Homily, Second Sunday before Advent, Nov 19th, 2017.
Main passage: Zephaniah 1:7-9, 12-end.
In the thriving era of Celtic Christian monasticism, (6th – 8th centuries), particularly, a writer commended on how some monasteries came about. Irish Christianity was influenced by what it had learned of monasticism in the Middle East and how hermits would isolate themselves from society to pray, to engage in spiritual warfare etc. Ireland isn’t much like the Middle East (!) but men set out, inspired by the Desert Fathers, to become hermits, with all its rivers, forests, hills, away from family and friends. This was seen as a form of marytyrdom for Christ. However, this historian notes this was made harder for another reason. Due to the Irish enjoyment of socialising, people would visit the hermit and stay, and slowly communities became formed and the hermit became an abbot! Some sought silence yet things got in the way…!
Prophet Zephaniah tells the people of Judah, ruled by King Josiah, the last godly king of Judah – he tells them,
‘Be silent before the Sovereign Lord for the day of the Lord is near, Yahweh has prepared a sacrifice.’
We want, in this short talk, to consider what that call to ‘be silent’ meant for the people of Judah. And, later, to consider, in our own personal relationship with God, how silence can have different purposes and meanings, how we, in different ways, can ‘be silent’.
The Hebrew word. used by Zephaniah, for be silent, is not very common, and can also be translated Hush. Why tell a nation to hush? The word Hush makes us think of a child with its mother – a image held within Psalm 131, as it talks about a hushed, quietened soul with God, as a child is silent, hushed with its mother. The psalm commnicates a hushed soul as an image of trust of rest of security and feeling loved.
That is a true biblical image.
But Zephaniah does have something else in mind.
1. ‘Be Silent before the Sovereign Lord.” The first meaning suggested : Be silent before the Almighty God. Know in whose presence we are in. The Sovereign Lord who not only creates, but sustains and judges the world and universe. Habakkuk uses the same Hebrew word, to say:
“But the LORD is in his holy temple, let all the earth be silent before him.”
I don’t know if this is in Dutch legal system as well – I look to our legal people here among us. But for example in UK Crown Courts, the clerk says All Rise – and those present stand as the judge enters or as he or she leaves – the standing is a sign of showing our submission to the authority of the court.
Silence can be held due to being in the presence of great authority.
2. Be silent before the Sovereign Lord for the day of the Lord is near, Yahweh has prepared a sacrifice.’
Hush, be silent, at the act to be performed, the sacrifice to occur. The Lord is described as a high priest. Be silent at the sacrifice he will make. Be silent, at what the Lord will do.
The day of the Lord is a day of judgment in two ways – it is a historic judgment to fall on Judah, enacted 23 years later by the Babylonians. But like some OT prophecy, there is a second meaning within, where it is a picture of the ultimate day of the Lord, his final judgment at the end of time.
Be silent at what the Lord will do.
3. Hush. Be Silent in doom. Judah will be the sacrifice due to its sins of the past. Even though Josiah does many great reforms, the Lord declares the nation will still be judged and defeated. The silence is about facing a disaster. Hollywood uses this form of silence often, particularly in world destroying movies. The ship is on the sea, the huge tidal wave approaches, the people watch in silence, doom…
Be silent at being helpless.
4. Hush. Be Silent. For the day of the Lord is near. Suggesting, be silent, listen and prepare for what the Lord will do – how judgment will fall on the nation and the nations nearby, learn why it will fall, but know there is still grace and hope.
So Zephaniah calling on Judah to ‘be silent’ can have four meanings – all of which theologians writing on this chapter, suggest can be the intention behind the words…
Silence. Before the great and almighty God.
Silence at what the Lord will do.
Silence in helplessness.
Silence, to listen and learn.
So how do these ways ‘be silent’ may have spoken to Judah, how can they shape the way we relate to God and use silence ourselves?
1.Be silent before the great and almighty God.
We declare, because we gather in his name in this place, he is here. Jesus, said he would be here. But who is Jesus? Jesus to whom all authority in heaven and earth is here. Jesus the Word made flesh through whom all things are created is here. Can that be a way to ‘be silent’ before our worship service, or before our collect prayer, to recall in whose presence we meet. God’s presence is a warmly welcoming presence, yet an awesome presence.
And the same applies with our own quiet times, as we take our moments in prayer, where we come into the presence of the Almighty God. Wow! A moment of silence at the start of our quiet time, to recall whose presence we pray and read scripture.
And what is more. Hababukk said:
“But the LORD is in his holy temple, let all the earth be silent before him.”
Who is a temple now? 1 Corinthians 3 (v16-17), says we are a temple as a body of believers. 1 Corinthians 6 (v18-20). says you individually are a temple, the Spirit of the Son lives within you.
We can ‘be silent’ to recall in whose awesome presence you live, breathe, walk, sleep, eat within, for the Spirit of God lives within us.
2. Silence at what the Lord will do.
Our silence can be a watching silence, an attentive silence. You know when I was in training, I at times would go north – 20 minutes to the coastline and sit there and watch the waves, listen to the sounds on this rugged coastline. A watching silence. Being attentive to what was going on. There were things to see.
This watching silence takes a few shapes.
Our Silence – we are expectant. ‘Lord you will be at work in this service, help me to see it’.
Silence. To reflect on what the Lord has been doing. To take silence in our quiet time and instead of bringing intercessions, instead every so often to sit back and in silence invite the Lord to help you see what he has been doing – how he has been at work in your life, or your intercessions have been answered.
Or in silence reflect before you receive communion or after – Zephaniah talks of a sacrifice to come due to sin, which the Gentiles will be involved in making happen. Centuries later this is repeated. But instead of the nation of Judah to be sacrificed, the Lion of Judah will be sacrificed for the sins of the nation and nations, and the Gentiles will be involved in that atoning sacrifice as they crucify the Lord God. In silence we reflect on what the Lord has done for each of us.
3.Be silent in helplessness.
Now Zephaniah is speaking about judgment for the nation. But you know, individually, we can be brought to the point of not being able to do anything, not even to formulate in prayer – our silence is a weighty one, we don’t have the words, we admit we are helpless kneeling before him. I’ve had a few occasions like that. In that silence I feel totally week, no ideas, no words, yet in such moments we are truly leaning on him aren’t we. Jesus draws this out – blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven – poor in spirit, helpless, I cannot do it. We can ‘be silent’ in our prayers, sitting before the Lord, because in that moment we are leaning totally on him.
4.Be silent, in order to listen and learn.
In the home groups we are focusing this autumn on growing in hearing God’s voice. Part of that growth involves time for silence. A God filled silence. An expectant silence. That he may seek to speak to us by his Spirit through Scripture or through other means into our lives or to guide us in prayer and support of others.
We can also hold an inner silence to help us listen and learn. This can be seen by what we do in our worship with our responses to scripture. We say in our worship, after scripture is read:
This is the word of the Lord – thanks be to God.
As we approach our readings, we do not approach the Word thinking – I know this, I know the main points. Rather, we keep an inner silence, a mental silence, seeking to listen and learn. To learn both new things the Spirit wants to bring to our attention or into our lives, or perhaps a way the Spirit seeks to apply Scripture directly into a situation or consideration we have. As we hear our scripture, we are silent as we hear it, we invite God’s Spirit to help us hear what the Lord has for this day this week what he is seeking to teach us.
So, unlike those Irish hermits, where things crowded out their search for silence. Silence can be used in many ways.
Don’t let things in life, or as you come to church, to crowd out the moments you need to be in silence…