A young man decided to join a monastery as a novice. He was informed by the Abbot that all the monks of the Abbey took a vow of silence but they were allowed to say two words every five years. The novice accepted that, took the vow and became a brother. When his five years were up, he was summoned to the Abbot’s office and told that he could say his two words. The monk said. “Bad food.” Five years passed. Again the man was summoned to the Abbots office and again told that he could say his two words. “Sour Wine.” Was all he said. Another five years passed and the monk was once again summoned to the Abbot’s office and given the opportunity to say his two words. They were, “I quit!” The Abbot said, “That’s fine with me. All you’ve ever done since you came here is complain!”
Most of us would probably not want to join a monastery where the members had to take a vow of silence. Most of us like to talk. Most of us are uncomfortable with silence at least most of the time. Once I encountered a silence that was extremely profound and meaningful. I was traveling at midnight in Riding Mountain Provincial Park in Manitoba one night and decided to stop at a place called Moon Lake. I walked from the car to the edge of the lake. There was no wind – not even a small breeze to rustle the evergreens. I didn’t hear a human voice, an animal shuffle or an owl hoot. It was clear, dark and most amazingly silent. I hated to leave.
However, silence isn’t always welcome. When God seems silent, it isn’t welcome. Have you ever experienced the silence of God? Have you ever had a time when God didn’t seem to be answering, or maybe even listening to your prayers? Maybe you have been praying for guidance or wisdom in some decision you need to make but God doesn’t seem to be speaking. Maybe you sometimes hear someone say, “God spoke to me this morning and ...” and you wonder why God never seems to speak to you in that way. When God is silent, we are upset. When God is silent, our hearts are broken. When God is silent, we are confused. Our faith is up for grabs. The silence of God can be very difficult to handle.
In Psalm 102 we read this lament from someone who was distressed at the silence of God.
1 ¶ A prayer of an afflicted man. When he is faint and pours out his lament before the LORD. Hear my prayer, O LORD; let my cry for help come to you. 2 Do not hide your face from me when I am in distress. Turn your ear to me; when I call, answer me quickly. 3 For my days vanish like smoke; my bones burn like glowing embers. 4 My heart is blighted and withered like grass; I forget to eat my food. 5 Because of my loud groaning I am reduced to skin and bones. 6 I am like a desert owl, like an owl among the ruins. 7 I lie awake; I have become like a bird alone on a roof. 8 All day long my enemies taunt me; those who rail against me use my name as a curse. 9 For I eat ashes as my food and mingle my drink with tears 10 because of your great wrath, for you have taken me up and thrown me aside. 11 My days are like the evening shadow; I wither away like grass.
God's silence and our pain is a bad combination. This is the lethal cocktail that the psalmist is choking on in this text. In verse 2, we are told he is in distress. Verse 3: his life is disappearing before him like a wisp of smoke. In verse 3 he is apparently so ill that the fever goes right to his bones. In verse 4 we are told that his heart is breaking. He has lost his appetite. Verse 7: he can't sleep. He is wasting away into a grinding, groaning bag of skin and bone (verse 5). And in verse 6, he says that he is like a lone desert owl, dwelling amongst the ruins of what used to be a life. I imagine what he is referring to is the hooting of that owl. My experience is that when someone is in great distress their moans and groans sometimes sound like the hoot of an owl.
I thought of the silence of God when I thought of Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah. You see, for 400 years God had been silent to Israel. The last recognized prophet was Malachi. During that time, lots happened to the nation of Israel. The domination of the Persians over Israel was ended when the Greek Alexander the Great occupied the land. When Alexander died the territory was ruled by other Hellenistic rulers. One of them, Antiochus Epiphanies, tried his best to wipe out the Jewish religion and replace it with pagan idolatry. A warrior Jew, Judas the Hammer drove his army out of Israel and for a brief time the Jews had their own king – albeit not from the house of David. Then Rome took over and the Jews were under the dominion of foreigners once more. During all that time God had not sent a prophet. During that time God had been silent.
I’m sure that silence was tough for Zechariah and Elizabeth as faithful Jews. But they were experiencing another kind of silence that hit them in a more personal way. Elizabeth was barren. In that culture barrenness was considered to be a sign of God’s disfavour and they lived with the knowledge that while they were devoted to God, others probably thought they had done something wrong. As long as she was childless, Elizabeth could never hope to be the mother of the Messiah as all Jewish women hoped to be. As Elizabeth aged, their hope for a child grew fainter and fainter and the silence of God to their prayers seemed deeper and deeper. They must have wondered why God was silent to their prayers. They must have wondered why they didn’t hear from God.
I. When God is silent you and I also need to question the silence.
Sometimes we don’t hear God not because He is actually being silent but because we are simply not hearing him.
One of those reasons is sin. Unconfessed sin, or lifestyles of persistent sin, plug up our ears and make us insensitive to his voice so that even when God is talking, we can't hear him.
