This text is used for the Lectionary Year B on November 30, 2014.
Silence can be hard to take. That’s especially true when it is God’s silence we’re talking about. In what many contemporary commentators refer to as “Third Isaiah,” a lament is voiced to God: “you have hidden your face from us and have given us over to our sins” (Isaiah 64:7).
It is easy for modern readers of scripture to overemphasize the gap that exists between biblical times and our contemporary context. Certainly each context is different, but one striking element of this lament is how relevant to our own circumstances these centuries’ old words are today. Don’t all of us long for God to show himself with power today, to “rend the heavens” and make “the mountains…tremble” (Isaiah 64:1)? We see biblical times as the moment when God acted most clearly and powerfully in history, but here one of God’s own prophets seems to indicate that even prophets themselves sometimes struggle to hear God’s voice.
But if silence is hard to take, there can be meaning and purpose in it. You and I live in a day where we are literally bombarded with noise. On a recent mission trip, I was standing on the outskirts of a remote African village; hundreds of miles from the nearest city when my phone dinged with “breaking news” from back home. My Dallas Morning News app informed me that a pitcher for my beloved Texas Rangers was injured and would not be making his scheduled start that evening. Maybe some of you reading this received that same message. But, while my receipt of such information may have been technologically impressive, one wonders whether it was ultimately bad for me to hear. I was not in Africa on vacation but for sacred purposes, and in the process of staying connected to the world, I was in danger of missing out on God. And that is why silence, as uncomfortable as it sometimes is, can be so powerful.
What would it look like for our discipleship and our preaching if instead of rushing to fill the silence, we let it build for a moment? Maybe like fields left fallow for a season, greater growth might result. I once heard about a preacher who went to the pulpit in the midst of a tense season in the congregation’s life. With tears in his eyes he told his congregation that he was sending them home early because “he didn’t have a word from the Lord to give them.” The next week, however, when he got up to preach, every seat in the sanctuary was taken. Silence, it seems, had sharpened their hunger. Along those lines, these words from Isaiah could help us ask the kinds of fruitful questions that can sharpen our focus, tune out distractions, and raise our expectations that God might once again “cause the nations to quake” (Isaiah 64:2).
What might happen if we let this text lead us to ask hard questions–questions like why has God been silent in the past and what does that have to teach us today? This text is one of many that remind us how purposeful God’s hiddenness always is. There is a Hebrew phrase, hester panim which is used more than thirty times in the Old Testament. Literally translated the phrase means “hiding face.” Mostly, God hides his face from his people in the Old Testament because they have stopped paying attention. And so like a father playing peekaboo with his daughter, God hides his face not to punish but to reclaim our focus. Indeed, if we were to read just one chapter further in Isaiah we’d hear God respond to this lament with indignation. God has with us all along, even calling out to us: “Here am I, here am I. All day long I have held out my hands…” (Isaiah 65:1-2). The problem is not that God wants to stay hidden, but that sometimes even when we are seeking his face, we end up looking in the wrong direction. As human beings we crave hope and long for peace, but if we go looking for those things apart from God, then we shouldn’t be surprised when God stays hidden. It is far worse for us to listen to the wrong words, then to hear no word at all.
But during this Advent season of expectation it’s just as important to also find our way to the hopeful questions at which a text like this can hint, questions like what will it sound like when God finally breaks his silence? The answer, perhaps, lies in verse three when the prophet declares: For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you” (Isaiah 64:3). We sometimes forget how long the first Advent lasted…for centuries! For centuries the people longed for a word from God, the prophets stopped talking, and the people waited in silence. Perhaps it took that long for even a few people to get quiet enough to be open to the idea that God might speak in an unexpected way.
Dr. Matt Cook
Pastor, First Baptist Church