The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

GOD AND SILENCE

Delivered 4/12/01
Text: Psalm 46
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Perhaps you are familiar with the Quakers, and especially their custom of beginning a meal with a silent grace. A non-Quaker youth was invited for a meal in a strict Quaker household. The youngster was NOT familiar with Quaker piety and in particular, the silent preparation for food. He later reported his response to it: "There was this embarrassing silence when we first sat down a the table, and nobody knew what to say, and everybody looked down, so I told a funny story and that seemed to break the ice."(1)

Silence. There is not much of it these days, so we do not deal with it much better than that young man. The TV chatters on with one silly talk show after another. People haul their boom boxes to the beach so that they do not have to live in the silence between the rolling of surf and the crying of gulls. A cellular phone company currently has an ad campaign running that proclaims from billboards, "Silence is Weird," as if we need to talk, talk, talk all the time. When we leave this sanctuary tonight, the bulletin instructs that we depart in silence - it will feel strange; it always does. Thirty-five years ago Paul Simon, in his classic cry over the modern inability to communicate, wrote

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more,
People talking without speaking,
People hearing without listening,
People writing songs that voices never share...
And no one dare
Disturb the sound of silence.

"Fool," said I, "you do not know.
Silence like a cancer grows."...(2)

If silence is viewed as a cancer, no wonder people avoid it. But then we hear again those few words from the Psalmist: "Be still...silent...and know that I am God." They are found in the midst of an ancient hymn celebrating triumph over trouble and the rock-solid conviction that, no matter what, God is with us and God is in control. In the hurly-burly of life, we might not notice that, but in silence, we hear and learn it again.

Silence is, after all, part of the natural order. "Alternating silence, speech, and silence is the very rhythm of God as old and deep in the nature of things as creation itself. According to Genesis, God breaks the cosmic silence with a creative word but...only during the days. At nightfall and on the Sabbath, God falls quiet."(3) Between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, the Bible has silence. Correspondingly, there is for us, the creatures of God, a natural rhythm not only of work and rest, but also of sound and silence. "There is a time for everything," says Ecclesiastes, "a time to be silent and a time to speak."(4)

Jesus knew which was which. His life reflects a balance of the two. There were times he was in the midst of the crowd's hub-bub, precisely where he needed to be; there were other times when he retreated to the peace and quiet of the wilderness. On that last night with his disciples, there was the meal together, then an exit to the quiet of the garden for solitary prayer. In the silence he would speak with...and listen for...the Heavenly Father.

As busy a lady as the late Mother Teresa observed, "God rarely is found in the midst of noise and restlessness; instead, [God] is the friend of silence."(5) "Be STILL...and know that I am God."

In his book, Born Again, Chuck Colson wrote the following of Richard Nixon:

As he spoke, Nixon came close to professing his own commitment..."When I was eight or nine years old, I asked my grandmother, a very saintly woman, a little Quaker lady, who had nine children -- I asked her why it was that Quakers believed in silent prayer.

When we sat down to the table, we always had silent prayers; and often at church, while we sometimes had a minister or somebody got up when the spirit moved him, we often just went there and just sat, and we prayed...My grandmother spoke to me on this occasion, as she always did to her grandchildren and children, with the plain speech. She said, "What thee must understand, Richard, is that the purpose of prayer is to listen to God, not to talk to God. The purpose of prayer is not to tell God what thee wants, but to find out from God what He wants from thee."(6)
"Be still, and know that I am God." Silence. In the words of the poet:

Whenever I am troubled and lost in deep despair,
I bundle all my troubles up and go to God in prayer,
I tell Him I am heartsick and lost and lonely too,
That I am deeply burdened and don't know what to do.
But I know He stilled the tempest and calmed the angry sea,
And I humbly ask if in His love He'll do the same for me.
Then I just keep quiet and think on thoughts of peace,
And as I abide in stillness my restless murmurings cease.(7)

Be still...silent...and know...

Amen.


1. Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., "Background Noise," Christianity Today, July 17, 1995, p. 42

2. Paul Simon, "The Sound of Silence," 1964, BMI

3. Plantinga

4. Ecclesiastes 3:7

5. Plantinga

6. ibid.

7. Helen Steiner Rice quoted in Bible Illustrator for Windows

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