Another way that you and I miss God speaking to us is just drowning him out. We are constantly listening to our IPods and TVs and radios. God's voice simply gets lost in the crowd.
If we read our Bibles we will find that God doesn't usually speak in a loud voice but in a still, small voice that easily gets drowned out when you and I are listening to everything else out there.
A man once lost his valuable watch in an ice house. All of his fellow workers diligently searched the ice house looking for the watch. They combed every inch of it, but they couldn't find it. A little boy, hearing about their search, during lunch hour slipped into the ice house and quickly emerged with the watch. All of the men were amazed and they said, “How did you find it?" And he said, " Well I simply went to the ice house, closed the door, lay down quietly on the floor, and then I began to listen. After a while, I could hear the tick, tick, tick of the watch."
Another reason that you and I sometimes miss God's voice when he is talking to us is because our ears are not tuned to his frequency. He is speaking to us but we have forgotten what his voice sounds like.
Back in the late nineteenth century a young Native boy was invited by his school roommate to spend Christmas holidays with him in New York City. The native had never been to the big city before, and one day they were walking down 5th Avenue, and he was just amazed at all of the hustle and bustle of the crowds and the carriages and the horses, and all kinds of big city sounds. But then all of the sudden he stopped and he said, "Listen. Do you hear it? A cricket." His roommate said, "What are you crazy?" The Native ran across the street; ran up a flight of steps in front of an apartment building; leaned over into a flower box; and sure enough, there was the cricket. His ear was tuned to that frequency.
That is why I encourage a daily quiet time in the Word of God where you are get alone out of the busyness of the world spend time with God. During these times, we give God an opportunity to speak to us. During these times we also learn God's speech patterns and begin to get our ears re-tuned the frequency of his voice.
But sometimes God really is silent.
In our Scripture today, nobody denies that Elizabeth and Zechariah were indeed experiencing the silence of God. As devoted as Elizabeth was, she was also deeply disappointed. Notice how verse 7 begins:
“But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.”
God sometimes is silent. As we can see from this passage it isn’t always because of our sin or because we are drowning out God’s voice or because we are not attuned to God. Both Elizabeth and Zechariah were tuned into God but their prayers were met with silence.
Does that mean that God doesn’t hear prayer?
Twice a year, Zechariah would leave home for a week while his division served at the Temple.
Verse 9 tells us that Zechariah was chosen by lot to go into the Holy Place and burn incense. This was a once-in-a lifetime privilege and was the greatest moment in the life of any priest. As the worshippers gathered in the Court of Israel, Zechariah stood alone in the holy place. Only he’s not alone because an angel of the Lord suddenly appears and announces in verse 13:
“Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.”
The little verb phrase “has been heard” can be literally translated “was heard and is being heard.”
There’s no doubt that Zechariah and Elizabeth had an ache in their heart for many years but they kept praying. 1 Thessalonians 5:17 says: “Pray continually.” They also kept serving and worshipping.
One temptation that happens when we meet with the silence of God is that we get so disappointed that we end up bitter toward God and drop out of church. Zechariah’s reaction was the opposite. He continued to seek God. Perhaps he realized that God often puts us in hopeless situations so we’ll turn to Him.
When Zechariah received assurance from the angel that God has heard his prayer, He did something we might find a little hard to understand. He doubted. Instead of trusting God, Zechariah wanted some assurance that what the angel said would really happen.
“How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
Because he doubted, he was given a sign, only not one he wanted. After years of thinking that God is silent, suddenly he is struck silent until what the angel told him came true.
Before I judge Zechariah I have to ask how often am I’m the same way? I pray for something but lose heart and then when the answer comes. I’m even surprised when God answers my prayers. Do you ever feel that way? Let’s be reminded of Ephesians 3:20:
“Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more that all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us…”
Have you stopped praying for something because there’s been no answer? Don’t give up because when you pray God hears it. A young girl once wrote to a missionary to let him know that she was keeping him in her prayers. She had been told to not expect a response to her letter because the missionary was very busy, so she began with these words: “Dear Mr. Missionary, I am praying for you, but don’t worry, I’m not expecting an answer.”
Is there an area where you have quit praying? Do you need to start praying again for that person who doesn’t yet know Jesus? For a relationship that will honor Christ? For your spouse? For a prodigal child? For your parents? For that impossible financial situation?
Sometimes when God seems silent, what is really necessary for us is to simply trust God’s timing. One of the hardest things to do when we pray is to wait for God’s answers. Look at God’s sense of timing in Luke 1.
1:5 “In the time of Herod…”
1:10 “And when the time for the burning of incense came…”
1:20 “…my words, which will come true at their proper time.”
1:23 “When his time of service was completed…”
1:57 “When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son.”
