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March 12, 2024

The Silence of God

For everything there is a season,
and a time for every matter under heaven . . . .
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.
—Ecclesiastes 3:1,7

Silence puzzles certain people. They meet a silence and they wonder what's wrong. Silence makes them restless. It's just the opposite of what you'd expect. You'd expect that people would enter a silence and fold their wings. You'd expect that inside a silence people would smooth out and settle down. But that's not the way it goes. The odd thing is that a lot of people find silence disquieting.

So they try to get rid of it. People leave the TV on all day and fill the house with chatter. People visit the seashore and then play their music on bluetooth speakers or put in earbuds so that they don't have to live in the silence between the rolling of surf and the crying of gulls. People crank up the mega-bass in their car stereos so they can cruise through a neighborhood and blow all the birds out of the trees. Their view is that silence is abnormal.

But silence is actually part of the basic rhythm of human life. Our need for silence goes to who we are, not just to what we want. A culture that fills our silences therefore disorients us. It rips away our frame. It removes the base of intelligibility for all our listening and speaking.

In the story of creation in Genesis 1, God speaks six times in six days, and then stops. God rests. But each of these days also has a night. And God rests then too! God doesn't talk all the time. In fact, Genesis doesn't even start with a word. Genesis starts with the formlessness of the earth and with the Spirit of God brooding over the face of the deep. Then God speaks. You might almost say that at last God speaks. "Let there be light," says God. According to Genesis, God breaks the cosmic silence with a creative word. Alternating silence and speech and silence is the very rhythm of God, as old and deep in the nature of things as creation itself.

The idea right from the start is that there is a time to be silent and then there is a time to speak, each in its turn, each in its season. And so, the author of Ecclesiastes, the mysterious writer of one of the most mysterious books in Scripture, reflects on everything under the sun, and then tells us that it has rhythm. It has a calendar. Ecclesiastes 3 is a calendar of the seasons. There's a time for everything, says the author, "a time to be silent and a time to speak" (Ecclesiastes 3:7).

You have to be wise to tell time in this calendar, but if we are wise we will listen first for the sounds and the silences of God. The silences of God! So mysterious they are and so deep. There is a time to be silent and a time to speak, and God has kept this calendar a lot longer than we have. In the beginning we hear not God's speech, but God's silence. Everything is all darkness and chaos and brooding. That's where the Bible's story begins. It begins with the silence of God. Then God speaks, but then God falls silent again.

That's the rhythm. And the truth is that the silences of God can drive us crazy with longing and with exasperation. Doesn't God know that chaos keeps threatening to come back? 

God does speak. God speaks out of chaos or out of a whirlwind. God speaks by prophet and priest and king. God speaks in the great and tangled history of redemption. God speaks in Scripture and sermon. But afterwards, God falls silent. In these silences people call to God, they shout at God, they question God, and then they wait. While they wait, they listen. 

It's so important to see that both the shouting and the waiting come from faith. Faith attaches us to the word of God, but even more urgently, faith must persist through the silences of God. In faith we know that God is there even when the God we seek seems so emphatically silent.

And once, when darkness was covering the earth again, and gross darkness was over the people, once while Joseph was willing to act quietly and Mary was pondering deep things in her heart, once while shepherds did their desolate night-time duty, once upon a time—not in a fairy tale but in the middle east of this planet—once upon a time, God spoke again. Darkness was over the earth, and gross darkness was over the people. And, once more, God said, “Let there be light!" And Jesus Christ, the light of the world, lowered himself into our darkness.

God doesn't talk all the time. For a while, God falls silent. It's only when the pressure builds, it's only when the time is full, it's only when God's silence is so full and so pregnant that it's high time to speak—it’s only then that God sends the Word of God into the world. God’s Word became flesh, and we beheld his glory, the glory of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. 

God knows there is a time for everything under the sun—a time to be silent and a time to speak. It's a rhythm as old as the world. 


God of Words and God of Silence

A Prayer for the Start of the Day or the Opening of Worship

Silence

God of words,
God of silence,
meet us here
in our silence.

Silence

God of action,
God of stillness,
meet us here
in our stillness.

Silence

May we not interpret 
your silence as absence,
your stillness as distance.

Silence

Instead, 
may these moments of silence
attune our ears,
so that we may better hear you
when you do speak,
even if it is in whispers.

May our stillness
make us alert to your presence,
even when you are at rest.

Silence

Help us not to fear
either the silence or the stillness
and too quickly replace it
with noise and busyness.

Instead help us to embrace
the awkward and uncomfortable
—our vulnerability—
in order to be open to you;
your love,
your correction,
your comfort,
your invitation,
your assurance.

Open us up
to the mystery that is you,
welcoming your patterns of
speech and silence,
action and rest,
and so find our rest in you.

Silence

As we leave this time of quiet and rest,
may your voice not be drowned out
by the noise of life,
nor your presence be any less known
in the busyness of this day.
In the name of your Son,
the Word made flesh,
and through the power of the Holy Spirit,
we pray.
Amen.

—Rev. Joyce Borger © 2024 Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike. Used by Permission.

[Alternate Ending for the Opening of Worship]

Today, may we no less rest in you
even as we leave this time of quiet
to continue our worship.

May your silence give way to speech.
Speak to us,
through the singing of song,
and the reading and preaching of your Word.

Make your stillness give way to mighty acts,
that you are made known,
through the presence of those gathered,
the prayers spoken and the gifts offered,
in the cup and the breaking of bread.

Touch our hearts and lives,
so we leave differently than we came.
In the name of your Son,
the Word made flesh,
and through the power of the Holy Spirit,
we pray.
Amen.

—Rev. Joyce Borger © 2024 Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike. Used by Permission.

Rev. Dr. Cornelius Plantinga is Senior Research Fellow at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and president emeritus of Calvin Theological Seminary (2001-2011) where he also served as a professor (1979-1996). Plantinga was Dean of the Chapel at Calvin University from 1996 to 2001. His latest publications include Morning and Evening Prayers (Eerdmans) and Under the Wings of God (Baker).