On his birthday in 1973, John Francis decided to give a gift to his community. That gift was the gift of silence. He decided that for 24 hours he would not speak. For 24 hours he would not argue or share his opinion. For 24 hours he would simply listen.
In those 24 hours, John began to realize how little he truly listened. He was amazed by how much he learned in one day of listening. So he decided to continue his silence. Day 2 became day 3 became 17 years of not speaking.
John still communicated through writing, gestures, and playing the banjo, but mostly he listened and learned. He realized that he had been in the habit of listening to someone just long enough to decide how he was going to respond. By keeping silent, he created space for others to be heard fully.
Our Scripture passage for tonight is one of my favorite stories in the Bible. Elijah goes out to meet God on Mt. Horeb. I know that if I were told that God was going to pass by on a mountain, I’d expect some pyrotechnics. And it seems like that’s what Elijah’s getting—first there is a great wind, then an earthquake, next a fire. But none of these things are how God chooses to be revealed.
Instead, God’s arrival is signaled by what is called in the original Hebrew:
This Hebrew phrase does not easily translate into English, so it’s no wonder that different versions of the Bible render it differently. Here’s just a sampling of various attempts at saying what this means: “a soft whisper”; “a gentle blowing”; “a still, small voice”; or, as in the translation we used tonight, “a sound of sheer silence.”
I love the version that calls it “a sound of sheer silence,” and not just because it makes me think of Simon and Garfunkel. I resonate with the idea that in order to hear what God has to say to us, we must listen carefully enough to hear the sound of silence even amid the distractions of wind and earthquake and fire.
Of course, silence is not always a good thing. Silence is so scarce in our world today in part because it makes us profoundly uncomfortable, often for good reason. We receive the silent treatment when a loved one is angry with us. We feel fear when we reach out to a loved one in trouble and are met with only silence. Songbirds have been known to flee before a tornado hits, creating an eerie and foreboding silence. Silence in the face of injustice can make us accomplices in the working of evil. And many a believer has lost his or her faith when a desperate prayer was met only with silence.
In the silence of anger, worry, impending doom, tragedy, or unanswered prayers, we might wish that God would do more than simply whisper. We wish God would shout, or at least come in that wind or earthquake or fire and drive us all to our knees in awe at the unmistakable declaration of God’s power.
But Barbara Brown Taylor said in her book When God Is Silent that any god who always answered our prayers in the way we expected or desired would not be a god worth serving. She says, “Only an idol always answers. The God who keeps silence…is the God beyond anyone’s control.”
God is a God of love, and love neither controls nor can be controlled. In the same way, silence cannot be controlled—Max Picard says in his book The World of Silence that silence is the only thing besides God that cannot be exploited. And so silence is what most truly signals the nearness of God and therefore the nearness of love. Love is born in silence, and in silence love bears all things.
It was in silence that Job’s friends best responded when he saw his livelihood destroyed and his family killed. It is with a moment of silence that we remember national tragedies and the deaths of loved ones. It is with a Day of Silence that students around the country protest the bullying of LGBTQ youth. It is in those times when we might wish for God to come in an earthquake or a shout that the only thing we can do is to keep silence.
Elie Wiesel has said that silence is the only appropriate response to the horrors of the Holocaust is silence. He says the Holocaust cannot be communicated or described or explained. It can only be met with the silence of grief that no words could console.
Silence expresses the inexpressible, whether it is deep sorrow or profound joy. Words cannot contain the lowest lows and highest highs of the human experience, and words cannot contain God.
Mount Horeb, where Elijah heard the sound of silence, is a significant place of revelation and mystery in the Old Testament. The first time it is mentioned is in Exodus chapter 3, when God appears to Moses in the burning bush. It is here that the divine name is revealed. In our Bibles, that name is simply “I AM.”
This is another place where the Hebrew is hard to translate, but in this case it is intentionally so. The four letters that make up the divine name are written without vowels so that they are literally unpronounceable. The idea is that to name something is to control it, and so in the Jewish tradition, the divine name remains shrouded in mystery and in silence.
We would do well to learn from this tradition, to create silence, to make room for God to speak to us, even if it is not audibly. We talk too much, not just in our everyday lives, but in prayer. Some have said that prayer is a conversation with God, but as John Francis learned, real conversation requires the deep listening that is only possible with silence. This is true, too, of prayer.
Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Sometimes I think we do all the talking because we are afraid God won’t. Or, conversely, that God will.”
To create silence, to listen for God, is an act of vulnerability and trust. We put ourselves at the mercy of whatever may come in the silence, knowing that whatever it is, it is far beyond our control and perhaps even beyond our understanding.
And if we pray for an answer and hear only silence, it may not mean that God has not responded. For Elijah, God came first in silence and then in a question, not an answer: “What are you doing here?”
What are we doing here? What might happen if we made space to listen, if we strained to hear that still, small voice or the sound of silence?
Renita Weems suggests that sometimes silence is precisely how God speaks. In silence there may be fear and pain and grief, but in silence there is also healing and forgiveness and love. For out of God’s silence came God’s Word. God resides in silence because God cannot be contained by language, and yet God chose to limit God’s self by coming as the Word made flesh—a living, breathing Word who not only calls us to listen but also assures us that we are heard.
Søren Kerkegaard said, “The Word of God cannot be heard in the noisy world of today. And even if it were blazoned forth with all the panoply of noise so that it could be heard in the midst of all the other noise, then it would no longer be the Word of God. Therefore create silence.”
God was not in the wind. God was not in the earthquake. God was not in the fire. God was in the sound of silence, and when our silence meets God’s silence, healing and forgiveness and love are very near.
Sarah S. Howell