and to rest in God’.

Resting in God in silence is profoundly difficult and we often want God to join in the frenzy of noise. The prophet Elijah waiting for God to speak and reveal himself found that God was neither in the noise of a great wind, nor in an earthquake, nor in a crackling consuming fire, but God’s presence and voice was in ‘a sound of sheer silence’ (1 Kings 19.12). When Elijah heard the sound of sheer silence then he heard God speak.

An anagram of ‘silent’ is ‘listen’. Silence improves our capacity to listen. But it is a habit that needs to be cultivated. It is like the rest in music. In one way the rest builds anticipation and expectation for what will come next, it catches our breath and is arresting.

The Revelation to John records that there was silence in heaven, and what follows is loud praise and exultation. Silence is not just of value because it waits to be broken. But in the life of prayer it is a foil to fulsome praise, just as shouting and singing aloud deepens our need for silence.

Zechariah will speak again. His silence is an enforced pause: an Advent silence. Perhaps in that mute pause Zechariah went back to his prayers, pondered God’s eloquent silence, in the words of the psalms: ‘On you alone my soul in silence waits’ (Psalm 62.1), ‘Be still and know that I am God’ (Psalm 46.10).

Only then was he ready to speak and to praise God’s holy Name.

Let us pray,

Lord, in the noise of greed, abuse and war
may we hear your still small voice speaking
over the clamour of our anxieties and fears:
breathe your peace into our lives
that our tongues may sing your praise.
We make our prayer in Jesus’ name.