Sermon preached on the Sunday before Lent (15 February 2015) by the Reverend Dr Gregory Platten, Vicar, All Saints, Friern Barnet

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Sermon preached on the Sunday before Lent (15 February 2015) by the Reverend Dr Gregory Platten, Vicar, All Saints, Friern Barnet

The Reverend Dr Gregory Platten discusses the importance of silence and says: "Silence is powerful because it is of God, it is divine."


1 Kings 19, 1-16; 2 Peter 1, 16-end

I am afraid that this sermon is basically going to be nothing more than a contradiction-in-terms. That’s because, ironically, I intend to spend the next ten minutes or so talking about the importance of silence. But indulge me just for a little while, and lend me the benefit of the doubt.

For even if I were entirely mute, you would not have sheer silence here in St Paul’s. We worship here at the nexus of a world city, where sirens caterwaul, and the ceaseless roar of human activity jams the air.
 
And yet silence is more than the absence of noise; real silence is far more than quietude and noiselessness, and silences are various and contrary. And yet silence, unfathomable and sincere silence, is where God is made known because it is at the heart of the Godhead himself.
 
And yet our Church, our worship, drips with words. As I do today, as have so many expound words upon words on that Word from God. Our Bible contains myriad, myriad words. And the Gospel according to St John tells us that from the very ‘beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ We speak of preaching that Word, spreading that Word, converting by that Word.  We cannot escape the words we use to describe the silent Word, God himself.
 
And yet we hear in our Old Testament lesson today that the Lord first made himself manifest to Elijah in a way that we would not have expected:
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.
 
God comes not in the wind, nor in the fire, nor in the whirlwind, but primarily in the silence. And not just silence, but ‘the sound of sheer silence.’ And that’s far from unique. Think of the voice the boy Samuel could not trace; recall the still small voice. Our God is not the God of fire, thunder and brimstone, the likes of Stephen Fry and Richard Dawkins seek to parody and ridicule. Our God is not a booming wizard before whom we fawn in worship, as our cultured despisers so often suggest.
 
Our God’s is manifested in stillness, silence, utter oneness. What does it tell us of God’s power that he is manifested to the prophet Elijah in the ‘sound of sheer silence’?  The church needs sometimes to acknowledge the power of its own silence on issues, to learn from the likes of the Velvet Revolution, or more recent demonstrations by journalists, protesting at the persecution of their own by violent terrorists and governments, Here the very the workers in words found their ultimate power of expression not in print or in voice, but in silence.
 
The other day I found myself listening to an excellent podcast on BBC Radio Four by Neil MacGregor. He has been exploring Germany in a series called Germany: Memories of the Nation. Inevitably, his series had to touch on the abomination of the NAZI holocaust. He visited Buchenwald Concentration Camp had been created as part of their perverted purification plans for Germany. Standing before the gate of that moral void, he simply said ‘no words can adequately carry such brutality and suffering, there can only be silence.’ On air, and for at least ten seconds, he kept his powerful and unsettling silence.
 
Silence is powerful because it is of God, it is divine.
 
Yet there are, it seems, two types of silence at work in contemporary Christian understanding of God.
 
The first is what I would call the silence of surrender.
 
In the face of the horrific violence humanity creates and grimly perfects, certain strands of Christianity have retreated to resigned silence in defence. Silence has become as sort of surrender to agnosticism. Too many well meaning sermons quote the philosopher Wittgenstein’s maxim from his Tractatus ‘Whereof one cannot speak, one should remain silent’, as a statement not of humility but surrender.
 
‘We cannot say much about God, because we do not know really very much about God’, the silence of surrender suggests. God becomes little more than a few hours quiet at the start of the day, or a retreat in the Cotswolds, spent reading improving texts and musing. It speaks of a rather certain middle-class, angst-ridden sort of silent God; a God who is so regretful and nervous about the chaos his loving freedom has given to humanity, and to his cosmos, that he himself has even retreated to a Wittgensteinian silent stance.
 
This silence of surrender is a quietist, worrisome doubt, a wearied agnosticism, which to me seems nothing like the powerful, silent God in the First Book of the Kings. This God is a God whose silence is as powerful as himself, who reveals in the void of sound far more of himself, or his reality, way beyond an agnostic’s comfort zone.
 
In contrast to this silence of surrender, and its weak and wearisome Lord, I would suggest the real silence of the Lord the Book of Kings, this sheer silence, is a different type of silence.
 
The second type of silence contrasts with the first. This is instead the silence of resistance, of resurrection. Our God has a silence, the power of which, overwhelms.
 
Silence is unbelievably powerful. I think that you know when you really love somebody, not primarily through the desires and thirsts of the body, but when you can be with them for a protracted period of silence, communicating vividly, without a word being spoken, and likewise you can be quiet without ever finding silence. Silence is the power of another dimension, a divine dimension, God’s dwelling place.
 
[15 seconds silence]
 
How many of you thought I had lost my place? How many of you wondered for a second if all was well?
 
Silence is less a familiar friend, than an unsettling guest. In the face of violence, trial, death, Jesus says not a word. Only there is silence. The power of powerlessness itself. God’s resistance is the sound of sheer silence. Silence clears away the ‘dust of words’ (Solle), and shows us little glimpses of the pearl of great price. All language has violence, corruptibility like anything created, fashioned, and controlled by humanity. It has an inadequacy, too.
 
Throughout the history of our faith, our mystical tradition, has sought to seek out again the pearl of great price, found in a wordless world, where THE WORD replaces the wordiness of human loss and disorientation. In silence, God resists the power play of human grammar, the endless games of violence, retribution, and regret. Instead he shows us in Christ a higher silence of calm, a peace, and atranquillity.
 
God resists the temptation to fit into the stereotypes, categories, and formula of words. A God beyond being must be a God beyond words. The mystics across the centuries turn in prayer to find the God of sheer silence, whose Divine voice can only often be heard in what is does not say, in the declarations and demands it never makes, in the silent resistance to being reduced into frail human grammar.
 
God enters our human world in silence. The theologian, von Balthasar, put it thus: ‘the event of the Word becoming flesh takes place precisely at conception, the word becomes man by making himself silence.’
 
And just as he comes silently into a noisome world, so it is in silence that his greatest act of resistance takes place, his conquering of death in Christ, his silent overcoming.
 
No more do we hear the anguished cries of Christ’s body in anguish on the cross, no more jeering crowds, no weeping mother and friend.
 
Life resists death and resurrects silently, noiselessly, with not a witness, just like his conception. As silent as he was in the womb, so in his grave, at the very moment of life’s victory enters our world with a awesome stillness. This is the silent resistance to death by God, all life in all fullness.
 
In the face of life’s resistance to death, the Gospels themselves fall silent, or offer only tiny graspings of something beyond words. They fall silent in the face of God’s silent conquest of death, the silence of a God who resists death and resurrects life, the sheer sound of silence, there at the beginning of the cosmos’ creation is now eternally drowning out the cacophony of sin and cosmic tragedy of nothingness with the silent resistance of his resurrection…if only we might listen.
 
To be silent then, in a world without peace, is no passive act of resignation, no surrender to agnosticism.
 
No! It is to seek God, who is the stillness and the silence. It is take part in a resistance, and it is to taste resurrection.
 
St Ephrem the Syrian puts it more economically than I ever could (in his Commentary on Genesis):
 
[God] ‘the Word entered into Mary – and became silent within her; thunder entered – and made no sound.’