As I said before, when God used Gabriel to speak to Zechariah, He was breaking 400 years of silence. But now the time was right for something new. The last words in Malachi speak of the promise of a prophet who would come in the spirit of Elijah:
“See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. ”
God answers prayer according to His timing and His delays are not the same thing as His denials.
God often waits until things are humanly impossible and then He does what only He can do:
* Abraham waited 25 years for the son that was promised to him.
* Joseph was ruler of Egypt only after he was in prison.
* Gideon had victory only when his army was taken down in size to 300.
God waits in order to display His glory, to dispense His grace and to grow our character. I like how one author put it.
When we pray a prayer that is not right, God will say, “NO.”
When we pray a prayer and we are not right, God will say, “GROW.”
When we pray a prayer and the timing is not right, God will say, “SLOW.”
But, when we pray a prayer and all is right, God will say, “GO.”
Can I ask you, in what area do you need to trust God’s timing? Is there any anger toward God you need to confess for not answering according to your timetable? Zechariah and Elizabeth didn’t know it, but God had been planning this from the very beginning. What seemed like unexplainable silence was really God working to prepare them to be part of His plan to offer salvation to the world.
We need to let God do His perfect work in His perfect time and stop trying to push Him to fit our schedules. Remember: Before God does something new, He’s working on you!
III. Nine months later, after Mary has received her message and visited Elizabeth, Elizabeth gives birth to her baby. After a bit of an argument, he is named John – a name that means “God is Gracious.”
As soon as the child is named, Zechariah’s tongue is loosed.
This is significant. You see, right after Zechariah had burned the incense in the Temple, he was supposed to give a Benediction upon the people there. He couldn’t give that benediction because the Lord had rendered him speechless. Over nine months later, he is able to give his benediction:
67 ¶ His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied: 68 "Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people. 69 He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David 70 (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), 71 salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us— 72 to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, 73 the oath he swore to our father Abraham: 74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, 77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, 78 because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven 79 to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace."
I’m not going to get much into this, but here Zechariah gives a prophetic, spirit filled benediction upon Israel.
The first part focuses on the deliverance of Israel as a nation from under the hand of the pagans. It focuses on how God has raised up a leader from the house of David, this horn of salvation which talks about might and power. Zechariah is prophesying that the day is coming that God would take the foot of these Gentiles off of Israel and they would become a powerful people and will be able to live in peace. This hasn't happened yet. Israel is still waiting, even as we look back upon the first coming of Jesus Christ. The things that are described in the first half of Zechariah words are things that we are still waiting for when Jesus comes again.
Now, the second part contains the words that are more like the words that we would expect as Christians. Zechariah is talking about how John will prepare the way for the one who will bring forgiveness of sins because of the tender mercy of God.
These are the things we celebrate this Advent season. It is significant that these are the first words of public prophetic witness to Israel in more than 400 years of silence since the ministry of Malachi. For 400 years their nation was overrun by the power of Gentile countries. It wouldn’t be surprising that people began to ask, “Where is God? Has God forgotten us?” And so you can imagine each generation of people having lower and lower expectations of what God would do. Maybe they could imagine God doing something major in the future, but certainly not in their generation.
Israel had been labouring under this silence wondering had God forgotten and here's the first set of words in 400 years and praise God, it's not a rebuke. It's a promise. Verse 68.
"Praise be to the Lord God of Israel because he has come and has redeemed his people."
God has not forgotten. Incredible words to a people who felt that God had pulled himself out of the picture.
Christmas is a time when we focus on hope, but it could very well be that we are struggling with dead hopes in our lives. Maybe you have simply stopped expecting God to work in your life. Maybe you have stopped expecting God to work in your family. Maybe you've hoped for peace and harmony, but now you have gotten to the point that you are just willing to live with discord because you have hope for nothing more. It might be in your career, where you were hoping things would be better or that you would be at a different place and it's just not working out that way. It could be that you are praying for children or you have children and you are praying for those children because they haven't responded yet to the grace of God and you worry about their lives, and after a period of years sometimes you find that you don't really expect it to change. There are all kinds of ways that hope dies in our lives.
The good news we see in this passage is that God just as God had not forgotten Elizabeth, Zechariah or Israel, has not forgotten us either. Maybe we haven’t received the answer to our prayers when we wanted them. Maybe we won’t receive the answer that we want or we expect. Our hopes fall into all sorts of categories. There are ones that need to change. There are other ones that will come, but are delayed and there are others where God has to replace what we desire with something that is bigger and closer to his heart. But the word that we have here is that God hasn't forgotten.
And so, in the time when God seems silent, it is always a good idea to check if the problem is first on our end. Is there unconfessed sin in our lives? Have we simply drowned out his voice? Are we in tune with Him? If that all checks out, then it is time to trust. Does anyone here need prayer for this? Is there something you have been praying for a long time and God seems silent?
C. 2011 by Rev. Steven Brown. You are free to use portions of this message but please do not pass this off as your own.